By Arun Srivastava
Notwithstanding Supreme Court glare on the release of Bilkis Bano convicts, the chances are quite bleak that their release would be declared null and void and they would ever be sent back to the prisons.
The entire saffron eco system is out to protect them and their pursuit. They are too willing to trample the judicial process and criminal justice system. They have been creating one faltering wedge after another to frustrate the efforts of the Supreme Court to hand over justice to Bilkis.
The latest being the non-delivery of the court’s notice to the accused who are out of the jail and roaming around. The argument justifying the non-delivery, placed before the court, has really been ridiculous. The court was informed that not one but almost all the accused persons were not available. Their houses were closed. Ironically the court is made to buy such irrelevant and obnoxious clarifications. Probably they nurse the view that court was so naïve that it would accept whatever false clarifications are offered to it.
The primary reason for adopting this delaying tactics is, the accused persons are scared of the attitude of Justice Joseph and are not sure that he would not change the earlier order allowing them freedom. They are waiting for the retirement of Justice Joseph on May 10. It is not that Supreme Court has not read in between the lines the design of the accused persons. The bench of justices KM Joseph, BV Nagarathna and Ahsanuddin Amanullah have been in the legal profession for decades and are aware of the machinations usually adopted to frustrate the delivery of the justice. On May 2, the top court had observed, “It is obvious, rather more than obvious, that you all (convicts) do not want the hearing to be conducted by this bench.”
It was only after the Supreme Court had insisted and directed the union home ministry to produce the files relating to the release of the convicts, it had become clear that the government will resort to some kind of manoeuvring to foil it. The latest act of non-delivery of the notices is the part of the same intrigue. In fact the Central and Gujarat governments which were at the outset reluctant to provide papers have of late in sharp reversal of their stand told the court that they are not claiming any privilege and not filing any plea for a review of the court’s March 27 order, asking for the production of the original records with regard to the remission granted to the convicts. This change of heart undoubtedly underlines the nature of the design.
While directing the issuance of notices to the convicts, who remained unserved even now, the Supreme Court on Tuesday deferred till July 11 the hearing on a batch of pleas challenging the remission granted last year to all the 11 convicts in the case of gang rape of Bilkis Bano and murder of her family members during the 2002 post-Godhra riots.
Gujarat government which in consultation with the union Home ministry had released the convicts is scared of the attitude of the bench. Initially it had raised objections with regard to the petitions filed in the matter other than the one by Bano. It held that it will have wide ramifications as every now and then, third parties will approach courts in criminal cases. It is worth mentioning that PILs were filed by CPI(M) leader Subhashini Ali, independent journalist Revati Laul, former vice-chancellor of the Lucknow University Roop Rekha Verma and Trinamool Congress (TMC) MP Mahua Moitra against the release of the convicts.
On April 18, the top court questioned the Gujarat government over the remission granted to the 11 convicts, saying the gravity of the offence should have been considered, and wondered if there was any application of mind. But with the court firm on its stand it was forced to mellow down. There is no denying the fact that if the Gujarat government has been really sincere for rectifying its “mistake” of granting remission to the convicts and ensuring that justice is done Bilkis, it would entrusted the task of delivering the notices to the convicts through its own machinery, preferably the police.
It is a tough proposition to believe the official version that the convicts were not available at their homes. True speaking the government agencies were trying to fool everyone. They could have pasted the notices on the doors of the houses of the convicts. They could have resorted to the tested mechanism to get the notice published in the newspapers after obtaining the permission of the court. Since their entire focus was on to protect these people, they threw all the legal procedure in the dust bin. Indeed it is disgusting to watch the BJP and its Gujarat government deliberately flouting the legal norms.
Nevertheless the Supreme Court on its own had directed the publication of notices in local newspapers, including in Gujarati and English, against the convicts who could not be served notices, including one whose house was found by the local police to be locked and his phone was switched off. “We are adopting this process so that time is not wasted on the next date of hearing of the matter and the matter could proceed,” the bench said. It has also asked the Gujarat government whether uniform standards, as followed in other murder cases, were applied while granting remission to the 11 convicts.
The Supreme Court bench of Justices K.M. Joseph and B.V. Nagarathna on Tuesday said some lawyers defending the release of 11 lifers in the Bilkis Bano case were trying to avoid it by seeking adjournments, aware that Justice Joseph was days away from retirement. “It is clear what is being attempted here. You don’t want this bench to hear the matter. You know I will retire on June 16. Since that is during the vacation, my last working day is Friday, May 19. It is obvious you do not want this bench to hear the matter,” Justice Joseph said.
“But you must know that this is not fair to me. Earlier, we made it absolutely clear that the matter will be heard for final disposal. You (advocates) are officers of the court; do not forget that role. You may win a case or lose one, but do not forget your duty to the court.” Justice Joseph has even said that while the apex court would not sit between May 19 and July 3, he and Justice Nagarathna were willing to hear the matter during the vacation. But counsel for the convicts opposed any hearing during the vacation. Even Solicitor-general Tushar Mehta said that government was against it.
It is indeed shocking to witness that with the design to protect their convict clients the lawyers defending them heaped accusations on Bilkis. They charged her with “playing fraud” with the court by filing false affidavits.
The Gujarat government had remitted the life sentences with the Centre’s consent. The state says it acted on the basis of a May 13, 2022, order passed by the apex court bench of Justices Ajay Rastogi and Vikram Nath directing it to consider the plea for release moved by one of the convicts, Radheshyam Bhagwandas Shah. Radheshyam had petitioned the apex court after Gujarat High Court ruled that the government of Maharashtra, where the trial was held, alone had the power to consider remission.
On the remission, the bench had commented; “Look at the records, one of them was granted parole for 1,000 days that is three years, the other 1,200 days and third is for 1,500 days. What policy have you (Gujarat government) been following? It is not a simple case of section 302 (murder) but a case of murders compounded by gangrape. Like you cannot compare apples with oranges, similarly massacre cannot be compared with single murder.”
There is no denying that Bilkis Bano’s rape and the massacre of her family members was part of an anti-Muslim pogrom under Modi’s watch as Gujarat chief minister in 2002. By releasing the convicted rapists and killers early, Modi as prime minister is signalling his Hindu-supremacist commitment to Hindutva.
Bilkis had written a letter after the release of her perpetrators in August 2022, stirring thousands of citizens and women in India to support her search for justice. As many as 6,000 citizens wrote an appeal to the Supreme Court of India, urging it to take cognisance and restore justice. Thousands of people across India wrote open letters to the Chief Justice of India expressing their horror at the impunity granted to the rapists and murderers in Bano’s case.
The letter read;”Today we, citizens of this country, are watching with increasing alarm the blatant attempt being made to try and subvert justice in the highest court of the land. We see with distress how delaying tactics and procedural subterfuge are being deployed to try and stall and derail court proceedings. And we see Bilkis Bano still waiting, still hopeful, and still not being heard”.
The current situation might not have surfaced if the Supreme Court in December last year had not dismissed the review petition filed by Bilkis Bano challenging the early release of the 11 men convicted persons. (IPA Service)