Video Producer: Shohini Bose
Video Editor: Prajjwal Kumar
The eleven men sentenced to life imprisonment in the 2002 Bilkis Bano gang rape case were welcomed with sweets outside the Godhra sub-jail on Monday, 15 August 2022, after the government of Gujarat approved their early release under its remission policy.
"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 Panchmahal Collector Sujal Mayatra, who was presiding over the panel, as per news agency PTI.
More than 15 years after the brutal crime was committed on a then pregnant Bilkis, the Bombay High Court, on 4 May 2017, had upheld the conviction and life imprisonment of 11 people in the gang rape case.
What happened to Bilkis Bano? What was her long road to justice? What next in light of the convicts walking out free? The Quint breaks down the case.
What Happened to Bilkis Bano?
On 28 February 2002, after violence erupted following the Sabarmati Express fire in Gujarat's Godhra, a five-month pregnant Bilkis Bano from Randhikpur, fled her village with her two-year-old daughter and 15 other family members.
Two days later, on 3 March, the family took shelter in Chhaparvad district – when a mob of about 20-30 people attacked them with swords and sticks. According to the charge sheet, Bilkis was raped and assaulted.
Of the 17-member group, 19-year-old Bilkis was the lone woman survivor of the attack.
According to multiple reports, when Bilkis regained consciousness three hours after the incident, she borrowed clothes from an adivasi woman and went to Limkheda police station to register a complaint.
She was taken to a public hospital for examination, after which she was sent to Godhra relief camp. Her case, meanwhile, went to the National Human Rights Commission and the Supreme Court, which ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into the incident.
Transfer of Trial
The CBI first exhumed bodies of those killed in the attack, but could not identify the bodies as there were no skulls. According to the investigating agency, the corpses had been severed postmortem, making it difficult to identify the bodies.
Bilkis moved the Supreme Court seeking transfer of trial outside Gujarat, after she received death threats, where she submitted that she was forced to change 20 homes in two years. In August 2004, the apex court shifted the trial of gang rape case from Gujarat to Mumbai.
In a Mumbai court, charges were filed against 19 men. This included six police officers and a government doctor.
15-Year-Long Wait For Conviction
On 21 January 2008, 13 men were convicted for conspiring to rape a pregnant woman, and of unlawful assembly, under the sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), by CBI special court judge, UD Salvi.
Seven others were acquitted citing lack of evidence, and one person died during the trial. Eleven of them were awarded life sentence.
According to The Indian Express, Judge Salvi termed Bilkis’ “courageous deposition as the turning point in the case."
He also reportedly considered the testimony of a minor and photographs of the bodies of the victims without footwear, and observed that the “bodies had been moved, without footwear, from the scene of crime, indicating a conspiracy."
Bilkis had, during the trial, identified all the accused, and told the court that most of them were known to her and had purchased milk from her family for years.
Almost 10 years after this, the Bombay High Court, in May 2017, upheld the conviction and life imprisonment of 11 people in the gang rape case.
In 2019, the apex court directed the Gujarat government to award compensation of Rs 50 lakh to Bilkis – the first such order in a case related to the 2002 riots.
“It is very apparent that what should not have happened has happened and the state has to give compensation,” the apex court bench of the then Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, and Justices Deepak Gupta and Sanjiv Khanna, had observed.
Who Are the Convicts?
The court held that Jaswantbai Nai, Govindbhai Nai, and Naresh Kumar Mordhiya (deceased) had raped Bilkis, while Shailesh Bhatt killed her two-year-old daughter.
The others convicted are Radheshyam Shah, Bipin Chandra Joshi, Kesarbhai Vohania, Pradeep Vohania, Bakabhai Vohania, Rajubhai Soni, Nitesh Bhatt, Ramesh Chandana, and head constable of Limkheda police station, Somabhai Gori.
The court had observed that the other accused (excluding Gori), despite being bystanders, were also convicted for rape as they were a part of “an unlawful assembly.” This distributes the liability of the crime, the court said.
Why Are the Convicts Free Now?
One of the convicts, Radheshyam Shah, had approached the Gujarat HC seeking remission of the sentence under sections 432 and 433 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. The HC 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.
In its order dated 13 May, the top court stated that since the crime was committed in Gujarat, the state of Gujarat was the appropriate government to examine Shah's application.
The SC directed the Gujarat government to consider the application for premature release in terms of the policy dated 9 July 1992 and may decide within two months.
"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 Panchmahal Collector Sujal Mayatra, who headed the panel, told news agency PTI.
In June 2022, the Centre issued guidelines to states on a prisoner release policy to coincide with Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav.
Amongst the categories not eligible for early release were rape convicts, and those convicted for life.
On 15 August, Additional Chief Secretary (Home), Raj Kumar, told The Indian Express, “The 11 convicts have served a 14-year sentence in total. According to law, a life term means a minimum period of 14 years after which the convict can apply for remission. It is then the decision of the government to consider the application. Based on eligibility, prisoners are granted remission after the recommendation of the prison advisory committee as well as district legal authorities.”
However, questions are being raised about the timing of the remission, with the early release being the first case of remission in any case related to the 2002 riots.
"We had no knowledge about when they (convicts) processed their application and which judgment the state government took into consideration. We never received any kind of notice and were not told about this. There was no way we could have known about this in advance," Yakub Rasul, Bilkis Bano's husband told news agency PTI.
A Gujarat-based activist, who did not want to be named, said that the remission must not be seen in isolation, but as a 'warning' in light of activist Teesta Setalvad's recent arrest.
Setalvad is one of the two persons arrested by Ahmedabad crime branch recently on the charge of conspiring to falsely implicate people in connection with the 2002 Gujarat riots.
"There is a sense of disappointment among people who, after so many years, are still awaiting justice in cases related to the (2002) riots. If people can be let off for crimes as heinous as rape and murder, what can we even expect from the justice system of this country anymore?" Shamshad Pathan, a human rights activist who has worked with riot victims, told The Quint.