Bilkis Bano case – the interface of law and ethics

If 2012 saw the conscience of a nation shaken by the Nirbhaya rape incident, 2022 has witnessed an equal nightmare in the wholesale release of eleven men convicted of gangrape and mass murder in 2002 in Gujarat, that too on the very day that India was celebrating the 75th anniversary of its independence. The Government of Gujarat utilised its good fortune in being declared the “appropriate government” by the Supreme Court decision of May 2022 (which overrode Section 432(7) of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC)) to arrive at the facile reasoning that the 1992 remission policy provided for remission of life sentence (even in cases involving rape and murder) after 14 years in prison. The subsequent tightened guidelines on remission by the Government of Gujarat (2014) are apparently not applicable since the 11 men were convicted in 2008, when the 1992 remission policy was in place.

The decision of the Government of Gujarat begs many answers. Let us accept the argument that, as per the 1992 remission guidelines, these 11 men were eligible for release from prison. Some other nagging questions of law still remain. The case was prosecuted by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), an agency created under the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act, 1946. Section 435 of the CrPC makes it mandatory for the state government to consult the Union Government in cases prosecuted by the CBI (note well that consultation here means concurrence of the Union Government). If such permission was not taken, the remission of sentence is ab initio void in law. If concurrence was taken, the Union Government is a willing party to this decision. Since, as in many other decisions of the Government of India today, no clarification is provided on this issue, the public is left guessing. Even if concurrence of the Union Government under Section 435 of the CrPC was taken, there is still the matter of taking the opinion of the presiding Judge of the court which passed the original order of conviction, regarding grant of remission of sentence under Section 432(2) of the CrPC: this has been mandated by the Supreme Court as well. This process has definitely not been gone through in the appropriate special CBI court in Mumbai.

These are the legal issues on which no clear answers are forthcoming as of now. But even more troubling is the process of decision making at the level of the committee on remission headed by the District Magistrate, Godhra, and the Home Department, Government of Gujarat. Even granting that the 1992 remission guidelines allowed for remission of sentence to those convicted of murder and rape, there are still other considerations that have to be kept in mind when granting remission. The Supreme Court has, as far back as 2000, laid down guidelines for remission of sentence which include, inter alia, whether the crime affects society at large and whether recurrence of commission of crime is possible. In the Bilkis Bano case, there can be no doubt that the nature of the crimes committed — gangrape and mass murders — definitely affected society at large. On the issue of possible recurrence of criminal acts by the convicts subsequent to their release, newspaper reports indicate that witnesses were threatened when the convicts were released on parole during their incarceration. Whether these factors were taken into consideration while granting remission is a matter of speculation — there is no clarification from the state government.

However, as much as these legal issues, what ought to concern us all as citizens of a humane, compassionate society are the ethical dimensions of this entire episode. Photographs have been shown of the distribution of sweets to the released convicts; even more appalling are reports of the felicitation of the convicts by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, this in a criminal case monitored by the Supreme Court and where verdicts of conviction were confirmed by the Bombay High Court. Common decency dictated that the release, even if in accordance with the procedure laid down by law, be kept low-key in deference to the sentiments of the survivors of the crimes. A member of the remission committee and a sitting ruling party legislator went so far as to suggest that the convicts were of high caste, had good upbringing and that charges were framed against them because of ill intentions of some persons. It was incumbent on the administration of the Government of Gujarat to take steps to prevent the organisation of such events and to discourage such statements which could cause unease in the minds of the victims and the minority community.

In fact, the Government of Gujarat should have taken the initiative to organise a reconciliation meeting between the victims and the perpetrators of crimes. The effort should have been to bring a sense of closure to the tragic incidents of 2002 and promote a spirit of harmony in the village where both sides would be residing henceforth. Nelson Mandela adopted this approach with his Truth and Reconciliation Commission, following the end of apartheid in South Africa, to build an atmosphere of trust and cooperation between the coloured and white communities. Our own Bapu, Mahatma Gandhi, spent the first Independence Day wiping the tears of the victims of communal fury in Bengal.

It is this spirit of fraternity (bandhutva) that is sorely lacking in the India of today. We can debate till eternity whether the 11 persons should have been released or should have continued in prison, depending on our ideological predilections. But unless those who committed these crimes are fully aware of the damage they have caused to the psyches of their victims and are truly remorseful for their past misdeeds, there can be no meeting of minds between the different communities. Immense damage is caused to the social fabric, when vested interests dabble in spreading hatred and misunderstanding among communities. Let us, in this 76th year of India’s independence, move from untruth to truth and from darkness to light: only then will we truly be free.

10 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by ashwini mehra on August 27, 2022 at 5:26 pm

    Well said, dear Ramani. I liked the point about reconciliation meetings before release of the convicts. Maybe, even some sensitization lessons on the need to abstain from violence in a civil society could have been done. Thanks.

    Reply

    • Thank you, Ashwini. More than sensitisation, there is need to educate people on how they must behave in a democratic society and enforce the law impartially and quickly.

      Reply

  2. Posted by Debashish Mitra on August 27, 2022 at 9:37 pm

    Very well written and clear articulation of the issues involved

    Reply

  3. Posted by Najeeb Jung on August 28, 2022 at 7:12 am

    As always——brilliant. Circulating

    >

    Reply

  4. Posted by Tara on August 28, 2022 at 10:26 am

    Can only repeat : Brilliant as usual!

    Reply

  5. Posted by Fact-Oh-Real on August 29, 2022 at 4:40 pm

    ‘Bandhutva’ can be a powerful ideological nuclei around which alternative fronts can accrete.

    Reply

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