India’s top court on Monday restored life sentences for 11 Hindu men convicted of the gang rape of a Muslim woman in a case that became a powerful symbol of the widespread violence against Indian women and of communal tensions often exacerbated by Indian politicians.
The victim, Bilkis Bano, was three months pregnant when she and 15 members of her family tried to flee their village in 2002 during Hindu-Muslim violence in the state of Gujarat, in western India. The chief minister of Gujarat at the time was Narendra Modi, who is now the Indian prime minister.
Ms. Bano and her family came under attack by heavily armed Hindu rioters, who, in addition to raping Ms. Bano, also killed her 3-year-old daughter by smashing her head on a rock and raped her mother and a cousin. The attackers were convicted of rape and murder.
On Monday, India’s Supreme Court said that the Gujarat government had acted beyond its powers in granting the assailants early release from prison in August 2022. The court ordered the men, who had been greeted by right-wing Hindu nationalists with sweets and garlands upon their return home in 2022, to surrender within two weeks.
Vrinda Grover, a human rights lawyer based in New Delhi, said that the court’s decision amounted to “a scathing indictment of the state of Gujarat.”
The trigger for the 2002 riots, which left more than 1,000 dead, most of them Muslims, was a train fire that killed dozens of Hindu pilgrims. Mr. Modi has long been accused of having turned a blind eye to, or even encouraged, the mob violence, though the Supreme Court has cleared him of the allegations.
In 2008, a court sentenced 11 of 13 defendants in the Bano case to life imprisonment on charges of murder and gang rape.
When the government in Gujarat, which is run by Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, ordered the release of the convicts in 2022, it was widely seen as an effort to rally the party’s Hindu-right base before a state election. The Indian home affairs minister, Amit Shah, considered Mr. Modi’s right-hand man, approved the Gujarat decision. The B.J.P. went on to win the state election.
After the 11 men were released, Ms. Bano said, “I will stand and fight again, against what is wrong and for what is right.”
On Monday, the Supreme Court justices wrote that they had considered whether a reduction in sentence was appropriate in cases of crimes such as those committed against Ms. Bano. They said that the men had lost their right to liberty once they had been convicted and imprisoned and that the Gujarat government had lacked the authority to reduce the sentence because the trial had been shifted from Gujarat to Mumbai.
“The primary duty of the court is to uphold justice and rule of law,” the justices wrote in an order. “Justice encompasses not just the rights of the convicts but also the rights of the victims.”