The Weekend Leader – Bilkis Bano Case – Shattering Women’s Empowerment Dreams

Photo: Madan

The eleven lifers in the Bilkis Bano gang rape case who were released on August 15, 2022, the country’s 75th Independence Day, were certainly celebrating freedom. It is ironic that these rapists walked free hours after India’s Prime Minister spoke about empowering women in his Independence Day speech.

The release of these hard-line criminals who committed such a heinous crime on such a memorable day certainly fills us with rage and raises serious questions about morality, the administration of justice, the rule of law and the alleged commitment towards the cause of women’s empowerment and security as well as the flourishing of democracy in India.

When Bilkis Bano and her family attempted to flee rioters during the Gujarat riots in a vehicle on March 3, 2002, when she was just 19 and five months pregnant, a group of 20 to 30 people waving sickles, swords and clubs attacked the truck in Randhikapur village, Dahod district, Gujarat.

Seven members of her family, including her three-year-old daughter, mother and cousin, were killed and Bilkis gang-raped. This horrific crime was committed by people known to the family for many years.

Bilkis Bano fought a historic battle. Although her initial attempts to file a complaint were rejected, she later approached the National Human Rights Commission and petitioned the Supreme Court, and soon after, a CBI investigation. was ordered.

Bilkis, her family and witnesses were threatened, prompting her to ask the Supreme Court to transfer the Gujarat case to the Bombay High Court.

A special court in Mumbai sentenced the eleven defendants to life in prison on January 21, 2008, for gang rape and murder. The conviction was upheld by the Bombay High Court.

Although there were other cases of rape during the communal riots besides that of Bilkis Bano, none of the other victims chose to fight for justice for fear of being ostracized by a society that despises rape survivors. They feared that the attackers would harm them again and also because neither the government nor the police authorities supported the rape victims.

Convicting the perpetrators gave many other rape victims hope that they too would get justice, and Bilkis persevered in his faith in India’s constitution for more than six long years before finally getting justice.

The trip was not easy. She had to leave her country of origin and seek refuge in different unknown destinations and continues to be on the run without a permanent home.

The decision of the Gujarat government to release the convicts is a shock and shame to all of us, the release of the prisoners has let down all the women in the country by heightening their sense of vulnerability, danger and abuse.

The law has been manipulated and used to rescue the condemned; it sends the wrong message that the government’s sympathies are with the convicts and not with Bilkis Bano who fought so hard for justice.

The convicts were released under the Gujarat government’s surrender policy made in 1992, while the same government’s 2014 surrender policy states that surrender should not be granted to prisoners who have been convicted of heinous crimes such as rape, gang rape or trafficking.

As per the law, any postponement to be considered for a case handled by the CBI requires the consent of the center, here it is not clear whether the Gujarat government has requested the consent in this case. This raises questions about the legality of the discount policy.

When Bilkis Bano learned that the criminals who had wreaked havoc on her family and her life had been freed, she asked, “How can justice for a woman end like this?

She also said she slowly learned to live with the trauma, but the release of the convicts shattered her peace and faith in justice. This action by the government of Gujarat demonstrates complete disregard not only for the law but also for the humiliation and violence she had to endure. The release of these criminals contributes to the impunity of all men who commit rape or other acts of violence against women. How can a woman in this country be safe under such circumstances?

According to 2020 National Crimes Records Bureau statistics, the number of sexual offenses against women has increased by 70% over the past 20 years, yet only 10% of these cases actually go to trial and result in a conviction.

The majority of incidents go unreported for fear of victim shame, embarrassment, due to loopholes in rules against sexual assault, and even concern about the reaction of the victim’s own family.

Trust in the judiciary and the government appears to be weakening in light of the recent release of those convicted in the Bilkis Bano case. What if these inhuman men began to haunt her and sought revenge? Who will protect her and where will she seek justice? These are some of the unanswered questions that persist.

How can women be empowered when their basic survival is threatened by such incidents? Women’s empowerment in the true sense can only be achieved when the government takes a strong stance on such cases without discrimination based on religion. This case has completely exposed the vulnerability of women, especially if they are from minority communities.

How long would women in India continue to suffer such blatant denial of their right to exist as human beings with equal rights? On the one hand slogans like “Beti Bachao” (Save the little girl) are proclaimed aloud by beating-chested politicians, on the other hand rapists are freed and honoured. Is this why we got independence from the settlers?

Mahatma Gandhi said “India will be free when women feel safe to walk the streets of India at midnight.” Can women in India walk the streets safely, even in broad daylight? The question of how long it would take to realize Gandhi’s vision of a liberated India persists. Do women need to live in DEPENDENCE is a question for every patriotic Indian to ponder!

(The author is an assistant professor at St. Joseph’s University, Bangalore, India and researches corporate social responsibility with a keen interest in human rights)

Mara R. Wilmoth