The 11 middle-aged men who lined up outside the gates of Godhra Detention Center in Gujarat, western India, could be mistaken for dignitaries receiving sweets and blessings from local admirers.
In reality, they were part of a 2002 Hindu mob who had just been released after serving 14 years of life imprisonment for one of the most heinous crimes in modern Indian history.
Since their release in August – on India’s Independence Day – the men have scattered across the country.
But there’s one person who can never escape the effects of the attack 20 years ago – Bilkis Bano, who was just 21 and pregnant when she was raped by a mob that killed 14 of her family members, including her 3-year-old – old daughter.
Bano was too distraught to speak out about the men’s release, but issued a statement through her attorney, saying she had not been consulted about the decision and that it had “shaken” her faith in justice. “My grief and wavering faith is not just for myself, but for every woman fighting for justice in court,” the statement said.
The recommendation to release the men was made by a Gujarat government-appointed advisory panel led by Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Critics say the decision was tainted by politics, misogyny and religious discrimination, and exposes what they see as hypocrisy on the part of BJP leaders who claim to support gender equality and women’s rights. Some lawmakers and activists have petitioned the Supreme Court to arrest the men again.
“The concept of Article 15 that there will be no discrimination based on sex or religion or gender in the Constitution has just been thrown out the window,” said one of the petitioners, Mahua Moitra, a lawmaker with the All India Trinamool Congress Party .
Some lawmakers said the decision had political overtones, as it came just four months before the BJP hoped for re-election in Gujarat’s state elections.
Subhashini Ali, a former parliamentarian and vice-president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, who has filed a separate petition with the Supreme Court, said when the intention was to polarize voters it failed. “For the first time I find that not even BJP supporters support what they have done,” she said.
The Gujarat and central governments did not respond to requests for comment.
Bano’s struggle for justice dates back to 2002, when centuries-old divisions erupted in Gujarat between the majority Hindu and Muslim, who made up about 10% of the state’s population according to the latest census figures more than a decade ago, compared to 14% nationwide.
At the time, Hindu mobs burned Muslim homes and businesses in retaliation for the arson attack on a train near Godhra that killed dozens of Hindu activists and blamed Muslims.
The activists had campaigned for the construction of a temple on the site of the Babri Masjid Mosque in Ayodhya, a city many Hindus believe to be the birthplace of Rama, the incarnation of Vishnu, one of Hinduism’s most powerful deities .
Muslims still mourned the loss of the old mosque in 1992, which was allegedly destroyed with hammers, rods and shovels by Hindu nationalists. This sparked some of India’s deadliest sectarian violence since independence in 1947.
An investigation found that Modi – then Gujarat’s prime minister – was not to blame for the 2002 riots that killed more than 1,000 people – including Bano’s family. Bano later told the court that the men ran towards them with swords, sticks and sickles. According to court documents, one grabbed her young daughter and smashed her to the ground. Three men raped her while the others attacked her sisters, aunts and their daughters. She passed out and awoke hours later surrounded by dead bodies.
In 2008, her attackers were sentenced to life in prison after a high-profile rape-murder trial — and Bano hoped they would stay there. But in August this year, the state government granted them a writ under a provision of India’s Criminal Procedure Code, which allows prisoners to be released once they have served 14 years.
Moitra of the All India Trinamool Congress party was appalled at the idea of Bano, now in her 40s, having to go back to court, so she and other activists challenged the release to the Supreme Court on her behalf.
“Everyone thinks that Bilkis would be the one to apply for a review. (But) she was exhausted,” Moitra said. “She couldn’t believe that justice would end like this.
“So I think it was up to all of us to do it.”
The Supreme Court played a role in the prisoners’ release and will now decide whether to uphold or reverse it, according to Sanjay Hegde, a senior lawyer for the court.
He said the court previously directed authorities to consider the prisoners’ request for leniency under a 1992 writ policy.
This policy entitled all prisoners to apply for parole after 14 years of imprisonment, regardless of the crime they committed. Rules were tightened in 2014, so some criminals, including rapists and murderers, are not eligible for early release.
Gujarat Additional Chief Secretary Raj Kumar told the Press Trust of India (PTI) the men had been released under regulations in force at the time of their sentencing.
The national president of the BJP women’s wing, Vanathi Srinivasan, said the Gujarat government was abiding by the law. “They were not released for political reasons,” she said, according to PTI.
However, CK Raulji, a BJP federal lawmaker and a member of the panel that recommended the release, suggested in videotaped comments that caste may have had something to do with it. “They are good people – Brahmins. And Brahmins are known to have good sanskaar (morality). It could have been someone’s bad intentions to corner them and punish them,” he said, reported independent news site Mojo Story.
Although the caste system has long been banned in India, the traditional system of social hierarchy places Hindu Brahmins above other castes—and Muslims in particular.
In Modi’s last eight years in power, many Muslims say religious intolerance has become more prevalent and crimes against Muslims more frequent.
“The government is sending a very clear message – show me your face and I will show you how the law applies to you,” Moitra said. “Show me your religion and I’ll show you how the law applies to you. And in a way, show me your gender and I’ll show you how the law applies to you.”
Hegde told CNN there was no legal reason why the Supreme Court couldn’t reverse the men’s release and order them to surrender to authorities.
“If they refuse to surrender, appropriate action could be taken,” he said.
Yakub Rasool, Bano’s husband, agreed to meet with CNN next to a highway in Gujarat’s Godhra district in order not to reveal the whereabouts of his wife, who is in hiding. “Bilkis is so upset she doesn’t speak to anyone,” he said.
Rasool said the couple had moved up to 20 times over the past two decades and now fear retaliation from the men who lived in the same village when the riots broke out.
“Since the incident we have had to leave the village, but around 150 Muslim families still live there today,” he said. “Everyone is afraid. They believe these men will cause trouble now that they are free.”
Protests took place across India in support of Bano, condemning the decision as an attack not just on Muslims but on women’s rights in a country where government data shows a woman is raped every 17 minutes. Some saw the release of the attackers as a way to solicit votes from BJP supporters ahead of Gujarat state elections.
“The message the Gujarat government is sending to its constituents is that we support the men who raped Muslim women in the 2002 riots – vote for us,” activist Kavita Krishnan told supporters at a rally in Delhi in August.
Critics say the decision reflects the disconnect between the government’s messages on women’s rights and the daily reality of most women. The men were released on Independence Day, the same day Modi addressed the nation from a podium in Delhi’s historic Red Fort and urged his compatriots to show respect to women.
“There should be respect for them, and in doing so, the government, administration, police and judiciary must do their duty 100 percent. We need to make that resolution,” Modi said.
But Rasool says his wife, who fought for justice for many years, was shown no respect.
The couple want the decision reversed, as do those who have petitioned the Supreme Court. “We strongly believe that what happened with Bilkis was wrong and the convicts should be sent back to prison,” he said.