India’s Supreme Court has quashed the remission given to 11 Hindu men who had been jailed for life for the gang rape of Bilkis Bano and murdering her relatives during anti-Muslim riots in the western state of Gujarat in 2002.

The top court on Monday directed the 11 men to surrender to the prison authorities in Gujarat within two weeks.

“Their plea for protection of their liberty is rejected,” the court said. “To keep them out would not be in consonance of the rule of law.”

Bano, now in her 40s, was five months pregnant when she was gang-raped during the violence, which saw nearly 2,000 people, most of them Muslims, killed in some of the worst religious riots India has experienced.

Seven of the 14 people murdered in one incident were Bano’s relatives, including her three-year-old daughter, whose head was smashed on the ground by the perpetrators in Gujarat’s Dahod district.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was Gujarat’s chief minister at the time, and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) still rules the state.

The 2002 riots have long hounded Modi, who was accused of ordering the state authorities to allow the bloodshed which went on for weeks.

Modi has repeatedly denied having any role in the violence and the Supreme Court has said it found no evidence to prosecute him.

‘Our wounds are still fresh’

The 11 men, convicted in early 2008, were ordered freed by the Gujarat government in August 2022 after the prison they were being held in recommended their release, considering the time they had served and their good behaviour.

A viral video at that time showed the relatives and supporters of the men welcoming them with sweets and garlands.

But their release also drew widespread condemnation, especially since it coincided with India’s Independence Day celebrations, when Modi spoke about women’s safety and security.

Bano’s uncle and a witness in her case, Abdul Razzak Mansuri, told Al Jazeera the top court’s ruling was a step towards justice for her.

“We are glad that the court directed the accused to be sent back to jail in two weeks. The Gujarat government released them [convicts] and it was very hurtful for us as it was against all the logic,” he said.

“We will never forget the memories [of 2002 riots]. Our wounds are still fresh.”

Bilkis Bano
Bano holds her two-year-old daughter Aksha as her husband Yakub Rasool looks on during a news conference in New Delhi in 2017 [File: Cathal McNaughton/Reuters]

Kaleem Siddiqui, a minority rights activist in Gujarat’s main city of Ahmedabad, alleged the 11 men were released by the BJP government to score political mileage before the state elections.

“The Gujarat government was working with a mindset that they have to free the men somehow,” he told Al Jazeera. “In the future, the Gujrat government should not try to protect them. The accused should get the punishment that has been awarded to them.”

The opposition Congress party welcomed Monday’s ruling, saying it exposed the BJP’s “callous disregard for women”.

“It is a slap on the face of those who facilitated the illegal release of these criminals and also those who garlanded the convicts and fed sweets to them,” spokesman Pawan Khera posted on X, previously known as Twitter.

“India will not allow administration of justice to be incumbent on the religion or the caste of the victim or the perpetrator of a crime.”

There was no immediate reaction to the verdict from the 11 men and the Gujarat government.

In its verdict, the top court held that Gujarat did not have the authority to reduce the sentence of the 11 men, adding that “arguments with emotional appeal become hollow when placed in juxtaposition with the facts of the case”.

“It is a significant judgment which upheld the rule of law as the central pillar on which Indian democracy rests,” Vrinda Grover, one of the lawyers who argued on behalf of Bano in the top court, told Al Jazeera.

“The court has said that the rule of law will apply to all the people, regardless of who they are.”

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Kay Adams