Bilkis Bano | Photo: AP
''I can see the manifold contribution of 'Nari Shakti', my mothers, sisters and daughters, in the next 25 years compared to the contribution in the last 75 years of India's journey.'' PM Modi uttered these words while addressing the nation from the premises of the Red Fort on the occasion of the nation's 75th anniversary of independence. No other prime minister of India would have used the word Nari Sakthi as effectively as Narendra Modi. The support that Modi and the BJP gained from the liberated dreams of women, in the journey towards Indraprastha, the citadel of power, was indeed huge. While standing at the Red Fort on August 15, Modi must have remembered the people's wrath triggered by the Nirbhaya case. How come that Nirbhaya is remembered and Bilkis is forgotten. We can't help asking at this juncture, in the journey from Nirbhaya to Bilkis, what exactly India is telling the world about the renowned Nari Shakti.
Let us examine some basic facts. 59 kar sevaks were killed in the fire in the Sabarmati Express on February 27, 2002. Gujarat riots broke out as the rumour spread that Muslim extremists were behind the arson on the train. Many Muslims fleed to save themselves from the hands of the rioters. It was in this context that Bilkis Bano and her relatives consisting of 17 members set off from Randhikpur, some 50 kilometres away from Godhra. But they couldn't outwit the attackers. The hooligans pounced upon them at Chapparwad on March 3.
The antisocial elements, inhuman to the core, gang raped Bilkis, her mother and another woman. Seven of her relatives were killed on the spot. Seven people disappeared for good. That meant 14 out of 17 people were removed from the face of earth eternally. Bilkis' 3.5 years old daughter was among the killed. One of the rioters smashed her head against the ground. Bilkis was five-month pregnant when she was gang raped.
Most of the attackers were known to Bilkis and her family. Some were her neighbours. Some used to come to her home to fetch milk. The gang left her thinking she was dead. Bilkis regained her consciousness after three hours. She borrowed clothes from an Adivasi woman and went to the local police station to register a complaint. The police ignored her complaint. Though startled, Bilkis didn't backtrack.
The legal battle of one and half decades
Bilkis waged a legal battle that lasted 17 years. The Supreme Court ordered the Gujarat government in 2019 to pay Bilkis a compensation of Rs 50 lakhs. The SC had also shifted the trial of the case from Gujarat to Maharashtra. The Mumbai special court convicted 11 persons out of the twenty accused to life imprisonment on January 21, 2008. CBI, which investigated the case, approached the HC to review the conviction because it wanted all the 20 accused to be punished. But the HC dismissed the appeal of the CBI and upheld the special court's verdict.
Radesyam Shah, one of the accused, approached the SC to get remission of the sentence. He pointed out that he deserved remission under 432 of CRPC. The SC accepted the petition and directed the Gujarat State Govt to consider the request. It seems the state govt was waiting for such a direction. It swung into action and all the 11 convicts were freed on the very day the nation celebrated its 76th independence day. The convicts came out of prison to a rousing welcome by their relatives and friends who garlanded them and distributed sweets. CK Raulji, a BJP MLA and one of the members of the panel that looked into the remission, described the convicts as Brahmins and men of good sanskar. He said that they were all innocent and they might have been fixed in the case due to their past family activities.
It is really ironic that the MLA, who is giving a conduct certificate to the convicts, whose crime has been proved beyond doubt, has taken the pledge to protect and uphold the constitution. He should know who Godse was before pointing his fingers at the caste of these convicts.
Raulji is a small fish in this network. The act of the Gujarat government is something that can never be accepted by those who call themselves humane. Let us see what some of the leading legal luminaries have to say on this. The trial and conviction were conducted by the Mumbai special court. The verdict of the special court was upheld by the Bombay High Court. It is in this context that senior advocate Rebecca John points out that the buck of remission falls on the state of Maharashtra and not Gujarat.
CBI and Central Govt
Rebecca presents some of the judgements by the SC in this regard. Another major argument is that remission can be taken up only after getting the opinion of the judge who pronounced the judgement. It is not officially known if the Gujarat Govt has received the opinion of the judge of the Mumbai special court. There are unconfirmed reports that the said judge was not in favour of the remission given the gravity of the crime committed by the convicts. If it is so the legal battle the Gujarat govt will have to face won't be that easy.
CBI investigated the Bilkis Bano case. CBI is an agency that comes under the central govt. That makes it mandatory for the Gujarat govt to seek the opinion of the CBI and the central govt before taking the decision. Vrinda Grover, one of the seniormost advocates in the nation, says that the Gujarat govt must have got the opinion of the centre. That makes the central govt equally responsible for this hoax. Is the nation standing mute witness to one of the most hypocritical acts by the central govt, which boasts of the slogan 'Beti Bachao'?
The present policy of both Gujarat and the central govt is that rape convicts can't be given a commutation of sentence. But here in this case the SC specifically stated that since the conviction took place in 2008 the policy on remission (1992) could be applied. To ordinary human beings, this approach may seem baffling! But the laws of the land sometimes are beyond the comprehension of the common man. Vrinda also points out that the 1992 notification is not available in the public sphere.
The panel that looked into the issue of remission says that they acted in accordance with the direction of the SC. But the SC didn't tell them to commute the sentence. It asked the state govt to look into the issue. So, the responsibility for this decision ultimately falls on the Gujarat Govt.
We must also remember at this juncture the arrest of RB Sreekumar, the former DGP of Gujarat and Teesta Setalvad, a social activist. Is there a method behind this madness? Is somebody determined to erase the memories of the Gujarat riot?
The construct of the British historians
Many historians including Romila Thapar have pointed out that the two-nation theory, which accuses the Muslims of raising the demand for a separate nation, has been the product of British colonial historians. This theory was built upon the premises of the extrapolations of James Mill whose work on the history of British India was published in 1817. This proposition of the colonial historians found flavour with Savarkar and Jinnah. The same dogma is allegedly spread by the anti-social elements in contemporary India..
The Indian Muslims have rejected this theory emphatically. They stood by Gandhiji and Nehru not by Jinnah. That is why they decided to stay back in India when the nation gained independence in 1947. Their choice was India, not Pakistan. It was a well-thought-out announcement that they were preferring the secular state to a theocratic one. The makers of the Constitution made it crystal clear that the minorities will enjoy equal rights in the Republic of India.
The Indian Constitution is a living testimony to this perspective. It is this trust and faith that the Gujarat govt has violated by releasing the convicts in the Bilkis Bano case. The demolition of Babri Masjid was a severe setback to the minorities in India. The Gujarat govt has virtually applied salt to this wound.
The Kanpur communal riots broke out while the Karachi Congress session was on in 1931. 400 people were killed in this riot. The Congress leadership appointed a committee to look into the riot. AG Noorani refers to the report by this committee in his article on hate speech and the SC. Bhagwan Das was the chairman of this committee. Purshottam Das Tandon, Mazhar Ali Sokhte, Abdul Latif Bijnori and Zafarul Malik were the members. It must also be recalled that Sardar Patel was the President of Congress then.
The committee came to this conclusion: 'It will be noted that all the main controversies which at present embitter and have latterly divided the two communities, for example, the cow question, Ramlila and Moharram, and other religious occasions or processions, music before mosques; as also the question of representation in services, in municipalities and councils, joint and separate electorate; safeguards; redistribution of provinces and federal, as opposed to a unitary, basis of the constitution - all these did not and could not have existed during the Muslim period. They are all products of the British period and British policy.' It is this statement that should be the guiding light for Indian democracy.
Now, listen to Bilkis Bano's words on hearing the decision by the Gujarat Govt: ''How can justice for any woman end like this? I trusted the highest courts in our land. I trusted the system, and I was learning slowly to live with my trauma. My sorrow and my wavering faith are not for myself alone but for every woman who is struggling for justice in the courts. No one enquired about my safety and well-being, before taking such a big and unjust decision. Give me back my right to live without fear and in peace. Please ensure that my family and I are kept safe.''
No Indian with a conscience can hold his head high before Bilkis Banu. We will have to keep our heads down and down till this woman gets justice.