The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) has taken a strong exception to BJP spokesperson Shazia Ilmi’s article in The Indian Express ("Doing right by Bilkis Bano", 10 September) where she said that those who felicitated convicts in the Bilkis Bano gangrape case on their release belonged to the VHP while distancing Prime Minister Narendra Modi from it. In a rejoinder to the newspaper, the VHP denied any association with those who had honoured the culprits. It asked the BJP leadership to clarify whether Ilmi’s views were personal or the party’s stand.
In her piece, Ilmi had expressed anguish at the convicts going scot-free, saying that as a woman, her “personal sense of justice got betrayed” and that she was “appalled that the guilty in such a heinous crime can get away with a mere 15 years”. She argued, however, that the remission decision by the Gujarat government was part of a process in which the union government had no role.
The VHP objected to the fact that Ilmi had attributed the felicitation of the convicts to the organisation while giving her own party a clean chit: “To attribute this to the BJP is particularly strange given the intense acrimony between the Gujarat BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the one hand and the VHP on the other. The VHP is, on record, carrying out a campaign of vilification and defamation against PM Modi, accusing him of ‘destroying Hindu street power’ — perhaps not realising that they were paying tribute to his staunchly non-partisan conduct in matters of law and order. That this felicitation was depraved is undeniable but the question is what exactly did this have to do with the BJP, given the history of acrimony between the two organisations?”
VHP national spokesperson Pravesh Kumar Choudhry shot back in a note published by the said newspaper, where he called Ilmi’s article a “conspiracy to defame VHP”. “She (Ilmi) belongs to an elite section of Lutyen's Delhi, infamous for creating false propaganda. She is unaware of the Sangh Parivar’s ideology, especially the VHP, which has done tremendous work for Hindu culture, their assertions, and the support that the Central government under the leadership of Narender Modi has got from the VHP. Moreover, she does not understand the philosophy of Hindutva.”
The convicts did not belong to the VHP and “even the office where the programme was held does not belong to the VHP”, Choudhry said.
Reacting to the VHP's objection, Ilmi posted a tweet late Saturday, saying, “If VHP members had not felicitated them (the convicts), then I stand corrected and apologise for the same.” She said further that her reference to the acrimony between the BJP and Modi, and the VHP, was about what had happened in the past, “… when the PM was the chief minister, and Pravin Togadia publicly ridiculed Modi’s Sadbhavana Rally in 2011. He later went on a fast and hunger strike against the Modi Govt in 2018. I did not at all refer to anything going on in the present.”
That Modi clipped Togadia's wings happens to be a popular narrative among the Muslim backers of the BJP, especially in Gujarat. Critic-turned-supporter Zafar Sareshwala has furthered this theory on television channels as has Asifa Khan who had been given the job of a Congress spokesperson by Ahmed Patel but did not get to work for it and so moved to the BJP. The sentiment is echoed by AI Saiyad of the Gujarat Waqf Board.
A BJP source said on the condition of anonymity that the BJP’s national spokesperson speaking against the VHP “does not send the right message” while another source said Ilmi’s article distancing Modi from the remission and the felicitation would be good for the party as “both the BJP and the prime minister came under attack” over it.
Gujarat BJP when Modi was the chief minister of the state and the VHP under the leadership of Pravin Togadia had been at loggerheads since the demolition of several places of worship of both Hindus and Muslims in Surat at the time when the city administration was executing its town plan. Further tension over several other issues eventually led to the exit of controversial leader Pravin Togadia from the VHP.
At the same time, unease is building within the BJP over a burgeoning section of Hindus that say the party they had voted for is now indistinguishable from the Indian National Congress that they had voted out, with the ruling party now pursuing both secular and socialist policies with more zeal than Sonia Gandhi's party. Meanwhile, in many cases where Hindus have been at the receiving end of Muslim attacks, the VHP has come to the community's rescue while the BJP was most glaringly absent from the scene when its own workers were brutally lynched in West Bengal following that state's election.
This unease might explain the BJP leadership’s silence in the wake of the outrage and condemnation over the remission to the Bilkis Bano case convicts, including their felicitation.
Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis spoke on the Bilkis Bano issue, though. He said it was wrong for the convicts to have been “honoured”. “The convicts served their sentence and were released as per a Supreme Court order. However, be it any accused, honouring them on their release is wrong. A convict is a convict and they cannot be honoured,” Fadnavis said in the assembly of his state.
But VHP’s Choudhry has not been unapologetically aggressive either. His note read: “The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) believes in the philosophy of Bharat, preaching ‘Sarve Bhavantu Sukhina’, which means 'welfare of all'. We are against all forms of violence and criticise it too, but Lutyens Delhi fellows like Shazia and others do not raise the killings of Hindus in Gujarat… They have other malicious agendas, ranging from defamation of Hindus and Hinduism in general and damaging India’s image at (the) international level for their self-interest. The claim that VHP people welcomed the convicted with garlands is wrong.”
Choudhry wrote: “So being a spokesperson of the VHP, I am in deep agony, that’s why my suggestion to BJP leadership, please come out with clarification if this statement is a personal statement of the national spokesperson of the BJP or whether this is the stand of the BJP.”
There was another related tweet from Shazia Ilmi: “As a former journalist, activist and now as a Spokesperson, my stand on Kashmiri pandits, reforms in the Muslim community, Killing of RSS workers in WB and Kerala is well known.”
The 11 convicts who were remitted in the Bilkis Bano case had been earlier sentenced to life for gangraping her and killing 14 members of her family, including her three-year-old daughter, during the Gujarat riots of 2002. Modi was the chief minister at the time. The Gujarat government remitted their sentence on Independence Day after a convict moved the Supreme Court. The court left the decision to the state government.