(*Names of all subjects in the story have been changed to protect their identity.)
In the middle of the night on 16 August, Hamid* woke his children up from deep slumber. He asked them to quickly, but quietly, pack some clothes, their textbooks, and utensils. Hamid* and his wife, meanwhile, picked up a gas cylinder, and some cash.
By 4 am, they had locked up and left their home in Randhikpur, a nondescript village in Gujarat’s Dahod, for a relief camp in Devgarh Baria, 50 km away.
This was a day after 11 men convicted of gang raping Bilkis Bano, and killing 14 members of her family – including her three-year-old daughter – during the Gujarat riots of 2002, were released from a sub-jail in Godhra.
The 2002 incident had taken place in Randhikpur.
Hamid*, and a few more Muslims in the village, told The Quint, that they have left their homes behind “out of fear,” and will “not go back as long as the 11 men are out.”
“I didn’t want to wait till sunrise. I was worried they would set my house on fire at night,” said Hamid*, who is a 26-year-old daily wage labourer.
The relief colony in Devgarh Baria has over 70 houses and was set up in 2004, two years after the Gujarat riots.
Meanwhile, Balram Meena, Superintendent of Police in Dahod, told The Quint that senior police officials have visited the village and found that the families are moving out of “self-created fear” and not because of any real threat they received from the convicts or their families.
“We have told them (villagers) to inform us if they feel unsafe or they receive any threats. At present it seems like they are moving out because of self-created fear. I feel this move is temporary and their way of protesting against the release (of the convicts). They (Muslim families) will return once the issue settles down. Their homes and other establishments are in this village,” said SP Meena.
Several people at the relief camp in Devgarh Baria also corroborated that there was no verbal or physical threat that they had received from the convicts or their families after their release. They, however, felt unsafe in the presence of the convicts and decided to leave.
‘A Mob Set My House on Fire in 2002, Afraid It’ll Happen Again, So I Left’
Hamid*, who is related to Bilkis, was six years old when the riots broke out in Gujarat. “In 2002, I saw a mob set my house on fire, watched what they did to my extended family, including Bilkis. So, this time I just decided to leave,” he added.
Randhikpur has been Hamid’s* family home for three generations, like it has been home to 34-year-old Yusuf*.
But on 19 August, Yusuf* too left home and reached Devgarh Baria.
He told The Quint, “Yeh log jab parole par baahar aate thay tab bhi hume dhamkaate thay. Abhi sirf media ki wajah se chup hain shaayad. Hume kya unke daraane-dhamkaane ka intezaar karna chahiye? (Whenever these men came out on parole, they would threaten us. Right now, they’re silent because the case is being covered by the media. Would you rather have us wait for them to assault or attack us?)”
The convicts returned home amid celebrations, as their family members and relatives burst firecrackers, distributed sweets, and held a puja in the village temple.
Bilkis, on the other hand, has not returned to Randhikpur since the incident. “Kabhi mann nahi kiya aur na hi himmat hui. (We never felt like going back nor could we gather the strength to go back.) I don’t think Bilkis would want to go back even if the convicts were still in prison. We have horrid memories of that village,” her husband Yakub Rasool, 45, had told The Quint.
The Scars of 2002
Unlike Hamid* and his family, Yusuf* did not think of taking any belongings with him before he left Randhikpur with his wife and five children. “I left the village three days after the release of the convicts. Initially, I thought that it’s been 20 years since the riots and things might have changed but…”
What changed Yusuf’s* mind? “I have four daughters. When I saw how the convicts were welcomed with loud celebratory music and firecrackers, I couldn’t sleep. I kept asking myself, what if they do something to my daughters,” he told The Quint.
Yusuf* was 14 years old in 2002 when violence gripped his village. “Back then, we had heard about riots breaking out in parts of Gujarat. Par humne socha nahi tha ki Randhikpur mein kuch hoga. (We didn’t imagine that violence will reach Randhikpur),” he said.
In 2002, Yusuf* escaped unhurt after he hid in a forest next to the village. “I stayed there for a month at least before I reached a relief camp in Godhra,” he recalled.
It was at the relief camp that Yusuf* first heard about what happened with Bilkis and her family. “Bilkis was my neighbour. I knew of her, but we had never spoken. Despite that, it sends shivers down my spine when I think of what they did to her. We’ve seen a mob burn our homes and murder our people once. They can do it again,” he said.
A week after the convicts were released, Sheikh Farooq, a 37-year-old shopkeeper in Randhikpur, had told The Quint that several Muslim families had left the village post the 2002 riots and never returned. “Of the 3,000-plus residents here now, 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,” he had said.
‘Where Do We Go From Here?’
On 20 August afternoon, Iqbal*, his wife and their four children took a tempo out of Randhikpur, with all their belongings in tow. An hour later, they reached the relief camp in Devgarh Baria.
“I have three school-going children. They went to a primary school near Randhikpur. This is impacting their education. But is education more important than their lives?” he asked.
The Supreme Court of India, on 25 August, issued notice to the Gujarat government in a batch of petitions against the remission granted to these 11 men sentenced to life imprisonment. The court was hearing petitions filed by Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra, Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Subhashini Ali, and another petitioner represented by advocate Aparna Bhat.
Iqbal’s* family had previously fled Randhikpur in the aftermath of the 2002 riots. They returned to the village in 2004. “We have our ancestral home in the village. Once we felt that the situation was normal, we returned,” he said. This time, however, Iqbal* has no plans of returning home – at least not till the convicts live there.
“We don’t have a home here at the relief camp in Devgarh Baria. No food to eat, no clothes to wear. Our neighbours are feeding us. How long will this go on? There’s no work. But it is impossible for us to return to Randhikpur till those 11 men are there,” he said.
Yusuf* too feels that his family will not be able to return to the village till the 11 convicts are not sent back to jail. “Money, land, education and work – all of these make sense only if we’re alive,” he said.