In his last Independence Day speech to the nation from the ramparts of Red Fort, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked: ‘‘Can we not pledge to get rid of everything in our behaviour, culture and everyday life that humiliates and demeans women?’’ On the same day, in a decision that violates the letter and spirit of the PM’s address that celebrated ‘‘naari shakti’’ (Women’s power), a Gujarat government panel approved a plea for remission for 11 convicts serving life sentences in the Bilkis Bano gangrape case. Besides rape, the 11 men had been convicted for the murder of Bilkis’s three-year-old child in front of her, and 13 others, all Muslims, by a CBI special court in 2008.
The remission in a case that lies at the heart of the continuing search for justice after the communal violence in Gujarat 2002 portends a disquieting backsliding. The Gujarat Government which had recommended remission of all the 11 convicts claiming ‘‘their behaviour was found to be good’’, chose to follow the retrospective Gujarat remission policy of 1992, despite having a more progressive existing remission policy of 2014, which was made post-Nirbhaya case. Remission policy of 2014 prohibited remission of prisoners who have been convicted for murder with rape or gangrape. In compliance with the Supreme Court’s directive to respond to some petitioners who challenged the remission order, the Gujarat government on 17 October last filed an affidavit defending its decision to grant remission to the 11 convicts. The Supreme Court on 18 October remarked that the affidavit is very bulky wherein a series of judgments have been quoted but factual statements are missing.
The Supreme Court is right. The convicts cannot on whatsoever plea be certified for ‘good behaviour’. 10 out of 11 convicts enjoyed over 1,000 days of ‘leave’ from jail, including parole and furlough from jail. Many instances of the convicts ‘returning late’ from parole and furlough have also been recorded by the jail authorities in their report.
House-warming ceremony, son’s wedding, and mother’s knee-replacement surgery—these were among the reasons cited by some of the 11 convicts who approached courts seeking parole or temporary bail even as prosecution witnesses wrote to government authorities citing threats from the convicts who took ‘‘frequent parole.’’ In some instances, the pleas for bail were rejected as the courts made note of the parole leave they ‘‘enjoyed’’— usually through applications made to the district administration through the authorities at the Godhra sub-jail, where they were lodged.
Notably, there were a number of allegations of committing criminal offences by these convicts while they were on parole. For example, in 2017, Adam Ghanchi and Imtiyaz Ghanchi, other witnesses in the case, submitted an application to the Superintendent of Police, Dahod, accusing the family members of convicts Radhyesham Shah and Keshar Vohania of threatening to kill them. They said the convicts were ‘‘vengeful and repeatedly (issued) death threats stating that it would not matter if they killed us because they have already been convicted in the (Bilkis Bano) case… They have been out on parole often and threatening everyone.’’
On June 23, 2018, 16 persons from Randikpur, UP, including eight prosecution witnesses, submitted a memorandum to the Dahod Collector stating that the police officials of Randikpur police station had been pressuring them to ‘‘record statements in favour of the accused.’’ The letter also sought protection for witnesses as per the directions of the Supreme Court, contending that the 24-hour security cover given to the relief colony had been removed without notice. Phiroz Ghanchi, a witness, had written to the Range IG of Panchmahal alleging that the accused had been ‘‘using false and pretentious’’ reasons to seek frequent parole and that they spend ‘‘more time in the village than in jail… and continue to threaten and harass victims in the riots cases, particularly the Bilkis Bano case’’.
He had also filed an RTI petition before the Godhra sub-jail, seeking details of the parole and furlough granted to the 11 convicts. On August 20, 2020, the jail’s Public Information Officer said the subject of parole and furlough of the convicts was ‘‘third party information’’ and could not be shared ‘‘without consent’’ of the convicts.
The five-page letter to Jadeja, BJP minister of state of Gujarat, from Mansuri Majid, who has been providing assistance to the witnesses and is among the riot-affected from Randhikpur who have been put up in a relief colony in Devgadh Baria taluka, had cited the case of Shailesh Bhatt—convict No. 4 in the case. Mansuri alleged that Bhatt, while out on parole, ‘‘had attended an event of the Bharatiya Janata Party and shared the dais with elected representatives of the BJP from Dahod’’.
When asked about the letter, Jadeja avoided a direct reply saying ‘‘I do not recollect receiving any such letter from them (witnesses in the Bilkis Bano case)… I also do not know if the convicts were part of any party event during their parole. The issue of their parole being sanctioned is the subject of the jail authorities and not the minister.’’ The complainants alleged that despite repeated request, the police did not allow any FIR to be launched. An annexure dated May 25, 2022 addressed to the Collector and District Magistrate, by Balram Meena, the Superintendent of Police, Dahod, said Mitesh Chimanlal Bhatt, one of the convicts, was charged for outraging a woman’s modesty on 19 June 2020 while he was on parole.
An FIR was registered at the Randhikpur police station invoking various IPC sections, including 354 (outraging the modesty of a woman), 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of peace) and 506 (criminal intimidation). A chargesheet was later filed and the case is under trial. Strangely, the same SP Meena had no issues with Bhatt’s premature release, arguing the chargesheet ‘‘guarantees that the accused agrees to uphold any future judgment given by Hon’ble Court (Dahod court) in this case.’’
Despite this ongoing case, Bhatt was allowed further parole of 281 days after this incident and FIR, and has been released after the jail advisory committee reported that his behaviour in jail had been ‘‘good.’’ In 2015, Rajubhai Babulal Soni, another convict, lost the advantage of ‘earned remission’ (Provincial inmates earn 15 days of remission for each month by obeying prison rules, abiding by conditions of temporary absence, and participating in programmes) because of overstay on parole for 197 days.
Jaswant Chatur Rawal also lost 375days of ‘earned remission’ because of delaying return from parole by 75 days. In other words, the convicts were punished for breaking the rules even when in jail. Is it because the rapists and murderers belonging to the virtuous caste and kinship could never have committed any crime as claimed by Gujarat BJP MLA CK Raulji, who was part of the panel that recommended the release of the 11 convicts? (Source: Indian Express 17-02-22, 22-08-22, Outlook 30-09-22, India Today-17-10-22 The New Indian Express 20-10-22, ABP 20-10-22)