Can we describe it as the triumph of justice when 16 former members of the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) of Uttar Pradesh were sentenced to life imprisonment by the Delhi High Court on October 31? Particularly when the criminal justice system took 31 long years to convict them!
They were found guilty of the cold-blooded killing of 42 Muslims of the Hashimpura locality of Meerut on May 22, 1987. You may wonder what is special about this particular case when there are umpteen cases of communal carnage in which thousands of people were killed before and after Independence.
Hashimpura is different from all the pogroms and riots that India witnessed because, in this incident, the butchers were the uniformed men, recruited and paid to protect the people and not kill them at point-blank range.
What’s worse, the killers had no enmity or friendship with the victims who were shot and their bodies were thrown into a canal for the only reason that they were Muslims and were able-bodied.
In fact, there is no parallel in Indian history when innocent people were rounded up by the police, herded in a truck, sped to a secluded area near the Hindon river in Ghaziabad, asked to jump one by one from the truck, only to be shot and the bodies thrown into the canal. Those who resisted jumping from the truck could at best gain an additional life of a few minutes, if not seconds!
Unknown to the PAC, at least three of them survived to tell the whole world that the PAC constables could be so cruel and influenced by communal passions that they could shoot innocent people with the very guns the state had provided them to uphold the rule of law and protect the poor and the defenceless.
When the unthinkable happened, the all-powerful Indian state was on a denial mode. Even when a survivor, Zulfiqar Nasir, addressed a Press conference in Delhi in the presence of the late Syed Shahabuddin and Subramaniam Swamy and gave a first-hand account of what happened, there were three senior police officers, including one VKB Nair, to hold a counter Press conference to claim that not one was killed in police custody and the survivor was, if anything, an imposter.
What the world did not know was that there was a macabre plan to finish off the survivors who were at that time in police custody and end the case once and for all. They could have been dismissed as victims of the riots raging in Meerut at that time. An amount of money could also have been given to their relatives to keep quiet.
Alas, there was the hand of God which foiled the sinister plans to keep Independent India’s worst custodial killings under wraps.
How did God’s hand work on that day when the curfew was in force in Meerut and the people were all indoors. Hindu localities could be easily identified because the children made bold to play cricket on the roads while in the Muslim localities the children were too scared even to look out of their windows. This is because, during riots, Hindus do not fear the police while the Muslim fear the uniformed!
Photographer Praveen Jain was on a reporting assignment in Meerut that day. He happened to be at Hashimpura when he witnessed a strange happening. Army jawans were entering homes and dragging out men. They were being abused, hit with rifles and kicked. He saw a Muslim boy running out of his house. When he saw the gun-toting men, he could not do anything but kneel on the road to pray. He had only the Almighty to turn to.
Unknown to the Army men, Jain was taking black and white picture after picture of men being herded out of their homes. Their womenfolk were helplessly watching from the roofs and through the windows their men being taken away. There was a time when he himself hid in a Muslim house, not to fall prey to their bestiality. He would not have known that every time he clicked his Canon, he was chronicling a sad chapter in India’s history.
Jain saw them being loaded on a PAC truck. He might have thought that they were being taken away to be produced before a magistrate and sent to jail. No, the PAC men had other ulterior motives. The photographs provided clinching evidence that they were taken away by the PAC and that, that was the last time they were seen alive. The incident happened when Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister and the UP Chief Minister was Veer Bahadur Singh. The CM knew exactly how the 42 were killed and who killed them.
The case was shoddily investigated. The Army officer, Major BS Pathania, who had ordered the searching of the houses at Hashimpura, and handed over the Muslims to the PAC, was not subjected to proper investigation. Right from the word go, the attempt was to hush up the case and not punish the guilty.
The first thing the police should have done was to seize the blood-splattered vehicle in which the PAC transported the men to the killing fields and arrested the men involved. But right from the Prime Minister to the lowest in the Central and state governments, everybody feared a reprisal from the PAC which had once rebelled against the government.
Also, the PAC attitude reflected the growing chasm between the Hindus and the Muslims, created thanks to the Ramjanambhoomi movement.
Outright rumours were given the status of Gospel truth. There was a rumour that some Hindu women lost their breasts at the hands of sword-sword-wielding Muslims. The fact was that there was not a single case of an attack on Hindu women. Yet, one of the survivors of the Hashimpura massacre heard the PAC constables who escorted them to death labelling them as “those who cut the breasts!”. I always wanted to know why the Muslims of Hashimpura were killed in this manner.
To get an answer, I had turned to Hashimpura 22 May (Penguin), authored by Vibhuti Narain Rai, who was the SP of Ghaziabad when the incident happened. There was an alleged snatching of a gun from a PAC constable. More important, a 21-year-old RSS worker and younger brother of Major Satish Chandra Kaushik, Prabhat Kumar, who played an active role in the riots, was shot by an unidentified person while he was on the roof of his house.
The Major who had no official duty to perform was at Hashimpura, allegedly supervising the rounding-up of Muslims when he should have been mourning the killing of his younger brother and planning his last rites.
The two had a close relative, Shakuntala, who was an active worker of the women’s wing of the RSS. She wrote an autobiographical book which ended on May 22, 1987, i.e., till the killing. She cryptically ended her story there, strengthening the suspicion that Hashimpura was an act of vendetta.
Rai is described in the book as a fiction writer and hence, some of his assertions have to be taken with a pinch of salt. Nowhere in the book did he mention Praveen Jain and the photographs he took, which exposed in black and white the barbaric deed of the uniformed.
Instead, he mentions the initiative he took to give a scoop to the correspondent of the Nav Bharat Times, the largest circulated daily at that time. I found it strange that the reporter concerned got the whole story from him and wrote it also in his presence, letting him comment that it was very well-written. The story had a paragraph or two attacking Rai’s own handling of the situation created by the mass slaughter in his jurisdiction. This was to fend off speculation that Rai was the whistle-blower or the Deep Throat!
A journalist worth his salt would not let a police officer, even if he is the primary source, to vet his story in this fashion. The larger point is that the story did not appear in the paper because editor Rajendra Mathur did not want to publish it for fear that it would open the wounds that had begun to heal. Mathur was one of the tallest among the editors at that time. It is difficult to believe that he was also influenced by the mentality that forced the PAC constables to teach the Muslims a lesson.
Whatever be the case, the fact remains that the extra-judicial killings happened close to the national capital. Word would certainly have reached the national Press but for a few days after the incident, no editor made bold to publish a story about the horrendous killing. Rai narrates how he persuaded a Hindi weekly newspaper Chauthi Dunia to publish the story when the Times group decided to be on the side of the powerful Indian state.
Mohsina Kidwai was at that time the member of Parliament from Meerut but when a survivor approached her for help, she drove him out. He walked across the road to reach Syed Shahabuddin’s house where he was not only given shelter but was also given medical care by his daughter, a medical practitioner. Why blame her when her boss Rajiv Gandhi also failed to do justice to the victims?
Veer Bahadur Singh was replaced by Mulayam Singh Yadav who, too, did nothing to bring the culprits of Hashimpur to book. Nor did those who followed him, even as the killers lived a life of dignity enjoying pension from the government and the company of their grandchildren.
On March 21, 2015, when the trial court, which heard the case, found that the prosecution had failed to prove the charges against the 16, it shocked the families of the victims. No, they did not take the law into their own hands like the PAC men. Instead, they kept knocking on the doors of justice. Finally, the Supreme Court asked the Delhi High Court to hear the case.
Their prayers did not go in vain. On Wednesday, the court found all the 16 guilty and worthy of life imprisonment. They were not ordinary people. They were the chosen ones to enforce the law. They did not deserve any mercy. The senior most among the accused was a Subedar or platoon commander, equivalent to a sub-inspector, Surendra Pal Singh, who died while the case was being heard.
The question that arises is, could a lowly sub-inspector have organised the killing of 42 people in such a manner? Would the constables have accepted the orders of a person barely senior to them? It is difficult to believe that their act did not have the sanction of some higher-ups in the PAC.
The contention that “these kinds of murders were the manifestation of the morbid psyche and pre-conceived notions of the accused persons” alone is difficult to be believed.
Thirty-one years after the incident, it is pointless to ask for a re-investigation of the case unless you are Subramaniam Swamy, who sees a villain of the piece in P. Chidambaram who was the Union Home Minister at that time.
What is not very well-known is that a similar kind of incident happened at Maliana in the same area and it was completely hushed up. Those who killed the Muslims there would be having the last laugh over their success in escaping the clutches of the very law they were expected to uphold. Make no mistake, they are laughing at you and me!(Published on 05th November 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 45)