In India, New Wave of Trauma as 11 Convicted of Rape and Murder Walk Free

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GODHRA, India — 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, Ms. Bano said, she had been learning “slowly to live with my trauma” from the grisly 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 past week, the 11 perpetrators walked free, welcomed with sweets and garlands.

“The trauma of the past 20 years washed over me again,” Ms. Bano said in a statement released by her lawyer on 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,” Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 Mr. Modi’s rise, where the B.J.P. 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.

Mr. 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.

The state rejected advice from the trial court against a release, Indian news media reported. Mr. Kumar confirmed to The New York Times that the court’s opinion was among the elements that the committee deliberated, without providing detail. Legal experts worried about the precedent: that the painstaking work of pushing a case to a resolution through a backlogged judicial system could easily be overturned.

“The state governments are entrusted to follow the rules properly and wisely while exercising them,” said Abhay Thipsay, a retired judge. “Otherwise you can release people within months of their being sentenced.”

Ms. Bano’s case stems from a gruesome period of sectarian violence when Mr. 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.

Ms. 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, Mr. 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 B.J.P., some journalists and some NGOs” to stain Mr. Modi’s image.

The Bano case was unusual for that period of violence in Gujarat not only because it reached a verdict, but also because at its center was evidence provided by the country’s Central Bureau of Investigation at a time when a B.J.P.-led coalition was in power in New Delhi.

To ensure a fair trial, India’s Supreme Court shifted the case to the neighboring state of Maharashtra. The central investigating body detailed how local police officials had conspired to cover up the crime, accusing them of “fabricating documents and causing disappearance of evidence.”

The men were sentenced to life in prison in 2008, and their appeal was rejected in 2017.

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

About six miles downhill, past mahua trees and colorful snack stands, is Ms. 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,’” Ashish Shah, Mr. Shah’s younger brother, said. “Are we not allowed to celebrate?”

The older Mr. 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 Ms. 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?” Mr. Rasul, her husband, said.

Ms. Bano had just begun seeking some semblance of normalcy in her life, cooking for the family and taking care of their five children, Mr. Rasul said. Three of them are teenage girls, and one they named Saleha, after the child they lost.

They had hoped to use the compensation money they received, ordered by the Supreme Court, to start a new life. “Now, that’s all finished,” Mr. Rasul said, “because we are living in fear.”

In her appeal to the Gujarat government, Ms. Bano requested that it “give me back my right to live without fear and in peace.”

“I trusted the system,” she said. “How can justice for any woman end like this?”

Karan Deep Singh reported from Godhra, Suhasini Raj from Lucknow, India, and Mujib Mashal from New Delhi.

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