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India: Release of culprits in the Bilkis rape case exposes the misogyny of the VHP-RSS & BJP

Can we expect the apex court to revise its remission decree of May?

Friday 26 August 2022, by siawi3


Mainstream, VOL LX No 36 New Delhi, August 27, 2022

Release of culprits in the Bilkis rape case exposes the misogyny of the VHP-RSS & BJP

Friday 26 August 2022

by Arun Srivastava

THE SUPREME COURT has issued notices to the BJP government of Gujarat and the Modi government at the Centre asking them to ascertain whether there was application of mind by a government panel that on 13 May granted remission to the eleven convicts in the Bilkis Bano rape case. The question that should have been put to the Gujarat government was to ask if it had the ‘power of remission’ in the matter.

Bilkis Bano is the victim of the RSS and the Modi government’s (when it happened, Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat) efforts to alienate Muslims from the mainstream of Indian society and push them to the periphery. The many lynching cases that have taken place since 2002 are testimony to the machination of the RSS and BJP to supress Muslims in India.

The remission was just a small part of the larger design to establish a Hindu country. The hero-like reception the perpetrators were given by the Hindutva brigade speak volumes about the ruling party’s intent; they were garlanded and offered sweets and the RSS cadre and bhakts touched their feet and took their blessings, as if they had won a war and were victorious warriors. This is no doubt a shame for humanity as the rapists walked free on 15 August, India’s sacred Independence Day, the day prime minister Modi was reminding the people of the country about the dignity of women and their role in shaping the future of the nation. Ironically, Modi has not uttered a word on the Gujarat government setting the rapists free.

This act of eulogising the rapists and killers was primarily aimed at sending the message to Muslims and those nursing democratic and liberal values that fall in line or get ready to face the consequences. Bilkis Bano was 21-years-old and five months pregnant when she was gang-raped while fleeing the riots that broke out after the Godhra train burning in 2002. Her three-year-old daughter was among the seven family members killed.

A petition was filed in the Supreme Court by the CPM leader, Subhashini Ali, along with the journalist-author Revati Laul, and former Vice Chancellor of Lucknow University, Roop Rekha Verma against the release of the convicts in the Bilkis case. TMC MP Mahua Moitra also filed a separate petition in the Supreme Court against the release of the convicts in the case. She alleged that the remission ‘completely fails to bolster either social or human justice and does not constitute a valid exercise of the guided discretionary power of the State’. Moitra also tweeted that the nation ‘had better decide whether Bilkis Bano is a woman or a Muslim’. These petitions are very important in that they signal this battle must not be fought only by the victim but by fellow citizens who challenge wrongs for all.

Though peering into the political domain of a government probably is not the task of the court, it could well have comprehended the implication of this move in the backdrop of intensifying hate campaigns against Muslims. The bench could have got the reply to its question sought from senior counsel Kapil Sibal, appearing for one set of petitioners: ‘Merely because the act was horrific, can you argue that remission is wrong? Day in and out, remission is granted by the government to life convicts. What is the exception? What they have committed, for that they have been convicted. The only question is whether remission was within parameters of the law.’

Notwithstanding Chief Justice Ramana’s clarification that the Supreme Court had never directed the remission of the convicts’ sentences, the question put to Sibal by the bench gives the impression that it was not against giving remission. In a democratic setup, the judiciary cannot ignore the political aspect of the cases coming before it for seeking justice. Eleven persons had committed the heinous crime of rape and murder of seven persons. They also butchered a three-year child. Do these acts of commission not underline their mindset?

It is worth mentioning that Gujarat had granted the remissions despite the Centre directing the States in 2014 not to remit the sentences of people convicted of crimes like rape and murder. Obviously, the Gujarat government dared to defy this Central government order as their big brother, the BJP, holds power at the Centre and as such, Gujarat was sure no one would pull it up. Justice Ramana, who led the Bench, also directed the petitioners to implead the 11 convicts as respondents in the case. Issuing notice, the Bench asked the State to file its reply and posted the case for the next hearing in two weeks’ time (that is by 8 September or thereabouts).

Senior human rights lawyer Indira Jaising has said, ‘Bilkis Bano’s gang rape cannot be seen as an isolated crime by a group of individual criminals, but one committed as part of a coordinated strategy of an attack with intent to eliminate a minority community’. And she is right.

A former CBI director had pointed out how the Narendra Modi government had, in 2015, successfully opposed in the Supreme Court a Tamil Nadu decision to release one of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination convicts. The Centre had, at that time and in this case, claimed the ‘sole right of remission in cases investigated by federal agencies’, and the apex court had upheld the argument. If the Modi government held’ the sole right of remission’, then it should have moved the Supreme Court against the Gujarat government’s release of the 11 convicts in the Bilkis Bano gang rape and murder case, ‘investigated by the federal agency, the CBI’. The Union government’s continuing silence clearly smacks of ‘double standards’; in Tamil Nadu it is a DMK government, in Gujarat, a BJP government.

It would be naïve to describe the statement of the BJP MLA from Godhara, C K Raulji (the BJP legislator who was part of the Gujarat government’s panel that recommended the remissions), as a statement that ‘would damage the image’ of the saffron party. In fact, his comment that ‘the rapists were Brahmins and have good sanskar (values)’ simply unravels the true political character and culture of the BJP. Rajauli’s observation clearly underlines the mindset of the saffron brigade, the RSS, the VHP and the BJP – that other communities (dalits and OBCs, incidentally the communities to which Modi and Amit Shah belong) do not have sanskars and values. All that his remark does is, it explicitly manifests the feudal and fascist ideology of the ruling dispensation.

Raulji ought to have realised that rapists really do not have any caste. In fact, projecting the supremacy of the Brahmins is a tactical move to preserve the contours of the BJP’s ‘Hindutva’ but may not yield any dividend in 2024. The RSS has been striving hard to bring the OBCs across India, especially in the States of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, into its fold. Now, following such a remark, it may be a really a tough proposition for these communities to repose their faith in the RSS and BJP. The remark alienates Brahmins too.

Pulled up by the grandparent organisation, Raulji has in a tweet, tried to amend matters by saying, ‘Rapists do not belong to any caste, and I have not said anything like that. My statement is being shown in a wrong way. If someone is guilty, he should get punishment for it. We should respect the court’s verdict’. Raulji’s argument has been, ‘The incident is from 2002 – who was Bilkis Bano, what happened, I do not know. From the government, we were told that our committee was formed on the basis of the Supreme Court’s guidelines. And we have to look at the behaviour of these 11 people, especially their behaviour in jail. So, we spoke to the jailor and we did not hear that they had engaged in any riot or violence there. We have to look at their behaviour, and their earlier behaviour, and their family’s activities were very good. …there was a communal situation where there are members of one community and also the other. This was in the past, and someone can also be [unfairly] punished, based on bad intentions’.

Meanwhile, around 6,000 individuals and institutions, including the National Alliance of People’s Movements, women’s groups and mass organisations of Left parties in a statement have urged the Supreme Court to undo the remission as justice has not been done to Bilkis. It is an open secret that notwithstanding their appeal to the Supreme Court to revoke the decision to grant the convicts remission of their sentence, the governments (Central as well as State) have not budged and have use every means to protect the convicts.

The right-wing political forces are very aware that release of the Bilkis case convicts will be beneficial for the RSS and Modi government in 2024 elections as this will add fuel to their anti-Muslim campaigns. There is no doubt that ever since Modi came to power in 2014, he has been working on a plan to alienate Muslims from India’s national life and turn them into an untouchable class, second-class citizens.

This is going to be the right-wing talking point in the 2024 general elections. The weaker opposition parties seem afraid to challenge the communal campaign of the RSS and BJP. This includes the left parties too. The left parties should not be on the back foot and should confront this menace by taking to the streets. It is time not to consider Muslims merely as vote-banks, and giving greater representation and visibility to Muslims and all minorities can only strengthen the non-Hindutva forces. Despite the constraints, Muslims are citizens of India.

Raulji and people like him draw their inspiration from Modi and Shah, who without any hesitation, have been pursuing the politics of hatred and humiliating the minorities and backward castes. It also exposes the BJP’s machination to use the judiciary to serve the interest of its cadres and leaders. The remission of the rapists is not only a mockery of the judicial system, but it is also an attempt to silence it. The action has also sent a strong message that the steps and decisions of the government must not be challenged.

This article was edited by Papri Sri Raman



Mainstream, VOL LX No 36 New Delhi, August 27, 2022

Can we expect the apex court to revise its remission decree of May?

Friday 26 August 2022,

by Faraz Ahmad

As new skeletons tumble out of the cupboard of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) every day, it is becoming evident that the 14 years of incarceration the 11 convicts of the Bilkis Bano gangrape along with her mother and two sisters, and barbaric murder of her three-year-old daughter before her eyes in Gujarat’s Dahod district on March 2/3, 2002 and 14 others members of her family, was an eyewash with prime accused enjoying frequent furloughs and paroles during this supposed imprisonment, soon after they were shifted back from Maharashtra to a Gujarat jail.

Insofar as that, the complicity of the state of Gujarat did not end with protecting the accused from a fair trial and thus stonewalling every brave effort of Bilkis to seek justice, but even after the Supreme Court shifted the trial to neighbouring state of Maharashtra at the intervention of the Human Rights Commission (HRC), and thus ensured conviction of 11 of the 14 accused, these life convicts were treated with indulgence and empathy by the state of Gujarat. Something Bilkis, the victim of that heinous crime desperately needed was reserved for the life convicts, because as Gujarat minister Raulji explained some of these convicts happened to be Brahmins.

The attempt of the Gujarat government then led by Narendra Modi as the chief minister of the state from 2002, to put obstacles in the path of Bilkis quest for justice, when the crime was committed, to 2008, when the Supreme Court expressing lack of confidence in the Gujarat police investigations and trial, and ordered fresh investigations by the CBI and a fresh trial in a special court in Maharashtra which then awarded life imprisonment to all the accused, is recorded in juridical history and need not be repeated here. The Supreme Court also awarded Bilkis the highest compensation of Rs 50 lakh in such cases, acknowledging her extraordinary trauma. It was meant to be an exemplary punishment to the perpetrators of such a barbaric act, not some run of the mill crime of passion where the courts note the circumstances in which the crime is committed and the state too realising full well the circumstances, may treat the accused with requisite mercy.

No this was a premeditated crime. The accused were neighbours of Bilkis who used to buy milk every day from her home. Witnessing the frenzied mobs, led by Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and such other affiliates of BJP/RSS baying for Muslim blood a day after the February 27, 2002 burning of coach S-6 of Sabarmati Express in which 59 presumed Kar Sevaks returning from Ayodhya were burnt alive, the Bilkis family of 15 fled their home in Randhikpur hiding in a truck but the mob, including those convicted, followed them in their vehicles and caught up with them quite a long distance away in Dahod district, forced them down the truck, surrounded and stripped the women naked, gang-raped not just Bilkis but her mother and sister as well and killed all of them. But worse they banged the head of Bilkis’ three-year-old little baby Saleha against a stone and killed her most barbarically. They left Bilkis too for dead.

Past precedents show the courts awarding the death penalty for such heinous collective crimes. Awarding the accused only life imprisonment, in this case, was itself sufficient for them to feel thankful and indebted. But apparently for those who enjoyed state and ruling party patronage and protection from 2002 to 2008 this wasn’t enough. So, soon after the sentence commenced they started seeking release on parole for events like house warming, son’s wedding, mother’s knee replacement and such other issues and in most instances, not all, their wishes were happily granted by the Gujarat administration which included the jail authorities and even the magistracy.

In February 2021 Abdul Razzak Mansuri, a resident of Randhikpur, and a prosecution witness to the said crime, wrote a five-page letter to the Gujarat Minister of State (Mos) for Home Pradeepsinh Jadeja complaining that many of the accused in the Bilkis Bano case were spending their time out of jail for attending political events (read BJP meetings), continue their businesses, build their bungalows and also threaten witnesses. Mansuri, who along with many Muslims of Randhikpur, had shifted to a relief colony in Devgadh Baria taluka, after the 2002 pogrom fearing for their lives, cited in his letter that accused number four Shailesh Bhatt, “had attended an event of the Bhartiya Janata Party and shared the dais with elected representative of the BJP from Dahod.”

Another witness Phiroz Ghanchi alias Pintu wrote to the IG, Range, Panchmahal alleging that the accused had been securing parole on false and made up excuses whereby they spend more time in their village than in the jail where they threaten witnesses who testified against them. A newspaper report mentioned that Phiroz also filed a RTI to Godhra sub-jail seeking details of how much time the 11 accused spent since their conviction in jail and how much time outside on furlough or parole In reply this information was denied to Phiroz.

In 2017 Adam Ghanchi and Imtiyaz Ghanchi, two other witnesses in the case, submitted an application to the SP, Dahod alleging that the family members of convicts Radheyshyam Shah and Keshar Vohania were threatening to kill them and that the convicts were “vengeful and repeatedly (issued) death threats stating that it would not matter if they killed us because they have already been convicted in the (Bilkis Bano) case…They have been out on parole often and threatening everyone.

On June 23, 2018 16 persons from Randhikpur, including eight prosecution witnesses, submitted a memorandum to the Dahod Collector stating that the police officials of Randhikpur police station have been pressurising them to record statements in favour of the accused. The letter also pointed out that the security police cover provided to their camp under directions of the Supreme Court has also been removed leaving them vulnerable.

Despite this background to their conduct a Jail Advisory Committee (JAC) ignored the repeated pleas of the victims and the terrified witnesses and released the accused. But why not, after all the committee comprised of Godhra MLA from BJP C.K. Raulji, and Kalol BJP MLA Suman Chauhan. Besides them the committee consisted of the District Magistrate, who normally chairs such a meeting, the Jail Superintendent as member secretary, the District Sessions Judge, Superintendent of Police of the District or City Commissioner, as the case may be and the District Social Welfare Officer. Raulji later justified their “unanimous” decision on this saying some of the convicts were Brahmins with good “sanskar”, meaning that being Brahmins they were men of high moral fibre.

But why blame the BJP government alone? Noted lawyer Vrinda Grover pointed out in her reaction that there were two major flaws in the recent Supreme Court judgement, now under review of the apex court, which the Gujarat government cited to justify its decision to release such dangerous convicts. One that the court referred the matter to the Gujarat government under Section 432(7) of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) on the ground that since the offence was committed in Gujarat and the first FIR registered in Gujarat, it lies with the Gujarat government to decide on Radheyshyam Shah’s remission plea that since he and his associates have served 14 years in prison, they are entitled to remission. Grover pointed out that this case was finally investigated by the CBI again at the instance of the Supreme Court and on a plea of the Human Rights Commission, Section 435 of the CrPC states that in such instances the consent of the Central Government which is the authority over the CBI, its consent is mandatory which the first judgement had apparently overlooked.

Second since the Centre had in 2014 specifically prohibited the remission of life sentences in heinous crime cases, citing previous Supreme Court judgements, the 1992 policy of Gujarat government which the earlier apex court had mentioned in its judgment does not hold good.

Be that as it may, can we expect some relief for Bilkis Bano and the witnesses who testified against the accused and are today terrorised by the prospect of all 11 accused with evident links to the ruling BJP in Gujarat roaming around freely, specially after the rousing reception they received from their supporters, soon as they walked out of the jail together---hugs and sweets as if they were incarcerated for upholding some just cause. Evidently their supporters consider the barbaric atrocities these convicts committed as justified and an act of valour.

Besides if the May, 2022 judgement of two judge bench of Justice Ajay Rastogi and Justice Vikram Nath decree were unsound in law and justice, what possibly would be the fate of a revision petition\, if the same judges were on the revison bench too.. While hearing the plea for revision of their May decree, Justice Rastogi asked the petitioner’s counsel Kapil Sibal, “Why an exception must be made in granting remission in the case? Day in and day out remission is granted to convicts serving life sentences. What is the exception in this case?” he asked Sibal, “adding “Merely because the act was horrific is that sufficient to say remission must not be granted?”