India’s top court on Monday reversed a controversial decision to release several men convicted of gangraping a pregnant Muslim woman during the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat.
The story of survivor Bilkis Bano underscores heightened tensions in India between Hindus and Muslims. Eleven Hindu men gangraped then 21-year-old Bano and killed 14 members of her family, including her 3-year-old daughter, during widespread violence in the western state of Gujarat, which was then governed by chief minister Narendra Modi, who is now the country’s prime minister.
The men were initially sentenced to life in prison but were granted early release in 2022 by an advisory panel set up by the Gujarat government, ruled by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. In overturning the decision, the Supreme Court said that the Gujarat government did not have the authority to release the men and accused it of being “complicit” with the convicted rapists.
The ruling was widely celebrated as a sign of the judiciary’s independence, but recent rulings and conduct from its justices still illustrate Modi’s sweeping influence on the Court.
Advocates hail ruling as a promising sign of independent judiciary
“These are the judgements which restore people’s faith in the Independence of the judiciary,” Supreme Court lawyer and civil rights activist Prashant Bhushan wrote on X. A former solicitor general in India, Indira Jaisingh, wrote in The Indian Express that power in the country is being “exercised extra-constitutionally by those who govern us.” In other recent cases, he said, the Supreme Court has abdicated its “power of judicial review.” But the Bano ruling is a “reassertion of the SC’s lost power,” Jaisingh argued, and is a sign that the Court is “coming back to itself.”
Human rights activists accused the Supreme Court of supporting Modi’s agenda
India’s Supreme Court has frequently been accused of “capitulating to Modi’s government” since he came to power in 2014, Le Monde wrote. Instead of passing legislation, Modi has been successful at “outsourcing several political decisions” to what is supposed to be a neutral judiciary, sociologist Nandini Sundar wrote in the Journal of Right-Wing studies. By refusing to take on major constitutional issues that could challenge Modi’s agenda and issuing judgements that endorse the government’s actions, the Court has promoted “Modi’s personality cult” and “collaborated in the delegitimization of dissent,” according to Sundar. Even seemingly “progressive” rulings that could boost women’s rights — like banning “instant divorce” customs practiced by some Muslim communities — helped promote the BJP narrative that “Muslims alone are backward,” Sundar wrote.
Actions of one judge raise questions about India’s commitment to secularism
Supreme Court Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud’s recent publicized visit to a temple in Gujarat where he called on his colleagues to draw inspiration from Hindu symbolism raises “disturbing questions about his personal judgment,” argued historian Ramachandra Guha for Scroll. Guha drew attention to the timing of Chandrachud’s visit, which came days before the inauguration of a new temple in Uttar Pradesh province on a site that was a flashpoint of Hindu-Muslim violence. Chandrachud’s remarks at the temple, in which he drew parallels between Hindu traditions and the Indian Constitution, also “raise questions about his intellectual acumen,” Guha argued.