More than 6,000 Indians, including eminent writers, rights activists and former bureaucrats, signed a petition on Thursday urging the top court to revoke the release of 11 men convicted of gang raping a Muslim woman and murdering her family during sectarian riots in 2002.
Bilkis Bano, one of the three survivors of the mass rape and murder, was sexually assaulted and 14 of her family members were hacked to death by a group of Hindu men in March 2002 in the western state of Gujarat.
The men were convicted by a special court in 2008 and their sentences were upheld by the top court in a case that made international headlines for two decades.
“The remission of sentences for the 11 convicted of gang-rape and mass murder will have a chilling effect on every rape victim who is told to ‘trust the system’, ‘seek justice’, ‘have faith’,” a joint statement by the petitioners said.
The formal petition has yet to be filed before the top court.
In a surprise move on Monday, the Gujarat government, administered by prime minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party, ordered their release to coincide with the celebrations of India’s 75th Independence Day.
Ms Bano said the move left her “numb”.
Viral images and videos of the convicts being feted with sweets and garlands outside the jail have led to widespread condemnation and street protests amid demands that the courts intervene to end the “grave miscarriage of justice”.
“That such a remission was even considered, and then permitted, reveals the hollowness of the public posturing about Nari Shakti, (women's empowerment) Beti Bachao (a government campaign for girls' rights) and women’s rights and justice for victims,” the statement said.
On Wednesday, Ms Bano issued a statement saying her attackers’ release has “taken from me my peace and shaken my faith in justice”.
“I was bereft of words. I am still numb … I was learning slowly to live with my trauma,” she said.
Violence had broken out in Godhra city in Gujarat after 59 Hindu pilgrims were killed by a group of Muslims after they attacked a train coach they were travelling in on February 27, 2002.
The attack led to widespread largely anti-Muslim violence across the state and more than 1,000 people, the majority of them from the minority community, were killed in days of rioting in the state governed by the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Ms Bano was 21 and five-months pregnant when she was raped as 14 members of her family were killed by her Hindu neighbours in March 2002. Seven bodies were never found.
The dead included her mother, a day-old niece and her toddler daughter Saleha, whose head was smashed with a rock.
A court in Mumbai sentenced the attackers to life imprisonment after the trial was moved from Gujarat, where police and courts had initially dismissed her allegations.
Ms Bano had alleged intimidation and threats by the attackers during the trial and spent years in safe houses.
The convictions were later upheld by the higher courts, which also awarded her 5 million rupees ($62,700) compensation in 2019.
One of the convicts, Radheshyam Shah, approached the Supreme Court in May for remission, pleading that he had served more than 15 years in prison.
The state government authorised their release on the basis of their “age, nature of the crime, behaviour in prison”.
Several opposition political parties, including Congress, have denounced their release, saying it clearly showed the ruling party’s bias towards the Muslim community.
Dozens of women protested in the capital New Delhi on Thursday, demanding the government reverse its decision, while thousands of social media users lashed out at the government.