On 22 May 1987, in the midst of communal riots in Meerut city of Uttar Pradesh, 42 Muslim men were rounded up from the Hashimpura locality of the city and taken away in a truck. A few days later, their bullet-ridden bodies were found in water canals in the neighbouring Ghaziabad district. Nineteen members of the Uttar Pradesh Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) were allegedly behind the heinous crime. Sixteen of the accused surrendered in May 2000 (three others were already dead) and subsequently the trial was transferred to a Sessions court in Tis Hazari complex, Delhi.
Nearly twenty-eight years after the massacre, on 21 March, the court acquitted all the accused citing lack of evidence regarding their identity. Rubbing salt into the wounds of the survivors and the kin of the victims, the court referred the matter to the Delhi Legal Services Authority to facilitate their rehabilitation.
The verdict in the Hashimpura massacre case adds one more chapter to the sordid tale of the miscarriage of justice in India, especially when it comes to dealing with communal violence and atrocities by agencies of the State. And the brunt of the injustice is borne by the hapless survivors, who can never forget that black night of Indian democracy that changed their lives forever.
Tehelka spoke to a few of the survivors of the Hashimpura massacre, whose first-person accounts are enough to send a chill down the spine.
Mohammad Zulfikar Nasir, like all other survivors, still cannot shake off the memories of that dreadful night. Nasir was a fun-loving 16-year-old when his life was turned upside down on 22 May 1987. “I was one of the youth from the Hashimpura locality who were bundled into the PAC truck,” he recalls, barely able to hold back his tears. “It was around 2 pm when the PAC men started searching the whole locality. They dragged everyone into the streets. Some of the youngsters were arrested and sent to jail. The rest were put into the truck. None of us inside the truck had any idea of where we were being taken. They stopped at a canal and asked us to get down one by one. Two men were shot in front of my eyes and their bodies thrown into the canal. I was next in line.
“When they made me get down from the truck, I fell on the ground. I was trying to get up when they fired. The bullet hit me under my right arm. It was dark, around 9 or 10 pm. Maybe that is why they couldn’t see where I had been hit. I pretended to be dead and they threw me into the canal. I somehow managed to hold on to the bushes near the bank and hid myself with only my face and neck above the water. I could hear the staccato sound of gunshots, followed by heart-wrenching screams. It was quite some time before the PAC men left and then I crawled out of where I was hiding.
“I saw people bleeding profusely and writhing on the ground. I recognised my neighbour Kamruddin and tried to help him. He asked me to save myself and let him be as he was dying. I did not know this was Murad Nagar (in Ghaziabad district). Fortunately, I found a Muslim man nearby, told him my story and asked for help. He arranged for my treatment and then sent me to my relatives in Ghaziabad.
“This incident happened during the summer vacations following my high school examination. The then Congress government in the state even tried to suppress the fact that I was a resident of Hashimpura, but that doubt was laid to rest through my marksheets.”
If Nasir’s narrative sheds light on the brutality meted out to the Hashimpura youth, here is what another survivor, Mohammad Naeem Arif, has to tell. “When the PAC men shoved us into the truck, many of us were sure that the end was near. I was sitting right beneath Kamruddin, who had been shot, and was soaked in his blood. I pretended to be dead when the PAC men took me out of the truck. One of them kicked me to check if I was indeed dead. As if that was not enough, another PAC man fired a few more shots at me. Luckily, the bullets whizzed past me. They could not make out whether I was hit as it was dark.”
“Then two PAC men picked me up and threw me into the canal. I didn’t know how to swim and would have drowned had I not managed to get hold of a bush. I hid in the water with just my head above it and could see all that was happening. The PAC men were shooting the victims and throwing them into the water one by one. Just then, a milk-supply truck arrived on the scene. The PAC members let it pass only after making the driver switch off the headlights.
“I came out of the canal after the PAC men left. I heard a cry for help and found that it was coming from Yashim, someone I knew. His body was badly torn and when I reached out to him, I got soaked in blood. He was screaming in pain and died in my arms. I ran towards the Ring Road and reached a roadside eatery, where I found a Sikh man having his food. When he heard of what the PAC men had done and realised that we were Muslims, he asked me to sit in a corner and not mention anything about the involvement of the PAC. He said doing so would only make things worse. People at the eatery gave me water to drink and I also had a bath to wash off the blood. They gave me some money, put me into an auto and sent me to Ghaziabad. It was after two months that I returned to my family. Ever since, I have been fighting for justice.”
Like Nasir and Naeem, every survivor of the Hashimpura massacre has a similar story to tell. A story of horror and brutality, a story where the men in khaki showered death in the form of bullets. “I was sitting at home with my father when the PAC men barged in on the pretext of a security check,” recalls Mohamad Usman. “It was around 4 pm. We were taken to the street and made to sit there for a long time. Like the other young men from the locality, I, too, was picked up and put into the truck. I still remember that the truck was yellow. It was a long ride and we realised that they were going to kill everyone. In a desperate attempt to save ourselves, some of us attacked the PAC men in the truck, but there was no way we could have got away.”
“Two men held me while another fired. I was hit in my leg. Then they threw me into the canal. Fortunately, I could swim. I could hear the gunshots and the splash that the bodies made on hitting the canal water. After it became quiet, I climbed ashore and found another body lying there. Around 2 or 2.30 in the night, I saw the headlight of a vehicle and waved at it. It was a police vehicle. They took me to the hospital and threatened to inject me with poison if I mentioned the PAC. Later, I was sent to the AIIMS in New Delhi. My family got to know of my whereabouts only after 10-15 days.”
Tears rolling down his cheeks, Usman says he used to work as a weaver but everything he had was either looted or burnt down. Now he works as a fruit vendor and waits for the day when justice would be delivered.
Cut to April 1987. Hindu-Muslim riots had broken out in Meerut — an immediate fallout of the then Rajiv Gandhi-led Central government’s decision to open the locks of the disputed Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. Curfew was imposed in Meerut and other communally sensitive districts of the state following the riots. The PAC conducted extensive searches in many Muslim-dominated areas in Meerut district. On 22 May, the PAC arrested hundreds of Muslim youth from Hashimpura locality of the city, even though not a single case of rioting had been reported from the area at that time.
Under platoon commander Surinder Pal Singh, 19 PAC personnel allegedly bundled around 50 young Muslim men from the locality and took them in a PAC truck to the Upper Ganga canal in Murad Nagar area of Ghaziabad district. According to the survivors and eyewitnesses, most of the men were shot and then thrown into the canal. Most of the rest met the same fate after they were taken to Hindon canal in Makanpur in Delhi.
A few such as Usman, Naeem and Nasir were lucky enough to survive the massacre as the PAC men assumed them to be dead. They lived to tell the gory tale.
The inquiry into the massacre was handed over to the state Crime Branch-CID, which took almost seven years to submit a report. In 1996, the chargesheet was finally filed before the chief judicial magistrate in Ghaziabad. Even after being chargesheeted and summoned several times and despite warrants being issued against them, none of the accused appeared in the court until 2000.
In September 2002, hearing a petition by the families of the victims and survivors, of the massacre, the Supreme Court ordered the case to be transferred from Ghaziabad to a Sessions court in the Tis Hazari complex in Delhi.
In July 2006, after the appointment of a public prosecutor, the Sessions court framed charges of murder, attempt to murder, criminal conspiracy, abduction, unlawful confinement, assault and tampering with evidence against all the accused.
And on 21 March 2015, when the victims’ families and the survivors were hoping to get justice, all the accused in the case were acquitted.
The Delhi court acquitted all the accused citing lack of evidence regarding their identity. Eminent lawyers present strong counter-arguments to the court’s reasoning. They say that it would obviously have been difficult to establish the identity of the accused as many survivors — crucial eyewitnesses — had passed away during the prolonged trial.
Talking to the media, senior advocate Rebecca John, who is the counsel for the survivors and family members of the victims, said that this case was a classic example of justice delayed being justice denied. “The court has failed to fix the accountability for the killing. Many crucial witnesses died or could not be traced. Investigating officers died and important medical evidence got destroyed during the prolonged trial,” she said.
Similar sentiments are echoed by the family members of the deceased. Naseem Banu, who was barely 22 years old at the time of the massacre, recalls how her brother was taken away by the PAC men and never returned home. “My brother had just come back home after namaaz when the PAC men arrived,” she says. “They said they wanted to ask him about something and so he must accompany them to the street outside. My brother was among those who were bundled into the trucks. One truck was taken to Murad Nagar, where the men were shot and thrown into the canal. For the next eight days, we had no clue about what had happened to them. It was only later that we came to know of the massacre from the survivors.
“My brother was just a year older than me and he was a student. He had just been betrothed. Even his fiancée waited for two years for his return. We have been moving the courts for the past 28 years on our own strength in the hope for justice. It was the PAC that had taken our family members away. Why doesn’t anyone ask them where they took my brother and who killed him? How can they say that they don’t know? Why have we been denied justice even after 28 years of fighting for it? We have gone to the Ghaziabad court, the Tis Hazari court and wherever else we have been called. I can’t even recognise the faces of the accused because there was so much commotion and they had helmets on. Moreover, so many years have passed and my memory of those faces has also faded. They have found everything — the truck, the rifles, the clothes — all the evidence that one could possibly need. The men who survived have also come out in the open and narrated their eyewitness accounts. Then how can they say that the evidence is insufficient?
“There in an atmosphere of mourning in our locality. It is the same sort of mourning that we had experienced 28 years ago. It is almost as if our family members have died once again. They are pouring salt on our wounds. Had we been given justice, we would have found peace knowing that our fight has borne fruit. Who can we turn to for justice if the law forsakes us?”
Although the victims’ families, survivors, social activists and lawyers who are fighting the case are disappointed by the court verdict, they have not given up. They are now studying the verdict and are ready to take the fight to the next level. “Despite the verdict, we still have hope in Indian judiciary,” says lawyer Vrinda Grover, who is fighting the case on behalf of the victims. “However, it has given rise to questions that go beyond the particular case and point to the manner in which our legal system deals with targeted mass crimes. There is a need to view this case from a different perspective, find new ways to look at the evidence and subject the verdict to a fresh analysis. The wrong judgment is not accidental; it is not by chance that such a ruling has been passed. There are systemic reasons behind this, which must be brought to light.”
The pain that became a part of their life is still embedded in the memory and writ large on the faces of the victims’ families and the survivors. They have seen the worst but they continue to live in the hope for justice. And they want an answer to a simple question: “Who killed the 42 Muslim men from Hashimpura on 22 May 1987, if not the PAC men?”