THE Amrit Mahotsav celebrations of 75 years of Indian independence were indelibly marred by the shocking remission granted on that day by the government of Gujarat to 11 persons who had been convicted of multiple rape and murder committed by them during the horrific carnage of Muslims that took place in the state in 2002. When news of this remission became public, Bilkis Bano, the only survivor of the crimes, could only say ‘Is this the end of Justice’?
MEMORIES HAUNT ONCE AGAIN
I was part of a CPI(M)-AIDWA delegation along with Brinda Karat, Kiran Moghe, Mariam Dhawale, Subodh Roy and Arun Mehta that visited Gujarat between March 10-12, 2002. This order of remission brought 20-year-old memories back to haunt us with renewed intensity.
Our delegation visited many affected areas and camps for riot victims. Some of our findings and interviews will help to grasp at least some part of the enormity of this terrible travesty of justice that occurred on August 15.
We visited the Godhra railway station and entered the ill-fated coach that was standing there. The report says “The delegation visited the site. It was absolutely horrifying to see the terrible way that the bogey had been engulfed by flames. Inside the bogey even today there is important evidence. The delegation saw bags of foodgrains. kerosene stoves, and jerry cans, indicating the possibility of the presence of material which could have been inflammable. However, it is shocking that the bogey has not yet been cordoned off by the investigating agencies including the central investigating anti-terrorist squad. This could lead to tampering with evidence or placing new material in the carriage. The urgency with which the investigation into the terrible atrocity should be conducted seems to be absent in the state government's approach. The so-called commission of enquiry has not even started its work. It appears that the government is more interested in public posturing than in proper investigation.”
Inside the bogey, we saw the results of a very intense fire. Not only were the seats completely burnt but the iron rods were melted and twisted. There was, however, no evidence of burning on the outside of the compartment. Much later, the following report appeared in the Times of India in July 2003 which confirmed our surmise:
Godhra bogie was burnt from inside: Report (Times of India, July 03)
AHMEDABAD: The mystery over the burning of the S-6 compartment of Sabarmati Express at Godhra on February 27, which killed 59 passengers and set off an unprecedented spate of communal frenzy all over Gujarat, has turned deeper with the forensic report on the incident discounting the possibility of the mob throwing inflammable liquid from outside and then setting the bogie on fire.
Investigations made by the Ahmedabad-based Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) have now shown that almost 60 litres of inflammable material were poured from inside the compartment before it was set on fire.
A report by the FSL's assistant director, Dr M S Dahiya, which is part of the charge sheet filed in the Godhra case about a month back, is based on a study of the pattern of the burns in the compartment and a simulated exercise conducted on May 3 to recreate the incident. The report contradicts the view held so far that the mob which attacked the train threw inflammable liquid at the train using buckets and cans from a distance, even while the passengers had shut all the windows and doors of the compartment.
To recreate how the crime must have been committed, a train bogie was placed at the same spot. Using a variety of different containers, it was doused with liquid for experimental observation.
The report said the height of the window of the bogie was found to be seven feet. In these circumstances, it was not possible to throw inflammable liquids into the bogie from the outside with the help of a bucket or a jerry-can because by this method most of the liquid fell outside the bogie...
This report which has never received the wide publicity that it deserved, points to very different reasons for the fire that occurred in the bogie, a fire that consumed the lives of those on the train, a fire that spread to cities, towns and villages of the state and consumed innumerable lives of members of the minority community.
These details are being mentioned because today whenever and wherever the Bilkis Bano case is being spoken of or written about, the burning of the compartment and those people inside is referred to as the work of members of the minority community who lived near the Godhra station, many of whom are in jail serving long sentences, and their act is held responsible for triggering off the rioting. This theory is not borne out by what we saw at the Godhra station and what the FSL report has to say.
After visiting the Godhra station, we went to the Iqbal Primary School Camp where we met Bilkis Bano. This is the report of our meeting with her: “A young woman of about 21 years named Bilkis Bano w/o Yaqub Patel from Randhikpur village (District Dahod) is currently staying in the lqbal Primary School Camp, Godhra. She told us that all the Muslim houses in her village were attacked by villagers and outsiders and she managed to run away with several of her family members. She was accompanied by her mother, her 3-year-old baby girl, Saliha, her sisters, Mumtaz and Munni, her brothers, lrfan and Aslam, her maternal uncle, Majeed, two other father's sisters, Sugra and Amina, one of their husbands, Yusuf, Amina's son, and three daughters, Shamim, Mumtaz and Medina and Shamim's son Husain. Bilkis is five months pregnant and her cousin Shamim was near the end of her term when they fled their village.
At first, they escaped to Chundagi village which was 5 - 6 km away and took shelter with Bijal Damor. Then they were asked to leave since it was not safe and they walked to Kuajher where they were given shelter in a mosque. Here Shamim delivered a baby girl by a midwife but they were asked to leave soon afterwards. They then started walking till they reached Kudra village. Here some adivasi Naiks took pity on Shamim's condition and kept them in their huts. Although they were very poor people, they even gave them clothes to wear. After this, they were asked to leave this place too but two of the adivasis accompanied them to Chhapadvad village and left them there. From here they were going towards Panivela village but they were overtaken by people from their own village who had been pursuing them in a vehicle. At the time, they were in quite a remote, hilly place. They were stopped. Bilkis was raped by three men. She says that the other younger women were also gang-raped. Her child was snatched away from her and killed and then all of them were attacked. She was also left for dead with all her other family members who had all been killed, including the newborn infant. They were covered with stone. She lay there the whole night and most of the next day when she was found and rescued by the police from Limkheda police station. The other bodies were left there and she was brought to Limkheda police station and then taken to the camp. From here she was admitted to the general hospital, Godhra, She was medically examined and her statement was recorded. She has named the people who killed her family members and those who raped her.
The doctors at the hospital confirmed the fact that she had been examined and that they had found evidence of intercourse and injuries. They also said that the police had not yet taken the evidence for forensic examination.
Bilkis father and husband have been traced at another camp at Dahod and her brother, Saeed, is with her in Godhra.”
This was the beginning of Bilkis’s long and courageous quest for justice in which she was thwarted at every turn by the Gujarat police and administration obviously at the behest of the Modi government of the time. It is best to turn to someone who cannot be accused of being part of the anti-BJP, anti-Modi brigade, for an insight into the nature of Bilkis' battle for justice. The Indian Express of September 11, 2003, reported that Harish Salve, who had defended Narendra Modi in the Supreme Court when he wanted early elections in Gujarat, had decided to take up the case of Bilkis Bano which was referred to him by NHRC chief justice, A S Anand. ''I took up her case because it represents the failure of the system,'' Salve told The Indian Express, ''the failure of the police and of the courts in Gujarat.....When justice Anand asked me to appear in this matter, I went through the records and decided to fight this injustice.''
The records stated that despite the fact that Bilkis's statement was recorded and an FIR was filed and the charge of rape was substantiated by her medical examination, the Gujarat police closed the case on the grounds that there were some discrepancies in her statement.
The intervention of the NHRC kept the case alive but, in this case, the wheels of justice moved with excruciating slowness. Finally, it was transferred to be heard in a CBI court in Maharashtra and in 2008, the 11 accused were sentenced to life imprisonment. Bilkis was awarded compensation and the Gujerat government was asked to provide her with government employment and a house. She had to approach the court again to get compensation while the job and home remained out of reach.
POURING SALT ON WOUNDS
The wounds to her body and psyche must have been unbearably deep. Perhaps the thought that she had won a sliver of justice and perhaps with the passage of time some healing took place. Tragically, the news of remission being granted to those who had been responsible for acts of unspeakable brutality carried out against her family members and herself, acts that included the murder of a one-day-old baby and a three-year-old child, re-opened all those wounds and poured salt into them. Stunned, she could only say ‘Is this the end of Justice?’
While the release of these 11 convicts was horrifying in itself the reactions of members of the Manuvadi-Hindutva brigade were obnoxious and ominous. Many of them, including women, greeted the criminals when they came out of jail with garlands and sweets and a BJP MLA, a member of the Gujarat government-appointed committee to decide on remissions, said that the criminals were Brahmins and sanskari (of good character).
These two reactions suggest that the very nature of justice delivery is in danger of being completely subverted. The constitution and the rule of law try to ensure that all those guilty of committing a similar crime are given equal punishment and that victims of crimes avail of equal justice. What the remission given to these criminals and the reactions of their supporters are indicating is that criminals will now be punished according to their caste and community, and the caste and community of their victims will be taken into account. The fact that the Yogi government of Uttar Pradesh went to great lengths to protect the upper caste accused of the gang rape and subsequent death of a young Valmiki woman is also an indication of this subversion of the rule of law.
CASTE THAT MATTERS
This is an extremely disturbing trend. If it is not opposed and fought tooth and nail, it will end in the replacement of constitutional provisions of equality of all citizens and equal justice for all citizens with a Manuvadi system that promotes social inequality and also a completely unequal system of justice-delivery.
The very fact that the BJP government of Gujarat was hell-bent on granting remission to these 11 abhorrent criminals and that the prime minister and the home minister are displaying their acquiescence by their silence is an ominous sign that this subversion of justice is very much part of their agenda. They have sent out a very strong signal in Gujarat that those who belong to the majority community who perpetrate horrific, barbarous acts of violence against members of the minority community are to be feted as heroes. Not to be forgotten is the fact that they sent out an equally strong message from Hathras that upper caste rapists and murderers whose victim is a dalit woman are also to be granted protection and assistance by the State.
The widest possible opposition to this must be organised. It is very welcome that protests against the release of the 11 convicts in Gujarat have been seen and are continuing in most parts of the country. Retired civil servants have also been vocal in their condemnation. A PIL has been filed and heard in the supreme court against the remission granted to the convicts.
The PIL in which I am a petitioner as vice-president of the AIDWA, along with activist Revati Laul and former V C, Lucknow University, Rooprekha Varma, challenges the Gujarat government’s decision on several counts. The first is that it was arrived at without consulting the judge, justice Salvi, who pronounced judgment against the accused. He has gone on record to say that he is totally opposed to this granting of remission. Secondly, the Gujarat government had also not consulted the central government before taking this step.
The PIL gives a description of the nature of the crimes committed by the accused and states that in an earlier judgment, Laxman Naskar vs State of West Bengal (2000), the SC had ‘enumerated certain questions which form the basis on which an application for premature release may be considered namely:
· Whether the offence is an individual act of crime without affecting society at large;
· Whether there is any fruitful purpose of confining this convict anymore;
· Whether there is any chance of future reoccurrence of committing a crime;
· Whether the convict has lost his potentiality in committing a crime;
· Socio-economic condition of the convict’s family.
The petition was heard by a three-judge bench, presided over by the then CJI, on his last day in office, August 25. The other two judges were the ones responsible for agreeing to the plea of the government of Gujarat that it was competent to hear the request for remission by the 11 convicts (earlier the HC of Gujarat itself had ruled that the plea should be heard by the Bombay HC since the conviction had taken place there). It was, therefore, a tense hearing in which one of the two judges defended their decision strongly. The CJI, however, intervened and served notice on the Gujarat government to respond to the objections and questions raised in our PIL. He said that there would be a hearing on this within two weeks.
The ruling of the SC has kept the door open as far as the fight for justice in the court is concerned. This fight, however, cannot be confined to a legal battle alone. It must be fought by people all over the country, people who are concerned with the preservation of the rule of law, of the constitution and of humanity. This is no longer Bilkis battle, it is ours. A battle we must win.