HASHIMPURA is as deep a tragedy as the anti-Sikh riots in 1984. Both minorities have not allowed the wounds to heal because they go on reminding them of the killings at that time. The perpetrators, the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) from the UP Police, are hoping that the dust would settle down sooner or later and the nation would consider the tragedy as part of ugly history to move on.
I remember the whole thing vividly. It was some towards the end of May when I went to Meerut in 1987 because of the killings. On the outskirts of the city on my return some people stopped me and pointed towards Hashimpura mohalla which they said was the scene of deliberate, blatant killing of 42 Muslims by the PAC. To my horror, I found some bodies floating in canals, including in River Hindon. This, I was told, was a premeditated murder.
The story goes that a group of men were rounded up by the Army and the police from the largely Muslim Hashimpura mohalla in Meerut and handed over to the PAC. One such truck of men was taken to the banks of a canal, and shot at close range. Forty-two died, in perhaps the single largest custodial killing in the history of independent India. But a closer look at the events led to that tense afternoon in Meerut 30 years ago offers a glimpse into a largely unreported dimension of the motives behind the massacre.
The most commonly accepted motive, mentioned in the charge-sheet filed by the CID of the UP police, is the alleged assault on the PAC the same day and loot of two rifles belonging to the force. “Upon that, on 22.05.1987, a search for illegal arms in Mohalla Hashim Pura, Meerut was launched,” the charge-sheet said. But a less explored dimension, also mentioned in the charge-sheet, was the death of a young man named Prabhat Kaushik, who was killed by a stray bullet as he stood on the terrace of a building abutting Hashimpura. Experts, including some police personnel, described the killings as among India’s worst incidents of custodian violence. The trial began only in 1996 and a couple of years ago all accused were cleared of all charges by a trial court in what activists have called a grave miscarriage of justice. Naturally, the reaction from the survivors or, for that matter, the relatives of those killed was along the expected lines because it had taken 28 years for a judgment with all the accused going scot-free. Many families are not hopeful of a breakthrough and say that the investigation was shoddy.
In fact, the then Meerut Superintendent of Police, Vibhuti Narain Raio, who has written a book on the incident says: “It took me nearly five to six years to realise that my belief that the killers would receive exemplary punishment for such a heinous act would remain just that – a mere belief. As time flew by, it became evident that the Indian state was just not interested in penalizing the guilty. All the stakeholders of the state kept playing hide but not seek with their responsibilities and many shielded themselves behind criminal negligence. And it worked for them.”
Even today, according to reports, the Hashimpura locals are traumatized by that day’s incident and say that the PAC was organized and planned. The locality is almost-U-shaped, making it difficult for people to flee, and the constant hum of handloom machines is the daily companion. Most houses are rundown with flaking paint, as if locals have given up hope of a better life.
This should remind us of the Jalianwala Bagh tragedy where over 1,500 innocents were killed in walled boundary. (Prince Phillip accompanying his wife, the Queen, to Jalianwala Bagh after the tragedy remarked that the number was exaggerated!). Subsequently when I met General O’Dyer and mentioned about the killings, he did not show even an iota of remorse.
The description of events by the survivors at Hashimpura is heart rending. According to one account, hundreds of men were sent to prison for weeks where they were interrogated and beaten up because they were Muslims. Some people were dragged out of their houses and taken to the police station. According to eye-witness accounts, the killings happened in two phases—the first at Gang Canal of Muradnagar and the second at Hindon.
During the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 in the wake of Mrs Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Delhi witnessed killings over 3,000 Sikhs as officially announced. The number could be more. The perpetrators included the top Congress bigwigs. Even a finger was pointed out at Rajiv Gandhi at whose behest the deployment of the Army was delayed to allow the rioters a free-hand. The cases which were closed are being reopened. But no one has been punished so far. The connivance of authorities at time has allowed the evidence to be rubbed off.
Many victims of the 1984 riots are still seeking rehabilitation. There is no difference in the case of Hashimpura either. The survivors are still struggling for normalisation, hoping against hope that the Delhi High Court, where an appeal is pending, would get them justice sooner than later. My experience is that the tragedy is before the public for some time but then it recedes into the background. The past gets revived when another tragedy takes place. There doesn’t seem to be any permanent solution. I have been a mute witness to innumerable riots where the complicity of police is apparent.
Hashimpuras can be stopped only when the two communities come to realize that their animosity led to the partition of the country. This cannot be repeated but continued enmity will lead from one thing to another and put in peril the ethos of the country: democracy and secularism. Efforts should be made whereby the minority communities in the country feel as equal partners and enjoy what the constitution guarantees to all citizens of the country.
—The writer is a veteran Indian journalist, syndicated columnist, human rights activist and author.