On January 8, when the Supreme Court quashed the release order that set 11 convicts charged with the gang rape of Bilkis Bano and the murder of her family during the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat free, it was a watershed moment in India’s political landscape.
It struck down the order of an authoritarian state that was intent on penalizing a woman who had borne the brunt of communal violence and had dared to seek justice against her perpetrators.
Bilkis Bano, a Muslim woman, was 21 years old and five months pregnant when she was brutally gang raped. Her three-year-old child and seven members of her family were killed by Hindu rioters. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was the chief minister of Gujarat at that time.
After a prolonged legal battle, the 11 accused were sentenced to life imprisonment in 2008. Significantly the case had to be shifted out of Gujarat to neighboring Maharashtra, since Bilkis had received death threats and there were apprehensions that the victim would not receiving a fair trial. It was solely due to Bilkis Bano’s perseverance and resistance that any justice was delivered as the authorities did everything to stonewall her.
For the Hindu majoritarian BJP which has been attempting to wipe out any references or mentions to the horrific riots of 2002 in Gujarat, when Hindu mobs slaughtered and killed minority community Muslims; Bilkis Bano’s two-decade-long struggle for justice has been a major irritant. It may be recalled that the BJP regime at the center even banned the BBC documentary examining Modi’s role in the Gujarat riots titled “India: The Modi Question,” last year.
Despite numerous attempts to browbeat her into silence, Bilkis Bano has in many ways become the symbol of resistance against an authoritarian and majoritarian state.
Therefore, the brazen manner in which the 11 rapists were suddenly released on August 15, 2022 — India’s 75th Independence Day — shocked many. Ironically this was just hours after Prime Minister Modi had made loud proclamations of his government’s commitment to women’s empowerment in his Independence Day speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi.
Not only were the rapists welcomed like heroes and garlanded when they stepped out of jail, a BJP legislator from Gujarat defended the state government decision stating the convicts were Brahmins of good “sanskaar”’ (values). It subsequently came to light that the Union Home Ministry headed by Amit Shah had given its approval for the premature release of the 11 convicts.
It was no secret that the rapists had been released with an eye on the then-upcoming Gujarat elections. The release was aimed at appeasing hardcore Hindutva voters.
Appalled by the sheer travesty of justice, protests broke out across the country against the release. Parliamentarian Mahua Moitra and the National Federation of Indian Women filed Public Interest Litigations challenging the release of the rapists. Another PIL was filed by journalist and author of “Anatomy of Hate,” Revati Laul, social activist Subhashini Ali and retired university professor Roop Rekha Verma.
“The public spectacle and celebration of the release of the rapists symbolized the mainstreaming of hate, which prompted me to challenge this through the PIL,” Laul told The Diplomat. “Even in years to come, the BJP will never be able to rid themselves of this stain of what they did to Bilkis Bano. They will never be able to justify releasing the 11 rapists,” she said.
Subsequently, Bilkis Bano challenged the release. The division bench of Justice Nagarathna and Justice Ujjal Bhuyan took up all the petitions and struck down the premature release order as illegal.
In its 251-page judgment, the court directed the 11 men to return to jail within two weeks and deliberated whether “heinous crimes against women permit remission.” The court made clear that the remission orders could be decided only by the state of Maharashtra where the offenders had been tried and sentenced, and not by Gujarat.
Lambasting the Gujarat government — the BJP has been in power there for the past 30 years — the court accused it of “abusing its powers” and “usurping” the powers of another state.
Justice Nagarathna, who is being hailed for her bold judgment, chided the Gujarat government for being “complicit” and in “tandem” with one of the convicts in suppressing material facts before the Supreme Court. The earlier apex court order in May 2022, directing the Gujarat government to consider the remission plea was obtained by “playing fraud on the court,” the court categorically stated.
The Supreme Court verdict has been hailed for restoring the “rule of law.” Welcoming the judgment, Bilkis Bano said: “Today I can breathe again.” She described the verdict as marking the start of a new year for her. She thanked the court for herself and “for women everywhere, the vindication and hope in the promise for equal justice for all.”
Welcoming the court verdict, opposition leaders slammed the Modi government and its sham “Gujarat model.” The Supreme Court decision in the Bilkis case has once again shown how the BJP was “the patron of criminals,” Congress leader Rahul Gandhi posted on X, formerly Twitter, pointing to its tendency to “kill justice” for electoral gains.
The apex court’s verdict is an indictment of the central government too. After all, it was the Union Home Ministry that had approved the remission of the sentence of the 11 convicts.
The BJP’s deafening silence in the wake of the verdict has not gone unnoticed. No party leader, including the women and child development minister welcomed the ruling.
Moreover, recent news reports highlight that 9 of the 11 convicts are “missing” or untraceable. The court has directed them to surrender within a fortnight.
The court verdict rendering justice to Bilkis Bano will also restore to some extent the lost faith of the people of India in the judiciary. Recent court judgments have largely echoed the government’s point of view and not held it accountable for its actions.
The verdict in the Bilkis Bano case is therefore historic.