In a rejoinder to The Indian Express, the VHP denied any association with those who had felicitated the culprits, and asked the BJP leadership to clarify whether Ilmi’s views were personal or the party’s stand.
In the article that appeared in The Indian Express on Friday, Ilmi, a national spokesperson of the BJP, expressed anguish at the remission of the convicts, 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”. At the same time, she argued, the remission decision by the Gujarat government was part of a process in which the Centre had no role.
What the VHP took exception to was Ilmi’s reference to the felicitation of the convicts: “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?”
In the note to The Indian Express, VHP national spokesperson Pravesh Kumar Choudhry called Ilmi’s article a “conspiracy to defame VHP”. “She (Ilmi) belongs to an elite section of Lutyens 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.
In a late-night tweet, Ilmi said Saturday: “If VHP members had not felicitated them (the convicts), then I stand corrected and apologise for the same.”
She also said 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.”
Officially, BJP spokespersons did not react. But one leader, on the condition of anonymity, said that the BJP’s national spokesperson speaking against the VHP “does not send the right message.”
However, a section of the BJP leaders 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.
The BJP under Modi and the VHP are known to have had a strained relationship, starting from Gujarat. The tension over a number of issues had eventually led to the exit of controversial leader Pravin Togadia from the VHP.
At the same time, unease is building within the BJP over, what some describe as, “the widening distance between the ideology that the government is trying to follow, and the Hindutva narrative the hardliners want it to adopt”. 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.
The exception was senior BJP leader and Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, who 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.
In his note, the VHP’s Choudhry said: “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 international level for their self-interest. The claim that VHP people welcomed the convicted with garlands is wrong.”
Choudhry added: “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.”
In her late-night tweet, Ilmi said: “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 got remission in the Bilkis Bano case were sentenced to life term 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. Their sentence was remitted by the Gujarat government on August 15, after one of the convicts moved the Supreme Court. The court left the decision to the state government.