Time heals, indeed, but sometimes it drags some dark nightmares from the recesses of our past into the present; nightmares whose repercussions are felt in the future too. Still weighing heavy on my conscience is that horrifying night of 22 May in the humid summer of 1987. And the subsequent days, similarly, are etched in my memory like as if on stone – it was something that overpowered the cop in me. The Hashimpura experience continues to torment me.
Searching for those who had survived among the blood-soaked bodies strewn around the canal and between ravines near Makanpur village on the Delhi-Ghaziabad border in the pitch dark, on the night of 22 May, armed only with a dim torchlight, while ensuring that we didn’t trample upon the bodies – each scene still streams through my mind like a horror film.
It was around 10.30 at night when I heard about the incident. At first, I could not believe it. It was not until I reached the Hindon canal in Makanpur village, along with the district magistrate and other officials, that I realised had become a witness to secular India’s most shameful and horrendous incident.
I was the superintendent of police, Ghaziabad district, and personnel from Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) had rounded up dozens of Muslims from riot-torn Meerut and had killed them in cold blood in my area of jurisdiction. One of the survivors of this horror was Babudin; he was the first survivor we found and he helped us put together the details of the incident. It was through him that we learnt about similar killings near another water canal that was just forty minutes away. This was the Gang canal that traversed through Muradnagar.
Between 22 May 1987 and 21 March 2015, when the verdict on the crime came, it would seem that Indian society had undergone a sea of change. The changes that have taken place in the political, economic and social spheres have metamorphosed the social milieu of the country. But the fact that the case dragged on endlessly in the courts actually serves as a grim reminder that nothing has really changed.
The relation between the Indian state and the minorities is almost the same now as it was then in 1987 or even earlier, in the 1950s and the 1960s. The same absence of trust, the same hatred, the same prejudices, the same notions, and the same requirement and attempt to prove their ‘Indian-ness’. Nothing has changed. It is as if the more things change, the more they remain the same. Or perhaps, worsen.
Just a few days after the Hashimpura massacre, I decided to write about it and bring its details out to the open.
I began by recording the tales of those who committed the atrocity in order to make sense of their psyche – I wanted to understand how they could pull the trigger on fellow human beings. The victims had no idea what they had done to deserve such a brutal death.
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 penalising 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.
It was in 1992 when I finally decided to write this book. By then, I was transferred to a distant place on deputation, with Lucknow and Meerut far beyond my reach. My writing began at a slow pace because of my busy schedule, but when the National Police Academy, Hyderabad, granted me a research fellowship in 1994, my prospects brightened. My subject was related to the image of the police among Hindus and Muslims during communal riots, and I deliberately chose this topic in order to work on the book; it also provided me with a year-long relief from regular routine.
With the help of friends who were working in the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and PAC, I was able to access a lot of documents, which even a professional journalist would not be able to obtain. Thanking those friends by naming them here might cause some trouble for them, but, without revealing their identity, I would like to thank them.
The more I immersed myself in those documents, the more determined I became to write this book. These documents were chilling evidence of the criminal connivance of the Indian state in the country’s biggest custodial killing after Independence. And I was poised to pen this shocking story.
When I eventually got down to writing this book, I discovered how difficult it was to capture the pain and the wails of the victims and their families. I had never faced a challenge like this before. I am essentially a fiction writer and at times I draw certain characters from real-life experiences, but once these characters are entrapped in my plot, I own them. I keep tweaking and twisting them according to my line of thought. In some cases, people I have encountered and who have made an impression on me have turned into anti-heroes or villains in my books.
But I could not do the same with the characters in Hashimpura. In fact, I submitted myself to them. They would walk, sleep and live with me through the course of my writing and would not allow me any liberties with them. The monstrosity of the incident was so overwhelming that it laid a virtual siege on me and I was often left scrounging for the right words. I was so depleted of energy that it slowed me down like never before – at times I couldn’t even wrap up a small chapter in one sitting.
By the time I found the right words, the ghosts of the dead would overpower me. How could I bind together words that expressed the predicament of Jaibunnisa who delivered a beautiful baby girl on 22 May 1987, just around the time her husband succumbed to a rain of bullets at the Gang canal?
Often, I would postpone writing for weeks and months on end and, at one point in time, I even threw my hands up in despair. Enough, I told myself. But it was easier said than done. I could feel the living and the dead of Hashimpura breathe down my neck and realized that the writer in me would never attain nirvana if I left their story untold. Or worse, half-told.
It wasn’t just Hashimpura.
In another Meerut locality named Maliyana, a violent mob of Hindus and personnel from the PAC had mercilessly killed dozens of Muslims. The only difference was that here the victims were not under police custody, unlike those in Hashimpura. During the 1987 riots, Maliyana became more infamous than Hashimpura and in literature, especially in Urdu poetry, about Maliyana, Hashimpura finds mention. Once, at a panel discussion in Mussoorie, I was with Justice Rajinder Sachar who spoke of the Hashimpura incident, but attributed it to Maliyana. Both events were unfortunate and equally horrifying, but I consider Hashimpura more serious and worrisome given that all those killed were under police custody and not victims of mob violence.
What are the implications of Hashimpura? Should it be forgotten as an aberration and remembered at best – or worst – as the biggest-ever instance of custodial killings in India after Independence? According to me, the very fact that Hashimpura happened, and that all the accused were subsequently acquitted, is of vital importance for the Indian society to understand and analyse. It has a direct connect with the secular structure of the country and needs a deeper discourse.
After Partition in 1947 on the basis of the two-nation theory whereby, after elaborate discussions it was decided that India will be a secular democracy, and everyone, right from Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru to the majority of the members of the constituent assembly, had firmly opposed the idea that Hindus and Muslims are two separate nations and could not live together.
Despite all the requisite provisions in favour of secularism in the Constitution, there is something intriguing within the social and political milieu that prevents India from becoming a truly secular society. And the most significant manifestation of this is the communal violence which broke out in Jabalpur in 1961 – it was the first such incident after Independence. After that, communal riots became a regular phenomenon every couple of years in some part of the country or the other. And all the riots would have an almost similar story behind it. According to government reports, a majority of those killed in every big riot are Muslims and they are also the biggest sufferers in the hands of the police – a key public institution of the state.
In each of these instances, Muslims have felt that the Indian state did not do enough to protect their rights. The state, instead, has always been more interested in taking up issues of lesser importance. The minimum expectation from the state in a civilised society is that it protects the life and property of its citizens, irrespective of their caste, class, sex, colour or religion. Unfortunately, despite having a strong and an all-encompassing Constitution, the Indian state has mostly failed on this count.
From our experiences alone, we can comprehend the kind of issues the minority communities of the country, which form nearly 20 per cent of the population, might face on a daily basis when the state has failed to protect their faith. They too have legitimate rights and are an integral part of this country.
It is no secret that the families of the Sikh victims in the 1984 riots provided the maximum number of volunteers to the Khalistan movement. And how radical Islam found justification during the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and the communal frenzy in Gujarat in 2002.
Hashimpura’s ramifications are far-reaching. Post-verdict reactions, especially from Muslims, in this case should be taken with utmost seriousness. Several events and discussions broke out across the country after the 21 March verdict. I also attended some of them where one could find a good number of youth from Muslim fundamentalist organisations. They could easily be identified from their dressing, facial expressions and the questions they asked.
I could sense many of them arguing with me and stressing on the relevance of secularism, whatever be their ulterior motive for wanting the principle in practice, while initiating discussions about Hashimpura. They were caught in a strange situation – by ideology, they would wish an Islamic rule, but being in a minority community they knew that this was not possible in India. An important contemporary historian sums up the paradox a majority of Muslims face by pointing out that they wish a secular polity in the country, not because they actually believe in secularism but because they extrapolate the opposite of it as a Hindu nation.
The Hashimpura verdict has put liberal Muslims on the defensive and provided fuel to the fundamentalists. I have often heard even scholarly Muslims speak against the same Constitution that has immensely contributed to ensuring them the status of an equal Indian, despite all the aberrations witnessed.
In a sense, their anger is justified. Since Hashimpura was the bloodiest-ever incident of custodial killings in India, such reactions should not be a surprise. In its scale – that is in the number of deaths – Hashimpura may not match the shocking statistics of the 1984 anti-Sikh killings, the 1983 Nellie (Assam) massacre, 1989 Bhagalpur riots or the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, but it remains the most terrifying of them all because forty-two Muslims were mercilessly shot dead after being taken into police custody.
In this sense, Hashimpura remains a disgraceful instance of the merciless and barbaric use of brute state force and a spineless, politically expedient government lying prostrate before its own men – the killers.
The sequence of events is adequate testimony to this: A group of Uttar Pradesh’s armed reserve police force selected forty- two youngsters, in full public view, from among a crowd of more than 500 people, loaded them into an official police truck, took them near the water canal, killed them one by one, threw them into the water, hopped on to the truck, reached their camp and went to sleep. Twenty-eight years later, the court acquitted them. Yes, it all happened, but the investigators did not have enough meat in their material to make the killers sleep in jails.
Excerpted with permission from the Preface, Hashimpura, May 22, Vibhuti Narain Rai, translated from the Hindi by Darshan Desai, Penguin Books.
An eminent novelist, Vibhuti Narain Rai joined the Indian Police Service in 1975. He served the force for thirty-six years and was awarded the Indian Police Medal for Meritorious Services and the President’s Police Medal for Distinguished Services.