By Vidhya B
The eleven convicts serving life sentences in the Bilkis Bano gang rape case who were released on August 15, 2022—the nation’s 75th Independence Day— certainly celebrated freedom (“Azadi ka Amrit Mahatosav”, which translates into 75 years of celebrations of Independence Day). It is an irony that these rapists walked free hours after the Indian Prime Minister spoke of women empowerment in his Independence Day speech.
The release of these hardcore criminals who committed such a heinous crime on such a momentous day certainly fills us with rage and raises serious questions about morality, the administration of justice, the rule of law, and the purported commitment to the cause of women’s empowerment and safety as well as the flowering of democracy in India.
When Bilkis Bano and her family attempted to flee rioters during the Gujarat riots, in a vehicle on March 3, 2002—while she was only 19 years old and five months pregnant—a group of 20 to 30 people wielding sickles, swords, and clubs attacked the truck in Randhikapur Village, Dahod district, Gujarat, India. Seven members of her family including her three years old daughter, mother and cousin were killed and Bilkis was gang raped, this horrendous crime was committed by people known to the family for many years.
Bilkis Bano fought a historic battle, although her initial attempts to lodge a complaint were denied, a complaint was made a year after the incident, but it was quickly dismissed. She subsequently went to the National Human Rights Commission and petitioned the Supreme Court, and shortly a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the case was requested.
Bilkis, her family, and the witnesses were threatned, which prompted her to seek the Supreme Court to transfer the case from Gujarat to the Bombay High Court. A special court in Mumbai sentenced the eleven defendants to life in prison on January 21st, 2008, on the charges of gang rape and murder. The conviction was upheld by the Bombay High Court.
Although there were other rape cases during the communal riots besides Bilkis Bano’s, none of the other victims chose to fight for justice due the fear of being ostracised by a society that looks down upon survivors of rape, they feared that the assaulters would harm them again and also because neither the government nor the police authorities supported the rape survivors.
The conviction of the perpetrators gave many other rape survivors hope that they too would receive justice, and Bilkis persevered in her faith in the Indian constitution for more than six long years before finally receiving justice. The journey was not an easy one, she had to leave her home state and seek refuge in different unknown destinations and continues to be on the run without a permanent abode.
The decision of the Gujarat Government to release the convicts comes as a shock and shame to each one of us, the prisoners’ release has let down every woman in the country by heightening their sense of vulnerability, danger, and abuse susceptibly.
The law has been manipulated and used to rescue the convicts; this is sending a wrong message that the government’s sympathies are with the convicts and not Bilkis Bano who fought hard for justice, is it because the convicts are Hindus and the rape survivor a Muslim, such kind of questions are bound to arise.
The convicts were released under the remission policy of the Gujarat Government made in 1992, where as the Remission Policy 2014 of the same government states that remission should not be given to prisoners who have been convicted of heinous crimes like rape, gang rape, or trafficking, isn’t the government being biased. As per law any remission to be considered for a case handled by CBI needs concurrence from the centre, here it is not clear whether Gujarat government sought concurrence in this case. This raises questions about the legality of the remission policy.
When Bilkis Bano learned that the criminals who had wreaked havoc on her family and life had been released, she asked, “How can justice for any woman end like this?” She also said that she had been slowly learning to live with the trauma, but the convicts’ release has shattered her peace and her faith in justice. This action by the Gujarat government demonstrates complete disregard not only for the law but also for the humiliation and violence that she had to endure. The release of these criminals contributes to the impunity of all men who commit rape or other acts of violence against women. How can a woman in this country be secure in such circumstances?
According to the National Crimes Records Bureau statistics from 2020, the number of sexual offences against women has increased by 70% over the past 20 years, yet only 10% of these cases actually go to trial and result in a conviction. Majority of incidents go unreported out of fear of victim shaming, embarrassment, due to gaps in the rules against sexual assault and even worry of how the victim’s own family may react.
The belief in the judicial system and the government appears to be waning in light of the recent release of those found guilty in the Bilkis Bano’s case, what if these inhuman men start haunting her and seek revenge? Who will protect her and where will she seek justice? These are some of the unanswered questions lingering.
How can women be empowered when their basic survival is threatened by such incidents? Women empowerment in the genuine sense can only be achieved when the government takes a firm stance on such cases without discriminating on religious grounds. This case has completely exposed the vulnerability of women, especially if they are from the minority communities.
How long would women in India continue to suffer such gross negation of their right to exist as human beings with equal rights? On one hand slogans like “Beti Bachao” (Save the girls child) is proclaimed loudly, by chest thumping politicians, on the other hand rapists are released and honoured, is this the reason, we got independence from our colonists?
Mahatma Gandhi said that ‘India will be free when the women feel safe to walk in the streets of India in the midnight’. Are the women in India safe to walk on streets even in broad daylight? The question of how long it would take to achieve Gandhiji’s vision of a liberated India persists. Do women need to live in-DEPENDENCE is a question to ponder by every patriotic Indian!
(The author is an Assistant Professor at St. Joseph’s University, Bangalore, India and researches on Corporate Social Responsibility along with a keen interest in Human Rights)