“And just like that our 18-year-long fight for justice has been reduced to nothing,” said 45-year-old Yakub Rasool, from an undisclosed location near Gujarat’s Godhra.
On 15 August, 11 men – convicted of gang-raping Rasool’s wife Bilkis Bano, killing their three-year-old daughter and 13 other relatives during the 2002 Gujarat riots – walked out of the sub-jail in Gujarat’s Godhra. The Gujarat government allowed their release under its 1992 remission policy.
The 11 men returned to Singvad village in Dahod, where they were greeted and garlanded by their families as well as right-wing groups.
Six days after the convicted men walked out of jail, Rasool spoke to The Quint about the family’s 18-year-long struggle for justice, and the fears that Bano lives under now. Excerpts from the interview:
How has Bilkis Bano processed this news of the convicts walking out of jail?
Bilkis toh itni maayus hai ki usne abhi tak kisi se baat nahi ki hai. Uska dil dukha hai aur uske mann mein darr baith gaya hai. (Bilkis is so disappointed that she hasn’t yet spoken to anyone. She is hurt and scared.)
"She’s yet to fully comprehend why this has happened to her. We had no clue this was in the works. In fact, we learnt about the release (of the convicts) after some people saw a few photos and videos on social media, and informed us. At first, I didn’t think it was true. I confirmed it and then told Bilkis. She went numb."
We’ve been told that the men were let out ‘due to their good conduct.’ I want to know what kind of conduct or good behaviour these people showed in prison for the review committee to release people accused of such heinous crimes.
We haven’t received any official documents related to their release. We’ve asked for a copy of the release, so we can decide our future course of action.
There is some amount of comfort in the fact that the entire country is supporting us.
What does this release mean for the struggle that your family went through over the last two decades?
Iss faisle ne humaari 18 saal ki ladayi ko ek jhatke mein khatam kar diya hai (This verdict has finished off our 18-year-old long struggle in one go).
We fought this for two decades in multiple courts – from being fought as per the Supreme Court guidelines to being transferred to a Mumbai court to the case being transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
A special CBI court sentenced them to life imprisonment. They appealed before the High Court after that, which too upheld the verdict.
In 2019, when the SC awarded us Rs 50 lakh and a government job as compensation, we thought we’d start afresh.
"Hum apni zindagi bas thodi si sudharne ki koshish hi kar rahe thay ki itna bada jhatka hume lag gaya." (Just when we thought of improving our life, we received this shocking news.)
You’ve expressed concerns regarding the security of Bilkis and your family.
Every time, one of the convicts would be out of jail on parole, we would live under extreme fear. Imagine what we must be feeling now that all 11 of them are free.
Who will ensure safety of our family, of Bilkis, and of our children? Right now, there is a lot of media attention but what will happen when this attention fades away?
Life couldn’t have been easy in the last two decades for your family.
I can’t even begin to count the number of houses we have shifted in the last 18 years. We weren’t able to settle down in one place. We had to keep moving out of fear.
We didn’t have a permanent address and we couldn’t share our temporary addresses with many people. We didn’t have many visitors.
And, we also had to worry about the children and their education.
That the last 18 years were ‘tough’ is an understatement. The list of the challenges we faced is endless.
Your children are now older, how do they perceive this situation?
Our children had to mature faster than most other children because of how life has been over the last 18 years. Humaare bachhe sab samajhte hain aur sab dekh bhi rahe hain (Our children understand everything and they’re watching things unfold).
"Bilkis and I tried to shield them from the aftermath of the riots. We never discussed what was happening in the courts in their presence but they’ve grown up watching us struggle. Now, they are worried about their future."
How can I tell them what their future will be like now? Kya unki baaki ki zindagi dar-dar ke guzregi yaa woh ek behtar bhavishya ki ummeed kar sakte hain? (Will they spend the rest of their life in fear or can they hope for a better future?)
We don’t know.
The 11 convicts have been garlanded and welcomed back home. A local MLA (CK Raulji) called them ‘virtuous Brahmin’ men. What do you have to say about that?
It's disgusting and disheartening to see and hear these things. Bilkis chaahe abhi kuch na kahe lekin wo yeh sab dekh rahi hai. (Bilkis might not be talking right now but she is watching.) The entire country is watching how rapists and murderers are being celebrated.
"This is not just an insult of Bilkis but also an insult of all women in this country. Rapists are being celebrated as if they’re some kind of heroes."
I just want to say that this celebration is being watched by Bilkis, by us, and by women and people across the country. This won’t be forgotten.