When contacted, the office of NHRC chairperson Justice Arun Mishra confirmed this.
Bilkis Bano, pregnant at the time, was gangraped and her three-year-old daughter Saleha was among 14 killed by a mob on March 3, 2002, in Dahod during violence that broke out across the state after the Sabarmati Express was attacked in Godhra and 59 passengers, mainly kar sewaks, were killed.
Significantly, in 2003, it was the NHRC’s crucial intervention that ensured legal assistance for Bano to approach the Supreme Court after the Gujarat police had closed the case.
The human rights body, under former Chief Justice of India J S Verma, had met her when he visited a relief camp in Godhra in March 2002. The NHRC had appointed senior advocate and former Solicitor General Harish Salve to represent her before the Supreme Court.
Salve argued for a fresh probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation and, subsequently, for a transfer of the trial from Gujarat to Bombay. Bano’s case was the only Gujarat riots-related case that was investigated afresh by the CBI.
What panel can do
The NHRC has powers to investigate any complaints related to human rights violations either suo motu or after receiving a petition seeking its intervention. If it decides, it can call for a report from the state government and can also ensure legal and financial assistance for the victim to challenge the government’s decision before the court.
On January 21, 2008, CBI special court judge U D Salvi convicted 13 accused, sentencing 11 to life imprisonment on the charge of gangrape and murder. In May 2017, the conviction was upheld by the Bombay High Court.
The NHRC’s decision to discuss the issue comes in the backdrop of mixed reactions from members of the Commission. The Sunday Express contacted eight members of the human rights body.
Besides the Chairperson, the NHRC has three members; six ex-officio members; and a special invitee. Several members either said they were not aware of the issue or declined to comment.
Justice Mahesh Mittal Kumar, who is a member, said that the members “do not keep track of all developments.” He added: “I cannot respond to an issue in the media. Will comment only after NHRC deliberations.”
“I was not in Delhi and not aware of the developments. I will discuss with the Chairperson on Monday,” said Dnyaneshwar Manohar Mulay, another NHRC member.
The third member, Rajiv Jain, said: “I had no idea that NHRC had made an intervention in this case. I have not dealt with it”.
When contacted, Iqbal Singh Lalpura, chairperson of the National Commission for Minorities, an ex-officio member of NHRC, said: “I have been very unwell and have been admitted to the hospital for the past few days. So I am unaware of the particulars of the case and will not be able to comment on it at the moment.”
Rekha Sharma, Chairperson of the National Commission for Women, also an ex-officio member of NHRC, declined to comment.
Special Invitee Priyank Kanoongo, Chairperson of the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights, said he was not aware of the case.
Said Harsh Chouhan, Chairperson National Commission for Scheduled Tribes: “I am an ex-officio member of the NHRC as Chairman of the ST Commission but we don’t take part in routine day-to-day dealings of the NHRC. As far as Bilkis Bano case is concerned, it is not related to the ST Commission and (it) would not be right for me to comment.”
Chairperson of the Commission for Scheduled Castes Vijay Sampla, also an ex-officio member of NHRC, was unavailable for comment.
Advocate Jyotika Kalra, a former member of the NHRC from 2017 to 2022, criticised the Gujarat government’s move. “It is extremely unfortunate that the 11 convicts in the Bilkis Bano case have been set free by granting remission. It is not just any sexual offence case but the conviction is of a gangrape and murder of a child during riots. The victim belonging to a minority community makes the offence more grave,” Kalra said.
In 2019, the Supreme Court had awarded compensation of Rs 50 lakh to Bano — the first such order in a case related to the 2002 riots. “It is very apparent that what should not have happened has happened and the state has to give compensation,” an apex court bench, of the then Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, and Justices Deepak Gupta and Sanjiv Khanna, had said.
On the NHRC website, a compilation of all its orders in the Gujarat riots cases and a report on the 2008 Batla encounters, are classified under a section titled “Significant Interventions/Landmark Judgments.”
On August 17, breaking her silence, Bano, via her lawyer, issued a statement asking for her right to live without fear and said: “…I trusted the highest courts in our land. I trusted the system and I was slowly learning to live with my trauma. The release of these convicts has taken from me my peace and shaken my faith in justice.”