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  • The San Juan Daily Star

In India, new trauma as 11 convicted of gang rape and murder walk free

The forested area where Bilkis Bano, a Muslim woman, was raped by a Hindu mob in 2002 in Chapparward, India, Aug. 19, 2022.

By Karan Deep Singh, Suhasini Raj and Mujib Mashal

For 15 years, as she moved from house to house for her family’s safety, Bilkis Bano waited for assurance from the courts that the men who gang-raped her and murdered many of her relatives would spend the rest of their lives in prison.

That finally came in 2017. In the years that followed, Bano said, she had been learning “slowly to live with my trauma” from the communal bloodshed that racked the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002 and devastated her family. She and her husband were now ready to settle into a new home close to relatives and restart their business selling goats and buffaloes.

Then, this last week, the 11 perpetrators walked free, welcomed with sweets and garlands.

“The trauma of the past 20 years washed over me again,” Bano said in a statement released by her lawyer Wednesday. “I am still numb.”

She has stopped talking to anyone outside her home, Yakub Rasul, her husband, said in an interview.

“They are now out,” Rasul said. “We are thinking, ‘What will they do to us?’”

The case of Bilkis Bano, a Muslim woman who was raped and her 3-year-old daughter killed by a Hindu mob, is a tragic reflection of India’s halting progress in addressing violence against women and of the deepening divides engendered by swelling Hindu nationalism.

The convicts’ early release came as the country marks 10 years since the horrific gang-rape of a young woman on a bus in the capital, New Delhi, which set off nationwide protests and led to collective soul-searching. The result was stricter laws, police reforms, wider protections for women and a continuing push to alter attitudes.

“I have one request to every Indian: Can we change the mentality towards our women in everyday life?” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in an address on the 75th anniversary of India’s independence this past week. “It is important that in our speech and conduct, we do nothing that lowers the dignity of women.”

But the freeing of the men on the same day as Modi’s speech — and at the same time that the government has faced criticism for jailing activists and voices of dissent for long stretches — showed how easily political machinations can undermine efforts at justice, analysts said.

Modi was the top official in Gujarat at the time of the 2002 sectarian violence. Then as now, he is accused by critics of fanning and exploiting the country’s religious polarization to consolidate the Hindu base of his Bharatiya Janata Party.

Some analysts saw the men’s release, after about 15 years in prison, as related to elections scheduled for December in Gujarat, the seat of Modi’s rise, where the BJP has remained in power for two decades.

“Whether they committed the crime or not, I do not know,” C.K. Raulji, a governing party lawmaker who was part of a review committee that recommended the release, told the local news media.

Raulji went so far as to suggest that the men’s status as high-caste Hindus argued in favor of their freedom.

“Their family’s activity was very good; they are Brahmin people,” he said, referring to their caste. “And as it is with Brahmins, their values were also very good.”

Later, facing a backlash, he claimed that his comments — which were caught on videotape — had been misconstrued.

In the spring, India’s Supreme Court directed the state government to hear the men’s request for release. While the state had changed its policy in 2014 to exclude perpetrators of crimes like rape and murder from such clemency, the men had asked for their case to be considered under the policy that was in place at the time of their crimes.

The review committee, stacked with members of the governing party, decided that the men should be freed, and the state government accepted the recommendation. Officials have indicated that the convicts’ good behavior in prison was a factor in their release.

“It is the government’s discretion to take appropriate action on the case based on its merits,” said Raj Kumar, the home secretary for the Gujarat government.

Bano’s case stems from a gruesome period of sectarian violence when Modi was chief minister of Gujarat. A series of riots began after nearly 60 Hindu pilgrims were burned alive on a train. An initial inquiry declared the fire accidental, while subsequent commissions and court cases found it was the result of a conspiracy by a Muslim mob to attack Hindu pilgrims.

Retaliatory violence then swept across large parts of Gujarat, leaving more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, dead.

Bano was repeatedly raped by her assailants despite her pleas that she was five months pregnant. One of them took her 3-year-old daughter and “killed the infant by smashing her on the ground,” investigators testified. In all, 14 members of her family were killed as they tried to flee. The heads of several were severed; others were buried “in a pit with common salt” for decomposing.

In the two decades since, Modi’s lieutenants have assiduously tried to distance him from accusations that he and his administration looked the other way as the Hindu mobs rampaged. These officials have called the accusations a conspiracy by a “triad of political parties opposing the BJP, some journalists and some NGOs” to stain Modi’s image.

Today, a narrow road snaking through homes covered in terra cotta roofs and past abandoned farmland leads to the spot where residents say Bano and her family were attacked on March 3, 2002. A rock-faced hill with thorny vegetation overlooks the forested area where, they said, Bano was dragged and raped. Cows swim in the waters of a river nearby.

About 6 miles downhill, past mahua trees and colorful snack stands, is Bano’s former home in the Hindu-dominated village of Randhikpur. It is now occupied by fruit vendors and shops selling wholesale grains.

Directly across the road is where Radheshyam Shah, one of the 11 convicts, was welcomed by his wife and sisters this past week with homemade sweets.

“People are saying, ‘They fed sweets to the convicts,’” said Ashish Shah, Radheshyam Shah’s younger brother. “Are we not allowed to celebrate?”

The older Shah, who had returned from prison three days earlier, said over the phone that he was “innocent” and had left with his family for the state of Rajasthan on a Hindu pilgrimage.

For Bano and her family, the message of the welcome was entirely different.

“If you are welcoming these rapists back into society, what will happen to this country’s women?” said Rasul, her husband.

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