Rapists freed: Is this how justice ends for Indian Muslims?

It is no coincidence that Bilkis Bano’s rapists were released on India’s Independence Day.

Bilkis Bano
Bilkis Bano, her daughter Aksha, and husband Yakub Rasool in New Delhi in 2017 [File: Cathal McNaughton/Reuters]

It was Independence Day — for rapists and murderers.

On August 15, 11 convicts serving life terms 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 their remission. It is not a coincidence that their release came on a day when India marked 75 years of freedom from colonialism. The men were garlanded 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 a statement.

Bilkis, who was five months pregnant at the time, was among three women who were gang-raped by the convicts now set free. 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 registered her case, after she 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 in that state. In 2008, a special court in Mumbai convicted the accused of rape and murder, a verdict upheld by higher courts. In 2019, the Supreme Court asked the Gujarat government to give Bilkis Bano Rs 50 lakh ($62,560), a house and a job as compensation. 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 organisations joined hands to shelter Bilkis, who had to live in hiding for her safety, constantly moving from one place to another. Their fight was also for every other person brutalised 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 release, the top court of the land asked the Gujarat government to act in keeping with the state’s remission policy in 2002. Using holes in that policy, a Gujarat government-appointed committee — loaded with BJP members — recommended remission. Never mind that Bilkis, who lives in close proximity to the homes of the released convicts, must now fear for her life, and the safety of her family, once more.

Why was this done on Independence Day? The symbolism is inescapable, especially since Modi had — only hours earlier — spoken about the need to respect women, in a speech to the nation. It is inconceivable that the Gujarat government could have pressed ahead with the release of the convicts without the consent of the prime minister’s office and the office of the home minister, Amit Shah, who is Modi’s most trusted lieutenant. Shah held the home office during Modi’s time as Gujarat chief minister too.

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 hide from the state machinery. It was Modi’s government in the state that fought her as she battled for justice.

Going back further, it is important to remember that Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, one of the ideological gurus of the ruling dispensation, had once justified rape as a legitimate weapon that 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, such as fact-checker Mohammad Zubair, who was arrested on spurious grounds.

Equally worrying is the role of some bodies that had once stood by Bilkis — like 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 for which action should be taken against her.

If the message to Muslims is to not expect justice, the signal to the BJP’s 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 men released in the Bilkis case.

The remission of their sentences has sparked outrage in Indian civil society, with most opposition parties criticising the move. 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 — which should be abhorrent to all sensitive people — is trying to make its constituents, who are mostly Hindu, partners in this perversity. They must speak up against this 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, are celebrating the nation they have always embraced, but that is now turning its back on them.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.