It was Independence Day – for rapists and murderers.
On August 15, 11 convicts serving life sentences for committing the mass murders and gang rapes of Muslim women in the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002 were released. The state government had ordered their surrender. It is no coincidence that their release came on a day when India marked 75 years of freedom from colonialism. The men received garlands upon their release from prison.
Bilkis Bano, the sole survivor among a group of Muslims who were hunted down and attacked with deadly weapons in a pogrom against the community, received the news of her attackers’ release with shock and disbelief. “How can justice for a 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 now released convicts. Her daughter Saleha’s head was smashed in front of her, killing her instantly. She was three years old. A total of 14 people were killed in the attack.
From then on, Bilkis fought against all odds – and the power of the Gujarat state government then led by current Prime Minister Narendra Modi and still led by his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – for the justice. The local police officer who recorded her case, after she emerged nearly naked from the crime scene, twisted her account to weaken the case, according to the Central Bureau of Investigation, the top investigative agency Indian. A court later found that police and doctors rigged facts, attempted to manipulate the autopsy process, falsified records and destroyed evidence. It was only when the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) took up her case that the wheels of justice slowly began to turn.
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 defendant 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 in compensation. The amount was unprecedented for such cases and underscored the extraordinary nature of the crime.
It wasn’t just about Bilkis. Dozens of feminists, human rights defenders and organizations united to shelter Bilkis, who had to live in hiding for his safety, constantly moving from place to place. Their fight was also for anyone else brutalized and murdered in what many believe was part of a genocidal crime against Muslims. When people without criminal records decide to rape and kill women and men for their religion, as happened in 2002, it becomes all the more heinous.
Today, justice is flouted.
After one of the convicts appealed to the Supreme Court to be released, the country’s highest court asked the Gujarat government to act in accordance with the state’s surrender policy in 2002. Using holes in this policy, a committee appointed by the government of Gujarat – in charge of BJP members – recommended handing over. Never mind that Bilkis, who lives near the homes of released convicts, now has to fear for his life and the safety of his family once again.
Why was this done on Independence Day? The symbolism is unavoidable, especially since Modi had – a few hours earlier – spoken of the need to respect women, in a speech to the nation. It is inconceivable that the Gujarat government could have pushed ahead with the release of the convicts without the consent of the Prime Minister’s office and the office of Home Minister Amit Shah, who is Modi’s most trusted lieutenant. Shah also served as a minister during Modi’s time as Chief Minister of Gujarat.
The message to Bilkis and all who held her hand as she fought for justice is clear: this is how the battles for justice will end in Modi’s India; that crimes against Muslims – even mass murder and gang rape – will be treated lightly.
Unfortunately, none of this is surprising. After all, it was during Modi’s rule in Gujarat that Bilkis first had to flee for his life and hide from the state apparatus. It was Modi’s government in the state that fought her as she fought for justice.
Going back further, it is important to remember that Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, one of the ruling dispensation’s ideological gurus, once justified rape as a legitimate weapon that could deter Muslims from doing the same to Hindu women.
Nor is it a coincidence that calls for the murder of Muslims and the rape of Muslim women have been made by so-called Hindu religious leaders in recent months. Instead of punishing them, Indian authorities have targeted those who spoke out against the hate speech, such as fact-checker Mohammad Zubair, who was arrested on spurious grounds.
Equally worrying is the role of some bodies that once backed Bilkis – like the Supreme Court. In June, activist Teesta Setalvad was arrested after the Supreme Court itself suggested that her quest for justice for the victims of the Gujarat pogrom was a plot for which action should be taken against her.
If the message to Muslims is not to expect justice, the signal to BJP supporters is that they are safe from punishment for any crime. That in fact, any allegation that a Hindu has committed a crime against a Muslim must be a conspiracy – regardless of the available evidence. This is already the assertion peddled by some concerning the 11 men released in the Bilkis case.
The remission sparked outrage from Indian civil society, with most opposition parties criticizing the move. Interestingly, Gujarat’s new ruling candidate, the Aam Aadmi Party – which rules in the national capital, Delhi, and in the state of Punjab – has maintained a studied silence. Does he choose political expediency 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 Hindus, partners in this evil. They must rise up against this liberation.
The implications for India’s 200 million Muslims are even more serious: justice, even if guaranteed on an exceptional basis, can be reversed at any time. Even on a day when, like other Indians, they celebrate the nation they have always embraced, but which is now turning its back on them.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.