In his Independence Day address to the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort on Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked: “Can we not commit ourselves to getting rid of everything in our behavior, our culture and our daily life humiliates and belittles women? On the same day, in a decision that violates the letter and spirit of the Prime Minister’s speech celebrating ‘naari shakti’, a Gujarat government panel approved a request for remission of sentences for 11 life-sentenced convicts in the Bilkis Bano gang rape case. Besides the rape, the 11 men had been convicted of killing Bilkis’ three-year-old child and 13 others, all Muslims, by a special CBI court in 2008. The remission in a case that is at heart of the continued search for justice after communal violence in Gujarat in 2002 portends a disturbing setback. It is a serious setback for the torturous legal battle to secure convictions in the horrific crimes of 2002 in the face of formidable odds and mighty odds.
Bilkis and his extended family were attacked by a mob on March 3, 2002 as they fled their village in Limkheda taluka of Dahod district. The Supreme Court intervened in the case after Bilkis approached the National Human Rights Commission. The trial was moved from Gujarat to Maharashtra under the SC after she received death threats. The decision of the CBI tribunal was upheld by the Bombay High Court in 2017 and in 2019 the SC awarded compensation of Rs 50 lakh to Bilkis. The court also charged police officers who investigated the case. As her attackers are from her own village, Bilkis continues to fear for her life and cannot return home. Remission is a legislative provision; it is not uncommon for prison commissions to exonerate convicts who have spent at least 14 years in prison. However, those convicted of heinous sex crimes rarely get their sentences remitted. In this case, the fear that this could set a precedent cannot be ignored. It is disturbing and disappointing that the SC, which had intervened to ensure that Bilkis and other victims and survivors of Gujarat 2002 get justice, allowed a pardon plea by one of the convicts earlier this year in May, which led the state government to establish the prison board which has now ordered the release of the 11 convicts.
The Supreme Court must intervene once again. To speak once again on behalf of a woman who stood firm, defying all threats, in the courageous pursuit of justice. The court must order the revocation of the surrender. Two decades after the riots, as convicts in the Bilkis Bano case go free, activist Teesta Setalvad and policeman RB Sreekumar, who fought alongside the petitioners, are in jail – police take inspiration from court , its verdict became the basis of the FIRs. The Supreme Court must ensure that the injustice towards Bilkis Bano is redressed. He knows what is at stake.