Union minister Jayant Sinha has expressed regret for garlanding eight men convicted in a lynching case earlier this month because it gave critics “an opportunity to say I was condoning vigilantism”, he told the Hindustan Times in an interview published on Monday.

He said the eight men had come to meet him after their release on bail because he had “legally assisted” them. “If Mariam Khatoon [the victim’s widow] had come to me and said, ‘help me’, I would have helped her too,” Sinha told the newspaper.

Earlier this month, the minister was criticised for garlanding the men convicted of lynching cattle trader Alimuddin Ansari in Jharkhand last year. The convicts had gone to meet Sinha soon once they were released on bail following an order by the Jharkhand High Court. The court had suspended their life sentences – earlier given by a fast-track court – on June 29.

Sinha said the High Court had found no evidence against them, and so, they were innocent. “So for people to say they are lynchers and I was feting lynchers is not true,” he told the Hindustan Times. “The truth is they were bystanders [and] they had been picked by the police...”

Sinha also said he met them in private, not public, and to interpret it as support for vigilantism is the work of an “outrage factory” and is “toxic”.

“My intention was to ensure everyone got justice,” he said. “It was for me a matter of justice, and justice alone. Anyone who participated in lynching – and there is evidence that some people participated in violence against the victim – deserves the full punishment. But the innocent should get justice. And it is my duty as the MP that everyone gets justice.”

Sinha denied that the rule of the Bharatiya Janata Party emboldened those who want to attack minority communities. He said top ministers, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, had condemned incidents of violence and vigilantism. “We have made it clear that our government represents all of India, rule of law is supreme,” he said in the interview.

Sinha said there was no data to tell whether the incidents of mob violence had gone up or down under the BJP’s rule. The government has been “clear and strict” that such violence is dealt with very sternly, and there is swift justice, he said. “Those who are accusing us of this kind of violence have a very chequered past on this question,” he said. “They themselves have encouraged this kind of mob violence.”