India quashes remission for 11 men convicted of gang rape and murder in Gujarat state

Court directs men to return to jail within a fortnight. They were released in August 2022 and given a heroes’ welcome by organisations linked to prime minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party

India’s supreme court has quashed the early release of 11 Hindu men jailed for life for raping a pregnant Muslim woman and murdering seven of her relatives – including her three-year-old daughter – during sectarian rioting in western Gujarat state in 2002.

The court on Monday directed all of the 11 to return to prison within a fortnight. They were released in August 2022 by the state government, and given a heroes’ welcome by organisations linked to prime minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) as they left jail.

The judgment was delivered in response to several petitions, including one by the main victim Bilkis Bano who, aged 19 and three months pregnant, was gang-raped. Seven family members were brutally killed by rioters. More than 1,200 people, mostly Muslims, died in Hindu-Muslim clashes across Gujarat that erupted in February 2002 and lasted several months.

In its verdict, the two-judge supreme court declared that the Gujarat government was not “competent” to grant remission to the convicts, all of whom had been given life terms by a special court in 2008.


Accusing Gujarat’s BJP-led government of “acting in complicity” with the guilty men, the supreme court also noted that if the convicts managed to “circumvent the consequences of their conviction, peace and tranquility in society would be reduced to a chimera”.

“We hold that deprivation of liberty to the respondents [convicts] is justified. They lost their right to liberty once they were convicted and imprisoned,” the court stated.

Justifying their release on India’s Independence Day last August, officials in Gujarat had said that the 11 men had spent more than 14 years in jail and were being freed after their ages and good behaviour in prison were taken into consideration. They also claimed that the decision, widely condemned at home and abroad, had been ratified by the federal home ministry in New Delhi.

Rioting erupted across Gujarat in early 2002 after 60 Hindu pilgrims returning from the temple town of Ayodhya in north India died in a fire on a train in Gujarat’s Godhra town. Holding Muslims responsible for their death, Hindu mobs began indiscriminately attacking Muslim homes and neighbourhoods throughout Gujarat.

Ms Bano, then expecting her second child, was visiting her family near Godhra with her child when the unrest erupted and along with 17 relatives she fled as Hindus set Muslim homes alight. Ms Bano, now 40, recently told the BBC that they all then travelled from village to village seeking shelter in mosques and existing on the “kindnesses” of random Hindu families.

But as they set out on March 3rd, 2002, their party was attacked by a Hindu mob armed with swords and sticks.

She was raped and her daughter killed after being flung against a rock. Her cousin, who had delivered a baby just two days earlier, was raped and killed. Her newborn child was killed.

Ms Bano survived because her attackers took her for dead, she told the BBC.

Her subsequent quest for justice, according to the court and other related documents, was arduous and terrifying, as police and state officials continuously intimidated her. Government doctors, who examined her, claimed she had not been raped. She also received numerous death threats.

The first of her attackers was arrested in 2004 after the supreme court handed over the case to federal investigators, having transferred the case out of Gujarat to Mumbai, to preclude any interference and exercise of undue influence.

Mr Modi, as Gujarat chief minister at the time, was accused by human rights organisations of complicity in the rioting. But he was legally exonerated later by a special investigation team appointed by the supreme court.

Last January, using emergency powers under India’s information technology rules, the BJP government banned a two-part BBC investigative documentary which re-examined Mr Modi’s role in Gujarat’s riots. Indian tax authorities raided the BBC soon after the broadcaster aired the documentary.

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Rahul Bedi

Rahul Bedi

Rahul Bedi is a contributor to The Irish Times based in New Delhi