A Muslim woman who was raped by a Hindu mob, who also killed her three-year-old daughter and 13 other members of her family, has spoken of her disbelief at the release of the 11 men detained for the crimes.
The men were released on Monday by the Gujarat government after serving 14 years of their life sentences. Under Indian law, some inmates can be released in remission after 14 years, provided they meet certain criteria regarding their age and behavior.
Bilkis Bano and her husband were not told the men would be released. She said the news came like thunder and left them “stunned” with disbelief.
“Today I can only say this: how can justice for a woman end up like this? I trusted the highest courts in our country. I trusted the system and slowly learned to live with my trauma. The release of these convicts has taken my peace and shaken my faith in justice,” Bano said in a statement issued Wednesday through her lawyer.
The attack took place during the anti-Muslimogrom in Gujarat in 2002.
For Indian Muslims, the release has fueled the horrors of the anti-Muslim riots. In three days, more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, died and hundreds of Islamic monuments were destroyed or vandalized.
On March 3, 2002, a gang raped Bano in a village near Ahmedabad. She was 19 and pregnant. Her mother was also raped and her three-year-old daughter was murdered. Bano only survived because the mob thought she was dead.
In total, 14 members of her family were attacked. Only Bano, a cousin and another man survived. The bodies of six of her relatives were never found. It took a long battle in the courts before the men were finally convicted in 2008.
The decision to release the men was taken by the government of Gujarat, which is ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It sparked outrage among the opposition.
For many BJP critics, it was another insult to Indian Muslims, who already feel marginalized and attacked by the BJP and fringe Hindu groups.
Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the opposition Congress party, said the decision was a mockery of Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech earlier this week, when the prime minister urged Indians to change their mindset towards women and spoke of “nary shakti” or women’s power.
“It is important that we do not do anything in speech and behavior that affects the dignity of women,” Modi said.
Gandhi tweeted on Wednesday: “Prime Minister, the whole country sees the difference between your words and deeds.”
Asaduddin Owaisi, a Muslim politician, also condemned the release. “The country looks at how the BJP is only paying lip service to women’s empowerment and respect for women. But when it comes to Muslim women, they forget them.”
Some legal experts say the release violates guidelines stipulating that the parole policy is not for convicted rapists and murderers. Others say that all prisoners are entitled to it after they have served 14 years.
“This is a decision by a majority penal state and indicates impunity for hate crimes,” said lawyer and human rights activist Vrinda Grover. “The message is clear to women – the state will selectively unleash the wrath of the law… Religion appears to be a criterion for rewarding convicts with early release from prison.”
For the Bano family, the legal gray areas and political squabbles are not the top priority. They wonder if they will ever feel safe again as her rapists return to their nearby villages.
Their dismay was compounded by the men who were welcomed with garlands and candy as they left the prison.
Bano said: “I appeal to the government of Gujarat, please undo this damage. Give me back my right to live without fear and in peace. Please make sure my family and I are kept safe.”