The release of 10 convicts who were serving life imprisonment for raping Bilkis Bano and her relatives and murdering 14 family members including her three year old daughter, during the Gujarat carnage in 2002 has shaken people in India and it has created an international buzz. Personally, it has made me wonder how safe are women in India when convicts imprisoned for life are released.

These ten convicts were released on August 15, 2022 on the 75th Independence day of India but the callousness of the state government in granting remission to convicted rapists and murderers despite having a policy to not remit punishments of convicts of heinous crimes like rape and murder is for all to see and that too just months before assembly elections are due in Gujarat. This shows the confidence of the state government, who apparently feels that such an action will not adversely affect their chances in the forthcoming elections despite being in power for well over two decades.

Justice took time and effort

It took Bilkis Bano around 15 years to get justice and that too after a lot of effort from many people and after she approached the National Commission for Human Rights and the Supreme Court which is a story in itself. Despite the rapes of her mother, sisters and Bilkis herself, when she was five months pregnant, and the murders of several of family members, 11 accused were sentenced to life imprisonment while two others were sentenced to lesser number of years in jail. Since then one of the convicts sentenced to life has died.

If one compares this to the Nirbhaya case of December 16, 2012 in Delhi, where one girl was brutally raped by five persons which resulted in her death, one can see the disparity. In this case the country was braying for the blood of the accused and there were candle marches held in several cities. The accused were sentenced to death as the case was considered the rarest of the rare. So what I wonder is whether the Bilkis Bano case was a routine rape and murder case? Routine? It is pertinent to point out that rapes occur every 15 minutes in India and these are reported rapes which are less than 10 percent of actual rapes as per estimates by experts. Similarly, huge number of murders occur daily. Bilkis Bano's case was not categorised as the rarest of the rare and so the convicts escaped the death penalty but now they have also escaped life imprisonment.

Isn't this a travesty of justice? The amount of efforts that went into getting justice for Bilkis Bano and now the killers and rapists are roaming around freely while the victims are again scared for their lives. The irony of this can't be lost on anyone, I presume.

After the release of the 10 convicts, Bilkis Bano in a statement said, "Two days ago, on August 15, the trauma of the past 20 years washed over me again when I heard that the 10 convicts who ruined my family and my life and who took from me my three-year-old daughter have walked free."

Why no outrage?

Now where is the outrage for this? Why no candle marches? Except a handful the rest are choosing to maintain silence? Does this mean that if a Muslim woman is raped there is no outrage? We in India are capable of outrage only when the victim is an upper caste Hindu woman because if one asks Dalit and Tribal women, they will tell you that rapes occur daily in their communities often by upper caste men and in most cases police refuse to even file the complaint. One can recall the Hathras case where a Dalit 19-year-old woman was gang raped on September 14, 2020. She later died of her injuries. Her family faced all kinds of hardships to first file the case and later also they faced huge harassment, including the cremation of the victim without the family's consent amidst lots of protests.

Also, it should be noted that the convicts were shifted to sub-jail in Godhra, closer to their homes, from the Central Jail in Sabarmati and given frequent paroles and furlough leave during their 14 years imprisonment. The state government recently refused to give information of the same when information of this was sort under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

In a democracy justice should be the same for all. But increasingly we see the powerful get away with their evil deeds while the victims and their families face all kinds of problems.

India's dismal record in women safety

India needs to protect its women and make is a safe place for us if it wants to be a strong global player but it is ranked very low in women's safety. India was ranked the most dangerous country for women in a survey conducted by Thomson Reuters Foundation in 2018. Afghanistan and Syria were placed second and third respectively. Since then, the Taliban have taken over so the ranking of Afghanistan could have changed but not much has changed in India since 2018 as far as women's safety goes.

India was ranked 135th among 146 countries in the annual Gender Gap Report 2022 with just 11 nations ranked below it. These include Sudan, Pakistan, Congo, Iran and Chad, among others.

Knocking on Supreme Court's doors

Now a few women have approached the Supreme Court challenging the Gujarat government's decision to release the 10 convicts in the Bilkis Bano case. Trinamool Congress Member of Parliament Mahua Moitra filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in Supreme Court on Tuesday through advocate Shadan Farasat challenging the Gujarat government's order. Also, Communist Party of India Marxist (CPIM) leader Subhasini Ali, Filmmaker Revati Laul and former Professor of Philosophy and activist Roop Rekh Verma have collectively filed a case in Supreme Court through advocate Kapil Sibal.

It remains to be seen whether Bilkis Bano will get justice and whether the challenge to remission of life imprisonment of convicts and their release will be successful.

Will India be a safe place for women is a question all women in India need to ask and demand.