The eleven middle-aged men lined up outside the gates of the Godhra Armand Center in Gujarat, western India, and could have been mistaken for visiting dignitaries who received sweets and blessings from local admirers.
In reality, they were part of a 2002 Hindu mob who had just been released after serving 14 years in prison for one of the most heinous crimes in India’s recent history.
Since their release in August – on India’s Independence Day – the men have spread across the country.
But there is one person who can never escape the effects of the attack 20 years ago: Bilkis Bano, who was just 21 years old and pregnant when she was raped by a gang that killed 14 of her relatives, including her three-year-old. daughter.
Bano was too distraught to speak about the release of the men, but issued a statement through her lawyer, saying she had not been consulted about the decision and that it had “shaken” her faith in justice. “My grief and my wavering faith are not just for myself, but for every woman struggling for justice in the courts,” the statement said.
The recommendation to free the men was made by an advisory panel appointed by the government of Gujarat, led by Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Critics say the decision was tainted by politics, misogyny and religious discrimination, exposing what they see as the hypocrisy of BJP leaders who claim to support gender equality and women’s rights. Some lawmakers and activists have petitioned the Supreme Court to re-arrest the men.
“The concept of Article 15, where there will be no discrimination based on gender or religion or gender in the Constitution, has just been thrown out the window,” said one of the petitioners, Mahua Moitra, a lawmaker from the All India Trinamool Congress party. .
Some lawmakers said the decision had political undertones just four months before the BJP hopes for reelection in Gujarat’s state elections.
Subhashini Ali, a former parliamentarian and vice president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, who has filed a separate petition with the Supreme Court, said if the intention was to polarize voters, it had failed. “For the first time, I notice that even BJP supporters do not support what they have done,” she said.
Gujarat and central governments have not responded to requests for comment.
Bano’s struggle for justice dates back to 2002, when age-old divisions erupted in Gujarat between majority Hindus and Muslims, who made up about 10% of the state’s population according to the latest census figures from more than a decade ago. 14% nationwide.
At the time, Hindu mobs set fire to Muslim homes and shops in retaliation for the bombing of a train near Godhra that killed dozens of Hindu activists and blamed Muslims.
The activists had campaigned to build a temple on the site of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya, a city many Hindus believe is the birthplace of Rama, the incarnation of Vishnu, one of Hinduism’s most powerful deities.
Muslims still mourned the loss of the old mosque in 1992, destroyed by Hindu nationalists, allegedly with hammers, rods and shovels. This led to the deadliest sectarian violence in India since independence in 1947.
An investigation found that Modi, then Gujarat’s prime minister, was not responsible for the 2002 riots that killed more than 1,000 people, including Bano’s family. Bano would later tell the court that the men ran towards them with swords, sticks and sickles. According to court documents, one grabbed her young daughter and knocked her to the ground. Three men raped her, while the others attacked her sisters, aunts and their daughters. She fell unconscious and woke up hours later, surrounded by bodies.
In 2008, after a high-profile trial, her attackers were sentenced to life in prison for rape and murder — which is where Bano hoped they would stay. But in August, the state government granted them a pardon, under a provision in India’s Criminal Procedure Code that allows detainees to be released once they’ve served 14 years.
Moitra, of the All India Trinamool Congress party, was horrified at the idea that Bano, now in his 40s, would have to return to court again, so she and other activists challenged her release in the Supreme Court on her behalf.
“Everyone thinks Bilkis would be the one to file a review request. (But) she was exhausted,” Moitra said. “She couldn’t believe justice would end like this.
“So I think it was the duty of all of us to do it.”
The Supreme Court played a role in the release of the detainees and will now decide whether it should be confirmed or reversed, according to Sanjay Hegde, a senior lawyer with the court.
He said the court had previously instructed authorities to consider the detainees’ plea for leniency under a 1992 remission policy.
That policy gave all inmates the right to seek pardon after 14 years, regardless of the crime they had committed. Rules were tightened in 2014, making some criminals, including rapists and murderers, ineligible for parole.
Gujarat Additional Chief Secretary Raj Kumar told the Press Trust of India (PTI) the men were released under the rules in force at the time of their conviction.
National chairman of the women’s wing of the BJP, Vanathi Srinivasan, said the Gujarat government was following the law. “They were not released for political reasons,” she said, according to PTI.
However, in videotaped comments, CK Raulji, a BJP state legislator and member of the panel that recommended the release, suggested that caste could have something to do with it. “They are good people – Brahmins. And Brahmins are known to have good ‘sanskaar’ (morality). It may have been someone’s evil intent to corner and punish them,” he said, reported independent news site Mojo Story.
Although the caste system has long been banned in India, the traditional system of social hierarchy holds Hindu Brahmins above other castes – and especially Muslims.
During Modi’s last eight years in power, many Muslims say that religious bigotry is more pronounced and that crimes against Muslims are more common.
“The government is sending out a very clear message: show me your face, and I’ll show you how the law applies to you,” Moitra said. ‘Show me your religion, and I’ll show you how the law applies to you. And in a sense, show me your gender and I’ll show you how the law applies to you.
Hegde told CNN there was no legal reason why the Supreme Court could not reverse the release of the men and order them to surrender to authorities.
“If they refuse to surrender, appropriate action can be taken,” he said.
Yakub Rasool, Bano’s husband, agreed to meet with CNN next to a highway in Gujarat’s Godhra district, so as not to reveal the location of his wife, who is in hiding. “Bilkis is so upset that she doesn’t talk to anyone,” he said.
Rasool said the couple had moved up to 20 times in the past two decades and now feared retaliation from the men, who were living in the same village when the riots broke out.
“Since the incident happened, we had to leave the village, but even today about 150 Muslim families live there,” he said. “They are all scared. They think these men will cause trouble because they are now free.”
Protests were staged across India in support of Bano, denouncing the decision as an attack not only on Muslims, but also on women’s rights in a country where government records show a woman is raped every 17 minutes. Some saw the release of the attackers as a deliberate pitch for votes from BJP supporters ahead of Gujarat’s state elections.
“The message that the Gujarat government is sending to its constituents is that we support the men who raped Muslim women during the 2002 riots – vote for us,” activist Kavita Krishnan told supporters at a rally in Delhi in August.
Critics say the decision reflects the discrepancy between the government’s messages about women’s rights and the everyday reality for most women. The men were released on Independence Day, the same day Modi addressed the nation from a podium in the historic Red Fort in Delhi, urging his compatriots to show respect for women.
“There must be a sense of respect for them, and in that the government, administration, police and judiciary will have to fulfill their duty (100) percent. We have to make this resolution,” Modi said.
But Rasool says no respect was shown for his wife, who fought for justice for years.
The couple wants the decision reversed, as do those who have filed petitions with the Supreme Court. “We are convinced that what happened to Bilkis was wrong and the convicts should be sent back to prison,” he said.