“We haven't visited that village in 18 years. Kabhi mann nahi kiya aur na hi himmat hui. I don’t think Bilkis would want to go back even if the convicts were still in prison. We’ve horrid memories of that village,” said 45-year-old Yakub Rasool.
The village that Rasool, who is Bilkis Bano’s husband, spoke to The Quint about is Randhikpur – a nondescript village with a population of around 3,500 people, located 128 km away from Vadodara in Gujarat.
It was here that Bilkis grew up. It was here that five-month-pregnant Bilkis was gang-raped in 2002 when she was visiting her parents. It was here that 14 members of her family, including her three-year-old daughter Saleha, were killed during the Gujarat riots of 2002.
And it was here that firecrackers were burst this month when the 11 men – her neighbours in Randhikpur – convicted of gang-raping Bilkis and killing her family members were released from a sub-jail in Godhra.
Twenty years after the riots in Gujarat in 2002, in which 1,044 people were killed, the focus is back on Randhikpur – a village that has never quite been the same.
'Things changed after 2002'
“These men are back but we haven't seen Bilkis in the last 18 years,” said Sheikh Farooq, a 37-year-old shopkeeper, who lives next to Bilkis' parents’ house in Randhikpur.
Farooq was 17 years old when riots engulfed his village. “Most of her family was killed and those who survived never returned to Randhikpur,” he told The Quint. Tenants now live in Bilkis’ ancestral home and run a saree shop there.
Spread across 5.6 square km, Randhikpur is a tiny village with one police station, a government-run primary school, an ashram shaala run by the Tribal/Social Welfare Department of the Gujarat government, and a village square with over 50 shops that sell medicines and grocery, and some food joints.
In 2019, Sheikh Iqbal opened a grocery store in the village square – which he now calls a “mistake.” He told The Quint, “We don't have a future in this village. Of the 3,000-plus residents here, only 150-200 are Muslims. But it wasn’t always like this. After the 2002 riots, many families moved out immediately, others did so over years, and some are still hoping to leave.”
Both Iqbal and Farooq believe that the 2002 riots created permanent fissures between the Hindu and the Muslims in the village, and that the return of the convicts has reopened old wounds.
On 15 August – as India celebrated Independence Day – the 11 convicts were welcomed home with garlands and sweets by their families and members of the right wing. Bilkis’ husband, disturbed by the visuals of their welcome, had told The Quint, “Rapists are being celebrated like heroes. Bilkis is watching… the country is watching how rapists and murderers are being celebrated.”
The convicts – whose families either still have homes or shops in Randhikpur – walked out of the prison to live in homes in Singvad, a village nearby.
“Post 2002, there has been limited interaction between Hindus and Muslims in the village. Though there haven't been any riots or visibly tense incidents but people from both the communities have been wary of each other,” explained Farooq, as he sat at his grocery shop on a Sunday afternoon.
He said that the “return of these people (convicts) is only adding to the fear the Muslims here live under.”
'Happy The Men Are Back': Families of Convicts
Ever since the convicts walked out of the sub-jail, a sea of reporters descended upon Randhikpur. On 21 August, when The Quint approached a shopkeeper in the village regarding the address of a convict, Radheshyam Shah, who pointed at a two-storey building quickly, as if it was routine for him to guide people towards that house. Radheshyam's family lives right across the street from Bilkis’ parents’ house.
It was Radheshyam who had approached the Supreme Court for remission after serving 14 years in prison. Two police personnel were stationed outside his house when The Quint visited his house on 21 August.
While Radheshyam refused to speak, his brother Ashish who runs a grocery story on the ground floor of their family house claimed that his brother was “innocent and irrespective of that spent 14 years in prison.”
Ashish said, “My brother’s wife and daughter are finally happy that he is out of prison. Please leave them alone.”
Families of most of the convicts remained unavailable for comments, Jai Bhatt, son of convict Shailesh Bhatt told The Quint, “I was in class four when my father was sentenced to life imprisonment. We have suffered enough.”
Jai said, “Do you know how difficult it was to convince people to marry our sisters and daughters? In fact, nobody wanted to build any relations with us. We were ostracised from society.”
Jai, like Radheshyam’s brother Ashish, claimed that his father Shailesh and uncle Mitesh Bhatt were innocent. When pointed out that they are both convicts, he said, "We respect the judicial system of this country. They have served their sentence and are free now."
Randhikpur's 'New Normal'
A dot on a map, Randhikpur is unable to come out of the shadow of what happened in 2002. Twenty years later, its residents are hesitant to talk about what they think of the 11 convicts being released from jail.
"20 saal purani baat hai madam. Ab kya bolein? Jo hona tha ho gaya. Ab sab ghar wapas aa gaye hain (It's been 20 years since the riots. What should we say now? Whatever happened, happened! Everybody is back home)," said Bhaggu Bhai, another shopkeeper in the area.
When pointed out that Bilkis Bano has not yet returned, Bhaggu was quick to retort, "Who is stopping her? She should also come back."
Keshavbhai Joshi, a tailor in the area, initially refused to accept that he knows any of the 11 convicts. When he heard Bhaggu talking, however, he was quick to jump in, "Humaare gaanv mein sab normal hai. Ye sab Hindu-Muslim baatein media mein hoti hain, yahaan sab theek hai. (Everything is normal in our village. This chatter around Hindu-Muslim animosity only happens in the media. Here everything is normal)," he said.
Meanwhile, Bilkis and her family live in fear, unwilling to disclose where they've put up. They don’t have a permanent address. The children have changed multiple schools in all these years. “Every time, one of the convicts was out of jail on parole, we would live under fear. Imagine now that all 11 are out. Who will ensure our safety? Bilkis’ husband Rasool had asked.