India: outrage as gang rapists walk free
The Gujarat state government recently granted early release to 11 men convicted of a 2002 gang rape of several Muslim women and the murders of 14 people. Swift public condemnation followed, including from activists, lawyers and academics, while the victim and her family have been left with renewed trauma. People have taken to the streets to demand that the Supreme Court revoke its decision. But even if it does, the bigger systemic problems, of the denial of women’s rights and the stoking of politicised Islamophobia by India’s Hindu nationalist government, urgently need to be addressed.
Content warning: this article contains references to murder, rape, sexual abuse and assault.
On 15 August, 11 men serving life sentences for the 2002 gang rape of Bilkis Bano and the murder of 14 people, seven of them members of Bilkis’s family, walked free from jail. The Gujarat state government applied the 1992 remission policy, although due to the nature of their crimes they wouldn’t have been eligible under the policy’s revised 2014 version.
As they left Godhra prison, they were warmly greeted by their relatives, who hung garlands around their necks and fed them sweets. Video footage circulated online, bringing sharp disapproval from lawyers, activists and members of the opposition.
The 11 men perpetrated one of the most horrific crimes of the Gujarat riots, a series of anti-Muslim attacks by Hindu mobs in which more than 1,000 people were murdered.
On 3 March 2002, Bilkis was travelling in a group of 17 people, moving from village to village to try to escape the violence. In the group was her three-year-old daughter, her mother, a pregnant cousin and her infant child, her younger siblings, nieces and nephews, and two adult men.
The 11 men beat the group with sticks and swords and repeatedly raped the women, including Bilkis’s pregnant cousin. Bilkis survived only because she lost consciousness and was left for dead. The only other survivors were two boys aged four and seven.
Bilkis and her family were blindsided by the release of the 11 men. They had not been made aware of the decision, only hearing about it from the media. The news dealt a hard blow to their faith in the criminal justice system. But Bilkis reacted fast – she spoke out about the fact that she was being retraumatised and urged the authorities to act to undo the harm they had caused.
The release brought a forceful public reaction. Legal experts, including the judge who convicted and sentenced the men, condemned the decision to consider them for remission under an outdated policy. The #BilkisBano hashtag trended on social media.
Several protests were held. The largest so far took place on 28 August, when hundreds across the country gathered to call on the government to rescind the decision. More than 6,000 people, including activists and academics, issued a statement urging the Supreme Court to overturn the decision, while more than 100 retired civil servants wrote to India’s Chief Justice to highlight the decision’s negative impact on women’s lives.
An ongoing struggle for justice
As a Muslim woman, Bilkis struggled for years to get justice. The investigation of her case was tainted by evidence tampering, she faced intimidation from local police and state officials, and received death threats from members of the public. The doctors appointed to examine her went as far as denying she had been raped.
Muslim women face double discrimination – as members of both a subordinate gender and a marginalised religious minority.
It was only when the case was brought before the Supreme Court and investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) that the perpetrators were arrested, tried and sentenced. Fearing further evidence tampering and witness intimidation in Gujarat, the CBI transferred the case to the Mumbai Court in Maharashtra state, which in January 2008 gave the men life sentences on charges of gang rape and murder. Their conviction was sustained by the Bombay High Court in 2017.
In April 2022, one of the convicts appealed to the Supreme Court for early release, on the grounds that he had already served 15 years in jail. The Supreme Court sent the case back to Gujarat, arguing that the state had jurisdiction since it was the site of the crime. The state government formed a committee to analyse not just the individual case before it but those of all 11 convicts.
The committee, half of whose members were connected to the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), approved the application on grounds that included the convicts’ ages and their good behaviour in prison. More egregiously, it suggested that the convicts had good moral values because they are Brahmins – members of the higher caste. One BJP legislator and committee member implied they might not have been guilty at all.
The committee duly found the 11 men eligible for release under the 1992 remission policy. It justified the application of the older policy instead of its modified 2014 version, which prohibits the release of anyone convicted of rape or murder, on the basis that it was the one in effect at the time of the conviction.
A petition filed with the Supreme Court to challenge the Gujarat government’s decision has been accepted, but there is no guarantee it will be overturned. The justice system has already failed Bilkis twice, first by subjecting her to an ordeal during the initial investigation and the lengthy proceedings that followed, and now by calling the legitimacy of the conviction into question, downplaying her suffering and putting her family at renewed risk.
Systemic discrimination and politicised Islamophobia
Bilkis’s case raises serious questions about Indian politics and the way its criminal justice system is being instrumentalised to deny rights to women and the Muslim minority – and particularly to Muslim women, the target of overlapping systems of discrimination.
Although India has a Hindu majority, its state is supposed to be secular: it is supposedly not bound by the rules of any religion and must act with no religious bias. But since the BJP rose to power in 2014, attacks against Indian Muslims have been on the rise and systemic discrimination has increased.
The BJP is allied with right-wing Hindu nationalist organisations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a paramilitary force. In a highly charged environment, its anti-Muslim rhetoric encourages religious leaders who openly call for the mass killing of Muslims, mobs that feel free to attack unsuspecting victims and police happy to ignore crimes when the victims are Muslim.
The BJP also consistently lets women down. India is considered the most dangerous country in the world for women: 30 per cent of Indian women have experienced physical or sexual violence. In 2021, the country registered 31,677 cases of rape – an average of 86 a day – and roughly 49 cases of crimes against women reported every hour.
Rape culture is perpetuated by the patriarchal nature of Indian society: although legislation has evolved and rape has been codified as a non-bailable offence, those accused often walk free because they are protected by other men in positions of power – in the police, the judiciary and political institutions.
Muslim women face double discrimination – as members of both a subordinate gender and a marginalised religious minority. Such was the case of Bilkis, attacked by a religious mob for being Muslim and sexually assaulted for being female, her pain dismissed as secondary to her abusers’ discomfort in prison.
A dangerous path
Behind the rise in misogynistic, anti-Muslim Hindu nationalism is the BJP’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The 2002 riots in which Bilkis was gang-raped and her family was killed took place while Modi was Gujarat state’s highest elected official. Although the Supreme Court refused to prosecute him, he was credibly accused of allowing the bloodshed to happen. The state remains in the BJP’s hands today.
Since winning re-election in 2019, Modi has sought to consolidate his power by leading a political assault on Muslims. He has done so through policies such as the Citizen Amendment Act – which gives only non-Muslim people from neighbouring countries a road to Indian citizenship – and the revocation of the special status of majority-Muslim Jammu and Kashmir state. This year BJP politicians have confected divisive outrage over the wearing of hijab in schools.
Modi has downplayed these polarising actions, instead accusing his critics of seeking to stoke hate and profit from division. He has applied the same hypocrisy to women’s rights: he gave a speech on the protection of women on the very same day Bilkis’s rapists were released, then chose to remain silent on the case.
Left as it is, the Bilkis Bano case can only further normalise a climate of discrimination in which women and Indian Muslims are treated as second-class citizens and their rights and safety imperilled. Urgent action is needed. The more divides are allowed to widen, the harder they will become to bridge.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The Supreme Court should revoke the early release of the 11 men convicted for the gang rape of Bilkis Bano and the murder of her family.
The government must commit to tackling urgently the systemic problem of violence against women.
The government must commit to maintaining the country’s secular status in both law and practice.
Cover photo by Reuters/Adnan Abidi via Gallo Images