Recalling Bilkis Bano: Horrifying rape and murder case that shook India
Eleven convicts serving life imprisonment in the Bilkis Bano gangrape case from the 2002 Gujarat riots were freed from the Godhra sub-jail on Monday after a state government panel approved their application for remission of sentence, according to government officials.
The release came after one of the convicts went to the court earlier this year, pleading for premature release under the Code of Criminal Procedure, as he had served about 15 years. The Supreme Court said a decision can be taken by the Gujarat government as per its 1992 policy, which was in place at the time of the conviction.
The state government accepted the recommendation of a local committee — set up and headed by the Godhra district collector since the convicts were serving their sentence in the Godhra sub-jail — which decided to allow their remission.
The convicts were awarded life imprisonment by a special CBI court in Mumbai in January 2008 on charges of gang-rape and murder of seven members of Bilkis Bano’s family during the post-Godhra communal riots in the State.
Long battle for justice
Bilkis was gangraped and her three-year-old daughter Saleha was among 14 killed by a mob on March 3, 2002, in Limkheda taluka of Dahod district. Bilkis was pregnant at the time.
The rape of Bilkis and the murder of her family members was one of the most horrifying incidents during the 2002 post-Godhra riots in Gujarat. Bilkis had taken up the matter with the local police, an NGO, the CBI and the courts to get justice for herself.
On March 3, Bilkis along with her family were trying to escape a mob. She was five months pregnant and accompanying her were 17 other people, including her three-year-old daughter. They were attacked by an armed mob, who gangraped Bilkis and killed 14 members of her family, including her daughter, her mother Halima and cousin Shamim.
Bilkis approached the local police station to register a case against the assailants. However, the police dismissed her and threatened her with dire consequences if she proceeded with the matter. She then approached the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of India and petitioned the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court directed the CBI to probe into the matter. In August 2004, the Supreme Court directed the trial to be transferred from Gujarat to Maharashtra. after Bilkis alleged death threats from the accused.
19 men charged
In the Mumbai court, charges were filed against 19 men, including six police officers and a government doctor. On January 21, 2008, CBI special court judge U D Salvi convicted 13 accused, sentencing 11 to life imprisonment on the charge of gangrape and murder following an in-camera trial in Mumbai.
In its verdict, the CBI court held that Jaswant Nai, Govind Nai and Naresh Kumar Mordhiya (who died later) raped Bilkis while Shailesh Bhatt killed Saleha by “smashing” her on the ground. The other accused were convicted for rape and murder.
CBI special court judge Salvi termed Bilkis’s “courageous deposition” as the turning point in the case. The judge also considered the testimony of a minor and photographs of bodies of the victims without footwear — and observed that the “bodies had been moved, without footwear, from the scene of crime, indicating a conspiracy”.
The judgment also considered that Bilkis had identified all the accused during the trial — she told the court that most of them were known to her and had purchased milk from her family.
The CBI court upheld the prosecution’s case that Bilkis was gangraped, assaulted and left to die at Randhikpur, 250 km from Ahmedabad, when 17 members of her family were trying to flee their riot-hit town.
In May 2017, the conviction was upheld by the Bombay High Court.
SC awards Rs 50-lakh compensation
In 2019, the Supreme Court awarded compensation of Rs 50 lakh to Bilkis — the first such order in a case related to the 2002 riots. “It is very apparent that what should not have happened has happened and the state has to give compensation,” the apex court bench of the then Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, and Justices Deepak Gupta and Sanjiv Khanna, had said.
The 11 who have been set free are: Jaswant Nai, Govind Nai, Shailesh Bhatt, Radhyesham Shah, Bipin Chandra Joshi, Kesarbhai Vohania, Pradeep Mordhiya, Bakabhai Vohania, Rajubhai Soni, Mitesh Bhatt and Ramesh Chandana.