It was Independence Day—for rapists and murderers.
On August 15, 11 convicts serving life sentences for having committed mass murder and gang-raping Muslim women in the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002 were released. The state government had ordered the convicted rapists freed. It is no coincidence that their release came on India’s 75th anniversary of freedom from a life sentence of colonialism. The men were celebrated, adorned with garlands when they stepped out of prison.
Bilkis Bano, the lone survivor among a group of Muslims who were chased and attacked with lethal weapons as part of a pogrom against the community, received the news of the release of her assaulters with shock and disbelief. “How can justice for any woman end like this?” she asked in astonishment.
Bilkis, who was five months pregnant at the time, was among three women who were gang-raped by the men. Her daughter Saleha’s head was smashed before her, killing her instantly. She was three years old. In all, 14 people were murdered in the attack.
From that moment, Bilkis fought against the odds—and the might of the Gujarat state government then led by current Prime Minister Narendra Modi and still headed by his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—for justice. The local police officer who recorded her case after she had walked almost naked from the scene of the crime distorted her account to make the case weaker, according to the Central Bureau of Investigation, India’s premier investigative agency. A court found later that police officials and doctors fudged the facts, tried to manipulate the autopsy process and falsify records and destroy evidence. It was only when the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) took up her case that the wheels of justice slowly started turning.
The case was moved out of Gujarat because the Supreme Court was convinced that a fair trial was not possible there. In 2008, a special court in Mumbai convicted the accused of rape and murder, a verdict upheld by higher courts. As compensation, the Supreme Court in 2019 asked the Gujarat government to give Bilkis Bano Rs 50 lakh ($62,560), a house and a job. The amount was unprecedented for such cases and underlined the extraordinary nature of the crime.
This wasn’t just about Bilkis. Scores of feminists, human rights defenders and organizations joined hands to shelter Bilkis, who was constantly moving and living in hiding for her safety. Their fight was also for every other person brutalized and murdered in what, in the eyes of many, was part of a genocidal crime against Muslims. When people with no criminal record decide to rape and kill women and men for their religion, as happened in 2002, it becomes all the more heinous.
Now, justice is being trampled upon. After one of the convicts appealed to the Supreme Court for early release, the court asked the Gujarat government to rule based on the state’s lax policy at the time of the assault, 2002. Using holes in the policy, a Gujarat government-appointed committee—loaded with PM Modi’s BJP members—recommended early release. Ignored in the decision was Bilkis, who lives near the convicted rapists, and must again fear for her life, and the safety of her family.
Why was this done on India’s Independence Day? The symbolism is inescapable, especially since Modi, in a speech to the nation only hours earlier, had spoken about the need to respect women. It is inconceivable that the Gujarat government could have pressed ahead with the release of the convicted rapists without the consent of the prime minister’s office and the office of the home minister, Amit Shah (also Modi’s most trusted lieutenant). Shah held the same office during Modi’s time as Gujarat chief minister.
The message to Bilkis and all those who held her hands while she fought for justice is clear: This is how battles for justice will end in Modi’s India; that crimes against Muslims—even mass murders and gang rapes—will be treated lightly.
Sadly, none of this is surprising. After all, it was under Modi’s rule in Gujarat that Bilkis first had to run for her life and hid from the state machinery. It was Modi’s government in that state that fought her as she battled for justice.
It’s chilling to remember that Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, one of the ideological gurus of the ruling class, had once justified rape as a legitimate weapon. Why? Because, according to his twisted logic, it could deter Muslims from doing the same to Hindu women!
It is also not a coincidence that calls for the murder of Muslims and rape of Muslim women have been given by so-called Hindu religious leaders in recent months. Instead of punishing them, Indian authorities have targeted those who exposed this hate speech.
Equally worrying is the role of some official bodies that had once stood by Bilkis—including the Supreme Court. In June, activist Teesta Setalvad was arrested after the Supreme Court itself suggested that her pursuit of justice for the victims of the Gujarat pogrom was a conspiracy justifying action be taken against her.
If the message to Muslims is to not expect justice, the signal to the Modi’s BJP supporters is that they are immune from punishment for any crime. That in fact, any allegations that a Hindu has committed a crime against a Muslim must be a conspiracy— irrespective of the evidence available. Already, that is the claim being peddled by some regarding the 11 rapists released in the Bilkis case.
Commuting their sentences sparked outrage in Indian civil society, with most opposition parties criticizing the decision. Interestingly, the newest contender for power in Gujarat, the Aam Aadmi Party—which rules in the national capital, Delhi, and in the state of Punjab—has maintained a studied silence. Is it choosing political expedience over justice?
The BJP, through decisions like this one—which should be abhorrent to all sensitive (and sensible) people—is trying to make its constituents, who are mostly Hindu, partners in this perversity. They must speak up against the rapists’ release.
The implications for India’s 200 million Muslims are even more dire: Justice, even if secured as an exception, can be undone at any moment. Even on a day when they, like other Indians, were celebrating the nation they have always embraced, but that is now turning its back on them.
Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at the University of Delhi. He writes literary and cultural