A festering sore on Indian democracy




13 August 1980

• Official toll: 450; independent probes reckon that to be one-third of the likely number of casualties

• In the aftermath of the riots, Allahabad High Court judge Justice MP Saxena was asked to inquire

• Three-and-a-half decades later, his findings remain virtually consigned to a waste paper basket, with even avowedly secular parties not having the courage to pick up the gauntlet

If ever a comprehensive study is undertaken to determine the role of law-enforcing agencies in ‘helping’ spread communal riots in free India, what happened in somnolent Moradabad where all that glitters is brass is instructive. Around 3,000 namazis had turned up at the idgah to render Friday prayers when some pigs mysteriously found their way there causing instant commotion. What followed was even more macabre, as the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) personnel on duty failed to chase away the offending animals in time. Instead, as brickbatting of the police and PAC personnel ensued, they indiscriminately opened fire causing several in the congregation to die instantly. There was already enough tension between the factory owners and the artisans who were usually drawn from different communities. The demographic structure of the city, however, was not reflected in its political representation.

Two generations after the riot, the scars are yet to heal. As sociologist Satish Sabherwal and historian Mushirul Hasan averred a couple of months after the riots, neither the then UP chief minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh nor the leaders at the Centre went beyond offering palliatives to the victims. This was ‘democratic’ India’s second tryst with the PAC after the revolt in its ranks in the mid-1970s had threatened to upstage the Congress in Uttar Pradesh.

Shame! Bodies of infants killed during the 1983 massacre in Nellie, Nagaon district, Assam, await burial
Shame! Bodies of infants killed during the 1983 massacre in Nellie, Nagaon district, Assam, await burial, Photo: Courtesy The Milli Gazette



18 February 1983

• Official toll: 2,191; unofficial and independent agencies reckon twice that number was approximate to the truth

• Affected area: Central Assam, especially Nellie in Nagaon district

• The SK Tiwari Commission ostensibly conducted an inquiry, but it was caught up in a political and social maelstrom. Only three copies of its report exist and no political party has thought it worthwhile to do anything concrete

THE immediate cause is difficult to decipher. One was the anti-foreigner issue that the then ascendant All Asom Students Union (AASU) raised to a feverish pitch, leading to deportation of alleged aliens and mass murder. The terms of the movement were hazy since many of the so-called refugees had either come before Partition or during the turmoil in Bangladesh during its liberation struggle. The death of Lok Sabha MP Hiralal Patwari made fresh polls necessary in one of the constituencies but the Congress government thought it prudent to order fresh Assembly polls in 1983. AASU opposed the decision and boycotted the polls. As the then Assam DGP KPS Gill recalls, there were at least 23 highly sensitive constituencies where elections should not have been held, and Nellie was one of them. Whether there had indeed been a sudden infiltration of illegal immigrants could not be verified. AASU thought that to be the case and stirred an agitation that the state administration failed to control. Two years later, the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi signed a peace accord with AASU and the Nellie massacre was sought to be erased from public memory.

Wounded An injured Sikh man being carried away on a cart in Delhi during the 1984 riots, Photo: Courtesy  Vijay Saluja
Wounded An injured Sikh man being carried
away on a cart in Delhi during the 1984 riots, Photo: Courtesy Vijay Saluja



Delhi and other parts of India

31 October – 4 November 1984

• Total casualties in Delhi alone: 2,733 Sikhs; some human rights bodies say it was much higher

• Worst-affected areas included Trilokpuri, which epitomised the grisly and planned nature of the massacre

• Eight different commissions, convictions extremely few

Thirty-one years ago in New Delhi, Kanpur and Bokaro, murderous attacks were launched against Sikhs by mobs organised and instigated by mainly Congress politicians bent upon using the tragic assassination of Indira Gandhi as an occasion for political manipulation and gain. In the capital, the police stood mute witness to the killing of 2,733 Sikhs. That inaction and the failure to register cases or properly investigate those that were eventually filed are testimony to the official patronage the killings enjoyed. Rajiv Gandhi, who had just been sworn in as the prime minister, made light of the pogrom, describing it as a reaction to the killing of his mother. He infamously said, “When a big tree falls the earth shakes.” Senior Congress leaders such as HKL Bhagat, Jagdish Tytler and Kamal Nath, who were identified by the survivors and eyewitnesses as instigators of the violence, were rewarded with ministerial berths. A Commission of Inquiry headed by Justice Ranganath Mishra concluded, astonishingly, that the organised massacre was a spontaneous and “involuntary reaction” by ordinary citizens stricken by grief at Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Subsequent commissions indicted the police for acts of commission and omission but the bitter reality is that the victims of the massacre are no closer to justice today than they were in 1984.

The fact that the politicians and police officers responsible for the violence not only escaped indictment but also prospered had grave implications for minorities elsewhere in India. The riot system perfected by the Congress on the streets of Delhi was unveiled again in Bombay in 1993 and, finally, by the BJP government of Gujarat in 2002. There have been demands to construct at least a memorial for the victims, but they have fallen on deaf ears. Non-Congress governments have been equally lackadaisical and cavalier in their attitude. Some ultra-Hindutva organisations and individuals, unhinged formally from the saffron brigade, also joined the unprecedented, brutal pogrom that damaged India’s secular image irrevocably and gave rise to secessionist tendencies.

Easy targets Armed personnel round up Muslim men in Hashimpura during the 1987 riots
Easy targets Armed personnel round up Muslim men in Hashimpura on 22 May 1987, Photos: Praveen Jain



22 May 1987

• Death toll: 42 Muslim men

• In 2015, a Delhi court acquitted all the PAC men accused of killing 42 Muslims

Vibhuti Narain Rai, the then SSP, Ghaziabad (UP), found that more than 150 Muslim men had been taken away by the PAC in a truck at gunpoint towards a canal that flows parallel to the Meerut-Ghaziabad Road and that the sound of gunshots had been heard from that direction. It was late in the night but he got a team of 20 police personnel ready and rushed to the spot. Dead bodies were scattered along the canal bank. In that ghostly silence, he began to examine the bodies to see if anyone was alive in the heap of corpses. At last he found a man who was still not dead, brought him to Ghaziabad, got him admitted to a hospital and proceeded to file an FIR against the PAC personnel for their heinous crime.

Babuddin Ansari is one of the survivors of the massacre. He is a native of Muzaffarpur, Bihar, but fate had trapped him in Hashimpura in May 1987 as he was visiting some relatives with his father. 
According to his account, he took a bullet on his shoulder when the PAC men had first opened fire on the people held captive in a police truck near the Gang canal in Muradnagar. By the time they moved the truck away from the canal, 25 of the men had been killed. The truck was driven a little further and then stopped near the Hindon river bridge where the rest of the captives — 16 of them — were killed. In this group, Babuddin was the only one who survived. He was the sixth person to be thrown into the river, but before that, he was shot again — this time in his leg.

Luckily for him, he fell near the embankment and held onto a rock. 
He recalls seeing bodies being thrown from the Hindon bridge one by one. Meanwhile, some policemen came flashing their torches at the river. Babuddin thought they were sent by the PAC men, so every time they threw the light upon the river, he would duck into the water. Finally, a policeman touched his head with a rifle and asked his name. From there, he was taken to the superintendent of police, who assured him of help. The Ghaziabad police then picked up his belongings from Hashimpura. Next day, he was escorted back to his home state.

Some of the survivors and relatives of the victims are still hopeful of getting justice even after a Delhi court acquitted the accused PAC jawans on 24 March 2015 citing the prosecution’s inability to establish that they were the same jawans who had fired those fatal shots.

Close shave Security personnel look on as a Muslim woman is rescued from rioters in Bhagalpur
Close shave Security personnel look on as a
Muslim woman is rescued from rioters in
Bhagalpur 1989



24 October – 23 December 1989

• Official toll: 1,070

• Started as a police-people clash and degenerated into communal violence

• Justice elusive 25 years later, with Nitish Kumar periodically assuring action against the culprits, many of whom are already dead

Hindu-Muslims tensions had escalated during the Muharram and Bisheri Puja festivities in August 1989. As part of the Ayodhya campaign, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) had organised a ‘Ramshila’ procession in Bhagalpur. The procession aimed to collect bricks for the proposed Ram temple at Ayodhya. One such procession passing through Fatehpur village provoked brickbatting and arson on 22 October.

Prior to the outbreak of the riots, two rumours about the killing of Hindu students started doing the rounds: one was that Muslims had killed nearly 200 Hindu students of the university; the other that 31 Hindu boys had been murdered and their bodies dumped in a well at the Sanskrit College. Moreover, the political and criminal rivalries in the area also played a role in inciting the riots.

On 24 October, the Ramshila processions from various parts of the district were to proceed to the Gaushala area, from where they would move on to Ayodhya. The procession coming from Parbatti area passed peacefully through Tatarpur, a Muslim-dominated area, after its leader Mahadev Prasad Singh told the Hindus not to raise any provocative slogans. Sometime later, another massive procession from Nathnagar arrived at Tatarpur, escorted by the police. Some members of the procession shouted slogans such as ‘Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan‘. Bombs hurled indiscriminately at this stage are considered to have triggered these riots.

The mobs attacked shops owned by the Muslims on the Nathnagar road (later renamed as Lord Mahavir Path). The rioters also attempted to storm the Muslim-dominated locality of Assanandpur, but the locals fired at them from the rooftops. The mob then turned to the Hindu-dominated locality, Parbatti, where it massacred at least 40 Muslims. As the news of the violence reached the other Ramshila processions at Gaushala, the Hindus went on a rampage, killing Muslims, looting their shops and destroying their property.

On 25 October, an 8,000-strong mob looted and destroyed Madaninagar, a Muslim settlement, turning it into a ghost town. They also attacked Kanjhiagram, a nearby locality. Bhatoria, a Muslim-dominated village, was attacked twice — on October 25, and again on October 27. Many Muslims were killed. Alleged police atrocities further fuelled the violence.

According to contemporary accounts, on 26 October, at least 11 Muslims were killed in the Brahmin-dominated Parandarpur village. The same day, 18 Muslims, including 11 children, were killed in public view, in the Nayabazar area of Bhagalpur. Around 44 Muslims, including 19 children, were provided refuge by some local Hindus in the Jamuna Kothi building. At 11.30 am, a 70-strong mob entered the Jamuna Kothi with swords, axes, hammers and lathis. Within 10 minutes, 18 Muslims were killed. Some of the children were beheaded, some had their limbs cut off while the others were thrown off the third floor. A woman called Bunni Begum had her breasts chopped off. Some other Muslims, who had been provided refuge by the Hindus in the nearby buildings, managed to survive. In Assanandpur, the Muslims also escorted several Hindu students residing in a hostel to safety.


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