It was Maulana Umerji who ran the Godhra Relief Camp for months after the carnage, a man who had collected relief from Godhra for the victims of gas poisoning in faraway Bhopal in 1984 and who died a broken man, accused of being a “terrorist” though he was finally “honourably acquitted in 2011 after spending eight long years, wrongly incarcerated at the Sabarmati Jail, Ahmedabad. Thousands were given shelter here after the reprisal killings in Panchmahal Dahod district of which Godhra is district headquarters.
And it was here that I met Bilkis Bano first in early March, soon after the ghastly crimes committed on her and then on March 22, 2002, again. I then recorded this interview which was published in the seminal issue of Commumalism Combat, ”Genocide” Gujarat 2002.
She recounted her tale haltingly but firm, as tears did not stop welling up as the account progressed and she recalled what the “mob” had done to her precious three year old Saleha, the unborn child in her womb (she was pregnant at the time), her mother and her sister. She has, by then already sent her complaint, in writing, to the Superintendent of Police (SP) Godhra, then one Rajiv Bhargava. She even provided us with a copy of the written complaint to the SP.
I recorded the interview dispassionately, reproducing the words she uttered, in Gujarati and Hindi, both languages I understand.
Today, January 9, 2024, a day after the Supreme Court’s historic verdict in quashing the remission order that allowed 11 men –powerfully connected to the regime in Delhi and Gandhinagar (Gujarat)—to walk free on August 15, 2022, I turned the pages of my diaries, documents and files, pages that go back 22 years.
As a writer and student of the law, a profession and process that witnesses fewer successes and more failures on the question of substantive justice delivery, I felt the need to reproduce that account, in the first person by Bilkis Rasool Shaikh made before me at the Godhra Relief Camp on March 22, 2022.
For the record, Justice JS Verma, then Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and former Chief Justice of India (CJI) was also present at the Godhra Relief Camp the same day. The NHRC report on Gujarat 2002 (Interim report, April 2002 and Final Report July 2002) remains the most accurate and scathing indictment of the then state government in its failure to ensure the Indian constitutional mandate, its complicity in allowing innocent lives of women, men and children, and their dignity to be snatched away. By mobs of men who enjoyed political cover and impunity.
Saluts Bilkis Bano!
Place: Randhikpur, Panchmahal district
Witness: Bilkees (19-year-old). Rabia, her neighbour and relative, was with her at the time of the interview. (Interviewed by Teesta Setalvad at Godhra Relief Camp on March 22)
“On the highway just outside the village we were set upon by a mob and 14 persons from my family were butchered and killed — 7 from my father’s family and 7 from my in-laws’ side. All the women and young girls, including my 3 1/2 -year-old baby, were…….. before being killed. They did the same thing to me, and if I am alive, it is only because after attacking me, they left me, thinking I was dead.
“My aunt, my mother, my three sisters all met with the same fate. I am 5-6 months pregnant. My husband and in-laws were away for Id. My husband came to meet me yesterday. All the other villagers, including Rabia’s family, had fled the day before, but we stayed behind because my aunt’s daughter was about to deliver. That delay has cost us everything. I have filed a complaint with the police but I don’t know whether I will get justice.
Bilkees’ FIR, addressed to the DSP, Dahod, reads:
“I, the complainant, am married to Yakub Rasul Patel, resident of Kapdi falia, Baria. We had a daughter named Saleha who was aged 3 ½ years. My mother’s home is in Randhikpur taluka, Dahod.
“On February 23, it being Id, I had gone with my little girl to my mother’s home. On February 27, because of the incident at Godhra Railway station, there was tension and violence in the surrounding villages. In order to save our lives, at about 10 o’clock in the morning on February 28, a total of 16 people from our house — I, my two sisters and two brothers, our mother, my little girl, my maternal uncle, my paternal aunt and her husband and their daughters — left Randhikpur for Baria on foot. As we came to know that there was violence everywhere on the way, we stopped at Bijal Damor in Chuddi village. Around midnight, we went and hid in Kuvajar mosque.
“The daughter of my paternal aunt who was pregnant, gave birth to a girl. Around 10 o’clock the next morning, we went to Khudra and stayed with Adivasis for two days. After two days, early in the morning, we came to Chhaparwad. We were walking down a kutcha road to save our lives.
“While passing between two hills, two vehicles came in the direction of Chhaparwad and Randhikpur, with 30-40 people in them. This included Shailesh Bhat, Raju Soni, Lala doctor, Govind Nana, Jaswant Navi, Lalo Vakil, who is the son of Bhagu Kuverji and Kesar Khima, Baka Khima Vasava. All of them are from Randhikpur so we recognised them. The others were from Chhaparwad, whose names we did not know, but whom I would recognise if I see them.
“All had lethal weapons in their hands — swords, spears, scythes, sticks, daggers, bows and arrows. They started screaming, “Kill them, Cut them up!’ They raped my two sisters and me and behaved in an inhuman way with my uncle and aunt’s daughters. They tore our clothes and raped eight of us. Before my very eyes they killed my 3 ½-year-old daughter.
“The people who raped me are Shailesh Bhatt, Lala doctor, Lala Vakil and Govind Navi, all of whom I know very well. After raping me, they beat me up. Having been injured in the head, I fainted. They left, assuming I was dead.
“After two to three hours, when I regained consciousness, on seeing the corpses of my family members, I was terrified. I climbed up the hill and stayed there the whole night.
“In the morning, when the police came to know about this attack, they came to take the corpses and found me alive. As all my clothes were torn, they brought me some clothes from the house of an Adivasi staying at the foot of the hill. Then they brought me to Limkheda and from there I was brought to the relief camp at Godhra.
“The above-mentioned people raped my deceased sisters and me, as well as the daughters of my maternal uncle and my paternal aunt. They killed all the people except myself. For which reason I say that legal action should be taken against the above-mentioned people.”
The deceased: 15 of a family butchered. All women victims, including a 3 1/2 -year-old baby, raped before being killed. Among those named by Bilkis Bano orally included Shailesh Bhat, Raju Soni, Lala doctor, Govind Nana, Jaswant Navi, Lalo Vakil, who is the son of Bhagu Kuverji and Kesar Khima, Baka Khima Vasava (all from Randhikpur).
Facts from the prosecution case:
On that fateful day of the targeted crimes, after remaining unconscious for some time Bilkis got up and found her petticoat and put on it and climbed the hill. She stayed overnight on the hill and came down to a hand pump where one Adivasi woman gave her blouse and Odhani, Thereafter, on seeing a man in police uniform she went to him who took her to Limkheda Police Station where police head constable Somabhai – A – 17, on 04.03.2002, recorded her complaint which was not taken down as per her say and the offence was registered vide I.C.R. No. 59/02.
The investigation was then carried out by police head constable Narpatsing (later accused 13), I. A. Saiyed (later Accused 14) , C.P.I. R.M. Bhabhor (later Accused 16 and B.S. Bhagora , Dy . S.P. (later Accused 18). B.R. Patel was the P.S.I. at the Limkheda Police Station during the said period.
On March 4, 2002, photographs of the 8 dead bodies were taken. Again, the next day, March 5, 3, 2002 photographs of seven dead bodies were taken and the post mortem (P.M). was performed by Dr. Arunkumar and Dr. Sangeeta (later Accused 19 and Accused 20) respectively.
Ultimately, the C.P.I. R.M. Bhabhor ‘ A ‘ Summary report with the recommendation of R.S. Bhagora in the court of the Ld . JMFC, Limkheda and the Court, despite the evidence, accepted the report.
Bilkis with the legal aid provided by NHRC Challenged the ‘ A ‘ Summary report in the Hon’ble Supreme Court which set aside the ‘ A ‘ Summary report and transferred the investigation to C.B.I. and the C.B.I. filed the Charge sheet in the Supreme Court against the present accused and case was transferred for trial to Maharashtra by the Supreme Court. The Charge Sheet filed by the CBI may be read in the April-May 2004 issue of Communalism Combat here.
The 11 convicts released on premature release (August 15, 2022) — Radheshyam Shah, Jaswant Chaturbhai Nai, Keshubhai Vadaniya, Bakabhai Vadaniya, Rajibhai Soni, Rameshbhai Chauhan, Shaileshbhai Bhatt, Bipin Chandra Joshi, Govindbhai Nai, Mitesh Bhatt, Pradip Modhiya
The ones convicted by Special CBI Court in 2008 -Jaswantbhai Nai, Govindbhai Nai, and Naresh Kumar Mordhiya (deceased) had raped Bilkis, while Shailesh Bhatt had killed her daughter, Saleha, by “smashing” her on the ground. Others who were convicted are Radheshyam Shah, Bipin Chandra Joshi, Kesarbhai Vohania, Pradeep Vohania, Bakabhai Vohania, Rajubhai Soni, Nitesh Bhatt, Ramesh Chandana, and Head Constable Somabhai Gori.
(The author is a senior journalist, co-editor Communalism Combat and now Sabrangindia.in and secretary, Citizens for Justice and Peace)