Is gang rape a heinous crime? Should society be unwilling to forgive men who use their power to assault women? Does the brutality with which the rape is conducted matter?
If you said yes to all of the above, then you are speaking the same language as most of us, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has frequently spoken about protecting women’s safety, most recently during his Independence Day address. It’s a view that has found almost universal acceptance in India following the 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder, widely known as Nirbhaya case. And it is a view that the BJP repeated again and again when it attacked the Congress government over that case.
So how do we explain the Gujarat government’s decision to release the rapists of Bilkis Bano in a case where murder was one of the charges?
Public memory can be short so let me remind you of the facts of the case.
Journey to justice, then injustice
On 28 February 2002, Bilkis Bano and members of her family were trying to flee their homes to escape the threat of communal violence when they were attacked by a mob near Radhikpur village, not far from Ahmedabad. The mob killed around 14 people including Bilkis’s three-year-old daughter whose head was smashed with a rock.
Bilkis was visibly pregnant — five months — but that did not deter the mob. She was gang raped and violently assaulted. Her attackers left her naked and bleeding thinking she was dead. But she was alive. She took refuge with a tribal family and later took the unusual step of launching a police complaint.
Why ‘unusual’? Well, because Bilkis was poor and the police don’t always pay much attention to the weak and the helpless. Sure enough, the local police rejected her complaint citing inconsistencies in her statement.
But Bilkis fought on and took the case outside Gujarat. She approached the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and then the Supreme Court, which asked the CBI to examine the case. The CBI exhumed the bodies of those killed and arrested several people for the crimes. This happened when there was a BJP government at the Centre so it is hard to claim that there was political pressure on the CBI to ‘frame’ the accused.
A trial court found 13 of the people the CBI had charged guilty of rape and murder and sentenced 11 of them to life imprisonment. The CBI challenged the verdict, arguing for enhancement of the sentence. Its plea was turned down. Another court upheld the convictions but did not give the rapists and murderers the death penalty.
In the circumstances, it is hard to claim that the accused were innocent or that some miscarriage of justice had occurred. The evidence was heard; the judgment pronounced.
They were able to do this because the Gujarat government (which had played no role in the rapists’ arrest and sentencing) decided to remit their sentences and set them free. The state government (the decision was taken by a board comprised mostly of government servants and BJP members) decided that the convicts had served enough time in jail, that one of them had a sick relative, and that they deserved time off for good behaviour.
It is not hard to see why the decision has caused so much outrage. The circumstances of the case — massacre and gang rape — are so horrifying that anyone would be shocked that such men are now roaming free. Moreover, Bilkis had complained that she was threatened while the case was under investigation. Her family has said that it is scared that now that the rapists are free, Bilkis is in danger once again.
A terrifying possibility
What is one to make of all this? Why would the Modi government, which claims to be committed to women’s rights, allow something like this? It goes expressly against the Centre’s recent instructions that while remitting sentences state governments should not free rapists and murderers.
The Gujarat government says that those instructions do not apply; it is following its 1992 remission policy, which was in force when the men were convicted. It is possible that, technically, the government is within its rights to release murderers and rapists. But it goes against the spirit of the Centre’s current guidelines and makes a mockery of everything that PM Modi has been saying about protecting women’s safety.
I have read two explanations for this seemingly inexplicable behaviour. The first is that there is now a conscious attempt to rewrite the history of the 2002 Gujarat riots. The rapes and murders in question took place in the aftermath of the Godhra massacre of kar sevaks and fall under the general category of riot-related violence. Could it be that the Gujarat government has now decided to act as though the violence never happened? To stop punishing those, especially Hindus, who were involved in it?
A second explanation being offered is that with the assembly election approaching in Gujarat, it was considered politically expedient to release those responsible for crimes against Muslims to appease Hindu sentiment.
Both explanations are terrifying. I would prefer to go with a third explanation: that this was a state-level decision ordered by some communalist who never approved of locking up Hindus who had attacked Muslims. And that the Centre, which must know how bad this looks for the PM, especially in the aftermath of his Independence Day rhetoric about protecting women’s safety, was not consulted.
Remission questions basic humanity
Regardless of why these men were released, the way forward is clear. The simplest thing to do is for the Gujarat government to reconsider the remission of the life sentences of the 11 convicts. This will probably be politically embarrassing so I doubt if this option will be seriously considered.
That leaves only one route. The Supreme Court must revoke the remissions. If that happens, the state government can tell its vote bank that it was powerless to intervene.
But, quite apart from politics, there are questions about basic humanity to be asked here. What kind of society have we become? One where it is okay to release men who gang raped a visibly pregnant woman and left her for dead? Men who smashed the head of a three-year-old child? That these events occurred is terrible enough. But to take a lenient approach towards the perpetrators? That is beyond horrific.
Yes, this is a Hindu-Muslim issue. But it goes beyond religious differences. This is about respect for life. About respect for women. About how difficult it is to ensure justice in today’s India. And about how there will be more Nirbhayas because there will always be politicians who are willing to help rapists and murderers of women.
While these men walk the streets, the rest of India hangs its head in shame.
Vir Sanghvi is a print and television journalist, and talk show host. He tweets at @virsanghvi. Views are personal.