The governments at the Centre and Gujarat — both run by the BJP — seem to differ in how to treat rape convicts, evident in the release of 11 men, who were serving life imprisonment for the gangrape of Bilkis Bano and the murder of her family during the 2002 Gujarat riots.
In June this year, proposing a special release policy for convicted prisoners to mark ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’ (75 years of Independence), the Centre issued guidelines to states. Rape convicts are listed among those who are not to be granted release under this policy.
Technically, the Centre’s guidelines may not apply to the Bilkis Bano case. In freeing the 11 men — convicted of conspiring to rape a pregnant woman, and murder — the Gujarat government followed its own policy of 1992 as per the Supreme Court’s directions in May to consider a remission plea by one of the convicts.
The court has held that the policy in effect at the time of conviction shall apply in such cases.
But, in principle, Gujarat’s decision appears to be in conflict with the Centre’s opposition to releasing rape convicts. This opposition is expressly stated on page 4, point 5(vi), of the Centre’s guidelines, available on the Home Ministry website. In fact, one of the points says no one with life sentence be released — that, too, would have disqualified the 11 life-term convicts in the Bilkis Bano case.
Bilkis Bano was 21 years old — five months pregnant — when she was raped and her toddler daughter killed along with six others from the family in Dahod district on March 3, 2002. They were hiding in fields, hoping to escape the violence that erupted after the burning of a Sabarmati Express coach that killed 59 ‘kar sevaks’ just days earlier.
In 2008, a special court in Mumbai sentenced the 11 accused to life imprisonment. It was later upheld by the Bombay High Court.
In 2019, the Supreme Court even directed the Gujarat government to give her ₹ 50 lakh as compnesation, besides a house and a job. Three years on, the convicts are free.
The release came after one of the convicts went to the court earlier this year, pleading for premature release under the Code of Criminal Procedure, as he had served about 15 years. The Supreme Court said a decision can be taken by the Gujarat government as per its 1992 policy, which was in place at the time of the conviction.
Upon release on Monday, the convicts were greeted with sweets outside the Godhra jail.
Bilkis Bano’s husband Yakub Rasul said the family did not want to comment on the release yet: “We were not told about this… All we want to do is pray for peace of the souls of our near and dear ones who lost their lives in the riots.”
“I feel glad to be out,” said Radheshyam Shah, the convict whose plea paved the way for the release, “I will be able to meet my family members and begin a new life.”
Mr Rasul said he, his wife Bilkis, and their five sons, the eldest now 20, continue to live without a fixed address. “Every day, we remember those who were killed in the incident, including our daughter.”
Bilkis Bano had told the court during trial that she knew the rapists. They used to buy milk from her family.