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Gujarat Riots: Her 'Rapists' Set Free to Prowl Around, Bilkis Bano is Shocked, Shaken, Shattered

The family says they are worried for their safety in the state after seeing how the convicts were welcomed and garlanded.
BILKIS BANO

New Delhi/Ahmedabad: Bilkis Bano, now 40, is shocked, shaken and shattered. She is numb and feeling “betrayed” after her rapists and killers of 14 of her family members, including her three-year-old daughter Saleha, were released on August 15 under Gujarat’s remission policy.

“I have nothing to say; let me live alone,” she says with rage and her voice choking.

Her husband Yakub Rasool told NewsClick: “We cannot believe that the government has released the convicts of such a heinous crime. 14 people of my family were killed brutally.”

“They even did not have mercy on my three-year-old daughter, who was snatched from her mother’s lap and slammed to the ground. My wife, along with her sisters, was gang-raped. While the 14 members of my family were killed, Bilkis survived the murderous attack as she had fallen unconscious,” he narrated the ghastly incident.

The Ghastly Incident

The incident was carried out at Limkheda taluka on March 3, 2002, when Bilkis and her family members were trying to flee her village, Radhikpur, in Dahod district, after a communal pogrom erupted in Gujarat in the aftermath of the previous day’s incident at Godhra railway station where the Sabarmati Express train was set on fire — resulting in the deaths of dozens of pilgrims and kar sewaks (volunteers) returning from Ayodhya.

“One among those killed was my uncle’s daughter, who had given birth to a baby girl just eight hours before the attack while escaping from the rioters—both the newborn and the mother died. While escaping from the rioters, that girl was born on the way,” he recalled the horror and alleged only seven of the 14 deaths were acknowledged by the police as seven bodies were never found.

After Bilkis approached the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), the Supreme Court ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to investigate the case. The apex court in 2004 transferred the trial from Gujarat to Maharashtra after Bilkis alleged death threats from the accused.

On January 21, 2008, a special CBI court in Mumbai convicted 13 accused — sentencing 11 to life imprisonment on charges of gang-rape and murder. The conviction was later upheld by the Bombay High Court.

Justice Undone

“The long-fought battle for justice has been undone in one moment, and the convicts serving life imprisonment were made to walk free. This is nothing but a mockery of the justice delivery system,” said Rasool, adding that they have been “betrayed”.

One of the 13 convicts in the case had moved the Supreme Court, seeking directions to the Gujarat government to consider his application for a premature release under the state’s remission policy dated July 9, 1992.

In May 2022, a bench headed by Justice Ajay Rastogi held that since the crime was committed in Gujarat and after the trial was concluded and judgment of conviction had been passed, further proceedings, including remission or premature release, should be considered in terms of the policy which was applicable in Gujarat.

Following the top court’s direction to decide the application within two months, the state government accordingly constituted a committee headed by Panchmahal District Magistrate and Collector Sujal Mayatra.

Finally, the Jail Advisory Committee (JAC) recommended the release of all 11 convicts — following which the benefit of the remission policy was granted by the Gujarat government.

“It was a unanimous decision of the committee. Considering the behaviour of the convicts, their tenure in prison (14 years) and other merits of the case, the committee recommended the government to them. The government on Monday (August 15) ordered their release,” Mayatra told NewsClick.

The JAC, he said, had eight members — the district magistrate (as chairperson), jail superintendent, member secretary, district sessions judge, superintendent of police, district social welfare officer, and two local (elected) members (who were Kalol BJP MLA Suman Chauhan and Godhra BJP MLA CK Raulji in this case).

Sources said a total of 26 prisoners, including these 11 people, were released across the state on Monday.

Reopening the Wounds

Rasool said the incident was horrific to unimaginable levels.

“My wife was not only brutalised and violated as a woman but also made to witness the murder of our three-year-old daughter. What can be worse than that?” he asked.

“Despite the fact that they have already been released, we are still unable to process the news — which we came to know about through social media. They were granted parole several times earlier, and finally, they have been released. We had not expected it to happen,” he said and added, “We were trying to forget what had happened, but this news has made a healing wound fresh.”

“The way they are being welcomed and garlanded, we are now scared for our safety,” he added.

Bilkis was awarded a compensation of Rs 50 lakh in 2019 by the Supreme Court, which also asked the Gujarat government to provide her with a government job and accommodation.

Rasool confirmed that the compensation had been made to her. Concerning a job, she was offered the post of a peon in Devgadh Baria but turned down the offer and sought employment for her husband instead.

“The government is yet to consider the application. We are also yet to hear from the administration about the accommodation,” he said.

The remission of the convicts is a “travesty of justice” and a betrayal to the pledge of “naari shakti” (women empowerment).

In this year’s Independence Day speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked, “Can we not pledge to get rid of everything in our behaviour, culture and everyday life that humiliates and demeans women?”

In June this year, the Centre issued guidelines to states on prisoners’ release policy. Among the categories not eligible for special release are rape convicts and persons convicted with a sentence of life imprisonment.

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