Analysis | Guj polls: Will Bilkis Bano case consolidate Muslim votes in favour of Congress? | India

Ahmedabad: It has been over two decades since the 2002 Gujarat riots.

More than a thousand people, mainly from the minority community, lost their lives.

The violence broke out after the burning of the S-6 coach of the Sabarmati Express train near Godhra station in Panchmahal district on February 27, 2022, in which 59 karsevaks were charred to death.

The episode that brought the entire state to a standstill for over two months is a dark chapter in the history of Gujarat, with the entire world condemning it.

The role of the then government headed by Narendra Modi, now the Prime Minister of India, drew flak.

However, the incident seems to have faded from the memory of not only the politicians, but also the people of Godhra, that epicentre of Gujarat’s gruesome chapter.

Godhra, the headquarters of Panchmahal district in Central Gujarat, once again grabbed the headlines recently after the premature release of the 11 men convicted in the Bilkis Bano gangrape case during the riots.

They were convicts in the murder of seven of Bilkis’s kin, including her toddler.

On August 15 this year, these 11 convicts in the case were freed from Godhra sub-jail and greeted by local politicians and their relatives.

They even took pictures with the convicts, who were granted remission based on recommendation of a district committee head by the district collector and local MLA C K Raulji, who reportedly termed the convicts as ‘Sanskari Bhrahmins’.

Bilkis filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the release of the convicts in her case. The case is yet to come up for hearing.

Raulji, who has been fielded again by the BJP, had come to the saffron fold before the 2017 polls.

He had earlier been with the Janata Dal, the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Party (RJP) floated by former chief minister Shankersinh Vaghela.

He is contesting against Congress’s Rashmita Chauhan in the Assembly polls, voting for which will be held on December 5.

Though a section of observers and activists feel that the 20-year-old issue and the latest developments will help the opposition parties, which this time include the AAP and the AIMIM, in getting votes, the political leaders and locals believe it will have no impact on the BJP.

Though the Bilkis Bano case was much talked about, it was strategically omitted by the opposition parties during their elections rallies and speeches.

The Congress, in its poll manifesto, said it would revoke the remission granted by the state government to the 11 convicts, sentenced to life imprisonment in 2008 in the 2002 Bilkis Bano case.

But none of their leaders raise this issue in a public forum.

Bilkis Bano was a resident of Randhikpur village of tribal-dominated Dahod district, which falls under the Limkheda Assembly seat, currently held by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Even the All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) led by Lok Sabha MP Asaduddin Owaisi has been silent on this issue, let alone Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP.

Local activists are somehow still hopeful that the impact of granting remission, which has now been challenged in the Supreme Court, and its effect will be felt in both Panchmahal and Dahod districts, which have a considerable number of Muslim voters.

Since the Aam Aadmi Party remained silent and avoided commenting on the issue in Gujarat, common Muslims realise that despite several flaws, the Congress was still their only hope.

Because initially only the Congress leaders openly criticised the BJP on Bilkis issue, both at state and national level.

According to the local Muslims, they were unhappy with AIMIM for not doing anything concrete like Congress. In the early phase of poll campaigns, it was believed that Muslim votes will get divided between the AAP and the AIMIM. Even Muslims were considering voting for AAP considering what the party was offering.

But the remission issue seems to have played a key role in consolidating Muslim votes in favour of the Congress. The activists feel that now there was greater clarity among Muslims on whom to choose in this election.

Sitting BJP MLA from Limkheda Shailesh Bhabhor said that Bilkis Bano was never a poll issue and asserted even Muslims were favouring the party.

Bhabhor, who has been nominated by the BJP for another term, said peace prevailed in the constituency.

In such a scenario, it would be incorrect to assume that the Bilkis Bano case will help the Congress through a consolidation of Muslim votes.

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