The gang rape case of a pregnant woman took the nation by storm in 2002. The ecstasy of the conviction of the 11 accused to life imprisonment as delivered by the Bombay High Court in 2017 was short-lived. The accused were released on 15 August 2022 by the Gujarat government under its remission policy.
- The 2002 gang-rape case of Bilkis Bano and the murders were of great concern in the nation.
- 11 convicts in the case were awarded life imprisonment for gang rape, murder and unlawful assembly.
- The 11 convicts were recently released by the Gujarat government upon application by one of the accused under the old remission policy of 1992.
2002 Bilkis Bano gang-rape case explained
Vicious activities took over Gujarat after the burning of the Sabarmati train on 27 February 2002 at Godhra, Gujarat where many were killed. Alarmed about the outbreak of violence, many fled the city and one among them was Bilkis Bano, then a five-month pregnant woman from Randhikapur village who fled with her three and half year daughter and 15 other family members. They took refuge in the Chhaparvad district but were attacked on March 3 by armed men with sticks, sickles and swords. Among the 17 member Muslim group who left Randhikapur, eight were found dead and six reported missing. The murder was in cold blood against the Muslims. Bilkis, her mother and three other women were brutally raped by the attackers. Only three members including Bilkis, a 19 year old and a three year old kid had survived the attack.
Apparently Bilkis regained consciousness only after 3 hours as per the reports, borrowed clothes from a tribal woman before walking up to the Limkheda police station to file a complaint. She was taken for medical examination at a public hospital after she reached the Godhra relief camp. Her case was later taken up by National Human Rights Commission and the Supreme Court ordered for a CBI investigation. CBI reported that it could not identify the bodies from attack as there were no skulls.
The 11 accused were arrested in 2004 and the trial was heard in Ahmedabad Court. Supreme Court transferred the case hearingfrom Gujarat to Mumbai in 2004, when Bilkis expressed her trepidation over harming the witness and tampering evidence collected by CBI.Bilkis said that she received death threats and was forced to shift between 20 homes in two years. Charges against 19 men were filed in the Mumbai court which included six police officials and a government doctor.
The 11 accused were sentenced to life imprisonment on 21 January, 2008 by the Special CBI Court judge Justice UD Salvi, and the other seven were acquitted for lack of evidence. Justice Salvi has claimed Bilkis’s “courageous deposition as the turning point in the case”. One of the accused Mordhiya died during the trial. Charges were filed against them on grounds of conspiring to rape a pregnant woman, unlawful assembly and murder under the Indian Penal Code.Upon considering the testimony of a minor and photographic evidence of victim’s bodies without footwear, it was observed that the bodies have been moved from the scene of crime hinting conspiracy.
It was held that Jaswantbhai Nai, Govindbhai Nai, and Naresh Kumar Mordhiya raped Bilkis, and Shailesh Bhatt killed Saleha, Bilkis’s daughter by smashing her to the ground. Other convicts in the case include Head Constable Somabhai Gori, Nitesh Bhatt, Ramesh Chandana, Bakabhai Vohania, Rajubhai Soni, Bipin Chandra Joshi, Kesarbhai Vohania, Pradeep Vohania and Radheshyam Shah. During the trial, Bilkis identified all the accused and stated that most of them were acquaintances to her as they have been purchasing milk from her family for years. The others were also convicted for rape, though they were just spectators as they were part of the unlawful assembly to distribute liability of the crime, the court said.
The Bombay High Court refused the appeal by CBI to enhance the life sentence of three accused to capital punishment. Asaduddin Owaisi, former MP of Lok Sabha and All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) chief, also demanded for the death sentence for the convicts.
Why the release of convicts
Bombay High Court upheld the life imprisonment of the 11 accused only on4 May 2017. In 2019, the Supreme Court awarded Rs, 50 lakhs as compensation to Bilkis and former CJI Ranjan Gogoi, Justice Deepak Gupta and Justice Sanjiv Khanna said that “what should not have happened has happened and state is to compensate”.
Radheshyam, one of the accused approached the Ahmedabad High Court to remit sentences granted under sections 432 and 433 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. The court dismissed his request stating that the appropriate government to decide remission is Maharashtra and not Gujarat. He again filed a plea to the apex court stating that he has been in jail for around 15 years without remission as of 1 April, 2022. Supreme Court ordered the Government of Gujarat to look into the matter and to contemplate upon application for premature release as per the policy dated 9 July, 2022 within two months. The Gujarat government formed a committee headed by Panchmahal Collector Sujal Mayatra to enquire upon the same.
The committee unanimously agreed in favor of remission to all 11 convicts and forwarded the same to state government who approved them. The 11 convicts of the Bilkis Bano case were released from Godhra sub-jail on 15 August, 2022.
The remission policy
The convicts were release relying upon the 1992 remission policy by the Gujarat government. It did not hold restriction like in the 2014 policy.
Raj Kumar, Gujarat Additional Chief Secretary (Home) said that the Supreme Court’s direction to the government, to consider early remission was already in effect when they were held guilty by the trial court. He further added that the remission policy which was in effect from 1992 was prevalent during the conviction in 2008. Kumar said that the 11 convicts have served 14 years in prison which is equivalent to the minimum period of life term in law and hence they are eligible for application of remittance. He defended that upon eligibility and recommendation by the prison advisory committee and district legal authorities, the convictsshall be remitted.
The policy to grant remission was revised by Gujarat again in 2014 as the 1992 policy was quite ambiguous and not clear about who are eligible to get remission. The 1992 policy allowed early release of convicts who served 14 years in jail on and after 18 December 1978. However, the convicts were ineligible for remission under the revised policy which prohibited early release of rape convicts and those convicted for life. Bilkis Bano’s husband Yakub Rasul said that he had no knowledge of the application processing by convicts and that they didn’t receive any notice regarding the same. It was also debated that the new remission policy released as part of ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’, special remission can be given to those who have completed half of their sentence, male convicts above 60 years old, terminally ill, women and transgender.
When the convicts were released, they were seen greeted with sweets and garlands by their relatives outside the Godhra jail. Convicts said that they were victims of politics. This release has stirred the nation and received widespread criticism.
Disappointment and fury set in when the convicts were released. People are distressed with the order and expressed their agony over setting convicts of heinous crimes like rape and murder free. The vindication in the case of Bilkis Bano and the earlier case of Nirbhaya should have been stronger and the system failed in serving justice. It is high time that reforms are made for the imposition of capital punishment and penalties to be made stern to prevent such odious crimes in the future.