By Aditya Mishra, BA/BSc Social Science, Arts and Humanities with Foundation Year
Trigger warning: Mentions of sexual assault and rape
The Supreme Court is the highest court of appeal in India. Its role is to uphold the law and keep in check both the legislature and the executive in India, hence it is expected to be independent of the influences of the other two pillars of democracy. However, recent events have called into question the reputation of the Indian Supreme Court once again.
In 2004, the Maharashtra High Court ordered eleven convicts to life imprisonment on the charges of rape and murder. The convicts had killed 14 members of Bilkis Bano’s family and had raped her. Bilkis Bano’s family had escaped to the jungle to hide from the violence during the 2002 Gujarat Riots.
Later, in August 2022, the Gujarat Government released the convicts as a part of its remission policy, and it is reported that the Union Home Minister Amit Shah, who himself has a criminal history, had personally played a role in the release of two of those convicts. These eleven convicts were paraded as heroes, and some of them were even seen in the campaigns of BJP election candidates for the Gujarat Elections. The Gujarat Government defended its decision by stating: “Opinions of the concerned authorities have been obtained as per the policy of July 9, 1992, and submitted to the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, vide letter dated June 28, 2022, and sought the approval/suitable orders of India,” the affidavit stated.
The Gujarat government told the Supreme Court that the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, approved the premature release of the convicts with a letter dated July 11, 2022. On 8th January 2024, the Supreme Court quashed the early release of the convicts following a petition by Bilkis Bano in September 2022 that challenged the Gujarat government’s decision. The Supreme Court labelled the Gujarat Government’s decision ‘a fraud’ and asked the Gujarat Government to send the convicts back to jail within 14 days. However, out of the eleven perpetrators, nine of them went underground and according to multiple media reports, their whereabouts were unknown from 17th January. Last week, on 22nd January, the convicts surrendered at a local jail in Godhra but have asked for more time, according to media reports. They have cited reasons such as impending surgery, marriage in the family, and harvest.
This points to a larger issue faced by the judiciary showing favoritism towards the government. In India, there have been multiple instances where the government plays both hero and villain for the central government, and they have helped the BJP strengthen its communal agenda like the Babri Masjid demolition of 1992. The Supreme Court declared that the demolition of the mosque in 1992 was illegal, but in 2019 granted permission for the Ram Temple to be built in its place. The Court has also given protection to all those who are close to the BJP, like in the case of Gautam Adani. When the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project’s report, alongside the Financial Times and The Guardian, highlighted how the businessman Gautam Adani and his company were involved in malpractices, the Court rejected a Public Interest Litigation filed against Adani, stating that the report had been published from a third person perspective and is therefore irrelevant. The Supreme Court has also been critical of the mainstream media in its oral remarks, yet when it came to deciding the fate of Aman Chopra of News18 and Sudhir Chaudhary of Aaj Tak, the court didn’t punish them for their crime. Aman Chopra was to be arrested in April 2022 for spreading hateful news, but he has since gone missing. On 11th March 2020, Sudhir Chaudhary was booked for his ‘Jihad Chart’ news, which incited communal hatred against Muslims, yet the Supreme Court let him walk free.
This doesn’t paint a very good picture for the upcoming 2024 General Election. While those who are politically active and look at politics from a religious perspective might benefit, especially the Hindu and the BJP, others have had their perception of what the judiciary stands for shattered. The Supreme Court’s independence from the legislature and the executive remains in question.