Listen to this article:
New Delhi: Two Bharatiya Janata Party MLAs were part of the committee that recommended the release of 11 convicts who had gang-raped Bilkis Bano and killed seven members of her family in the 2002 riots, The Hindu has reported.
Bano, on August 17, issued a statement in which she said that no one enquired about her “safety and well-being before taking such a big and unjust decision.”
BJP legislators C.K. Raolji and Suman Chauhan were part of the committee headed by Godhra Collector and District Magistrate Sujal Mayatra which took the “unanimous decision” to recommend remission to the convicts.
Two other members of the committee are also associated with the BJP. They are social worker and former BJP Godhra municipal councillor Murli Mulchandani and a worker with BJP women’s wing Snehaben Bhatia, according to the newspaper.
Mulchandani was presented by prosecutors as an eyewitness in the Godhra train carnage case in which 59 pilgrims returning from Ayodhya were burnt alive.
Mulchandani, along with eyewitnesses Nitin Pathak and Ranjit Jodha Patel were shown as allegedly having given statements that contradicted their original testimony in a sting operation conducted by a private media outlet. Though, these findings were not admitted by a special fast-track court dealing with the case, the judge himself concluded – based on obvious inconsistencies – that Mulchandani and the other so-called witnesses “cannot be termed as ‘witnesses of truth’ and this court has no option but to discard their evidence in totality.”
Also in the committee were the District Social Welfare Officer, a Sessions Judge and the Superintendent of Jail.
After the Gujarat government accepted the recommendation of this committee, the convicts were released and given elaborate welcomes by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
“We felt that the convicts had already suffered enough and therefore they should be released prematurely,” one of the members is quoted as having said by The Hindu.
The member of the committee refused to tell the newspaper how many meetings were held and what aspects were considered while arriving on the decision.
Godhra MLA Raolji told the paper that the committee “followed the procedure and went by the rules”.
Suman Chauhan is a first-time MLA from Kalol in Godhra district.
The men who have now been released were convicted following a long and complicated legal battle waged by the National Human Rights Commission against the Gujarat government – then led by Narendra Modi. The Supreme Court accepted the NHRC’s argument that the Gujarat police and administration were intent on covering up the crime and handed the investigation over to the Central Bureau of Investigation. The trial too was transferred to Maharashtra as the Supreme Court held that the Modi government could not be trusted with ensuring free and fair proceedings in Gujarat.
In ordering the release of the 11 convicts, the Gujarat government says it has exercised its discretionary powers on the basis of the state’s 1992 remission policy – in force at the time of their conviction – which does not exclude any category of criminal from being eligible provided they have served at least 14 years of their sentence. But this claim has been challenged by legal analysts.
State governments derive their power to grant remission from Sections 432 and 433 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC). However, as The Wire has reported, Section 435 of the CrPC specifies that the consent of the Union government is a necessary prerequisite for the premature release of prisoners in cases where the offence was investigated by a central agency such as the CBI. This provision was also upheld by the Delhi high court in a 2021 judgment which said that the Union government’s consent was mandatory before proceeding with remission under section 435 of the CrPC.
If the Union government consented to the Gujarat government’s recommendation in this case, then its decision would run counter to its own stated policy of not allowing persons sentenced to life imprisonment and rape convicts to be prematurely released.
It is understood that a challenge to the Gujarat government’s decision is likely to made at the Supreme Court.
“When I heard that the 11 convicted men who devastated my family and my life, and took from me my 3 year old daughter, had walked free. I was bereft of words. I am still numb,” Bilkis said after the release.
“Today, I can say only this – how can justice for any woman end like this? I trusted the highest courts in our land. I trusted the system, and I was learning slowly to live with my trauma. The release of these convicts has taken from me my peace and shaken my faith in justice. My sorrow and my wavering faith is not for myself alone but for every woman who is struggling for justice in courts.”