NEW DELHI: Indian women took to the streets of New Delhi on Thursday to protest the release of 11 Hindu men convicted of raping a Muslim mother and killing seven members of her family during religious riots in 2002.
The anti-Muslim riots in the western state of Gujarat are widely viewed as some of the worst instances of religious unrest in the predominantly Hindu country. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the state’s chief minister when the violence that killed more than 1,000 people — most of them Muslims — broke out.
The decision to free the 11 convicts after they served 14 years in jail was announced by the Gujarat government on Monday, despite the men being sentenced to life terms. Videos that went viral on social media showed the men welcomed with sweets and garlands when they walked out of prison as India celebrated 75 years of independence.
Bilkis Bano was 19 and pregnant with her second child when she was brutally gang raped. The seven family members killed by the assailants included her three-year-old-daughter.
In a statement released by her legal representative on Wednesday night, Bano said that the decision to free the men left her numb and has shaken her faith in justice, as she appealed to the Gujarat government to “undo this harm” and give her back the “right to live without fear and in peace.
“How can justice for any woman end like this? I trusted the highest courts in our land,” she said. “My sorrow and my wavering faith is not for myself alone but for every woman who is struggling for justice in courts.”
The convicts’ release has raised questions over the government’s stance on women in a country with a notorious gender-based violence record. “We are telling the government that this is not what the women’s movement is going to accept and we are demanding from the Home Ministry of India that this remission by the Gujarat government be revoked, and the convicts be sent back to jail,” Maimoona Molla from All India Democratic Women Association told Arab News from a protest site in the Indian capital.
“If the Home Ministry does not act, then the Supreme Court must take suo moto action and restore women’s dignity, and ensure safety and security for women in India.”
Kawalpreet Kaur, an activist from the All India Students Union, who was also protesting in Delhi, said that the “selective discretion by the Gujarat government to release the rape and murder convicts” has sparked outrage and disillusionment.
“The prime minister in his Independence Day message said that women should come out and women’s dignity and equality should be guaranteed,” Kaur said. “Immediately after that we see that those convicted of such a heinous crime are being released.”
Annie Raja, secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women, said that the release of the 11 convicts was also a “blatant demonstration of majoritarianism” and a warning to India’s Muslim community.
“This is a warning for all those who stand for human rights, justice, democracy and secularism,” she told Arab News.
The Gujarat government’s decision has also created uproar among Indian politicians.
“The prime minister spoke big things about women’s safety, women’s power, women’s respect,” Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera told reporters. “A few hours later the Gujarat government released those behind the rape. We also saw that the convicts in the rape who were released are being honored.”
K. T. Rama Rao, industry minister of the southern state of Telangana, said that the order to release the rapists was “nauseating,” as he took to Twitter to appeal to the Indian prime minister to intervene and rescind the Gujarat government’s remission order, and “make necessary amendments to the Indian Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure suitably so that no rapist can get a bail through judiciary.”