A judicial milestone was reached on Thursday in the Bilkis Bano gangrape case, among the most shameful episodes in the weeks-long orgy of post-Godhra communal violence perpetrated against the Muslim minority in Gujarat on the watch of Narendra Modi as chief minister, with the Bombay high court upholding the life sentence awarded to 11 convicts, and setting aside the acquittal of five policemen and two doctors found guilty of tampering with evidence. The order dismissed the CBI’s appeal to give three of the accused the death sentence.
The sense of horror and moral degradation which swept the country after the sordid incident is hard to capture in words after such a long time. Bilkis, then 19, was five months’ pregnant in March 2002 when she was sexually assaulted by a gang, seven members of her family were killed before her eyes, including her two-year-old daughter whose head was smashed, as they were seeking to flee the frenzied mobs.
This happened not far from Ahmedabad. When the National Human Rights Commission and the Supreme Court realised a fair investigation and trial was not possible in Gujarat, the court in 2004 shifted the trial to Mumbai after fears were expressed by Bilkis Bano.
The efforts of the wrongdoers and their political backers to have the matter hushed up and sidetracked in the early stages has come to nought. In that sense, the majesty of the law has prevailed. But what is justice in the context of a hair-raising event like this is hard to conceptualise. However, Ms Bano herself has been matter-of-fact.
After the judgment she reportedly said: “I am happy that the state and its officials who emboldened, encouraged, and protected criminals who destroyed the life of an entire community are no longer unblemished, but today stand charged with tampering of evidence.” This is as sober a victim and survivor can get. She stands tall in her fortitude, although it is not certain if those who protected and sheltered Ms Bano’s tormentors have any remorse. The mob was let loose in the streets of Gujarat and the state did not expend much energy to shield the victims from violence.
A minister in the Narendra Modi government, Maya Kodnani, was sentenced to life imprisonment in another case (Naroda Patiya) and is out on bail since 2014. She wants BJP chief Amit Shah to testify in her favour. Legally, the matter isn’t over yet. Those held guilty by the high court can move the Supreme Court, hoping against hope. The party which was in power in Gujarat in 2002 holds national power today and the CM of that time is now Prime Minister. But fiddling with evidence is not possible now....