Oral histories from Gujarat: No time to run, nowhere to hide
Yakoob Rasool has haunting eyes. They are cold. The man is cautious, unwilling to lower his guard. He will not tell you where he lives. Or what his future holds from him. But you will understand his discretion once you know who he is: the husband of Gujarat riots survivor Bilkis Yakoob Rasool Bano.
On a windy afternoon of January 2008, I met him at a safe-house in the sprawling heart of Delhi. He was taking a quiet break from a battle that had entered a turning point. A Mumbai court had convicted 12 people, including a police official, for attacking 14 members of Bilkis’ family, in which eight were killed and six went missing.
The Rasools hate Randhikpur — a small hamlet some 250 km from Ahmedabad — where they lived in a small cluster of 60 households belonging to the local Ghanchi Muslim community. Ghanchis traditionally are members of the Tablighi Jamaat or voluntary Muslim preachers who are looked upon suspiciously for allegedly being a ready human-resource pool for al Qaeda recruiters.
Rasool, however, like others of his ilk, was a cattle-rearer and a milkman. “It’s difficult to believe that the people who I supplied milk to each morning had raped my wife in turns and slaughtered my relatives. They knew who Bilkis was, their doodhwala’s (milkman’s) gharwali (wife),” he says.
When Bilkis was raped, like other women, Rasool decided that there was no point hiding it to avoid social embarrassment. He decided not to rest till justice was done. “Organised sexual violence was used as a tool,” says human rights activist Malini Ghose, who along with colleagues, Lucknow-based Huma Khan and Delhi-based Farha Naqvi persuaded prominent lawyer Harish Salve to take up her case.
A decade after Hindu-Muslim riots killed more than 1,000 people, three-quarters of them Muslim, justice still is a long way off. Despite a widely publicised economic makeover, the shadow of violence still clings on to Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. Modi is accused of either abetting or doing nothing to control the riots in 2002 but there is no officially admissible evidence yet.
Travel back in time. Reflect on what happened in Randhikpur on February 28, 2002, a day after yet-to-be-unidentified people torched a train bogey carrying kar sevaks (Hindu devotees) in Godhra.
It started as a sunny morning, calm and cool. Rasool could soon sense that Randhikpur’s skies had blackened with thick smoke. When the fires started by mobs reached his doorstep, he knew what was going on — mass murder. He gathered Bilkis and all other women, asking them to flee as a group. The men would take another escape route.
Rasool thought the rioters may choose not to harm women. The strategy did not work. On a lonely stretch a few km away, one neighbour raped Bilkis and another shoved his foot into her mouth, even as she desperately wanted to tell them she was pregnant. They then tossed her three-year-old girl in the air so that she would smash her head upon landing on the rocky ground on that road to death in Panevala.
For all this, it’s remarkable when Rasool says Hindu-Muslim unity in Gujarat is possible. “Log agar chahein to mumkin hai, par Narendra Modi ko jaana hoga (This can happen if people want but Narendra Modi has to go).”
(Modi says he is innocent, while a special team appointed by the Supreme Court has just concluded investigating the charges against him in a secret report.) Modi has completed 10 years in power in Gujarat, making him the state’s longest-serving chief minister.