Bilkis Bano was brutally gang-raped during the communal violence that followed the Godhra train-burning incident. She was 21 years old at the time, and five months pregnant. Seven members of her family were killed by rioters.
Eleven men who were sentenced to life imprisonment in the Bilkis Bano gangrape case of 2002 were released from the Godhra sub-jail on Monday (August 15) after a panel set up by the Gujarat government approved their application for remission of the sentence.
Additional Chief Secretary (Home) Raj Kumar said the remission application was considered because the convicts had completed 14 years in jail, and factors such as “age, nature of the crime, behaviour in prison and so on”.
Defending its decision of granting remission to the 11 men, the Gujarat government also told the Supreme Court that the release of the men was approved by the Union home ministry within two weeks.
The Gujarat government further justified its decision on the grounds that the remission was granted in accordance with the 1992 policy which placed no bar against premature release of rape convicts.
Opinions of all relevant authorities were also considered, said the Gujarat government, adding it “decided to release 11 prisoners since they have completed 14 years and above in prisons and their behaviour was found to be good”.
In August, 11 men, who had been convicted of the gang rape of Bilkis Bano and killing of her family during the 2002 riots, had been set free — causing a furore in society and leaving Bilkis numb and speechless.
Her husband, Yakub Rasool, had told, “We have been left numb, shocked and shaken. The battle we fought for so many years has been wrapped up in one moment. A sentence of life imprisonment given by the court has been curtailed in such a manner… We had never even heard of the word ‘remission’. We didn’t even know that such a process exists.”
Who is Bilkis Bano, and what happened to her in 2002?
On February 28, 2002, Bilkis fled her village, Radhikpur in Dahod district, after violence erupted in the state in the aftermath of the previous day’s incident at Godhra station, in which the Sabarmati Express was set on fire, resulting in the deaths of dozens of pilgrims and kar sewaks returning from Ayodhya.
Bilkis was accompanied by her daughter Saleha, who was three-and-a-half years old at the time, and 15 other members of her family. They fled fearing a re-run of the arson and looting that had taken place in their village on the occasion of Bakr-Id a few days previously.
On March 3, 2002, the family reached Chapparwad village. According to the charge sheet, they were attacked by about 20-30 people armed with sickles, swords, and sticks. Among the attackers were the 11 accused men.
Bilkis, her mother, and three other women were raped and brutally assaulted. Of the 17-member group of Muslims from Radhikpur village, eight were found dead, six were missing. Only Bilkis, a man, and a three-year-old survived the attack.
Bilkis remained unconscious for at least three hours after the attack. After she regained consciousness, she borrowed clothes from an Adivasi woman and met a Home Guard who took her to the Limkheda police station. She registered a complaint with Head Constable Somabhai Gori who, according to the CBI, “suppressed material facts and wrote a distorted and truncated version” of her complaint.
Bilkis was taken to a public hospital for medical examination only after she reached the Godhra relief camp. Her case was taken up by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and Supreme Court, which ordered an investigation by the CBI.
Bilkis Bano case: What did the CBI find in its investigation?
The CBI concluded that the post-mortem examination was carried out shoddily in order to protect the accused. CBI investigators exhumed the bodies of those killed in the attack and said that none of the seven bodies had skulls.
How did the trial in the case proceed?
The trial was moved out of Gujarat to Maharashtra after Bilkis Bano received death threats. In the Mumbai court, charges were filed against 19 men, including six police officers and a government doctor.
In January 2008, a special court convicted 11 accused of conspiring to rape a pregnant woman, murder, unlawful assembly, and of charges under other sections of the Indian Penal Code. The Head Constable was convicted of “making incorrect records” to save the accused.
Seven persons were acquitted by the court, citing a lack of evidence. One person died during the course of the trial.
What happened after that?
In May 2017, the Bombay High Court upheld the conviction and life imprisonment of 11 people in the gangrape case, and set aside the acquittal of seven people, including the policemen and doctors.
In April 2019, the Supreme Court directed the Gujarat government to give Rs 50 lakh as compensation to Bilkis within two weeks. She had refused to accept the compensation of Rs 5 lakh and had sought exemplary compensation from the state government in a plea before the top court.
Why have the convicts been released?
One of the convicts, Radheshyam Shah, had approached the Gujarat High Court seeking remission of the sentence under sections 432 and 433 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. The high court dismissed his plea while observing that the “appropriate government” to take a decision about his remission is Maharashtra and not Gujarat.
Shah then filed a plea in the Supreme Court, pleading that he had been in jail for 15 years and four months without remission as of 1 April 2022.
The apex court directed the Gujarat government to look into the issue of remission of his sentence following which the government formed a committee, said Panchmahal Collector Sujal Mayatra, who headed the committee.
“A committee formed a few months back took a unanimous decision in favour of remission of all the 11 convicts in the case. The recommendation was sent to the state government, and yesterday we received the orders for their release,” said Mayatra.
The 11 convicts in the Bilkis Bano case on Monday walked out of Godhra sub-jail.
Defending the decision, Gujarat Additional Chief Secretary, Home, Raj Kumar, was quoted as telling news agency PTI that the Supreme Court had asked the government to consider early release of these 11 convicts under the state’s remission policy which was in effect when they were pronounced guilty in the case by the trial court.
“These 11 persons were convicted by a special court in Mumbai in 2008. At the time of conviction, Gujarat was following a remission policy which came into effect in 1992. When the matter reached the Supreme Court, it directed us to decide about the release under the 1992 policy, because that was prevalent when conviction came in 2008,” Kumar told PTI.
Gujarat adopted a new and revised remission policy for prisoners in 2014. In that policy, which is currently in effect, there are detailed guidelines about categories of convicts who can or cannot be given relief, said the senior bureaucrat.
“Since the conviction took place in 2008, the SC directed us to consider this case under the 1992 policy, which was in effect in 2008. That policy did not have any specific clarity as to who can be given remission and who can’t. That policy was not that detailed in comparison to the 2014 policy,” said the IAS officer.