Bilkis Bano case, 11 convicts remission, two BJP legislators
After the convicts in the Bilkis Bano gang-rape and murder case were released, they were given a grand welcome by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Pic PTI

Fault lines surface within BJP over remission of 11 convicts in Bilkis Bano gang-rape

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The Gujarat government’s questionable decision granting remission to the 11 convicts in the Bilkis Bano gang-rape case and murder of her seven family members during the Gujarat riots was expected to meet with criticism outside the ruling political fraternity.

But, it has also run into unexpected disapproval from several unlikely quarters within its ranks. Although the row is unlikely to snowball into a major political crisis, the developments are certainly indicative of simmering divergences within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) over the belief of a section of the leadership that it can get away with the most blatant of ethical and moral violations.

A day after the Supreme Court on September 9 said that it would hear the pleas challenging the remission of sentence, while asking the Gujarat government to place before it the relevant records within two weeks, the Indian Express published a lead edit page article written by Shazia Ilmi, the raucous national spokesperson of the BJP. Headlined ‘Doing right by Bilkis Bano’, the article made three primary points.

One, that the remission was “inconsistent with the spirit of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013”, enacted after massive anti-rape protests in Delhi in 2012 following the Nirbhaya case.

Two, that remission at the end of the minimum term the convicted served “is not a right”. But, the apex court’s decision to now hear appeals against a decision that was consequent to the court’s ruling recognising the Gujarat government as competent to decide on the appeal seeking remission shows that “due process was and is being followed”.

The third point that the article raised was “felicitation of the remitted convicts by members of the VHP”. The article made several sweeping but not completely untrue statements although the nuance got altered in the course of editing and hasty look at the pre-publication ‘playback’ that several media organisations now go through to ensure the writer of the article ‘clears’ the final copy.

Also read: Men and rape: When the garland becomes a weapon of war

In this, Ilmi claimed that there existed “intense acrimony between the Gujarat BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the one hand and the VHP on the other”. It also accused the VHP of having carried out a “campaign of vilification and defamation against” Modi and that the organisation accused the Prime Minister of “destroying Hindu street power”.

The journalist turned Aam Aadmi Party activist-cum-candidate (in 2014 Lok Sabha polls) turned BJP leader certainly betrayed feeble grounding in articulating political differences in a nuanced manner by stating that the BJP and VHP had a “history of acrimony”. In her concluding viewpoint, Ilmi asked that the “collective conscience of the nation must prevail”, and that she prayed for the revocation or stay of the remission of the guilty in the case.

This viewpoint of a rare Muslim woman within the BJP leadership was preceded by actor and Tamil Nadu BJP leader, Khushbu Sundar, calling the remission “an insult to humankind”, adding that any victim of rape or assault needs support beyond “politics and ideologies”.

“A woman who is raped, assaulted, brutalised and her soul scarred for life must get justice. No man who has been involved in it should go free. If he does so, it’s an insult to humankind and womanhood. #BilkisBano or any woman, needs support, beyond politics n ideologies. Period,” Khusbhu tweeted on August 24.

Her statement was endorsed by national president of BJP’s women’s wing Vanathi Srinivasan who said through her tweet that Sundar has conveyed that injustice must not befall on women and there is absolutely no second opinion about that.

It is not that women members of the BJP are alone in articulating their opposition to the remission of sentences. Deputy Chief Minister Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis too stated that it was wrong to honour the convicts in the Bilkis Bano case after their release from prison.

Also read: Gadkari overplayed RSS clout, may face fate of BJP’s old guards

While there was no backlash against either, Fadnavis, Khushbu or Vanathi, there was a howl of protests from the VHP to Ilmi’s article. A key VHP functionary charged that she “belongs to an elite section of Lutyens Delhi, infamous for creating false propaganda. She is unaware of Sangh Parivar’s ideology, especially VHP’s, which has done tremendous work for Hindu culture, and the support that the central government under the leadership of Narendra Modi has gotten from the VHP. Moreover, she does not understand the philosophy of Hindutva”.

Two VHP functionaries, Pravesh Kumar Choudhry and Vinod Bansal, in separate statements asked for the BJP to “clarify whether the statement by its national spokesperson was a personal one or whether it reflects the stand of the party”.

The fact of the matter is that the Sangh Parivar secured its stranglehold on Indian politics courtesy the VHP raking up the Ayodhya issue and that a section within VHP aims to ‘dictate’ terms to the BJP/government on certain crucial matters on its charter.

It is also true that in his years as Gujarat CM, Modi had repeated run-ins with the stormy petrel of VHP, Praveen Togadia. He has now been sidelined within the Sangh Parivar, a decision that was made after taking Modi’s sensitivities on the matter into account. The VHP is now more restrained under the charge of the present leadership as opposed to the period when Togadia led the organisation.

Because the VHP articulates its sense of Hindutva in the vocabulary that Modi is comfortable with, the felicitation ceremony for the released prisoners was not undertaken under the VHP banner although several of its functionaries were reportedly present.

This was similar to the tradition of the RSS allowing swayamsevaks to participate “in individual capacity” in agitations during the freedom struggle too while the RSS formally maintained distance from these agitations like the Civil Disobedience Movement after the Dandi March.

That members and functionaries were present to mark VHP presence underscores the fact that in Gujarat, the cradle of Hindutva politics, a sense of elation exists among a section of people at the release of the convicts. There was no compulsion of the Gujarat government to accept the plea of the convicts seeking remission of sentences yet this was done because of the assessment that this would be electorally rewarding.

However, the Gujarat BJP, synonymous to the state government, is under considerable pressure because Assembly polls are due to be called during the second half of October.

The BJP has no real need for the likes of Ilmi and the party may not accept her ‘apology’ for accusing the BJP of felicitating the released convicts and overlooking the editorial alterations in her original article.

But in the event of any action against Ilmi for having taken a position, questions will be asked why no action has been taken against Khushboo and Fadnavis. Furthermore, after the VHP demanded action against Ilmi, any such step would be interpreted as evidence of the BJP buckling under pressure from the VHP. This would be against the grain of the current leadership, especially Modi.

Yet, the issue involving the remissions to convicts in the Bilkis Bano case has underscored existence of multiple fault lines within the BJP and these have surfaced at this juncture because the decision per se is morally and even politically untenable.

Coming close on the heels of developments that have Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari in the centre, the unabashed brazenness of the leadership is beginning to be questioned, albeit indirectly, using issues like the Bilkis Bano case, where the decision has triggered more revulsion than jubilation. Steps that the BJP government may take to ensure that criticism on this issue does not assume a bigger dimension will be closely scrutinised in the coming months.

(Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. His other books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)

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