The advisory committee that backed the release and remission of the 11 convicts of the 2002 Bilkis Bano gang rape was replete with links to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The now 10-member committee, headed by Godhra Collector and District Magistrate Sujal Mayatra, which "unamiously" decided to push for the remission, included two current BJP legislators, besides three other members of the saffron party.
Commenting on the composition of the panel, veteran Congress leader P Chidambaram tweeted on Thursday, 18 August:
"Was this a neutral, non-partisan panel of experts in criminology and penology?"
The Gujarat government accepted the committee's recommendation and allowed the premature release of the convicts who had already spent 14 years in jail since their life imprisonment sentencing for the heinous crime in 2008.
The verdict, pronounced by a special Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) court in Mumbai on the charges of gang rape and murder of 14 members of Bilkis Bano’s family, had later been upheld by the Bombay High Court.
Despite this, the convicts were showered with a grand welcome by their relatives and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), following their release.
As they walked out of jail, they were felicitated and garlanded.
While Bilkis Bano, the survivor in the case, continues to live in constant "fear and trauma," here's a deeper look at the members of the committee that pushed her into this state:
Two From The Committee Are BJP Legislators
CK Raulji, BJP MLA from Godhra
Godhra legislator Raolji, a seasoned politician, had defected to the ruling BJP in 2017 after Shankarsinh Vaghela split the Congress during the dramatic Rajya Sabha polls of the late Congress leader Ahmed Patel.
A cabinet minister in the Vaghela government during the mid-1990s, he was in the BJP before he walked out of the party along with Vaghela in 1996.
Speaking to the news portal Mojo Story, Raulji said on Thursday that although he did not know whether the convicts had committed the crime, the convicts were Brahmins, and therefore had good sanskar.
"Crime kiya ki nahi kiya, hum ko pata nahi hai. (I do not know if they have committed the crime or not). Their families' activities were very good, they are Brahmins. Brahmins have good sanskar. People may have had malicious intentions behind punishing them and keeping them imprisoned."
Sumanben Chauhan, BJP MLA from Kalol
Another legislator on the advisory committee, Chauhan is a first-time MLA elected in 2017 from Kalol in Gujarat's Panchmahal district.
Her father-in-law, former Godhra MP and former minister Prabhatsinh Chauhan, is a prominent OBC leader from the district who has brushed shoulders with every key party in the state, including the Congress, the BJP and the Janata Dal.
Three With Key Positions in the Party
Besides Raolji and Chauhan, three others from the BJP were also included in the committee.
Sardarsinh Baria Patel, head of BJP’s Godhra taluka unit
Vinitaben Lele, vice-president of the BJP women’s unit in Godhra
Pavan Soni, member of the BJP state executive.
Besides currently being a member in the party's Gujarat unit, Soni has shuffled across positions in the ABVP, VHP, and RSS from 1986-1988.
The remaining four in the committee were:
Police superintendent of Panchmahal district
Jail superintendent of Godhra jail
District social welfare officer
Sessions judge of Godhra court
Two Former Members Also From BJP
It is also worth noting that till May 2022, Murli Mulchandani, a social worker and former Godhra municipal councillor from the BJP and Snehaben Bhatia, a worker with the BJP women’s wing, were members of this advisory committee.
Mulchandani, in fact, was one of the key eyewitnesses in the Godhra train carnage case in which 59 pilgrims returning from Ayodhya were burnt alive by a mob near the Godhra railway station in 2002, triggering communal riots across the State.
His testimony had played a crucial role in convicting the 31 accused out of which 11 were awarded the death sentence, which was later commuted to life imprisonment by the high court.
'The Release Has Shaken My Faith In Justice': Bilkis Bano
Meanwhile, in her first statement after the release of the 11 men,Bilkis Bano on Wednesday said, "I was bereft of words. I am still numb. Today, I can say only this – how can justice for any woman end like this?"
In a statement released by her lawyer, Bano said, "Two days ago, on August 15 2022, the trauma of the past 20 years washed over me again. When I heard that the 11 convicted men who devastated my family and my life, and took from me my 3-year-old daughter, had walked free."
Stating that the move has taken away her faith from India's justice system, she said, "I trusted the highest courts in our land. I trusted the system, and I was learning slowly to live with my trauma. The release of these convicts has taken from me my peace, and shaken my faith in justice."
She further said, "My sorrow and my wavering faith is not for myself alone but for every woman who is struggling for justice in courts."
"No one enquired about my safety and well-being before taking such a big and unjust decision. I appeal to the Gujarat government, please undo this harm. Give me back my right to live without fear, and in peace. Please ensure that my family and I are kept safe," she added.