“Undo the harm” and “give me back my right to live without fear and in peace”.
Breaking her silence for the first time after the release on remission of the 11 convicts who were convicted of gangraping her and killing 14 members of her family, including her three-year-old daughter, Bilkis Bano said on Wednesday that she was “bereft of words” and “still numb”.
In a statement, issued by her advocate Shobha Gupta, Bilkis said: “Today, I can only say 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 slowly learning to live with my trauma. The release of these convicts has taken from me my peace and shaken my faith in justice.”
At Bilkis’ village in Dahod’s Singvad, which she left during the riots, there was an edgy silence as a stream of guests visited the 11 convicts, most of whom were her neighbours once. The celebrations to mark their homecoming, after 14 years in jail, were muted.
The house where Bilkis lived with husband Yakub Rasool is barely 20 metres from the residence of Radheshyam Shah (47), known as “Lala Vakil” — one of the 11 convicts and the advocate who approached the Supreme Court seeking directions for the Gujarat government to consider their remission application.
After Bilkis and her family moved to Devgadh Baria, about 33 km away, their former house is now home to a garment shop managed by a Hindu family from Rajasthan. It was from this house that Bilkis’ father once supplied buffalo milk to the neighbourhood. There is no trace of that business today, although a cattle-herder’s family stays behind the building with buffaloes tied near their sleeping area.
Bilkis and her family left this house on February 28, 2002, soon after the train-burning incident in Godhra the previous day. On March 3, 2002, she was gangraped and 14 members of the family were killed by a mob in Limkheda taluka of Dahod — the bodies of six were never found. The 11 convicts were sentenced to life imprisonment by a CBI special court on January 21, 2008.
In her statement, Bilkis said: “Two days ago, on August 15, 2022, 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 three-year-old daughter, had walked free. I was bereft of words. I am still numb…”
“My sorrow and my wavering faith is not for myself alone but for every woman, who is struggling for justice in the 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,” she said.
In Singvad, most of the convicts’ homes are located in the area around Bilkis’ former home. At Radheshyam Shah’s house, the 47-year-old was flanked by guests. He showed them certificates of various courses that he completed during his time in prison, and newspaper articles on him. He listed among those courses “value education and spirituality”, “computer basics” and “Hindi literature”.
According to Shah, he was appointed as a paralegal volunteer to help prisoners draft and send bail applications in the Godhra sub-jail from where he was released along with the 10 others. He recalls a brief period when he shared a unit at the Arthur Road jail in Mumbai with the 2008 serial blasts accused Safdar Nagori. “All prisoners are the same, there is nothing exceptional or fearsome about them,” he said.
The other convicts who were released along with Shah are: Jaswant Nai, Govind Nai, Kesar Vohania, Baka Vohania, Raju Soni, Ramesh Chandana, Shailesh Bhatt, Bipin Joshi, Pradip Modhiya and Mitesh Bhatt. Another convict, Naresh Modhiya, died during the trial.
Both Shah and Ramesh Chandana (54) deny the charges that led to their conviction, claiming that they have the support of local residents, “including Muslims in the village”. “You can go out and ask the people, although they might not be forthcoming due to pressure from their communities,” Chandana said.
“Those who were sentenced to life imprisonment were brothers or related to each other. Jaswant and Govind Nai are uncle and nephew, Shailesh Bhatt and Mitesh Bhatt are brothers. Naresh Modhiya and Pradip Modhiya were brothers. Is it possible for brothers to commit such a gross act, one after the other?” he said.
Local officials say nearly 50 per cent of the estimated 3,000-3,500 people in the village belong to the Adivasi community. The village’s epicentre is a “chowk” marked by a temple. There is Rehmat Kirana Shop next to Arihant Kirana Shop, Mustufa General Stores near Shreeji General Stores. But residents say most of the shops have been taken on rent from their owners after several members of the Muslim community moved out. Some others from the community use the village only as a base for business, they said.
During the day, Shah and his family gathered at Aashish Kangan, the shop run by his father and brother at the front of their two-storeyed house. Shah says he was a practising advocate when the Godhra incident happened. “I was at the Limkheda court that day and supposed to go to the Godhra district court in the afternoon but did not. I continued to stay at home for the next few days as the situation deteriorated across Gujarat,” he said.
Shah says he has “always been against violence, especially violence against women, as it is against our culture”. Chandana claims the 11 were made “scapegoats” by the then political regime “as soon as CBI came into the investigation”. “As long as the Gujarat CID was looking into it, the probe was going well,” he said.
Both say that with social media scrutiny and debates on their early release, they are trying to keep a low profile. The convicts also deny any political patronage or affiliation. But Chandana, who was a senior government clerk in Gandhinagar, confirms that his wife was the village sarpanch from 2001 till 2011. “Singvad has always been a BJP stronghold,” he said, while pointing out that there are no political parties in the panchayat elections.
Kaid Safuden Bhatia (51), a Dawoodi Bohra who runs a general store near Bilkis’ former home, says he moved his family to Dahod city two years after the riots for “better schools” since “education is important”.
“The village has 22 Dawoodi Bohra Muslim families… (The convicts) were my friends. I went to meet some of them after their release because I felt I should be there to share their happiness. What happened in 2002 was beyond our control… At the end of the day, we have to live in harmony, that is what business rules dictate,” he said.