Memories that never fade, justice that never comes: Though the Hashimpura massacre of 1987 was one of the worst cases of custodial killings in recent history, all the accused were acquitted in March 2015.
The massacre of Hashimpura; lest we forget
What must it feel like to receive the body of your murdered father on the day of a major festival and be told to accept it as a festival gift? Or that of your slain son? Or brother? What must it feel like to see your little children go hungry for as many as eight days because your husband, the breadwinner, was killed in cold-blood for absolutely no fault of his? And to know that the perpetrators were those who had been sworn to uphold the law and protect the people? And to live for another three decades after the incident to see the men accused of committing the crime go scot-free? And to live after that betrayal?
The Hashimpura massacre happened 29 years ago, on May 22, 1987. The small and otherwise nondescript locality of Hashimpura near Meerut in western Uttar Pradesh was boiling with communal tension during the months of April and May that year. Ten people had already been killed in May alone; the army and Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) had been called in to stem the strife, and indefinite curfew was imposed in the city from May 19, a Tuesday.
In the afternoon of Friday, May 22, the PAC, the district police and the army, carried out a search and arrest operation in Hashimpura. Almost all the male residents were herded out from the locality and brought on to the main road that passes the locality. The elderly and the children were allowed to return to their homes. The young and the able-bodied – over 300 in number – were loaded onto trucks and except for one truck, all were taken to the police station at Civil Lines and Police Lines, Meerut. The men were held and beaten ruthlessly for three weeks; five men died from the injuries they sustained in the police custody. But one truck did not go to any police station. The 42 men on board were to meet a different fate.
There were two curious incidents that happened on May 21. First, there was an assault on two PAC men in a Muslim-dominated area and their rifles were snatched. Second, Prabhat Kumar Kaushik, nephew of a BJP leader and himself a vociferous right-winger who lived in a locality adjacent to Hashimpura, was shot dead. His brother was in the army and was posted in Meerut at that time. In the wake of these two incidents, the district administration, including the district police, met and decided to carry out a search operation for illegal arms in Hashimpura.
The PAC-owned yellow-coloured truck that did not join the others was driven to the Upper Ganga Canal, Murad Nagar in Ghaziabad, where the PAC constables started pulling the men out from the truck one by one, shooting them and dumping their bodies into the canal. As they were going about this murderous process, the headlights of a passing truck carrying milk-containers fell on them. Fearing exposure of their crime, the PAC men panicked and decided to flee – taking along with them those prisoners who had not yet been shot. From there, the PAC personnel drove the truck to the Hindon river , near Makanpur village in Ghaziabad, where they finished off their gory assignment.
Vibhuti Narain Rai, the then senior superintendent of police, Ghaziabad, was informed about the incident by V.B. Singh, who was posted as the S.O. at Link Road Police Station near Makanpur. Rai, along with district magistrate Naseem Zaidiand other local officials visited the crime scene. They found bodies strewn all over the place; some were floating in the canal, others were hanging from the weedy growth on the banks of the river, and there was blood on the banks. Rai started calling out to see if any of the victims were still alive. After some time, a man named Babuddin with two bullet injuries came up. Soaked in blood, he narrated what exactly had transpired. Rai then contacted the SO of Murad Nagar who told him that he too had three injured survivors of the massacre sitting in his police station. Subsequently, the wounded were admitted to the Mohan Nagar Hospital and the FIRs were lodged.
Six men in all survived. Zulfiqar escaped death by feigning it. . After being shot in the armpit, he pretended to be dead and was thrown into the river.He held on to the bushes growing from the banks of the river and kept himself concealed as he heard other men being shot and thrown into the river. Arif jumped into the river before being shot, and he too kept himself concealed under the bushes. When the PAC truck fled from the spot, these two men came out and found three more injured men . One of them was Qamaruddin, whom Zulfiqar knew and tried to help but he was writhing in pain and succumbed to injuries shortly after.
Naeem tricked death by drenching himself with blood coming out of Qamaruddin’s bullet injury, as it gave the impression that perhaps he too had already been shot. After two or three men had been pulled down and killed, the men in the truck started shouting for help, following which the PAC personnel opened fire inside the truck. Qamaruddin was shot inside the truck.
Mohd. Usman unsuccessfully tried to run away first, then he begged for mercy, and then he tried to snatch the rifle of a PAC jawan. He was shot twice – one bullet was fired into his belly and the other in his thigh – and then he was thrown into the river. He too held on to the bushes, and survived.
Mujibur Rehman received a bullet in his chest and thigh but survived. Babuddin too survived after receiving a bullet in his chest and back.
When the judgment in the case finally came out on March 21, 2015, all the 16 remaining accused – the original number was 19 but three died during the course of the trial – were acquitted. Although the court accepted that the massacre took place, and that it was carried out by officials of the PAC, it held that there was not enough evidence to link the 19 accused PAC personnel to the crime. Most of the basic facts in relation to the massacre were established except for the identity of the accused.
Michael Greenberg, in his introduction to Rodolfo Walsh’s Operation Massacre writes, “Prosecutions often occur decades after the crimes. They don’t bring back the dead or change history. But they do affect the future. They lift the cloud of rage and unresolvedness that can hang over the psyche of a country for as long as the perpetrators run free. They force the state, and the general population, to acknowledge the ordeal of their compatriots. They air the truth and relieve an immeasurable weight of psychological repression. Crucially, they vindicate the loved ones of the disappeared who have been consigned to a state of silence and shame.”
In the case of Hashimpura, the perpetrators still roam free. Yet it is important to keep this tale of savagery alive and prevent it from getting pushed into obscurity, because the non-deliverance of justice affects not just the victims but scars society at large, in ways that are not immediately apparent.
Reminiscences of a painful past
Every house in Hashimpura has a chilling story to narrate and a profound sense of resentment to share. . Almost every family in Hashimpura lost one or more members in the massacre. The stories have become a kind of an oral tradition within the small locality. In house after house, with almost mechanical consistency, one finds the same story deeply ingrained into the consciousness of every person. Almost three decades have elapsed since the incident but nobody falters even once while telling the story. It is disturbing to observe how a story could inextricably entwine itself with the identity of so many people, many of whom were not even born then, and many who are yet to be born. For the actual witnesses, the story has followed them like a shadow.
“They first brought down Yaseen, who was my neighbour, shot him and dumped him into the canal. Next was Ashraf, who was also my neighbour. He too was pulled out of the truck, shot and dumped into the canal. I was third. They pulled me out, shot me and then threw me into the canal,” 45-year old Zulfiqar Nasir recounts the events that unfolded on the night of May 22, 1987 with effortless certainty.
Zulfiqar escaped death by a whisker. Only 16 then, his life changed irrevocably and so did the lives of others from his locality.
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 the 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. Hundreds were sent to police stations and jails for about three weeks. In custody, they were flogged with batons not only by the police but also by the prisoners.
“The prisoners were told that we had raped their mothers and sisters and it was time for settling scores”, recalls Mohd. Ghayas, who was only 14 at the time. He also recollects how he wrapped himself around his mother’s waist before the police pulled him away. While taking him, one of the PAC men said, “Grab him! He too must have killed one or two.” The remark was a reference to the perception among the authorities that Muslims are the aggressors in communal riots.
Nafees Ahmad, who was 20 at that time, has a scar on his ear. He feels God is the reason he is still alive. A policeman was stopped by one of his colleagues when he was taking aim at Nafees. He was one of the many people who were arrested and then detained in prison for 21 days. The image of policemen beating up his friends and neighbours still haunts him.
The bodies of around 20 people who were killed in the massacre were never found. Their families could not even mourn their deaths with solemnity . “My 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,” said Naseem Bano, whose only brother was killed in the massacre. “We don’t celebrate Eid, neither do we celebrate Alvida. Our wounds only turn sore every Eid ,” she adds.
Naseem seethes with agony when asked about the long legal battle, which has lasted almost three decades now. She hasn’t seen even an inch of justice. “What kind of justice is this – the ones who are supposed to protect are the ones who killed them. The men who died did not even know why they were killed.”
Zarina, who has been living in Hashimpura for the last 40 years, lost her husband that night. However, she had no inkling of what had happened to her husband for a week after the police took him.
She recalls how the PAC barged into her house from the terrace and started assaulting the men with lathis. They arrested the men and “loaded them into trucks like cattle”, she recalls. Days passed but not one returned. Then， after three weeks most of the men returned home with horrific stories of torture and abuse. She recalls how she went around the place looking for her husband’s name in the various lists being put out by the police. The PAC also arrested her two sons, Javed and Zamir. Zamir returned home after three weeks. Javed never returned.
Haseena too lost her husband in the massacre that night. She battles trauma and scrambles to survive every day. Her children now work as labourers in the garment industry, where they stitch glitter to clothes. They are paid a rupee per piece and do not make more than Rs. 150-200 per day.
She remembers how her children went without food for days, and sometimes for as long as eight days. “We would only have chutney and nothing else. For years we could not recover from the mental trauma; I still haven’t. My husband was the only source of income in the family ”.
She has stopped imagining how life would have been had the incident not occurred. “I will never be able to forget what happened that day. The memory of it has dogged my footsteps all these years. ”
Hajira, who recently lost her husband, Abdul Hamid, a mason, recollects how he came back with an open wound on his head and could not work for months. The wound got infected with worms. She remembers, “He was very weak, did not talk properly to anyone, we came to know later that the wound on his head had worms. We did not have money for treatment and went to a doctor who knew our family. He refused to treat him because the doctor was not treating anyone who had come back from the prisons.”
Hamid recently passed away after battling dwindling eyesight and other health issues. Hajira and her children live on with the meager earnings they manage by stitching buttons to shirts and ironing them. At one rupee a shirt.
The trial that never concludes
“… 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 Hashimpura on 22.05.1987 out of which about 40-45 persons belonging to 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 Ganga 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 Hashimpura or that the registration number of the truck was URU1493 belonging to the 41st Battalion PAC.”
(From the court judgment acquitting the accused; March 21, 2015)
When the Tis Hazari Court in New Delhi finally pronounced its judgment 28 years after the Hashimpura massacre, acquitting all the 16 accused, it crushed yet again the hopes of the survivors and the victims for justice. 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 court， braving all odds, but could not identify the accused for it had grown dark when they were hustled in the truck and driven away. In addition, they were in a state of shock and the men were in uniform, wearing helmets, which made identification even more difficult. Even if they had said that they could identify the men, their claims would have beggared belief.
The court took into account the testimonies of dozens of eyewitnesses, among other involved people. The court also acknowledged a few judgments which argued that in case of custodial killings, there is usually no direct visible evidence, and the courts should take a realistic, rather than a narrow technical approach. However, the judge maintained that the principle of liberal interpretation could not be extended to facts concerning the identity of the accused, the identity of the truck or the identity of the weapons. The court had already extended the principle to contradictions/improvements in the statements of eyewitnesses, to the identity of injured/dead persons/victims and even the cause of death. It further stated, “It cannot be forgotten that the case in hand is not a small case having minor punishment. 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 principals of appreciation of evidence simply because the case is of custodial deaths.”
The prosecution also argued that the investigation carried out by the Uttar Pradesh Crime Branch Central Investigation Department (CBCID), which formed the basis of the trial, was a very shoddy one, and that the holes in the said investigation be overlooked. The court ruled out the contention saying that in case of circumstantial evidence, “the court has to be on its guard to avoid the danger of allowing suspicion to take the place of legal proof.”
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 reliable. 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. 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 this was mentioned in the charge sheet. It was principally 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.
Some others claim that even after the loss of crucial 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. In a letter to the CBCID dated January 30, 2016, the Meerut SSP wrote that all the documents pertaining to the deputation and deployment of PAC personnel during the ‘alleged’ massacre of residents of Hashimpura, were weeded out on April 1, 2006. This happened when the charges against the 19 PAC personnel had already been framed.
As one looks at the history of Hashimpura, one realizes that this judgment is only a part of the inveterate policy of denial and negligence on part of the state institutions concerning the case.
Within three days of the massacre, the case was handed over to the state government’s CBCID. The CBCID submitted its report to the state government seven years later – in 1994 – which then 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 they 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 Supreme Court to transfer the case from Ghaziabad to New Delhi, as they believed that this would limit the scope for manipulation in the case. 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.
Vibhuti Narain Rai, who has relentlessly pursued the case, believes deep-rooted communal bias compromised the fairness of the investigation. In addition, the investigation refused to look at the role of army. Although the CBCID did raise this question initially, it steered clear of the army’s role as the investigation progressed. The CBCID amusingly, found the ‘polluted mindset’ of the PAC personnel responsible for their disgraceful behavior. Rai further argues that if the appeal continues on the basis of the shoddy investigation carried out by the CBCID, securing justice will be difficult. A fresh investigation should be done and though many years have passed, the crime can still be established circumstantially. Furthermore, he feels that no platoon commandant, who is a sub-inspector rank officer, could have taken the decision of massacring 42 people in cold blood by himself. The involvement of senior officers and political leaders was apparent but was never probed by the CBCID.
The underprivileged and powerless people of Hashimpura pool money to come to Delhi every time there is a court hearing. It seems almost incredible that the victims of the massacre have for 28 years invested their hopes and resources in the judicial system of this country which, as of yet has consistently failed to dispense justice.