The premature release of 11 convicts sentenced to life imprisonment in the Bilkis Bano gang-rape case has drawn sharp criticism from the victim, several prominent leaders, activists and organisations across the country.

Two days after her tormentors walked free, the 2002 gang-rape survivor Bilkis Yakub Rasool released a statement, "the trauma of the past 20 years washed over me again when I heard that the 11 convicted men who devastated my family and my life, and took from me my 3 year old daughter, had walked free. I was bereft of words. I am still numb. Today, I can say only this - how can justice for any woman end like this? I trusted the highest courts in our land. I trusted the system, and I was learning slowly to live with my trauma.

"The release of these convicts has taken from me my peace and shaken my faith in justice. My sorrow and my wavering faith is not for myself alone but for every woman who is struggling for justice in courts. No one enquired about my safety and well-being, before taking such a big and unjust decision. I appeal to the Gujarat Government, please undo this harm. Give me back my right to live without fear and in peace. Please ensure that my family and I are kept safe."

Bilkis was just 20-years-old, and pregnant, when on February 28, 2002 she fled her village with her three-year-old daughter and 15 other members of her family. They feared violence post the Godhra train burning incident which had happened just the previous day.

On March 3, they reached another village where they were immediately surrounded and beaten up by a mob of about 20 people, including the 11 convicts of the gang-rape case. She saw her family members being killed. Bilkis was brutally raped. Her three year old daughter was murdered.

In 2008, a special court convicted 11 of the accused and charged them with murder, conspiring to rape a pregnant woman and other sections of the Indian Penal Code. However, on Independence Day, August 15 2022, 21 years after the attacks, the convicts, all of whom were serving a life term, were released after the Gujarat government approved their remission.

Activists, politicians and leaders across the country have condemned the release. They highlight that these convicts were not eligible for remission, as the 2014 policy excludes those accused of gang-rape and murder from remission.

The Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan released a statement asserting that, "this act of setting the culprits free is in violation of the Centre's guidelines on remission. It invokes ethical questions over the state showing compassion for the accused whilst the woman who suffered unspeakable brutalities is left emotionally and mentally scarred for her lifetime.

"This act is a huge setback for several Nirbhayas across the country who are awaiting justice in matters of brutal sexual assaults and murders. This act would cripple women's fight for justice in all matters of sexual violence.

"It would embolden those indulging in gruesome crimes against women and children that they can get away under the loophole of remission. The Centre must prevail upon the Gujarat government to withdraw the order and revoke the remission. The accused must serve life-term as required by the HC verdict.

"Bilkis has valiantly fought for justice over the years since the ghastly communal violence in Gujarat in 2002. Her struggle has inspired women across the country to stand up and fight against sexual violence. As India celebrates Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav we cannot allow open injustice to the women of India.

"The Prime Minister's call for Nari Shakti and women power is meaningless in front of this shocking remitting of the life-term sentence for the rapists. The government needs to stand in support of the women fighting for justice and not act in favour of convicted rapists and murderers."

What was even more appalling was that minutes after their release, the men were greeted by relatives and neighbours with sweets and tilaks. On Wednesday, Vishwa Hindu Parishad members greeted the convicts with garlands in their office in Gujarat. Activists and others are now demanding that the state government immediately withdraw the release.

Women's rights activist Pranitha Timothy, told The Citizen, "it is disgusting to see people celebrating because it is utter depravity to think it's okay to do what they did. We as a country have much to think about. They constituted a group to bring this out during Independence week and that's not a coincidence. It's planned and executed well. It's their meaning of Aazadi ka amrit mahotsav."