| Bilkis Bano, who was allegedly gangraped during the Gujarat riots, with her child and husband. File picture
Ahmedabad, Nov. 4: On a late February evening three-and-a-half years ago, Ratilal Rathod had been possessed by “the Devil”.
Eyewitnesses swear that he raped an eight months pregnant Kausar Bano, killed her and slashed open her stomach. He ripped out the foetus, stuck his sword into it and twirled it over his head before burning it.
On October 23, Sunday, a stranger emotion seemed to have gripped the 53-year-old “butcher” of the Naroda-Patia massacre.
Acting completely out of character, he invited a Muslim neighbour over for a cup of tea, hugged him and begged his forgiveness for his brutal crime.
Hours later, he lay dead on the bank of a canal, a suicide note in his pocket.
Remorse' So suggests neighbour Nasirbhai Master, who quotes a “depressed” and tearful Rathod as saying he still can’t figure out how he had “turned into the devil” the day after the Godhra train fire.
Or was it revenge by riot victims' So believes Rathod’s 22-year-old daughter Geeta, who denies her father was depressed and says the writing on the suicide note isn’t in his hand. Rathod had received death threats and had been attacked and grievously injured once, as had been several Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal leaders accused in the February 28, 2002, carnage.
Police believe Rathod killed himself. “It seems he consumed poison. The note in his pocket confirms that he intended to commit suicide. We have sent his organs for forensic examination,” Gandhinagar police inspector R.D. Dhabi said.
When told that Rathod’s daughter and elder son Mahesh, an advocate, have claimed a handwriting mismatch, the inspector said: “Investigation is on. At the moment, we can only say that it is a suicide.”
Does the post-mortem report confirm poisoning' “The hospital is unsure; it will submit the report together with the forensic findings, which might take weeks,” Gandhinagar deputy superintendent of police R.B. Brahmbhatt said.
The suicide note, genuine or not, reveals little. It says Rathod is “taking this extreme step due to prolonged diabetes and heart disease. My children should not be harassed after my death’’.
The family physician, Dr Chandraprakash Tindwani, is inclined to believe the suicide theory.
“Ratilal was suffering from diabetes,” he confirmed, “but his real problem was the murder and rape case he faced. He was very depressed and emotionally upset. His conscience was pricking him all the time.”
The FIR on the Naroda-Patia massacre ' where 98 Muslims, mainly women and children, were killed ' didn’t name Rathod. But he was arrested after survivors at the Shah-e-Alam relief camp repeatedly accused him of the gruesome attack on Kausar Bano, one of the most publicised and brutal crimes of the Gujarat riots.
Rathod was locked up in jail for six months before being given bail. The Supreme Court is yet to decide when and where the case is going to be tried.
But the riot victims’ quest for revenge sought him out. A year ago, then a Municipal Transport Service (MTS) bus driver, Rathod was attacked at the wheel by a group of people who pelted the bus with stones to stop it and tried to drag him off his seat. He somehow escaped with severe head injuries and a badly damaged eye that needed hospital treatment.
Fearing for his life, Rathod quit his job of 25 years and began helping Geeta, a small investor in the stock market.
“After the attack, he was threatened several times,” Geeta said. “Every now and then some unknown person would come and tell him he would be bumped off.”
So, could he have killed himself out of panic, not remorse'
“He was haunted by fear that he would be killed or punished,” Dr Tindwani said.
But Dr Ranadip Ghosh Roy, chairman of Indian Psychiatric Society’s membership committee, said in Calcutta that it is unusual for people to commit suicide out of fear. “Guilt would be a likelier motive.”
Nasirbhai has no doubt about that. Rathod’s behaviour on Sunday had been strange, said the schoolteacher who had fled the Naroda-Patia mob three-and-a-half years ago and later taken shelter at the Shah-e-Alam camp for six months.
“He never interacted with Muslims; he would never even return their greetings,” said Nasirbhai, who has known the Jodhpur-born Rathod ' a resident of Ahmedabad for the past three decades ' for years.
“A man like that invited me off the street as I was passing in front of his home, gave me tea and asked for forgiveness. He was in tears. Isn’t that unusual'
“I was extremely puzzled. It was only when I heard about his suicide that I understood everything.”
The body was found beside the Narmada canal near the Hanuman temple off Limbadia village, Gandhinagar, 25 km from Naroda-Patia. In the evening, Rathod had told Geeta he was going to the temple and would be back soon so that they could go out together for their Diwali shopping.
This was unusual: being an acute diabetes patient, Rathod never went anywhere without his daughter.
Geeta and Mahesh find the police version “fishy” and reject the claims of the neighbour and the family physician.
“Yes, he was diabetic and did have some heart problems; but he used to carry medicine with him. He was never depressed. He was a strong man and would encourage and advise others,” Geeta said at the family’s four-room house ' 220/1 Gangotri Society in Naroda-Patia ' the biggest in the labourer-dominated neighbourhood.
“We were a happy family. After taking voluntary retirement, my father had recently received about Rs 5 lakh. He was planning Mahesh’s marriage.”
Family friend Mahabir Bajrangi said: “Ratilal was always cheerful.” Murli Sindhi, another friend, echoed him: “Ratilal would not commit suicide.’’
Both believe Rathod was killed in revenge. State VHP general secretary Jaideep Patel, accused of instigating the Naroda-Patia mob, and local VHP leader Jagdish Tiwari had both been fired upon and injured. The outfit’s Naroda chief, P.J. Rajput, has been receiving threats.
Though Geeta claimed her father had nothing to do with the VHP or Bajrang Dal and “knew nothing about politics”, most of his friends are activists of either outfit and are still in touch with the family.
Geeta rejects the remorse theory also for another reason.
“My father was innocent (of rioting). He was a very religious man, a worshipper of goddess Ma Bhavani ' so much so that nobody knew his real name. Everybody called him ‘Bhavani Shankar’. Can a devout person like that rape and kill a woman'”