The cat is out of the bag. The Gujarat Government’s decision to release all the 11 convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in the Bilkis Bano case on Independence Day this year was with the knowledge and permission of the Central Government. One of the main grounds on which member of Parliament Mahua Moitra and two others challenged the release in the Supreme Court was the assumption that the state had kept the Centre in the dark. An affidavit filed by the Gujarat government in the apex court makes it clear that the decision to release them was cleared by the home ministry well in advance. The ninth Independence Day speech Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered from the ramparts of the Red Fort was heard the world over with greater attention because it happened to be Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav. In the course of his speech, Mr Modi said, “I have one request to every Indian. Can we change the mentality towards our women in everyday life? Pride of Nari Shakti (women power) will play a vital role in fulfilling the dreams of India.”
Within hours of Mr Modi’s speech reverberating in the minds of the people came the news that 11 persons, sentenced to life imprisonment for gang-raping Bilkis Bano and killing her three-year-old daughter Saleha and 12 others, were released from a jail in his home state of Gujarat. Even more shocking was the report that they were received as if they were heroes who had gone to jail doing some heroic deed that posterity would remember them for. Needless to say that what they did was the most abominable act of raping and killing innocent persons, including children, only because they professed a faith other than theirs. The release was against the guidelines the Central Government had issued under which remission could be given for prisoners on the occasion of the 75th Independence Day. The guidelines clearly mentioned that those who were accused of such heinous crime as rape and murder were not entitled to any remission.
If the petitioners believed that the Centre could not have been a party to the violation of its own guidelines, they could not be blamed. What was known to them was that all the state agencies like the civil, police and jail authorities of Dahod district where Bilkis Bano was raped and 13 people were killed on March 3, 2002, in the wake of the post-Godhra violence, had given their approval for the early release of the 11 prisoners. Since the CBI case against them was tried in Mumbai, it was mandatory for the Gujarat Government to get the clearance of the SP, CBI, Special Crime Branch, Mumbai and the Special Civil Judge (CBI), Greater Mumbai. Both of them opposed their release. The reason why the two Central functionaries opposed the state’s initiative to release them on the ground that they had completed 14 years in jail and their conduct inside the jail was good, is a negation of all that was advanced in favour of them. One of them said that they did not deserve mercy as they gang-raped and killed 14 persons, including children, not because they were seeking vendetta or because they knew them. They committed the most inhuman act only because they belonged to a different religion. Nor was there any sign of remorse among them that could be taken into account while considering their case.
It is not known whether the home ministry had gone through the comments of the two Central authorities who knew better the case as it was tried in Mumbai for fear that justice would not have been done if the case was heard in Gujarat. The present developments clearly suggest that the Supreme Court was right in shifting the case to Maharashtra as, otherwise, even the conviction might not have happened. The Gujarat government has justified the remission on the ground that it was done under the remission policy as it existed since 1992. If anything, this shows how those in power can justify any action by stretching the law to their convenience. It is no big deal that the district authorities approved of the remission as they could not have taken a decision contrary to the wishes of the government. Even a cursory reading of the remission records show how eager the state was to see the 11 released. This might have been because it did not consider them guilty of such a heinous crime as rape and murder but as warriors of Hindutva. By agreeing to the plea and letting them come out of the jail, the Centre has shocked the conscience of all those who believe in the dictum, “Be you ever so high, the law is above you.”