Anger after Bilkis Bano rapist seen with ruling party lawmakers at event

Shailesh Bhatt seen on stage at a government event in Gujarat state with BJP lawmakers

Sravasti Dasgupta
Monday 27 March 2023 14:04 BST

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One of the 11 men convicted for the gang-rape of a Muslim woman during the 2002 Gujarat riots and released last year was seen sharing a stage with two lawmakers from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The release of the convicts had attracted severe backlash and led to Ms Bano and other activists filing a plea challenging the remission granted to the convicts.

Shailesh Bhatt, one of the convicts, was seen on stage with BJP MP Jasvantsinh Bhabhor and his brother Shailesh Bhabhor, a BJP state-level lawmaker, or Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA), at a government event in Gujarat on Saturday.

Prime minister Narendra Modi’s BJP is in power in his home state Gujarat as well as at the federal level.

Bhatt, 63, attended the groundbreaking ceremony of a Gujarat Water Supply and Sewerage Board (GWSSB) project in the Dahod district, from where Mr Bhabhor was elected as MP.

“It (GWSSB) was a public event that I attended… I don’t have anything else to say,” Bhatt told the Indian Express newspaper when asked about his attendance.

Photographs of the event were shared by the MP on Twitter in which Bhatt can be seen sitting and smiling on stage.

The MP has not issued a statement on Bhatt’s presence at the event.

However, his brother told the outlet he had not seen who was sitting on the dias.

“Being the MLA, I was so busy at the event that I did not see who else was sitting on the dais. I will check if he [Bhatt] was present at the event,” he was quoted as saying.

Last August, Bhatt was among the 11 convicts serving life terms over the gang-rape of Bilkis Bano and the murder of seven of her family members.

On 3 March 2002, Ms Bano, then 21 years old and five months pregnant, was gang-raped in Gujarat’s Dahod district as violence tore across the state.

On 27 February, 59 people, mostly volunteers of Hindu organisations, were killed on the Sabarmati Express train when their coach was set on fire at Gujarat’s Godhra station by a suspected Muslim mob, though who lit the fire is often disputed.

The incident unleashed violence of an unprecedented scale across the state, when Mr Modi was serving as the chief minister.

While government figures said over 1,000 people were killed in post-Godhra violence, unofficial estimates claim over 2,000 people – mostly Muslims – were killed.

The news of the release of the men had come as India celebrated its 75th anniversary of independence from British rule.

The Modi government had drawn widespread criticism after the Gujarat state government cited approval from the federal government in the premature release of the convicts.

The photographs of Bhatt emerged on Twitter just a day ahead of Ms Bano’s plea coming up in the Supreme Court and drew outrage from opposition parties and observers.

Mahua Moitra, an MP with the opposition Trinamool Congress party, lashed out and called for the “satanic government” to be voted out.

“I want to see these monsters back in jail & the key thrown away. And I want this satanic government that applauds this travesty of justice voted out. I want India to reclaim her moral compass,” she said.

Shiv Sena MP Priyanka Chaturvedi said: “There is just no need for the government to even pretend concern anymore towards women safety. Shameful.”

Gujarat MLA and activist Jignesh Mevani said the BJP has “lost their conscience”.

“BJP as a party has not just lost their conscience but have normalised every wrong happening in the society. Things have clearly moved beyound shame now.”

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court on Monday issued a notice to the Gujarat government, as well as the federal government, while hearing Ms Bano’s plea challenging the remission of the 11 convicts.

Issuing the notices, the Supreme Court bench of Justices KM Joseph and BV Nagarathna called the crime “horrendous” and asked all parties to be ready with relevent pleadings and documents by the next hearing that is scheduled for 18 April, reported legal news portal Live Law.

“We have before us many murder cases where convicts are languishing in jails for remission without years. Is this a case where standards have been applied uniformly as in other cases too?” Justice Joseph asked during the hearing.

In the days following the convicts’ release, Ms Bano had expressed her disappointment with the Indian government.

“Today, I can say only this – how can justice for any woman end like this?” she had said in an emotional statement two days after their release.

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