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Bilkis Bano: Top Indian court sends rapists back to jail

Murali Krishnan in New Delhi
January 16, 2024

India's top court said the Gujarat government was being "complicit" by freeing the 11 men who had raped Muslim woman Bilkis Bano in 2002. The judges overturned their release from prison.

A woman in a pink headscarf speaks into a microphone
Bilkis Bano (C) addresses a press conference New Delhi in May 2017Image: Prakash SIngh/AFP/Getty Images

Warning: This article contains accounts of sexual assault and violence

The decision by the Gujarat government to free 11 men convicted of the rape of Bilkis Bano was a "usurpation of jurisdiction," India's Supreme Court has said, deeming the remission illegal.

The court ordered all of them to return to jail and resume serving their life sentences before the end of January.

The rape of Bilkis Bano took place during the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in the Indian state of Gujarat. State officials allowed the men to be released under its remission policy in August 2022.

Decrying the move, the Supreme Court decision said the state "acted in tandem and was complicit" with the convicts by setting them free.

Bano, whose long fight for justice became a symbol for other survivors of the 2002 violence, said she had welcomed the order to re-jail the offenders with "tears of relief."

"I have smiled for the first time in over a year and half," she said in a statement. "I have hugged my children."

"This is what justice feels like," she added.

Bano raped multiple times and left for dead

Riots erupted in Gujarat in March 2002 when a fire on a passenger train killed 60 Hindu pilgrims. Blaming Muslims for starting the fire, Hindu mobs went on a rampage, attacking Muslim neighborhoods and destroying their property.

Bilkis Bano lost 14 family members. At the time, she was 20 years old and pregnant with her second child.

Lawyer: 'Surely, this cannot be a crime that only impacts Bilkis'

In a DW interview, she recounted the horror she felt that day when bloodthirsty mobs brandishing swords entered her house in Randhikpur village near Gujarat's largest city, Ahmedabad.

Her 3-year-old daughter was killed before her eyes. She was subjected to multiple gang rapes and had been left for dead by the mob after she lost consciousness. 

"Of course, I remember, I will always remember. How can I forget? I could do nothing. I could not bury my child … I was not allowed to carry out the funeral rites. I regret that till today. But I was helpless. I hope my daughter is happy in heaven with my other family members," Bano told DW in 2019.

Her rapists were eventually sentenced to life in prison. Meanwhile, Bano faced threats and intimidation, moving every few years to protect her identity.

Convicts welcomed upon release

Two decades later, a review committee stacked with members of the ruling party recommended the release of the men, with one of the factors being the convicts' good behavior in prison.

The state government accepted the recommendation.

Outside the prison, they were welcomed by the members of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, a right-wing Hindu organization, who gave the men sweets and flower garlands.

Commenting on the release, Bano said she "simply collapsed" after seeing the people who had "destroyed my family and terrorised my very existence" walk free.

"I felt I had exhausted my reservoir of courage," she said, adding that her spirits were eventually lifted by a wave of solidarity from people supporting her.

Uproar after rapists go free

The release prompted an outcry in India with multiple petitions, including one filed by Bano in November 2022, challenging the move. Other petitions were filed by leading women rights activists, politicians and journalists.

The Supreme Court eventually looked into the case and found that the state of Gujarat lacked jurisdiction to pass the remission orders. Now, all eyes will be on the convicts who must surrender by next week and resume their prison sentence.

"This judgment does a huge service to uphold faith of the citizens of this country in the justice delivery system. I personally want to thank the judges for the amazing New Year gift and happiness to the nation which includes you, me and Bilkis — as equal before law," Bano's lawyer Shobha Guptar told DW.

Bilkis Bano case: India rights activist demands accountability

'I want my daughter to be a lawyer'

The Gujarat riots killed nearly 2,000 people, most of them Muslims. In the decades following the violence, Bano continued fighting for survivors to obtain justice.

In 2019, India's top court awarded Bilkis a compensation of 5 million rupees ($60,000, €55,2560) to her, a house in a place of her choosing, and a government job. This was the highest compensation ever given to a rape survivor in India.

Bano said she would use the money to "help women survivors and help educate their children."

"Also, I want my daughter to be a lawyer considering the pain I have suffered. The coming generations should not suffer. I want my daughter to argue in the Supreme Court and get justice for women like me and support them," she said.

Following the latest ruling by the Supreme Court, ordering her rapists to go back to prison, Bano said that it felt "like a stone the size of a mountain has been lifted from my chest, and I can breathe again."

"Even as I absorb the full meaning of this verdict for my own life and for my children's lives, the 'dua' (prayer) that emerges from my heart today is simple — the rule of law, above all else and equality before law, for all," said Bano.

Edited by: Darko Janjevic


Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11