By Dr. Santosh Kumar Mohapatra*
Prime Minister Narendra Modi talked “Amrit Kaal” and hailed women as Nari shakti, appealed not to lower the dignity of women, and emphasized the need to respect, and empower women in his 76th Independence Day speech.
A few hours later the same day, the government led by his own BJP party lowered the dignity of women in his own state Gujarat by releasing 11 men prematurely convicted of gangraping ‘Bilkis Bano’ during the 2002 Gujarat riots.
The rapists walked free as the nation celebrated 75 years of Independence and were given a hero’s welcome, greeted with sweets, hugs, and garlands by groups linked to the ruling BJP. A video that has since gone viral showed the men lined up outside the Godhra jail while relatives gave them sweets and touched their feet to show respect.
As BJP believes in publicity blitzkrieg and giving catchy slogans to hoodwink masses, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had also talked about the importance of ‘Nari Shakti’ as the harbinger of India’s bright future and for women-led development during the “Amrit Kaal” in the Budget speech of current fiscal. In her first budget speech in 2019, she also used the phrase “Nari tu Narayani,” ( Naritu Devi or Goddess) while recognizing the importance of woman empowerment.
The grim reality is that respect for women is a sham, while violence and cruelty against women is a grim reality. What is spoken of as gender parity, women’s rights, and empowerment is lip service? Respecting women is a mantra that politicians and powerful people recite even as the actions of those around them contradict their words. The concept of misogyny continues to be the law of society today.
According to a poll of global experts released by Thomson Reuters Foundation, in 2018, India was found the world’s most dangerous country for women due to the high risk of sexual violence and being forced into slave labour.
Massive Uproar Across the Nation
Massive outrage and uproar erupted when 11 convicts in the ‘Bilkis Bano’ gang rape case were allowed to walk free from prison, on orders of the Gujarat government. Even before the family of Bilkis Bano expressed their shock and despair over the release of her rapists, opposition leaders and the legal fraternity slammed the decision of the Gujarat government, terming the decision as “shameful” and “disgraceful”.
Opposition parties have strongly hit out at Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the move, which came within hours of his praise for “Nari Shakti” in his Independence Day speech and said this is the “real face” of New India under the BJP.
The opposition party Congress lashed out at the government and the Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera reportedly said that this decision brings out the “BJP government’s mindset”. Taking a jibe at the Centre, TRS leader K Kavitha said, “The decision to release the heinous criminals of rape and murder during the Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav is an insult to this auspicious day.”
Taking into account the plight of Bilkis Bano, Supreme Court Advocate Yash Giri said, “The trust of people in the Indian Judicial System is shaken by the new Remission policy of the Gujarat Government, the trauma of the victim cannot be superseded by the right of remission given to the convicts in heinous offenses of rape and murder”. CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury said, “This is New India”. The TMC and the AIMIM too questioned the PM.
Bilkis Bano’s Crying Voice
Bilkis Bano, the survivor of one of the most horrific rape cases during the 2002 Gujarat riots, has said that the release of the 11 rapists has “shaken” her faith in justice. Her first statement since the release two days ago hinted at a sense of deep hurt and betrayal. It has left her “numb” and “bereft of words”.
“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 courts,” said the woman, whose fight for justice went on for 18 long years.
The short statement also hinted at shock at the Gujarat government’s move to release the convicts without any consultation with her. “No one enquired about my safety and well-being, before taking such a big and unjust decision,” she said. She also appealed to the state government in the statement to ensure her safety. “Give me back my right to live without fear and in peace”, she said.
Safety has been a big concern for the woman since the rapists were released, her lawyer Shobha Gupta had told NDTV. Till the men were jailed, she had spent years in hiding, constantly shifting home. After the release, she has been too shell-shocked to consider the next steps, to take thought of safety or any legal step.
Of course, the anger and despondence of the family is easy to understand considering the magnitude of the crime and the protracted battle they had to fight for justice.
What Gruesome Tragedy Inflicted on Bilkis Bano
Bilkis Bano was 21 years old when she faced a gruesome tragedy inflicted upon her. She was one of the many Muslim residents of Gujarat who were trying to flee her village along with her toddler daughter and 15 members of her family during the 2002 Gujarat riots when violence in Gujarat was at its peak.
The riots had erupted in the state after a train carrying Kar sevaks and Hindu pilgrims from Ayodhya was burnt down in Godhra in February 2002. In the aftermath of the violence, Bilkis and her family had tried to escape their home to seek shelter, when the attack happened.
On March 3, 2002, Bano– who was five months pregnant at the time – was taking shelter in a field of Limkheda taluka of Dahod district along with several other family members and her 3-year-old daughter, when a mob of 20-30 men attacked them with weapons like sickles, swords, and sticks.
Seven members of Bano’s family were murdered by the rioters who had attacked them, while she was gang raped by the mob. Her 3-year-old daughter was snatched away from her during the attack and was murdered when her head was smashed on a rock by one attacker. Seven other relatives, who she says were also killed, were declared “missing”.
Due to the horrific nature of the crime and the outrage that followed, the Supreme Court ordered a CBI probe in the matter. Among those who attacked them, 11 men were arrested in 2004 and a special Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) court in Mumbai on January 21, 2008, sentenced them to life imprisonment on the charges of conspiring to rape a pregnant woman, murder, and unlawful assembly under the Indian Penal Code (IPC). In 2017, the Bombay High Court upheld the conviction and life imprisonment of the accused in the gang rape case.
Why were Bilkis Bano’s Rapists Released from Jail?
According to reports, it has been pointed out that one of the convicts in the case had approached the Gujarat High Court with a plea seeking remission (reducing the amount of sentence without changing the character) of the life sentence, which was initially dismissed.
He then filed a plea in the Supreme Court, on the grounds that he was in jail for 15 years and four months without remission as of April 1, 2022. The court directed the Gujarat government to look into the issue of remission of his sentence. It then formed a committee that took a decision in favour of remission of all the 11 convicts in the case.
As per media reports, the application filed for remission was considered after all convicts completed 14 years of imprisonment, keeping in mind factors such as age, nature of the crime, and behaviour in prison.
A committee formed a few months back took an unanimous decision in favour of remission of all the 11 convicts in the case. The recommendation was sent to the state government and was released on 15th August. But a large number of convicts who have committed a less heinous crime than the Bilkis case continue to languish in jails without any remission.
What Is a Remission Policy and How It led to Travesty of Justice?
According to Indian laws, the word remission means that the duration of the sentence announced by the court can be cut short under special circumstances while the nature of the sentence remains the same, depending upon the nature of the crime.
According to the Constitution of India, certain constitutional authorities in the country have the power to remit, suspend or grant pardon to certain sentences under special circumstances. While Article 72 gives the President the authority to remit a sentence, CrPC Section 433 provides the appropriate government the power to suspend or remit sentences.
This section states that the remission application can be placed in front of the appropriate government, which can further take a call on the sentence of the person. The government will later have to present its argument for granting remission in front of the court, seeking the bench’s final approval. Panchmahal Collector Sujal Mayatra headed the panel that looked into the premature release of these convicts.
Under the 1992 remission policy of Gujarat (which was stated in the Gujarat High Court order in 2012) convicts serving life sentences can be granted remission and released after they have served a minimum of fourteen years, as pointed out by reports. At the time when the crime was committed against Bilkis Bano, and during the conviction of the accused, this policy was in force.
However, 1992 remission policy was discarded by the Supreme Court in November 2012. The state government then formulated a new policy in 2014 based on the SC directions which introduced restrictions on the conditions on which remission can be granted. Hence later policy (2014) of the state, and another recent one by the Center – both governments run by the BJP – say convicts in such heinous crimes should not be released.
The move by the state government to release the convicts has invited widespread criticism from people, including journalists, lawyers, and activists, some of whom, raised the question that the convicts were released under the older remission policy (1992) of the state and were not eligible for remission of sentence under the state government’s latest 2014 policy.
The Gujarat government has defended its decision blatantly to release the 11 men, saying it considered the release plea as per a 1992 policy, as directed by the Supreme Court, because that was in effect at the time of the conviction in 2008.
What is reprehensible is that a legislator from the ruling camp in Gujarat has said the 11 rapists in the Bilkis Bano case are Brahmins with good values or ‘sanskaar’ and someone with ill intention may have punished them. The BJP MLA, CK Raulji, was one of the two BJP leaders who were part of the review panel that granted remission to the 11 convicted rapists.
Ironically, though, the root of the problem lies in the Supreme Court ruling earlier this year when it agreed to hear the plea of one of the convicts for early release. The convict quoted a 2012 Gujarat High Court order that allows release for life-term prisoners who have served 14 years in jail. The apex court’s decisions inadvertently opened the door for this horrendous amnesty.
First, it ruled that it was the government of Gujarat, the state in which the crime was committed, that was competent to examine the remission plea, and not Maharashtra, where the trial was shifted owing to the intimidation of Ms Rasool and her family.
Second, the Supreme Court ruled that the government should consider the release application under a 1992 policy, which does not state the nature of the crime when considering the remission. However, no member of the committee explained why it did not consult the Centre — something required under the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC).
Many have also pointed out that the release is in contravention of guidelines issued by both the federal government and the Gujarat government – both say that rape and murder convicts cannot be granted remission. Life terms in these crimes are usually served until death in India.
A desecration of justice
Rape is growing because society is increasingly getting soiled, and contaminated day by day. There is the erosion of values. The incident of gruelling rape is found in each state, though the degree varies. It is highest in double engine states like Uttar Pradesh where there is more talk of the temple.
Rape in times of conflict has been understood as a weapon to humiliate, dominate and instill fear, consternation, and trepidation in a person, especially a woman. The act of rape is a vulgar manifestation of the unbridled lust or carnal desire of a person that leaves such a scare in the mind and heart of a victim which can be never obliterated. A rape victim loses social honour even discarded by their own family. Hence, a rapist needs serious punishment.
Though the committee that “unanimously” decided in favour of remission claimed it was merely following the rule book, it is clear that basic values of morality and humanity were ignored while arriving at this decision. In reality, when people vociferously clamour for capital punishment for rapists, the Gujrat government hunted for loopholes to release 11 rapists cum murderers. Is it not a travesty of Justice?
The elation at their premature release is an instance of social entities demoralizing the justice delivered by the State and represents a new low for both the judicial system and the Indian polity. Worse, it reiterates the message of terror and humiliation to the minority community while asserting women’s bodies may be brutalized, dehumanised for political and communal reasons with approval.
Natural justice alone uttered that the criminals deserved no mercy. But the intricacies of the law that led to this travesty of justice demand an urgent review both by the Supreme Court and the government.
No less disquieting has been the Centre’s stoic silence on the issue. Indeed, it is inexplicable that thousands of undertrials languish in prison for years without being convicted, whereas 11 men who perpetrated heinous crime, savage acts are freed with honour and dignity.
This apart, the Ministry of Home Affairs had instructed the states and Union Territories to grant special remission to categories of prisoners, but, critically, this amnesty did not include prisoners convicted of rape. It is, therefore, imperative for the government to take note of this development and get the decision reversed. The Supreme Court too has the power to take suo motu cognisance of the case. It did so during the migrant crisis of 2020. Basic justice demands that it do so now. Apex court intervention is crucial.
The takeaway from both these instances is that women in India are often not even seen as real people equal to their male counterparts. Empty exhortations to respect women are meaningless when they are endlessly dehumanised by society and the State. Individuals committing crimes is one aspect but government freeing rapist is unwarranted. The crime committed by those 11 persons is unpardonable. After release, at least rapists should have expressed regret and met victims and asked for forgiveness. That would have been a good point.
Ending Violence Against Women Begins with “RESPECT Women”
According to UN Women, violence against women and girls remains pervasive across the world, despite significant efforts being made to recognize, eliminate, and prevent it in all its forms. Eliminating violence against women and girls is pivotal to achieve gender equality, women’s empowerment, and the Sustainable Development Goals. Elimination can only be done through prevention. Successful prevention requires:
The political commitment and leadership, implementing laws and policies that promote gender equality, investing in women’s organizations, allocating resources to prevention, and addressing the multiple forms of discrimination women face daily.
Based on the principles of respect and equality, and lessons learned from evidence-based results on what works in preventing violence from occurring and recurring, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UN Women, in collaboration with ten other UN, bilateral, and multilateral agencies, have developed “RESPECT Women: Preventing violence against women”.
This publication provides a comprehensive framework to inform policymakers and implementers about designing, planning, implementing, monitoring, and evaluating interventions and programs on preventing and responding to violence against women.
The framework outlines seven inter-related intervention strategies derived from the word “respect”: Relationships skills strengthened, empowerment of women, services ensured, and poverty reduced. Environments made safe, child and adolescent abuse prevented, transformed attitudes, beliefs, and norms, underpinning the publication’s methodology is the realization that ending violence against women begins with RESPECT and a collective commitment to acting today.
The author is an Odisha-based eminent columnist/economist and social thinker. He can be reached through e-mail at [email protected]
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of Sambad English