In India, we have accustomed ourselves to erasing from public memory horrendous injustices and moving on. Moving on without healing, without remorse, without even elementary justice. Moving on as though nothing happened.

One of the most horrific public crimes we have erased in this way from our collective memory and conscience is India’s biggest episode of extra-judicial custodial killings after Independence: the slaughter by men in uniform of 42 young civilian Muslim men on the night of May 22, 1987. They were rounded up from their homes in Hashimpura in Meerut on that humid mid-summer night, picked out of a larger crowd by the security personnel, driven to the banks of a canal, shot in pitch darkness at close range, and their bullet-ridden bodies thrown into the Hindon canal. The men were guilty of no crime, and were chosen for slaughter by the paramilitary soldiers only because of the god they worshipped and their youth. Not a single person has been punished for this crime despite heroic and dogged battles for justice for three decades by the indigent survivors of the slain men. Their story is barely even remembered today by the rest of us.

But there are some among us who will not allow us to forget. Vibhuti Narain Rai is one such man. He was the superintendent of police of Ghaziabad, the district on the other side of the canal in which the bodies of the slaughtered men were dumped. It was he who discovered the floating bullet-ridden corpses, rescued the handful of survivors, and helped bring the story of the custodial massacre to the world. The memories of that horrifying night, he said, remain etched in his memory “as if in stone”, weighing heavily on his conscience. The nightmares continue to torment him: “something that overpowered the cop in me,” he said.

It addition to being a police officer, he is also an accomplished writer of fiction in Hindi. (His best known novel is the satirical Sheher Mein Curfew). The policeman and writer in him come together in crafting a powerful, graphic and riveting record of the massacre called Hashimpura 22 May (Penguin 2016). The writing in this immensely stirring book combines the clinical forensics of a trained and experienced policeman with the sensitivity and eloquence of a skilled novelist. But in addition to both of these is the outrage and anguish of a human rights activist.

The book deserves far greater attention and reflection than it has received so far. It is too urgent and compelling a reminder of our collective capacity to allow public injustice to go unchallenged, to be overlooked or unheeded. Its relevance is even greater to understand the root and source of the current communal juggernaut in Uttar Pradesh. Rai’s account is above all a reminder that:

“Relations between the Indian State and the minorities are almost the same now as they were in 1987 or even earlier in the decades of the 1950s or the 1960s. The same absence of trust, the same hatred, the same prejudices, the same notions, and the same requirement as well as attempt to prove their Indianness. Nothing has changed, as though the more things change, the more they remain the same. Or perhaps, worsen.”

He felt compelled to assemble this painful record because, as a serving policeman, he agonisingly realised with the passing of the years that his “belief that the killers would get exemplary punishment for such a heinous act remained just that, sheer belief. As time fleeted away, it got clearer that the Indian State was just not interested in penalising the guilty. All the stakeholders of the State kept on playing hide – and not seek – with their responsibility and many shielded themselves behind criminal negligence. And it all worked for them”. He was tormented as he recorded “the shuddering tales of those involved in committing the atrocity to make sense of the psyche of the people who pulled the triggers on human beings like them just because they were young and healthy. And were selected for death just because of this, not knowing for what crime”.

Playing dead to survive

Rai begins his account with the night a shocked and frightened sub-inspector brought him news of the massacre. He drove immediately to the canal bank with Ghaziabad District Magistrate Nasim Zaidi. In the headlights of the vehicles and lit torches, they saw “[b]odies covered in blood, some in the ravine, some hanging precariously from the canal embankments partly in water, partly outside and some floating on the water. The blood had not even dried up”. He describes how they searched “for those alive among [the] blood-soaked bodies… with a dim struggling torchlight while also ensuring that one doesn’t trample upon bodies”.

A cough revealed the first survivor, “someone hanging between the bushes and the canal, half immersed in water... difficult to figure out at first whether he was alive or dead... shivering with fear…” When he saw the men in khaki, “it took us a long time to convince him that we were there to help. This was the man who was to later tell us the bloody and horrific tale of that night – Babudin. Bullets brushed his flesh at two places, but he had no injuries. In fact, after being helped out of the canal, he sat briefly on the culvert, rested and then walked down on his feet without any help to where our vehicles were parked”.

Rai describes Babudin as a “frail, hollow cheeked boy of average height [who] stood before us, diffident and scared like a sparrow with wet wings. His trouser was muddied by slush on the canal embankment and the shirt was so drenched that you could extract a litre of water from it. Shivers passed his body even in that scorching summer. He had a stammer but a voice that was stone cold”. Recounting Babudin’s account of the events of the night to him and Zaidi, Rai writes, “It was during routine searches that a PAC [Provincial Armed Constabular] truck picked up some 40 to 50 people and drove them away. They all thought they had been arrested and would soon be lodged in some police lock up or jail. While it appeared rather strange that it was taking too long for them to reach the jail from curfew-bound streets, everything else looked so normal that they had no inkling of what was in store for them. But when they were asked to step out at the first canal and started being killed one after the other that they understood why their custodians had been so silent and why they kept on whispering into each other’s ears.”

When they reached the canal banks, in pitch darkness, “jawans standing outside ordered their colleagues inside the truck to catch by the collar of the ‘circumcised’ and throw out those hesitating to jump. They pushed their victims with the butt of their rifles and by holding their collars; those who were difficult to handle were virtually lifted and hurled outside. Every time somebody fell outside, he could hear gunshots and the painful cries of someone dying”.

I have read few reports of a massacre as vivid and compassionate as Rai’s, without ever being gratuitous or sentimental. “Imagine”, Rai says. He demands from the reader that they try to empathise with a moment when death suddenly becomes your co-traveller:

“Imagine such a close encounter with death that when you open your eyes to bodies – dead and half dead – you may want to touch them to believe you are still alive. When molten lead rips through your flesh and flings you in the air like cotton balls, there is no pain, no fear and there is not even time for memories to torment you. There are rifles blazing around you and then there is the cacophony of abuses being sprouted by your killers. And with numbed senses, you wait for one of the bullets whizzing past you to enter your body in a way that you are tossed in the air for a moment and collapse on the ground with a thud. How will you describe such a death? Especially when you are seeing your killers for the first time and despite thinking hard your mind cannot just figure out why would they want to kill you.”

He tries to imagine their state of mind “when they must have seen their friends, relatives and colleagues getting tossed in the air and then falling with a thud, convulsing and writhing in pain, and their senses so numbed that they could not even dare to do the obvious thing of trying to run away”.

Every one of the few survivors who hit the ground after being shot tried hard to pretend to be dead. “They hung on to the canal’s embankments with their heads in water and the body hanging precariously clutching on to grass and other foliage to show to their killers that they were dead, hoping no more gunshots are fired at them.”

Rai’s descriptions are elemental and graphic, yet he struggles with his predicament as a writer to describe fully what happened. “Now, how will you bind in words the predicament of Jaibunnisa who delivered a lovely baby girl on May 22, 1987, just around the time when her husband succumbed to a rain of bullets that blew him up into smithereens at the Gang canal?”

Through the book, Rai is tormented again and again by this one question: Why did the soldiers “put their rifles on the chest of unarmed hapless youngsters and shot them and even after they fell on the ground shivering, kept on pumping bullets in them to make sure they die. All this without knowing them, without any personal enmity! Why?”

“I don’t want the wounds to wear out," Vibhuti Narain Rai says of his need to write the book Hashimpura 22 May.

The cover-up

But even more horrifying than Rai’s haunting recreation of the massacre and its immediate aftermath is his graphic inside story of the many betrayals of the political, bureaucratic, police, judicial and media establishments to ensure that the guilty men in uniform would escape punishment. The most gripping and telling is his blow-by-blow description of the meeting the next night between the district magistrate and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Veer Bahadur Singh and a battery of senior officials of the state on how to deal with the massacre. Since the district magistrate, Nasim Zaidi, was a Muslim and was therefore diffident, the onus was on Rai to steer the discussion.

Rai records that “whatever happened for the next couple of hours in that room was a sordid saga of smarminess, opportunism and hedging so typical of the Indian bureaucracy”. Rai was clear that the only legal and ethical course after such a heinous crime would be to lodge an offence of murder against the killers, without bothering about the fact that they were armed policemen, and to treat them in the same manner as any other accused person in such a case. “This meant we should have immediately raided the PAC battalion and seized the truck they used to execute the murders; it was imminently possible to find blood stains in the vehicle. We should have tried to arrest the PAC personnel who would have just returned to Meerut after committing the crime and confiscated their weapons, which could be key evidence during the trial,” he writes.

But this was stoutly opposed by all the other officials in the room, “none of who [showed] the slightest sense of constitutional, legal or moral responsibility towards the biggest custodial killing after Independence”. Instead, the main concern of the officials was to find ways to wriggle out of the crisis. They were all opposed to the arrest of the soldiers and the seizure of their truck. “There were more than 30 companies of PAC posted in Meerut and police officials present in that room with me remembered quite well the 1973 mutiny by the PAC which could be suppressed by concerted efforts only with the assistance of the Army… And nobody was sure what could be the possible reaction of the 3,000 armed PAC men deployed in Meerut… Nobody could guess the possible reaction of the forces deployed in the city to any attempt to raid a PAC camp and arrest its men. Nobody supported my proposal, one doesn’t know if this was actually out of the suspicion of a violent reaction from the PAC troops or it spawned from a hidden sentiment that Muslims deserved such a lesson,” Rai writes.

Even more shocking were suggestions that the state erase evidence of the massacre, by pushing the bodies further down the canal and killing the three survivors.

The only saving grace of the discussion that night was that the chief minister did not accept these last cynical suggestions, but also did not allow the arrest of the killers. The die was already cast against the possibility of eventual justice with that one fateful and cynical decision. Rai observes:

“[The chief minister] could not be bracketed among those leaders in the pedigree of Jawaharlal Nehru for whom secularism was a principle. For many Congress leaders secularism is more about political expediency and they swear by it only till it benefits them during elections. I would put Veer Bahadur Singh under this lineage… The custodial killing of 42 people was neither an administrative challenge for him nor did it matter that it was a harbinger of a danger for India’s secular fabric that 42 Muslims were killed like this. He was the product of such breed of politicians for whom secularism was limited to being a ladder to electoral success.”

Many betrayals

In his book, Rai describes how the state establishment ensured that there was no news in any newspaper about the massacre. For many days, it was as though it had not happened. He recalls how he was torn between his training as a police officer and his conscience as a citizen. The latter finally won, and he secretly leaked the news to his journalist contacts in a leading newspaper. He was shocked when the editor killed the story in what was clearly “an uncanny criminal silence”. He found a smaller paper that finally published the story.

He records many other historic betrayals, such as that of Mohsina Kidwai, the Union minister, who refused to give shelter to one of the survivors who, afraid that he may be killed, had reached her door. It was parliamentarian Syed Shahabuddin, recently deceased, who eventually gave the terrified man refuge.

Rai also speaks of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s betrayal. His “political advisers would have impressed upon him that more important than justice and secularism at that time was the election that was just about one and a half years later. A nice human being but a political novice, Gandhi succumbed to the coterie of his advisers and first kneeled down to Muslim fundamentalists and reversed the Supreme Court’s verdict in the Shah Bano case, and next, to appease aggressive Hindu leaders got the locks opened of a temple on the premises of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Naturally the idea of punishing guilty policemen for ghastly Hashimpura incidence could not find due attention of the leader who was soon going to face a very difficult election of his life”.

(The Shah Bano verdict was historic with the Supreme Court in 1985 ruling in favour of alimony for the elderly woman. But the Rajiv Gandhi government, under pressure, enacted the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986 that restricted maintenance for Muslim women to a period of three months after divorce.)

Rai also describes the sordid ways in which the police investigation deliberately ensured that the guilty could never be punished, even though this was being monitored directly by the prime minister’s office. The report of the Criminal Investigation Department absolved senior police officers and those of the Army of any wrong-doing. It stated: “No evidence has been found during the investigation to indicate if a senior officer had issued any orders to kill the arrested persons. Evidence suggests that this crime seems to be the outcome of the perverse psyche of only the doers [those who actually committed the murders] and only they could be held responsible, nobody else.” It also erased the guilt of the commander of the Army detachment, Major BS Pathania, who is alleged to have incited the gun-toting men of the Provincial Armed Constabulary Rai.

In 2015, 28 years after the massacre, all 16 policemen accused in the case were acquitted. (Image credit: HT)

He maps in detail the many betrayals of the criminal case, which after 28 years of the massacre acquitted all 16 of the accused – though the court accepted that during searches in Hashimpura on May 22, 1987, Muslims were indiscriminately picked up, loaded into a yellow truck and brought to two water canals where a team of Provincial Armed Constabulary jawans killed 42 persons. These were foot soldiers. The senior officers and political leaders under whose command and in whose refuge they were assured of impunity, had never even been charged. He writes in white rage:

“A group of Uttar Pradesh’s armed reserve police force select 42 youngsters among a crowd of more than 500 people in full public view, load them in an official police truck, take them near water canals, kill them one by one, throw them into a fast stream of water, hop on to the truck, reach their camp and go to a nice undisturbed sleep. Twenty-eight years later, the court says have fun. Yes, it all happened, but the investigators did not have enough meat in their material to make the killers sleep in the jails.”

The rot has set in

In the closing chapters of his book, Rai returns again to his central torment: why did the Hashimpura massacre happen at all? If you are not psychologically deranged, how can you cold-bloodedly kill someone at point-blank range? Either you kill someone with a strong sense of revenge, his death gives you an unprecedented financial reward or a deep internal satisfaction. “In Hashimpura, neither the killers nor the victims even knew other, either as friends or enemies. Nor were the killers expecting nor were they to be given any rewards for the murders.”

He concludes bleakly that Hashimpura is not just an aberration, one instance of impunity that could be dismissed simply as the outcome of pathetic and unprofessional investigation. Hashimpura is a phenomenon that goes deep into the mindset of Indian society that leads to communal violence. This violence may not always play out as blood flowing on the streets. But he believes the rot has set in the psyche of ordinary people, an always lurking “uncanny unspelt malignancy that is quietly gnawing at [social] relations [between Hindus and Muslims]”.

Some years after Hashimpura, Rai went on leave to study the perception ordinary people have of the police during communal riots. He found that the majority of Hindus saw the police as friends while the Muslims regarded them as foes and not protectors. In normal circumstances, even the Hindus would not call the police their friend. An adage that is popular in almost all the Indian languages is that one should be neither friends nor enemies with the police. Why is it then that an average Hindu sees the police as his friend and protector during communal riots? The plausible reason, Rai suggests, is that even under his khaki uniform, a police person strongly retains his intrinsic Hindu identity. He also feels somewhere within that if he does not interfere and check the “barbaric” Muslims, they would make the lives of “non-violent” Hindus difficult.

Rai’s slim book is a moral and political document of very high public value. It exposes from the inside the sordid communal rot in all of India’s public institutions – its political leadership, its police, its civil service, its courts, even its media. It reminds us of why the Congress earned its terminal decline in Uttar Pradesh. Reading it again today, after the ascendancy of Adityanath, with his hard communal rhetoric, to the highest political office in Uttar Pradesh, we are reminded by Rai’s account of how the cynical betrayal of the state’s minorities and of the constitutional values of secular democracy began much earlier. We read of the communal duplicity of secular politics, of the political, administrative and media establishment for decades, which paved the way for the unfolding tragedy of Uttar Pradesh today.

Rai wrote this book “to repay a debt without which I would not walk into my grave, without shaking”. He recounts that many people advised him to drop the idea of writing it “since this would rustle up the wounds again and not let them heal with time”. But he declares: “I don’t want the wounds to wear out. It is necessary to pin-prick in the eyes of the Indian State that it did not bother to do what it was supposed to, rather did everything that our painstakingly created Constitution does not allow them to.”

He goes on to warn: “If we choose to forget one Hashimpura, many more would happen.”

Today, minorities in Uttar Pradesh find themselves on the brink of a state of undeclared war with their government and the majority community with who they have shared their lives in villages and towns across the state. At such a time, Rai’s warning is one that we must all heed before it is too late.