On Monday, India’s highest court overturned a state government’s choice to release 11 individuals convicted of gang-raping a pregnant Muslim woman during the Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002. The court directed these men, who were part of a Hindu mob sentenced to life for the heinous crime against Bilkis Bano, to be returned to prison.
The incident involved the gang rape of 21-year-old and pregnant Bilkis Bano, along with the brutal killing of 14 members of her family, including her 3-year-old daughter, by the same mob. In August 2022, after serving 14 years of their life sentence, the men were released based on a decision from an advisory panel established by the Gujarat state government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
However, India’s Supreme Court nullified this decision on Monday, ordering the men to report back to prison authorities within two weeks. The court deemed the Gujarat government “lacking in competency” to issue remission orders, emphasizing that the trial and sentencing occurred in the state of Maharashtra.
The decision was welcomed by supporters of Bano, who had condemned the release of the men as an assault not only on the Muslim community but also on women’s rights in a country where official data reveals a woman is raped every 17 minutes.
Shobha Gupta, Bilkis Bano’s lawyer, expressed satisfaction with the court’s decision on Monday, stating, “Rule of law has been restored by this judgment. Many Congratulations to Bilkis and to all of us who stood by her and fought for her.”
Aparna Bhat, an advocate for one of the petitioners in the case, also commended the ruling, saying, “We really salute the judges who interpreted the whole provision of the law and for categorically directing that the accused should surrender. This was an extraordinary case and a phenomenal judgment by the Supreme Court.”
The brutal crimes against Bano occurred in February 2002 during intense communal clashes in Gujarat between the Hindu majority and the Muslim minority, marking one of India’s most severe religious riots. The violence resulted in the deaths of over 1,000 people, predominantly Muslims.
Although an inquiry cleared then-Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi of responsibility for the riots, Bano recounted in court how the perpetrators, armed with swords, sticks, and sickles, attacked her family. Her young daughter was brutally assaulted, and she herself was raped by three men while others targeted her sisters, aunts, and their daughters. She lost consciousness and awoke later, surrounded by the bodies of her loved ones.
In 2008, following a high-profile trial, her assailants were sentenced to life in prison for rape and murder. However, in August 2022, the state government granted them remission under a provision in India’s Code of Criminal Procedure, allowing prisoners to be released after serving 14 years.
The decision sparked nationwide outrage, leading to protests in support of Bano from Kolkata to Mumbai. Critics argued that the release of the men was tainted by political considerations, misogyny, and religious discrimination.