“On the eve of Eid they called us to the police station and said, ‘Here is your Eid gift,’ gesturing towards my father’s dead body,” recalls Shahida Khan, barely able to contain her phlegm.
Her father was picked up roughly a week before Eid, on the night of May 22, 1987; he was one of the 324 men to be picked up from Hashimpura by the PAC (Provincial Armed Constabulary). The men were loaded into 5 trucks, and four of the trucks were taken to the police station, and subsequently jails, where they were beaten and tortured for 3 weeks. One truck was taken to Murad Nagar and the men were shot and dumped in the canal one by one.
Some incidents keep coming back to haunt the conscience of a country. When a Delhi district court pronounced its judgement in the case, acquitting the 16 accused PAC personnel, giving them the benefit of doubt on account of lack of insufficient evidence, particularly on the identification of the accused, the memory of the gory incident was brought to life in the country’s consciousness once again.
The minuscule locality of Hashimpura has come a long way since the incident happened but the place still has an eerie feel about it. Every house has a chilling story to tell, a profound sense of loss and victimhood to share; almost every house lost one person or more in the incident. These people, poor and powerless, pool money to come to Delhi everytime there is a court hearing. These people, living perpetually in the shadow of the night, still invest hopes in the judiciary and the constitution of India. Prosecution won’t bring back the dead, but it would certainly rid the country’s conscience of an insane amount of guilt.
“Sabse pehle Yaseen ko utara, jo mere mere padosi thay, usko goli maari, aur nahar mein phek diya. Phir Ashraf ko utara, woh bhi mera padosi tha, usko goli maari aur phir nahar mein phek diya Teesra number mera tha, mujhe bhi utara, goli maari aur nahar mein phek diya.”
(They first brought down Yaseen, who was my neighbour, shot him and dumped him in the canal. Next was Ashraf, who was also my neighbour. He too was pulled out of the truck, shot and dumped in the canal. I was third. They pulled me out, shot me and then threw me into the canal.)
Forty-four-year-old Zulfikar Nasir recalls the events that unfolded on the night of May 22, 1987 with a degree of certainty. There is a cause to his certainty. On that night, Nasir escaped death by a whisker. However, 42 others felt prey to the bullets of the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC).
Only 16 then, Nasir’s story makes it abundantly clear how that night changed his life and the lives of others from his community forever. Not only Nasir, every resident of Hashimpura remembers every detail of that horrific night vividly.
That night, PAC officials turned into murderers, killing 42 innocent men at two locations. The soldiers then dumped their bodies in the Ganga and Hindon canals in Muradnagar, just 41 kilometres from national capital Delhi.
Amid communal violence in Meerut, the PAC in coordination with the army had launched a search operation in Hashimpura, a predominantly a Muslim vicinity. People were ordered to step out of their houses and then lined up on the main road. They were told that ‘bade sahib’ wanted to talk about ‘aman and chain’ (peace and harmony). Hundreds were then bundled into trucks and sent off to different locations. Nobody sitting in trucks had even a faint idea about what was in store. Since the atmosphere was communally charged, some were concerned about the families they had left behind. Dozens were sent to police stations and jails for a period of 21 days. In custody, they were flogged with batons not only by the police but also by the prisoners.
(All the prisoners were told that these men (us) had raped their mothers and sisters and it was time for justice), recalls Mohd Ghayas who was only 14 years-old at the time. He also recollects how he wrapped himself around his mother’s waist before the police arrested him. Ghayas described how one of the PAC officials also made a remark that 14-year-old Ghayas must have at least killed two-three Hindus during the riots.
Many in the locality reveal the indelible physical and mental scars that the incident has left them with for the rest of their lives. Nafees Ahmad, who was 20 at that time, has a scar on his ear. He feels God Almighty has a hand in him still being alive. A policeman was stopped by one of his colleagues when he aimed to shot shoot Nafees. He was one of the many people who was arrested and then detained in prison for 21 days. The image of policemen beating up his friends and neighbours still haunts him.
“Jo nazara dekha hai woh aaj bhi yaad hai, leta leta ke nali tod rahe thay policewaale.” (The sight that I saw is still clear in my memory. We were made to lie down and our bones were broken using batons.)
While these men were in prison, another group of men who were also arrested with them were deported to a deserted location on the road to Delhi. This is where Zulfikar Nasir and four others escaped death by feigning it.
Nasir remembers how he managed to escape, “Mujhe goli seene pe nahi lagi, aur main bach gaya. Mujhe jab nahar mein pheka toh maine kuch jhadiyaan pakad li aur marne ka naatak kiya. Oopar se cheekne chillane ki aawazein aa rahi thee. Main bus chup wahin pada raha.” (I was not hit in the chest by the bullet, and when I was thrown into the canal I held on to some bushes and feigned death. I could hear people screaming above. I lied still for sometime). Many who weren’t “fortunate” like Zulfikar lost their lives at the Muradnagar.
Families of some of the dead could not find their bodies and obtain closure about their death.“Humari maa toh gham mein paagal ho gayi, aur isi intezar mein mar gayi ki kab unka beta aayega”,(Our mother could not bear the trauma of losing her only son, she lost her mental stability and died waiting for her son to come back), Naseem Bano, whose only brother was killed in the shooting, said while wiping her tears.
The helpless and destitute people of Hashimpura are very expressive and revealing in sharing their plight, of how they have been denied justice by the Indian Judicial system. Naseem Bano who had lost her only brother asked, “Yeh kaun sa insaaf hai, ki hifazat karne waale thay, unhone hi maar diya.” (What kind of justice is this? The ones who are supposed to protect are the ones who killed them). She further adds, “Marne waalon ko yeh tak nahi pata tha ki unko kyun maar rahe hai.”(The ones who died did not even know why they were killed).
“I saw Sub-Inspector B.B.Singh at my door; he was shaken to the core and was unable to speak coherently. I could make little sense of what he said. It took him some time to regain his composure and it was then that I realized the enormity of what has transpired.”
Recalls Vibhuti Narain Rai, a former IPS Officer, who was the SP of Ghaziabad when the Hashimpura Massacre took place. He describes it as ‘the biggest custodial killing that took place in the history of Independent India’. Sitting at his home, the cultivated 63-year old, who is writing a tell-all book of the whole incident, says, “Knowing the details of the incident and not telling much of it, was a heavy burden that I got off my chest”.
The incident occurred on May 22, 1987, in Meerut, in a locality called Hashimpura; where men, all of them Muslims, were arrested by the PAC, packed in yellow trucks and then sent to police station and jail. But one truck that didn’t make it to any legal detention center was on another mission.
“At 11 we were at the place of incident; after seeing the area, we understood how ghastly the event was. Dead bodies were strewn across the place and the stretch was covered with blood, it was dark and there was blood around the canal. Some bodies were hanging on bushes while some were floating on water”, describes Rai, who could never forget that bone-chilling night.
The 42 men who were picked up on that dreadful night were mercilessly shot at point blank by the PAC at Makanpur, which lies on the outskirts of Delhi. A killing which till date has an air of ipmunity and unresolvedness around it.
“It has been a case of negligence of communal bias right from the start. The most serious thing that I find about this whole incident and something that can break our secular fabric is the response of the state. The most horrific and shameful thing is that the perpetrator of the crime was the state agency - PAC, which is UP government’s most cohesive and effective arm, to deal with any land order situation,” emphasizes Rai.
"It targeted and attacked one community rather than stabilizing and creating peace."
He further adds, “The behaviour of the whole state was a fiasco, and each state institution, one by one, failed. Political leadership of Vir Bahadur Singh, the then chief minister, failed to control the situation. Within 24 hours he passed the case from us to CID. The CID, which is a more professional and effective investigative agency, also failed. From the very first day, instead of identifying the culprits, arresting them, collecting evidence against them in court; they were trying to save the accused.”
Over the course of the past 28 years, many questions were raised on the investigation. “The most important role was of the army officers, towards which complete negligence has been shown in investigation. At first, their role was analysed and questioned but later it was forgotten,” says Rai, who since 1987 have continuously fought to make it a test case. He points out that the case ‘can be a tough exam for the whole Indian State’s secular fabric because if the stakes, faith and confidence of the minorities end, it will be an issue of concern and danger for the whole country’.
“Complete negligence towards the involvement of Army Constables in the case”
After years of proceedings and court hearings, when the final judgement was out, much to everyone’s dismay, all 16 accused were pronounced not guilty on the basis of lack of evidence against them. Even though an appeal has been made in High Court to re-investigate the incident, Rai says, “I don’t think anything will happen with that appeal, it will also take many years, and if the court hears and investigates on existing evidence, justice won’t be delivered.” He believed that it could have been proven circumstantially and adds, “there should be a fresh investigation under the supervision of judiciary on the case, even though it’s been 28 years and many people have passed away. The main accused Surendar Pal Singh is dead, most of the documents, evidence has been destroyed but that is only way I see justice being delivered.”
Expressing his dissatisfaction on the verdict and how the whole investigation took shape, Rai says, “Judiciary’s role was from sincere. It was a half-hearted investigation, where police officers were missing from hearings, bailable and non bailable warrants were being issued and involvement of army was neglected, whether the accused came or not there was no one to check.”
“This killings were done to dent the dignity of the community. It was with deep communal bias that the incident happened.”
Speaking on the communal bias, a vocal Rai says, “Everyone knows who killed those innocent people; it’s all part of the strategy. CID filed a charge sheet saying that these are the 19 people involved and their mental health is responsible for this. I don’t believe this. Along with the Sub-Inspector, who was the principal culprit, senior officers and political leaders must be involved as well”. He further adds, “The investigation was skewed and unfair because of the existing communal prejudices and biased mindset.”
Significantly, media too played an unbecoming role in reporting the massacre. Many newspaper editors chose not to report the incident, because of certain apprehensions. Those who did, were biased on the issue. “There were wrong figures in newspapers. The two important newspapers of Meerut were playing a negative role; even the national media played a sorry role.” says Rai. He recalls, “After much difficulty and a week later, I was able to get this printed. All across the nation, people’s attention turned to this but nothing happened.”
“The Hindu, and its sister publication, Frontline, reported on the issue. The telegraph did an extensive reportage on the issue but at the same time, there were biases involved,” agrees Qurban Ali, who was then working as the UP correspondent for the weekly Ravivar. “Media behaved as if no one was killed in Meerut. Jansatta Newspaper published serialized news reports with headlines like ‘Why do you always blame PSEs?’ Media also has communal elements to it”, he says.
Ali, who has covered many riots, lays down incidents where communal riots were initiated by media. One example he puts forth is the 1990 riots of Aligarh which, he says, were engineered by 3 Hindi newspapers by publishing false reports.
It was believed among the policemen and media that Meerut has become a mini-Pakistan and because of this irresponsible behaviour of media and police, many riots started and spiralled into gory incidents of mass killings.
In Meerut there are riots occur almost after every few years. The city has a rich history of communal violence. For as long as we know, the majority and the minority, the Hindus and the Muslims, have tried to undermine the other. “Though it is true that in many of the cases the Muslims are the aggressors, a similar section of crowd with no rationality will be found in Hindus too – aggressors who start fire, who stab and kill with knife. So, to say that only one community is doing this is wrong,” argues Rai. “Majority is dominant everywhere, see any part of the world. They think that it is their job to bring the minority into what they believe is mainstream. There are so many examples in South Asia, be it Shias or Hindus or Sikhs in Pakistan or Tamilian people in Sri Lanka, they all suffer. Bhutan, Nepal wherever you go, you’ll find this bias.”
What we need to focus on is the larger issue and finding a holistic and sustainable solution to the problem? In India, the representation of minorities becomes a concern of import whenever we seek an address of the larger issue. As Rai puts it, “The representation of minorities should be equitable, like it happened in America with blacks, and like it happened in Europe with Asians.” If you redress the representation of minority then you can empirically see a behavioural shift in the country’s institutions which will help erode institutional biases.
“... it has been duly proved and established on record that several hundred persons belonging to different Mohallas of Meerut city were apprehended or arrested by PAC and other forces from Mohalla Hashimpura on 22.05.1987 out of which about 40-45 persons belonging to Mohalla Hashimpura were abducted in a yellow colour PAC truck by the PAC officials. It is also proved that those abducted persons were subsequently shot at and thrown into the waters of Gang Nahar Murad Nagar and Hindon River Ghaziabad ... But it has not been proved beyond reasonable doubts that the accused persons facing trial are the PAC officials who abducted and killed the people from Mohalla Hashimpura or that the registration number of the truck was URU1493 belonging to 41st Battalion PAC.”
- Tis Hazari Court Judgement; March 21, 2015
When the Additional Sessions Judge Sanjay Jindal of the Tis Hazari Court, New Delhi, pronounced the judgement in the Hashimpura massacre case acquitting all the 16 accused, it crushed for the nth time the hopes of the survivors and the victims who have been pursuing this elusive quest for justice since almost three decades. Since the incident happened, several governments have come and gone but all of them showed equal laxity in helping the victims secure justice.
All the five survivors of the massacre testified in the court braving all odds, but could not identify the accused as it had grown dark when they were being put in the truck and taken away, and for the fact that they were bundled up and the men were in uniform, wearing helmets, which made the identification even more difficult, and if they had claimed to identify the men, it would have beggared belief.
Interestingly, the district court did not impugn either the occurrence of the massacre or its scale and magnitude; it rather went on to accept the testimonies of the survivors as honest, credible and completely trustworthy. Lawyers claim that it was primarily because of the shoddy investigation carried out by the CBCID, which allowed for the destruction and tampering of crucial circumstantial and corroborative evidence that the accused were acquitted. By and large it was the state government, which was responsible for securing and preserving the evidence, and furnishing it in court, which is to be blamed for the weakening of the case.
Lawyer Vrinda Grover argues, “From the very moment that the investigation was initiated, there was a deliberate plan to either not collect the crucial pieces of evidence, allow them to be lost, through passage of time or otherwise, or to conceal certain evidence, or to destroy and tamper with evidence.” Some others claim that even after the loss of cardinal evidence, and the weak charge sheet filed by the UP government, there was enough evidence, regarding the massacre as also the attempts to cover up and destroy evidence, to incriminate the accused. As the accused were all serving members of the PAC, all their activities, to the extent of the details of the weapons and cartridges they took along, were recorded, yet none of it was mentioned in the charge sheet.
As one delves deeper into the case, one realizes that this judgement is only a part of the inveterate policy of denial on part of the state institutions concerning the case. It was in 1988 that the State government ordered an enquiry into the incident by the Crime Branch Central Investigation Department (CBCID).
The CBCID submitted its report to the State government in 1994, which filed the charge sheet before the Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM), Ghaziabad in 1996. The CJM issued several bailable and non-bailable warrants against the accused between January 1997 and April 2000 but the accused did not show up in court despite being members of the state controlled PAC. Later in the year 2000 when they finally turned up in the court, they were given bail by the CJM.
Following that, the case was to be heard by the District and Sessions Judge, who transferred the case to the Additional District Sessions Judge-IV, Ghaziabad. In the year 2001, the victims requested the the Supreme Court to transfer the case from Ghaziabad to New Delhi, as they believed that it would be difficult for the accused to manipulate the case in New Delhi. The Supreme Court transferred the case to Tis Hazari in New Delhi. The State government also made its laxity manifest by appointing incompetent Special Public Prosecutors.
Senior Lawyer and counsel for the victims in the case, Rebecca John, wrote in an article on dailyo.in following the verdict, “It should never take 28 years to conclude a trial involving the cold blooded murder of 42 men. It shows without a shadow of doubt, that our system cannot deliver and will certainly never deliver when the victim or victims are poor, dalit, marginalised or muslim.”
It is indeed remarkable and incredible at the same time that the victims of the massacre have for 28 years invested their hopes and resources into the judicial system of this country which, has only consistently failed to vindicate their struggle.