With her rapists out of jail, Bilkis Bano’s ordeal is far from over

The Gujarat riots of 2002 bore witness to the brutal gang rape and murder of fifteen family members of Bilkis Bano. Further, Bano's three-year-old daughter's head was smashed leading to the child's demise.

As India entered her 76th year of independence, so did 11 convicts who stepped out to freedom after completing more than 15 years of jail time.

According to a PTI report, these men were serving life imprisonment following the verdict of a special CBI court in Mumbai on January 21, 2008. They were charged with gang rape and murder of fifteen members of Bilkis Bano’s family, including her three children during the notorious Gujarat riots in 2002.

The tragedy of Bilkis Bano

Twenty years ago, on February 28, 2002, Sabarmati Express carrying karsevaks was set on fire in Godhra station. What followed the attack on the train were riots that claimed the lives of thousands of innocent victims, mostly Muslim families.

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Bilkis Bano, who was a little less than 21 years of age and five months pregnant at that time, tried to flee the state with her family, including her three-year-old daughter – Sahela.

A resident of Randhikpur village in Dahod, her Hindu neighbours had set fire to most of the Muslim houses, including hers.

Terrified, Bilkis and her family ran for their lives. Their aim was to reach a Muslim majority settlement.

According to an article by The Wire, the family met many compassionate people on their way. They first took refuge at the residence of the village Sarpanch, then in a school in the village of Chunadi, and thereafter in the village mosque of Kuvajal.

On March 3, 2002, the family reached Pannivel village and took refuge in a field. However, they were soon cornered by 20-30 Hindu men, armed with sticks, sickles, and swords.

As they shouted, ‘Aa rahya Musalmano, emane maaro, kaato,’ (these are the Muslims, kill them, cut them’) Bilkis recognized many faces. One was the son of a doctor who treated Bilkis’s father, another was a shopkeeper who sold bangles, another ran a hotel and was the husband of an elected member of the gram panchayat.

Bilkis had grown up with all these men. They were no strangers to her.

What followed was a blood bath and a cry for mercy as one by one Bilkis’s family members were killed. Four women including Bilkis and her mother were brutally gang raped and assaulted. One of the accused – Shailesh Bhatt – snatched Bilkis’s daughter from her arms and smashed the toddler’s head onto the ground, killing her instantly.

Fifteen of her family members were killed that day. Her cousin who had given birth to a baby girl the previous day was brutally ripped off, raped, and killed along with her infant. Bilkis was left naked, bleeding, and unconscious.

As a shattered Bilkis woke up surrounded by the bodies of loved ones, she ran up a hill covering her body with whatever she could find. That night she spent alone, grieving.

The next day she borrowed some clothes from an Adivasi woman and went straight to the Limkheda Police Station.

Being the lone witness to the slaughter, she tried to register her complaint but police head constable, Somabhai Gori, refused to acknowledge or record her complaint.

The constable took Bilkis to a relief camp where she was reunited with her husband Yakub Rasool.

Speaking to Scroll.in, Yakub recalls, “I found her sitting silently in a dark corner, buried in grief. I put everything aside—the riots, the family we had lost. I spoke to her with love, I tried to bring her out of the pain she had endured. Since then, I have heard Bilkis testify a million times; to NGO workers, to lawyers, to journalists, but I have never asked her—what happened to you? Who did what? You have heard the words too, but every time, I have felt them in my heart.”

Attempt to cover the crime

The family members’ decomposed bodies were discovered by journalists which then forced the police to act.

Since Bilkis was the lone survivor and eyewitness of the murders, she went through the ordeal of identifying the bodies, including her toddler. She also underwent a medical examination four days after her rape.

However, the doctors who examined her did not take her biological samples, which is crucial to prove if rape was conducted or not. Police folded their hands and legs and did not follow up on the case.

In fact, after the post-mortem was conducted on the bodies, they were buried away as per the instructions of the police without the knowledge of Bilkis and Yakub.

It was a clear indication that attempts were made to shove the case under the carpet.

It was clear that attempts were being made to shield the accused persons.

Rise of the Phoenix

A case was registered 15 days after the massacre. However, the battle for Bilkis and Yakub had just begun.

Even after her repeated pleas, the police showed no cooperation or sympathy towards her. On March 25, 2003, the case was dismissed by a judicial magistrate citing a lack of evidence.

But Bilkis rose above the savagery leashed on her and her family. She moved to the Supreme Court with the help of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).

Due to the sensitivity of the case, it was transferred to the CBI which found many loopholes in the case. In 2004, the CBI investigations revealed that the bodies recovered had no skulls. That their heads were cut off soon after the post-mortem to avoid identification.

The CBI requested the Supreme Court to transfer the case outside Gujarat citing, “that the government of Narendra Modi, who was chief minister at the time, could not even be trusted with the conduct of court proceedings in the matter.”

On August 6, the apex court shifted the case from Gujarat to Maharashtra.

For the next six years, Bilkis fought like a wounded tigress. She made sure that all those who were responsible be punished by the law of the land and spent the rest of their lives behind bars.

The journey was not easy as she and Yakub spend most of their lives hiding while the murderers roamed the street freely.

Finally, on January 18, 2008, the special court in Mumbai sentenced the 11 accused to life imprisonment (one had died) and arrested a policeman for three years for trying to destroy evidence. 

We want to begin a new life: convict

“The Gujarat government has released us as per the order of the Supreme Court. I feel glad to be out as I will be able to meet my family members and begin a new life,” said Radheshyam Shah, one of the convicts.

On August 15, the 11 convicts who were sentenced to life imprisonment were released by the Gujarat government under its remission policy. Radheshyam Shah had approached the Supreme Court for a premature release.

Based on Shah’s plea, the apex court directed a commission to be formed under the Gujarat state government.

Panchmahals Collector Sujal Mayatra, who headed the panel said, “A committee formed a few months back took a unanimous decision in favour of remission of all the 11 convicts in the case. The recommendation was sent to the state government, and yesterday (August 14) we received the orders for their release.”

The 11 convicts who were granted premature release are Jaswantbhai Nai, Govindbhai Nai, Shailesh Bhatt, Radheshyam Shah, Bipin Chandra Joshi, Kesarbhai Vohania, Pradeep Mordhiya, Bakabhai Vohania, Rajubhai Soni, Mitesh Bhatt, and Ramesh Chandana.

As they stepped out of the jail door, they were welcomed with sweets.


We don’t know what to do: Bilkis lawyer

As for Bilkis and Yakub, they came to know about the decision through the media. Speaking to the new agency PTI. Yakub said, “We don’t know when the convicts processed their application and which ruling the state government took into consideration. We never received any kind of notice.”

He said the Gujarat government had paid the family a compensation of Rs 50 lakh as directed by the Supreme Court but is yet to provide a job or a house as directed by the Apex court.

While Bilkis was not available for comment, NDTV spoke to her lawyer Shobha Gupta who said that the family is very scared about their safety.

“Bilkis is in acute shock. For her, the battle was over with the last order of the Supreme Court in 2019, when the compensation was granted. She was now learning to live her life peacefully. She had just started to learn to live in peace without worrying about safety. This decision is a shocker,” Gupta said.

When asked if they are planning to challenge the decision, the lawyer said, “We do not know what to do. Whoever was with Bilkis in her journey all these years, we have no clue what to do.”

Bilkis and Yakub have five sons, the eldest one is 20 years old.

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