Bilkis case: Those who deserve noose should not be garlanded

After hailing India’s achievements in 75 years of Independence, I am today ashamed of being an Indian. We all know that the quality of justice in India can be unpredictable, and how sometimes evil triumphs and innocents languish in jail. But are we so numbed by injustice that we are losing our capacity to feel horror?

I was unprepared for the garlanding of 11 convicted murderers and gang-rapists who had slaughtered Bilkis Bano’s family in the Gujarat riots of 2002, and were released from jail after an official panel remitted their life sentence without giving any satisfactory reason for going soft on a crime that dwarfed the rape and killing of Nirbhaya in 2012.

The panel decision contravened recent Union home ministry guidelines denying remission of sentences in cases of rape and murder. The panel seemed unmoved by the utterly horrifying circumstances of the Bilkis case. The fact that she was visibly pregnant did not deter her rapists. They picked up a small child and bashed her in a sickening display of inhumanity. All but three members of Bilkis’ family were butchered. 

In the Nirbhaya case, one person was killed. In Bilkis’ case, 14 people were killed, making it 14 times as murderous. In the Nirbhaya case, the whole country was outraged and howled for giving death sentence to the killers, who were duly hanged (one committed suicide). We should see 14 times that outrage in Bilkis’ case but instead the killers have been released.

I find it outrageous that the official panel decision was unanimous. Not a single member dared argue that the remission was unjustified in a case far more gruesome than Nirbhaya’s. Apparently all that matters today is the identity of the victims.

BJP legislator CK Raulji, who was on the panel, justified their release by saying they “were Brahmins” and so “have good sanskar” (ethos or culture). Such sheer casteism is stupefying. Was the “sanskar” of Bilkis and her family any less because they were not Brahmins? 

I am also a Brahmin. Going by Raulji’s yardstick, I also have “good sanskar”. So let me declare that I am utterly shocked at and ashamed of those who raped and murdered Bilkis’ family. I am even more ashamed of Brahmins who defend such behaviour.

My mother ended her days as a sanyasin at the Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh. Presumably, she too had “good sanskar”. She too would have condemned the gang rape of Bilkis and murder of her family. She too would have called the killers a disgrace to Brahminism and the shastras.

During the 1947 riots, when my family was in Shimla, a family of Muslims sought refuge from a rampaging Sikh and Hindu mob. My mother hid the Muslims in our house and told the mob that the Muslim family had gone away and there was nobody in the house. My mother demonstrated Brahmin sanskar at its best. She would have told the killers that Hindu shastras condemn rape and murder as heinous crimes, as “adharma” and “himsa”.

Once, feting criminals released from jail would have been regarded as the work of an odious fringe. Now that fringe has moved mainstream. Back in 2018, eight people convicted of murdering a Muslim cattle trader were released on bail in Hazaribagh, the constituency of Jayant Sinha, former civil aviation minister and former McKinsey partner. Sinha attended a ceremony where the killers were garlanded. However, he later expressed his regrets for doing so.

In many countries, killers who have served a long sentence for murder can be released after convincing officials that they have repented their sins. In Bilkis’ case, the killers have not repented at all. On the contrary, one of them declared on release that his conviction was all “politics”. How utterly revolting! There cannot be a better ground for cancelling his remission.

If neither the government nor Supreme Court move to cancel the remission, we will be seen to have turned a blind eye to a horrific miscarriage of justice. India should not become a country where those deserving the noose get garland instead.

This article was originally published in The Times of India on August 20, 2022.

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