The acquittal of all the 19 accused police personnel in the Hashimpura massacre verdict points to the institutionalisation of violence against minorities. By SAGNIK DUTTA in Meerut and New Delhi

A FLEET of cars and television OB vans from Delhi jostled for space in front of the rundown Gulmarg cinema and the mosque neighbouring it. The humdrum existence of Hashimpura, a nondescript locality in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, received a rude shock on March 21, almost 28 years after a traumatic incident in the locality. The acquittal of all the accused in the violent incident of police firing united the anguished residents of the locality. The long and arduous legal battle for justice culminated in disappointment as the Tis Hazari Sessions Court in Delhi let off all the 16 members of the Provincial Armed Constabulatory (PAC), a reserve police force of the Uttar Pradesh government, who were accused of abducting and killing 42 persons, all of them Muslims, during communal riots in Meerut in 1987. The inordinate delay in providing justice in what was termed one of the largest custodial killings in independent India and the immunity given to the perpetrators have raised serious concerns once again about the commitment of the state to protect its religious minorities.

In the aftermath of the incident on May 22, 1987, a team of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), led by Justice (retired) Rajinder Sachar, visited Meerut and interviewed a number of citizens, administrative officers, social workers and trade union leaders. Its report details the beginning of the communal riots on April 14, 1987, when an intoxicated police officer hit by a firecracker allegedly opened fire on two Muslim youth. Later during the day, a religious sermon for Muslims organised near Hashimpura was interrupted by film songs that were played through a loudspeaker at a nearby Hindu mundan ceremony. A quarrel ensued, which led to firing from both sides. About 12 persons were killed.

Curfew was imposed in the town following the incident. The situation remained tense for several days. On May 19, gunshots were allegedly fired from the Hashimpura area towards Subhas Nagar and three Hindus were killed. According to the report, this fomented a backlash by a Hindu mob under the benign protection of the PAC. This was the backdrop for the rounding up and subsequent indiscriminate killing of 42 people from Hashimpura by the PAC.

The residents claim that Hashimpura had never seen any incidents of communal violence before this one. It was a bustling locality housing small powerlooms and garment-making units. People from other States came to work here. However, that fateful day left an indelible scar on the memories of those who survived. Most of those injured or killed made a living as daily-wage labourers in the garment-making, powerloom and embroidery units.

As the media turned their gaze on Hashimpura once again, its lanes and bylanes relived the past. Television crews had gathered around the courtyard of Zaidun Begum’s house as the sparse open space available there offered better light for “shooting”.

As Zaidun narrated what happened on that day, a stony silence engulfed the rest of the family. Zaidun lost her eldest son, 20-year-old Qamruddin, one of the 42 picked up by the PAC. She recalled how the PAC and the Army surrounded the house. There was a curfew in the locality. A search-and-arrest operation was on following an assault on the PAC on May 21 during a riot. She recalled that the women in the house were too scared even to step out as the Army and the PAC ordered the men to line up outside at about 2 p.m. About 500 people from the locality were rounded up during the search. That was the last time Zaidun saw her son. Her other sons and daughters have moved on with their lives, but they want to continue with the fight for justice for their brother.

Zulfiqar Nasir, one of the survivors of the brutal shootout and also a witness for the prosecution in the case, recounted the events of the night with horror. He was 16 at the time of the incident. He said that it was a day during the month of Ramzan and most of the residents were relaxing in the afternoon when the search operations began. At about 6 p.m., while he was at his evening prayers, some Army personnel came to his house and arrested him, his father, uncles and grandfather. People who had been rounded up were made to sit on both sides of the road. The PAC personnel then divided the people of the locality into two groups: one of children and people above 50 and the other of young men.

At first, the young men were taken away in a truck. The old people and the children were then herded into another truck. The PAC personnel surrounded the people in such a manner that they were not visible to those outside. They were also given directions to keep their heads down. After about an hour and a half, the truck reached the upper Ganga canal in Muradnagar and its lights were switched off. The PAC men then ordered them to come out of the truck and started shooting them one by one. Nasir’s neighbours Yasin and Ashraf were the first to be shot dead and thrown into the canal. Nasir’s turn came next. He was shot in the armpit. He feigned death and held his breath for a while. He was then thrown into the canal. Nasir recounted his narrow escape: “I clung on to some bushes inside the canal and concealed myself. I could hear people crying for help and the incessant sounds of firing. One after the other, dead bodies were being hurled into the canal.”

Nasir’s miraculous escape ensured that the incident came to light. He said: “The truck left after some hours. I then stepped out and saw my neighbour Qamruddin writhing in pain. He asked me to run away as my life was in danger over there. I then ran away from the spot and approached a person in Muradnagar who took me to a local doctor who dressed my wounds. I then went to my relative in Ghaziabad, who took me to Syed Shahabuddin, a Member of Parliament at that time. After this, we approached Shri Chandra Shekhar of the Janata Party, who organised a press conference, about 10 days after the incident, where I narrated my story.”

Nasir points out that the Congress was in power in the State and at the Centre at the time of the incident. He says that none of the political parties ever came forward to help them in their struggle for justice. Even after the verdict, the political parties have been guarded in their reactions.

The other survivors—Babuddin Ansari, Mujibur Rahman, Mohammad Naeem and Mohammad Usman—corroborated much of the events described by Nasir.

Babuddin Ansari was shot at during a second round of firing at the Hindon river. He was the first to file a first information report (FIR) in the case at the Link Road police station in Ghaziabad. Ansari said that the then Superintendent of Police of Ghaziabad, Vinod Narayan Rai, cooperated with him to lodge the FIR. Rai even ensured that Ansari received proper treatment at a hospital.

Ansari, who hailed from Darbhanga in Bihar, first came to Hashimpura in 1984 to join his father in the powerloom business. “But this incident instilled fear in the minds of people. The number of people coming to work here reduced after that,” he said. A traumatised Ansari could return to Meerut only in 1988, about a year and a half later. His family is still afraid for his well-being. “My wife was very scared about me continuing with this fight and deposing as a witness in the case. She often asks me to come back to Darbhanga. But I still work at the place I used to before the incident.”

Mujibur Rahman was employed at a powerloom unit when the incident took place. He said that he was shot at and dumped in the canal at Muradnagar. The extent of fear and distrust of the police that the incident instilled in him was enormous. He said: “When I came out of the canal, I came across two policemen who were on a patrol. I was certain that I would get killed then and there.” Later, Rahman lodged a complaint with the Muradnagar police station. He was threatened by police officials that he would get killed if he named any PAC jawans in his complaint.

Rahman went back to Darbhanga and returned to Hashimpura only after two years. His family members dissuade him from pursuing the case any further.

The massacre robbed many families of their breadwinners. Zareena lost her husband, Zaheer Ahmed, and son Mohammed Javed to the brutal shootout. Ahmed used to work as an embroiderer. She had a difficult time bringing up her 10 children after Ahmed died. She could not fund their education and all of them had to start working at an early age. One of her sons was four years old when the incident took place. Her neighbour Majidan Begum lost her 18-year-old son, Islamuddin. He used to work as an embroiderer too. Zareena and Majidan live in a dingy place where very little sunlight comes in and sewage from the drain often fills the courtyard.

The tragedy of 80-year-old Abdul Hamid is particularly poignant. His brother Zaheer Ahmed and his sons Mohammed Naeem and Mohammed Javed, aged 17 and 14, died in the firing. Naeem used to work with a unit that made almirahs. Hamid, who was a mason with the local corporation, was unsettled by this tragedy. He was himself part of the 500 people who were rounded up. However, he was in the other truck and was taken to the Abdullapur jail. Hamid still hopes that they will get justice some day. His sons have lost interest in the case, though. “They are busy trying to make ends meet,” he said.

The legal battleThe long legal battle in the case has shown the callousness and to some extent the complicity of successive State governments in delaying the delivery of justice to the aggrieved families. On the night of the firing itself, an FIR was registered as per the complaint of Babuddin Ansari at the Link Road police station in Ghaziabad. On the basis of the complaint of Mujibur Rahman, an FIR was registered on May 23 at the Muradnagar police station. Both the matters were then assigned to the Crime Branch Criminal Investigation Department (CB-CID) and a joint investigation was carried out.

In 1996, after the completion of the investigation, a charge sheet was filed and two separate criminal cases were registered in the sessions court of Ghaziabad. In September 2002, the trial was transferred from Uttar Pradesh to the Delhi sessions court by the Supreme Court as the victims complained of considerable delay in the proceedings. Formal charges were framed against the accused persons in 2006, to which they pleaded not guilty and claimed trial. The present Special Public Prosecutor in the case, Satish Tamta, was appointed in February 2008. The last piece of prosecution evidence was examined in December 2011. The final arguments in the Tis Hazari sessions court were heard from August 2013 to January 2014.

Vrinda Grover, the well-known lawyer and human rights activist who was the counsel for the victims and their families, pointed out some serious lapses in the CB-CID investigation: “The investigation deliberately attempted to destroy the case. For example, photographs of the PAC rounding up people in Hashimpura taken by the photographer Praveen Jain was an important piece of evidence. The CB-CID did not attempt to get the negatives of the photographs, which would have been vital evidence in an age when there were no digital photographs. It was only in 2013, when Jain deposed as a witness, that he produced the negatives. Also, the truck that was used by the PAC during the encounter killing was sent for a forensic examination a year and a half after the incident took place.”

Vrinda Grover further said that in 2007 it was learnt through right to information (RTI) applications that there was no mention of the murder charges against the 19 accused PAC personnel in their annual confidential reports (ACRs). In 2007, 613 RTI applications were filed at the office of the Director General of Police (DGP) in Lucknow by the survivors and the families of the victims asking why the accused PAC personnel continued to be in active service. The RTI applicants also asked for a copy of the ACRs of the accused. It was learnt that the PAC had given the accused glowing and congratulatory reports and their career prospects were not hurt by the fact that there were murder charges against them. The RTI documents also revealed that they were suspended briefly and then reinstated in service.

The senior advocate Rebecca John, who also represented the victims and their families, said: “Not only was this a botched-up investigation, but there was a case of extreme misconduct by the prosecution in the way crucial evidence was handled. Important documents were not preserved. For example, logbooks showing the movement of the truck and the names of members of the PAC present were never produced. Also, three of the investigating officers died during the pendency of the case, which further weakened the prosecution case.”

Speaking to Frontline, Vibhuti Narain Rai, who was then the Superintendent of Police, Ghaziabad, said: “About six hours after the firing took place, there was a meeting at the Meerut circuit house with the Chief Minister, his Secretary, the DGP and other top leaders of the civil administration. Most of them were not willing to take action against the PAC, fearing a backlash. There were about 5,000 armed PAC personnel present in Meerut at that time. I had advised that the accused PAC personnel should be apprehended immediately. My suggestion was not heeded. The news appeared in the media for the first time only a week later, though the scene of the crime was adjoining Delhi.”

He also pointed out several lapses in the investigation: “Chief Minister Vir Bahadur Singh handed over the investigation of the case to the CID three days after the incident. The CID was not proactive in gathering evidence and tried to shield the accused from the very beginning. Out of the 19 persons accused, the highest-ranking person was a sub-inspector. But a sub-inspector cannot take such a major decision. There were senior officers involved, who were never booked. Some senior IPS [Indian Police Service] officers were called for lie-detection tests by the CID, but they never cooperated. This shows how shoddy the investigation was.”

He further added, “There was no investigation into the role of the Army. The Army had a decisive role to play in the massacre. When the Army is called in in any law and order situation, its role is only to aid and assist the civil administration. In this case, the Army had taken full control. They were conducting searches and arrests. The police were just toeing their line.”

“One Major Satish Sharma of the Army was then posted in the Meerut cantonment; his brother Prabhat Sharma had died in the riots. The CID in all its initial case diaries and even in its report to the Prime Minister’s Office mentions that Sharma was present during the searches conducted in Hashimpura though he was not on duty at that time. Also, Major Pathaniya, the commander of the Army contingent that conducted the searches in Hashimpura and who was named by several of the witnesses, never turned up in court during the trials. Summons were sent to him on several occasions but he never turned up. Also, he did not cooperate with the CID investigation.”

The recent judgmentThe judgment delivered by the Tis Hazari Sessions Court on March 21 exonerated all the 16 accused (three died during the period of the trial) for want of evidence. While the court observed that there was ample evidence to suggest the occurrence of indiscriminate firing, the prosecution and the investigation had failed to produce substantial evidence to prove that the accused were involved in the incident.

The court concluded: “… [I]t 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, Muradnagar and Hindon River, Ghaziabad. It is further established that some of them survived, some expired and some are still missing.”

The court further observed that there were no inconsistencies in the evidence produced by the witnesses.

However, the court felt that it was not proved beyond reasonable doubt that the accused persons facing trial were the PAC officials who abducted and killed the people from Hashimpura or that the truck with registration number URU 1493, belonging to the 41st battalion of the PAC, was used for the crime.

The court also observed that there was nothing on record to show that 17 (.303) rifles were issued to the accused persons or that they were in possession of the same on the relevant date and time. The forensic opinion which suggests that one fired bullet had characteristics similar to the .303 rifle was no conclusive evidence to say that the weapon of offence was the recovered rifle, it said.

The judgment thus concludes: “The punishment prescribed for the alleged offence is not less than life imprisonment or death penalty and in that eventuality the conviction cannot be based on weak evidence by ignoring the basic principles of appreciation of evidence simply because the case is of custodial deaths. It is well-settled law that the fouler the crime is, the clearer and plainer ought the proof to be.”

Hashimpura is not the only instance of targeted killing of religious minorities with impunity by state law enforcement agencies. According to the PUCL report prepared in June 1987, another incident of indiscriminate firing happened in the village of Maliana around the same time where around 24 people were killed and their property was destroyed by the PAC. The report terms this “systematic killing” of Muslims without any provocation.

The Gyan Prakash Commission formed to probe the Hashimpura massacre submitted its report in 1994. The report has not been made public yet as it needs to be tabled in the Legislative Assembly first. Successive State governments have shied away from doing the same.

The horrific massacre in Hashimpura was made worse by the systematic neglect of the issue by successive State governments, a botched-up investigation and the inordinate delay in the judicial processes which prolonged the agony of the survivors and the families of the victims. The delay in justice delivery only consolidates the institutionalised and systemic violence against the minorities.