Monday, February 04, 2008

Justice for Bilkis Bano

Editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly

A sessions court verdict ends a harrowing six-year wait for justice by pogrom victim Bilkis Bano.

A measure of justice was finally provided to Bilkis Bano, one of many victims of gruesome incidents of hate crime during the Gujarat violence of 2002. Bano (who was pregnant at the time) was gang raped while 14 member of her family were massacred in the post-Godhra violence in Dahod (or Dahot?) district in Gujarat. The special court in Mumbai, to which the Supreme Court had transferred the case , awarded life imprisonment to 11 who were found guilty, while a police officer was given three years rigorous imprisonment for colluding with the perpetrators of the crime. Seven of the accused, including five police officers and a doctor were acquitted. While Bilkis Bano has welcomed the verdict, she has said that her struggle to bring the acquitted to book will continue.

Bilkis Bano's case is just one example of a score of heinous crimes that were perpetrated in Gujarat as part of the Godhra and post-Godhra violence that are still being heard in courts. The special court's judgement is significant as justice was awarded despite the active efforts to subvert it in Gujarat. The subversion of justice and the active role of the Narendra Modi government in abetting the planned violence against the minority community is a known fact.

Bano's case went through quite a few tribulations, as her case was initially ordered to be closed by a magistrate in Limkheda taluka in Dahot district in Gujarat. The Supreme Court then stepped in and ordered the transfer of the case to Mumbai, after taking into cognisance Bano's fear that witnesses were being intimidated and evidence was being tampered with in Gujarat. She must be commended for her brave determination in fighting the case by petitioning the highest judiciary, with the help of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), for an impartial hearing outside Gujarat. The case was one of a few which were referred to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) by the Supreme Court. The Best Bakery trial, where again a guilty verdict was handed down, was another such case. Other prominent ones such as the Naroda Patiya and the Gulbarg Society massacres (the latter involving the killing of former Member of Parliament Ehsan Jaffri) are still awaiting a conclusion. Meticulous investigative work by the CBI to present evidence on the massacre of many of the family of Bilkis Bano helped the sessions court in Mumbai reach its verdict.

The Bilkis Bano judgement should be a precedent for the scores of cases relating to the Gujarat crime that are still being heard, though with the passage of time it would be much more difficult to present convincing evidence in court. Revelations through media exposes have shown that the justice system in Gujarat has been wilfully thwarted by entrenched sections in government who have gone to the extent of even protecting the guilty. The CBI must quickly conclude its investigations and file charges against the perpetrators in the cases that have been assigned to it by the Supreme Court.

Question marks have been raised over the judiciary's handling of cases where the members of the religious minorities comprise the larger number of victims. While the prosecution and the courts have moved to deliver justice in cases where the members of the minority community have been the guilty, it is perceived that there has not been a similar intent in cases involving riots instigated by members of (or acting in the name of) the majority religious community. The most disturbing example of this is the determination with which the Bombay Blasts case was investigated and tried in court while the crimes of the Bombay riots of 1992-93 have been largely ignored.

The Bilkis Bano case verdict is therefore one that would go some way in dispelling such misgivings about the willingness of the state and the judiciary to prosecute the guilty irrespective of their religious denomination. The role of civil society in ensuring support to the carriage of justice must be commended as well. An end to further delays in the trials in many cases (more than 1600) that were reopened by the Supreme Court in 2004 should re-establish confidence in the legal-political system in the country, even if the political class in Gujarat continues to victimise the riot victims in the state.

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