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Mainstream, VOL LX No 35 New Delhi, August 20, 2022

Letter to the Readers, Mainstream, August 20, 2022

Friday 19 August 2022

Letter to the readers, Mainstream, August 20, 2022

In our overtly misogynist society, every now and then we hear our leaders routinely make symbolic noise for the need for the protection of women’s rights and dignity. Our Prime Minister too made a similar-sounding statement on 15 August 2022, marking the 75th year of India’s freedom from British rule. The very next day, the news media reported the release of 11 convicts, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment by a CBI special court in 2008 for the gang rape of Bilkis Bano and the murder of 14 of her family members, including her three-year-old daughter, during the 2002 Gujarat violence. These criminals had their sentence nullified after a case review by a Gujarat government committee, consisting of senior State officials and five members of the BJP. It is understandable that the State officials in BJP-ruled Gujarat couldn’t risk displeasing their political bosses and the BJP members obviously see political benefits here, with State elections just around the corner.

This decision by Gujarat to remit the sentence of the convicts after just 13 years of internment is totally unethical and also in violation of Union home ministry guidelines of June 2022 on remission – that mention that life convicts and rapists are not to be granted special remission; and the presence in the committee of BJP members is a clear case of conflict of interest. The released men were feted and garlanded by the Vishva Hindu Parishad, an organisation of the far right with close links to the BJP. There is not the slightest expression of dismay at possible wrongdoing. We have already witnessed in the past a top minister in the Modi government garland lynchers [1]; BJP ministers have attended public rallies in Jammu in support of the Kathua rape accused [2] or how BJP connected people made life hell for the Unnao Rape victim in UP [3]; and now we have just witnessed how groups close to the BJP in Gujarat felicitate rapists, offering them sweets. People may not recall how difficult it had been for victims of the Gujarat riots to obtain justice. It was at the behest of the NHRC that the Supreme Court had intervened in the Bilkis Bano case because the police in Gujarat was doing all to protect the perpetrators of the 2002 communal violence. Bilkis, who survived the multiple rapes, faced a threat to life and had to constantly move house to protect herself. Bilkis had shown immense courage and approached the National Human Rights Commission. It is important to note that Bilkis would not have been able to pursue her legal battle without valuable help from intrepid human rights activists such as Teesta Setalvad. NHRC took the matter to the Supreme Court, and on the instruction of the apex court the CBI investigated the case. The trial was moved out of Gujarat to Maharashtra. The CBI trial court that had ruled in the matter had reportedly given a ‘negative opinion’ on remission of sentence and the jail advisory committee should have respected that decision. It has taken 20 years for Bilkis Bano to recover and finally have some semblance of normality in her life, and now suddenly, she and her family have to once again fear revenge. She learnt of the release of the accused through the media and was not even informed by the authorities. Human rights and women’s rights groups in the country have expressed alarm and have questioned the decision of remission of sentence. We hope that the Supreme Court, which had once played a key role in this case will, in its wisdom, intervene to right the wrongs and get this remission revoked and ensure a sense of justice and a sense of safety to Bilkis and her family and to all other victims of such serious crimes. We do not expect the ruling BJP to call for any reversal of the remission for the convicts in the Bilkis Bano case, but we do expect that all secular opposition parties in India will play their role to demand safety and protection for Bilkis and her family. We also hope civil society has the courage to demand uniform rules in such serious cases, so that victims in the future will have some modicum of guarantee and safeguards.

August 20, 2022 - HK

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