Representative image | Photo: AFP
India was on Cloud Nine this August 15th, in hyper-celebration of Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav. The prevailing spirit of jingoism added fuel to the fire. But before the day passed, we tumbled down from the clouds onto the terra firma of reality. On that gold-letter day of the country’s history, a state government set free all the 11 convicts serving life imprisonment for the brutal murder of seven persons, including a three-year-old girl and gangraping three women. Friends and relatives outside the prison received the criminals with sweets, flowers, tilak and aarti. The unprecedented incident occurred barely hours after Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his independence day address from the Red Fort, urged the country to honour women, take pride in Nari Shakti, and change our mentality toward women in daily lives.
A day later, a District Sessions Judge in literate Kerala shamed the state by blaming a victim in a sexual harassment case. Granting anticipatory bail to the accused, the judge accused the victim of provoking by wearing a sexually explicit dress. No wonder UNICEF once called India the world’s “rape capital.”
No less shocking was our society’s placid response to these two horrific incidents, even when someone like Arnab Goswami openly expressed his outrage! Except for token statements from the Opposition parties, women’s groups, and debates on very few media institutions, they hardly raised a whimper from the civil society. Thought leaders kept silent and top lawyers waste-mouthed legalese on channel shows. Compare it with the nation’s angst and outburst over Nirbhaya’s gangrape in 2012, which led to the birth of a new political party that rewrote history. Similarly, deafening was our collective hurrah when the four Nirbhaya convicts were hanged to death in 2020. Certainly, our current rank would be at rock bottom if there was a Sensitivity Index for societies. A month ago, another prominent victim of the Gujarat riots, Zakia Jafri, widow of Ehsan Jafri, received a shocking order from the Supreme Court when it dismissed her petition against the clean chit issued to Prime Minister Modi and 63 senior officials in cases related to the murder of her husband and others.
Bilkis Bano’s is one of the most horrendous stories in the country’s history. She belonged to a poor family from Randhikpur in Gujarat’s Dahod district, about 50 km from Godhra. On 27 February 2002, fifty-nine Hindu pilgrims were killed in a fire inside the Sabarmati Express near Godhra railway station. This led to widespread communal carnage led by Hindu militant gangs across Gujarat, targeting Muslims. Among the Muslims fleeing the lynch mobs was the 21-year-old and five months-pregnant Bilkis with her 3-year-old daughter Saleha. As many as 14 members of her family, including her mother, were also with her. On March 3, Bilkis and her family were spotted by an armed mob at Chapparwad village, and they were fiercely assaulted. Eight of Bilkis’ family were murdered on the spot, and she, her mother, and her cousin too were gang-raped. Among the killed was her daughter Saleha who was smashed to the ground. A few hours later, Bilkis, lying unconscious, was taken to a hospital by some villagers, and later with the help of some activists, she filed a case with the local police.
Then on began Bilkis’s next traumatic innings. The Gujarat police refused to register a proper case and even tried to hush it up. This made her appeal to the Supreme Court with the help of the National Human Rights Commission for a CBI probe which the Gujarat government strongly opposed. However, the apex court ordered an inquiry by the CBI, which exhumed the bodies of Bilkis’s murdered relatives and found their skulls were removed postmortem. During the course of the investigation, Bilkis received repeated death threats. This made her request to the Supreme court to transfer the trial of the case out of Gujarat. In August 2004, the apex court (Justices S Rajendra Babu, AR Lakshmana, and GP Mathur) shifted the trial to Maharastra, and four years later CBI charge sheeted 19 men, including six police officers and also a doctor who did the postmortem. Most of the accused were personally known to Bilkis for many years as they used to purchase milk from her family. On 21 January 2008, Justice Umesh Dattatreya Salvi of the Special CBI Court in Mumbai convicted 13 men for rape and murder and sentenced all to life imprisonment. The order was upheld in 2017 by the Bombay High Court. The court held that Jaswantbhai Nai, Govindbhai Nai, and Naresh Kumar Mordhiya (who died in prison) had raped Bilkis and Shailesh Bhatt killed her daughter by “smashing” her on the ground. In 2019, the Gujarat government paid Bilkis Rs 50 lakhs as compensation as ordered by a Supreme Court bench comprising Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justices Deepak Gupta ad Sanjeev Khanna.
In May 2022, the Supreme court ordered the Gujarat government to decide on a writ petition filed by Radheshyam Shah, one of the convicts in the case seeking remission, as he had completed 14 years in prison. As per Section 432 of the CrPC, state governments had the authority for remission. But one hurdle before Shah was the Gujarat government’s new policy (2014) which barred remission to those convicted for crimes against women and children. But Shah could overcome this with the apex court bench’s (Justices Ajay Rastogi and Vikram Nath) order that said the remission should be decided on the basis of the policy that existed at the time (2008) the person was convicted. This made things easy for Shah and Gujarat government which as the law required, formed an advisory committee to examine the convict’s request. The committee unanimously recommended the remission, and the government ordered all the eleven to walk out of the Godhra sub-jail.
Interestingly, the eight member-committee headed by the District Collector had four BJP leaders, including two sitting MLAs besides three officials! It has also been revealed that the remission was granted without the necessary concurrence from the central government. Though the Modi government is unlikely to have opposed the remission, a policy guideline issued this June by it had instructed the state governments not to grant remission to those convicted of crimes against women and children. Shailesh Bhatt, who was charged with killing Bilkis’s daughter, is now 63 years and is among the released convicts. The media has carried Shah’s interviews in which he claimed all the convicts were innocent and were BJP activists.
Even as BJP and Viswa Hindu Parshad are holding receptions for the convicts, Bilkis, now 42 years old, is living with her husband and five sons at Devgadh Baria near Godhra. They have been forced to change residence more than 20 times in the past 20 years due to threats and intimidation. Her only ray of hope now is that the Supreme Court would cancel her tormentors’ remission.
And far away in Kerala, S Krishna Kumar, Kozhikode District and Sessions Judge, while granting Civic Chandran in a sexual harassment case, took back Kerala to a patriarchal past. He made the most abominable statement that Section 354 (A) of IPC related to sexual assault will not stand prima facie against Civic Chandran because the victim was wearing a sexually provocative dress! Civilized societies have long buried this patently patriarchal, unethical, and illegal argument, although according to a 1996 survey of Indian judges, 68% of respondents believed provocative dress was an invitation to rape! In 2021, in a rare gesture of introspection, Supreme Court addressed the “entrenched paternalistic and misogynistic attitudes” in various judgements and orders in sexual assault cases. In the Aparna Bhat vs. State of Madhya Pradesh case, Justice S Ravindra Bhat issued five concrete directives for the judges. Among them was the directive that judges should not comment or inference be drawn from women’s sexual activity, clothes, consumption of alcohol/cigarettes, or lack of physical harm. He also ordered against judges commenting on women’s morals, physical weakness, ability to take decisions, position in the family, and submissiveness. J Bhat also called for compulsory gender sensitisation for all judges.
Every year, April 27 is observed globally as Denim Day to wear denim jeans from 1999. This followed the Italian Supreme Court overturning a rape conviction saying the victim’s tight jeans must have provoked her tormentor. The next day, all women members of the Italian Parliament came wearing jeans in solidarity with the victim. An activist group named Peace Over Violence has since called the world to observe Denim Day by wearing denim in protest against the verdict.
PS: Two days after the remission of the convicts, Bilkis's husband Rasool spoke to channels. He said what terrified him most in the past was that even people from as far as Kerala came to threaten them! We hardly need a judge to hang our heads in shame!!