The Supreme Court on January 8 nullified the release of 11 convicts involved in the heinous gang rape of Bilkis Bano and the brutal murder of her family members during the 2002 Gujarat riots. This win for Bilkis was made possible also because of allies who supported her in navigating the legal process. The remission was legally challenged through Public Interest Litigations (PILs) filed by prominent women leaders and organisations, including CPI(M) leader Subhashini Ali, journalist Revati Laul, Trinamool Congress leader Mahua Moitra, and the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW).
The court has now ordered all the 11 rape convicts to surrender and go back to prison within two weeks, overturning the Gujarat government's controversial decision to release them on August 15, 2022, under the state's remission policy. The apex court, in its ruling, emphatically declared that the state of Gujarat lacked jurisdiction to pass the remission orders, marking a significant victory for the women-led legal battle. TNM spoke to Subhashini Ali and Revati Laul, co-petitioners in one PIL in the case, to understand the motivations behind filing the petition and the subsequent outcome.
“The shocking visuals of the convicts being garlanded upon their release from jail juxtaposed with the Prime Minister’s call to protect women’s honour on August 15 prompted a collective sense of horror and disbelief. Bilkis wondered whether this marked the end of justice. This made me question what to do in the situation, when advocates Kapil Sibal and Aparna Bhat contemplated legal avenues, leading to the PIL. When I was contacted, I agreed to become a petitioner without hesitation,” says Subhashini, adding that Revati and former Lucknow University professor Roop Rekha Verma also agreed to become petitioners, marking the initiation of the first petition.
“However, the most important thing was that Bilkis herself moved a petition, which made a huge difference,” Subhashini adds.
Revati Laul says that her nearly three-decade journey as a journalist was impacted by witnessing the destruction of the Babri mosque during her college years. “This event exposed me to a politics of hate, prompting me to pursue journalism as a means to share facts and preserve the diversity of our country. I wrote The Anatomy of Hate, a book that chronicles the lives of fanatics who were part of the bloodthirsty mobs of Gujarat 2002. One of these people was like an outlier to this mob and was almost a fanatic who then became a left liberal atheist because he started to work with riot victims and started to see a very different reality from the fiction that the right-wing puts out. And part of that big transformation was his meeting with Bilkis. So actually, in a way, my entire career is dictated by this,” she says.
Driven by the need to do something after the rapists were released, she says she readily agreed to become a petitioner when Subhashini reached out to her.
Speaking about the judgement, Revati says it lays out legal precedents that cannot be overlooked the next time these convicts or anybody else chooses to appeal and ask for remission. Subhashini says that the judgement demonstrates courage and a profound understanding of the law and justice. “A meticulous reading reveals strong points on the complicity of the Gujarat government in aiding and abetting the convicts. The court asserted that the government of Gujarat was complicit with the accused, facilitating their actions and ultimately leading to the case being transferred to Maharashtra. The ruling also exposed a fraud committed against the Supreme Court, implicating not only Radheshyam but also the Gujarat government,” Subhashini says and adds that it also solidifies the importance of citizens’ role in upholding the rule of law.
Recalling that Bilkis has been fighting the case from 2002 with no help from the Gujarat government, who in fact supported the perpetrators of the crime, Subhashini says that women elsewhere fighting injustice should not feel alone. “Please contact lawyers, activists, and organisations working for this. You are not alone in this fight. I am also appealing to the citizens of India not to think that the fight has become easier… it is everybody’s responsibility to help those who are fighting,” she says.