Uzma was born on the terrifying night when her father was shot dead on the banks of a canal by paramilitary soldiers, about 50-odd km from Delhi. This was in the summer of 1987. Her father, along with some 41 other Muslim men, were picked up by men in uniform from outside their homes, packed into a truck and taken to the banks of the canal, where they were gunned down at point-blank range.

The incident is now referred to as the Hashimpura massacre.

Uzma had to wait until she was 31 years old for some kind of justice to finally be done. But even this justice – heroically won by the survivors of the crime and the families of the dead men – remains incomplete.

On October 31, a bench of the Delhi High Court comprising Justices S Murlidhar and Vinod Goel set aside the trial court judgment of 2015 that had acquitted 16 soldiers of the Uttar Pradesh’s Provincial Armed Constabulary for their role in the murder of the men. The court instead sentenced them to imprisonment for the rest of their lives. “We hold that this was targeted killing by armed forces of the unarmed, innocent and defenceless members of a particular community,” the judges said.

October 31 will therefore go down as a day of great significance, a moment of redemption, not just in India’s judicial history but also in the country’s rocky moral journey as a secular and just land. The story of what is probably independent India’s biggest case of custodial killing has been a blisteringly shameful one, of murderous hatred and religious prejudice by men in uniform, of disgraceful cover-ups by the executive at the highest levels in the central and state governments, of the deliberate destruction of evidence, of media apathy, and of communal bias, prevarication and unconscionable delays in the judiciary.

The summer of 1987

The crime dates back to May 1987, when communal tempers India were dangerously inflamed by the dispute over the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. The Congress government led by Rajiv Gandhi had ordered the opening of the locks of the medieval mosque, allowing Hindu prayers inside the disputed structure, and this had sparked angry protests by Muslims in many parts of the country including Meerut, a town 60 km outside Delhi, where fierce riots broke out. An estimated 350 people died in these riots, and the city was still smouldering with the fires of more than a month of bloody rioting that had left many slain by police bullets. Others had been burned alive, women had been assaulted, and hundreds of homes, factories, shops and vehicles had been gutted in the violence. It had left both Hindus and Muslims in the area convulsed with sullen hate and anger.

The civil administration in Uttar Pradesh failed to quell the mass violence, and pressed into service 60 companies of the Provincial Armed Constabulary, besides 50 gazetted police officers, the Central Reserve Police Force, and the Army. The Provincial Armed Constabulary had been raised specifically to assist in controlling riots, but with barely 2% Muslims in its ranks, it was already infamous for its openly partisan antipathy to Muslim people. Research by Vibhuti Narain Rai, senior police officer and a leading voice for a more just and accountable police force, who was the Superintendent of Police of the neighbouring district of Ghaziabad when the massacre took place, later found that most of the police personnel posted in Meerut saw the riots as a result of Muslim “mischief”, that they felt Meerut had become a “mini-Pakistan” because of “Muslim intransigence” and that they overlooked completely the role of Hindutva organisations of the Sangh and state actions in fomenting communal passions. Instead, they believed that it was imperative to teach the Muslim community “a lesson”.

In doing so, they were following a long tradition. Meerut had seen riots earlier as well. In his report on the 1982 Meerut riots, NC Saxena, then joint secretary of the Minorities Commission, had recorded, “In many places the PAC [Provincial Armed Constabulary] behaved like a mob and committed atrocities.” He added that “the district administration perceived threat to public peace only from the Muslims…The order from the senior officers in the district to the police can be summarised in only one phrase: ‘Muslims must be taught a lesson.’ The PAC and the police faithfully implemented this policy.” For what was to unfold in Hashimpura five years later, his report was chillingly prescient.

On the oppressively warm night of May 22, 1987, amidst curfew and shoot-at-sight orders, constables of the Provincial Armed Constabulary surrounded Hashimpura, a predominantly Muslim residential colony of factory workers, daily wagers and weavers in Meerut city. It was the holy month of Ramzan, and most residents were observing the ritual fast. The police forced all residents out onto the road, and searched their homes, randomly smashing their furniture and valuables, as the residents cowered for hours outside. At the end of the combing operation, the police arrested as many able-bodied men as possible, all Muslims, and crowded them into police trucks. According to official records, there were 324 men. The men were first taken to the police lock-up, where they were beaten with batons. Survivor Abdul Jabbar recalled the jeers that accompanied the beatings, such as “This is a sixer by Imran Khan” [The Pakistani cricketer, now Pakistan’s prime minister), “This is for the Hindu women you rape,” and so on.

Jabbar recounted to me when I visited Hashimpura a few years ago that by the next morning, there was barely a single man left without bloodied or broken legs, hands or heads. They were then shifted to jails, where they were attacked by prisoners, leaving five dead. They did not know then that they were luckier than the men left behind.

Nearly 50 among the teenaged and older men who remained behind were rounded up by the paramilitary constables into a yellow truck. Among them was 17-year-old Zulfikar, whom I was to meet many years later. Many of their loved ones pleaded with the constables to spare them, and wailed as they were driven away. None of their friends and relatives imagined that this would be the last time they would see most of them alive.

The men thought that they too would be driven, as is routine, to the police station. But they panicked when the truck took the road out of the city instead. They shouted with mounting dread, but there was no one to heed their cries during the quiet of the curfew. More than an hour later, the truck rumbled to a halt near the banks of the Upper Ganga Canal in Muradnagar, Ghaziabad. The sun had set by then. The terrified men packed in the truck still did not know what the men in khaki had planned for them.

The prisoner nearest the edge was first pulled down, and the sound of rifle fire echoed through the uneasy silence. He fell, and his body was dragged to the canal and thrown in. A second man was then pulled down, and met the same fate. Zulfikar was the third. The bullet passed through his shoulder. He too collapsed, but was alive. He held his breath, and the constables took him for dead, and flung him also into the canal. He floated briefly, but soon found himself tangled in some weeds, which he grabbed and silently waited with intense foreboding, blood flowing from his bullet wound into the water.

By then, the men in the truck comprehended the terrible truth of what was happening to them, and raised a great uproar. The constables panicked, and changed tack. They mounted the truck and opened fire blindly, killing at least half the men there. They dragged out the bodies and threw them into the canal. Among them was one man called Arif who pretended to be dead but was unhurt, only drenched in the blood of his companions. The remaining men fell silent in cold terror, recalling Allah and those they loved, certain now that they would not escape alive.

The truck was then driven to the Hindon Canal, where the constables completed the massacre of the remaining men. Of the nearly 50 men who the Provincial Armed Constabulary picked up in the yellow truck, only six survived. A policeman later testified to seeing the bloodstained truck number URU 1493 enter the premises of the 41st Vahini, a camp of the Provincial Armed Constabulary.

Years later, Zulfikar told me that when he finally pulled himself out of the canal an hour later, he discovered that only Arif was alive along with his friend Naeem, and a man called Kamruddin was badly injured. He placed one hand against Kamruddin’s chest to pick him up, but found instead to his horror that he was holding his stomach. They carried him to the Delhi highway, where Arif, who was unhurt, ran away. Kamruddin begged Zulfikar to leave him; he knew that he had no chance to survive. Zulfikar hid in a urinal, and Kamruddin died shortly after. Zulfikar recalled that he had not broken his fast. He stayed with his throbbing shoulder amidst the stench of urine for the next 24 hours until he felt it was safe to slink to the home of a relative the next night. They hid him, and treated his wounds with local remedies. Days later, he took a bus to the home of Syed Shahbuddin, MP, in Delhi, and together they broke the story of the massacre in a press conference to a (briefly) outraged world.

Meanwhile, many bodies were found floating in the canal. It was there that the Superintendent of Police of Ghaziabad, Vibhuti Narain Rai found them. He recalled his horror in a moving testament that he was to write many years later. He insisted on filing police complaints, even though the top political and police leadership reportedly wanted to suppress the story for fear of a rebellion in the forces. Rai and the District Magistrate Zaidi reached the 41st Vahini to take custody of the truck for forensic evidence of the massacre, but senior Police Armed Constabulary officials refused to assist them. Despite damning investigations subsequently by human rights organisations, the police investigation dragged on for seven years. In 1988, the state government directed the Crime Branch-Central Investigation Department to investigate the massacre, but its report, submitted in 1994, was never made public, and no charges were initially framed.

Long fight for justice

However, the survivors and members of the families of those killed organised themselves to move the Supreme Court in 1995 to make the report public and to prosecute those indicted in it. The court refused to intervene, and instead asked the petitioners to approach the High Court. The case remained unresolved in the High Court, but the state government finally bowed to pressure in 1996 by filing criminal charge sheets against 19 personnel of the 41st battalion of the Provincial Armed Constabulary. More than 64 senior officials were found guilty by the Crime Branch-Central Investigation Department, but the state government claimed that departmental proceedings were sufficient against most of those found complicit in this crime. Not a single senior official is included in the charge sheet, which states: “From the entire investigation it could not be established as which senior officer ordered for the killing of the…arrested persons from Hashimpura. From the evidence collected during the investigation, it is clear that the said incident was the result of [the indicted junior Provincial Armed Constabulary personnel’s) poisoness [sic.] mental attitude for which they being the doer are liable and no body else held responsible for this incident.”

Far from being punished, all senior police and civil officials in charge of that area at that time have flourished in their careers.

Not only did the state government choose to indict just those foot soldiers whose fingers pulled the triggers, and not those who ordered them to do so, even the 19 accused personnel of the lower ranks of the Provincial Armed Constabulary were not arrested despite 23 non-bailable arrest warrants being issued against them between 1997 and 2000. The accused were in active service throughout this period, but the government pleaded in court that they were “absconding”. During these years, political formations of almost every hue alternately held office in the state capital Lucknow, but nothing changed for the survivors of Hashimpura.

Charges framed 19 years later

Ultimately rights activist, the late Iqbal Ansari, and relatives of those slaughtered applied to the Supreme Court to transfer the case in the interests of justice from Uttar Pradesh to Delhi, which it did in September 2002. More years were allowed to pass over the wrangle of which government should appoint the special public prosecutor. The case continued to be adjourned on technical grounds, enabled by a reluctant public prosecutor appointed by the Uttar Pradesh government. Senior advocate and criminal lawyer Rebecca John took up the reins as the advocate of the victims and their families. Human rights lawyer Vrinda Grover appeared for the intervenor, the National Human Rights Commission.

It was finally in May 2006, 19 years almost to the day after the massacre, that charges were finally framed against the accused. Three of the accused men had died, the remaining 16 appeared in every hearing in the cramped untidy Tis Hazari courtroom and listened tensely to the statements of the survivors, but they still continued in active service. Despite continued changes of government in Uttar Pradesh, this did not change.

I recall visiting the Tis Hazari court to attend one of the hearings with their lawyers. The elders of Hashimpura would sit in the front benches, and a large number of people from Hashimpura crowded the courtroom to extend solidarity. I was touched to find that around 20 relatives and survivors unfailingly visited the court for solidarity every single hearing month after month, year after year. They were not supported by any non-governmental organisation. Instead these working-class families pooled money so that they could attend every hearing, sacrificing also their day’s wages.

Among these were Uzma, who grew from a child to a young woman, often in the shadow of the courts, and her widowed mother Zaibunissa. There was Shakeel, who was 8 years old at the time of the massacre. He recalls grabbing the feet of the police constable who dragged his brother away. Their father was already dead at that time, and his brother was the only bread-earner. Jamaluddin, the white-haired father of 18-year-old Kamruddin who had begged Zulfikar to save his own life and let him die, was also there, and many others like them. All working-class people, many widowed and aged, unsupported by any organisation, who gathered money from their own savings for travel for every court hearing, only to give strength to each other as they spoke out their harrowing truths in court.

I recall what their lawyer had said to me at that time, ‘The survivors and their families have already won,” said Grover. “By their brave resolute epic fight. By bringing 16 PAC [Provincial Armed Constabulary] men to court every hearing. By holding together all these years. If the case is dismissed, it is the country that will lose. You and I will lose. But not them. They have already won.”

The case did get dismissed by the trial court on March 21, 2015. The magistrate accepted that killings of these persons by men of the Provincial Armed Constabulary did indeed transpire. However, the court acquitted every one of the 16 accused policemen on grounds of benefit of doubt.

It is this verdict that the Delhi High Court has overturned. “We have proceeded to reverse the judgment of the trial court as the evidence is of a clinching nature,” the judges observed. “This is a case of targeted killing of members of the minority community by state forces.”

Survivors speak

The survivors told the Indian Express, “We survived bullets but the wait for justice killed us.” Babbudin, a survivor who worked at a power loom, said he would often not have enough money to pay for the journey to Delhi to attend the hearings, and usually “depended on others for even a meal”.

The victims’ relatives also spoke of the hardship they faced following the massacre. Jaibunisha remembered clutching her two-day-old daughter when her husband, Mohammad Iqbal, was picked up. “My three daughters and I fought for justice all these years,” she said. “My daughters’ memory of their father is the massacre.” Mohammad Asif, who works as a labourer at construction sites, was just two when his father Shamim was found dead. “I spend most of my days waking at 6 am and visiting the local labour chowk for work,” he told the Indian Express. “We are seven brothers who grew up without an education. If the PAC [Provincial Armed Constabulary] had left us alone that day, I would have had a good life…and a father.”

The epic battle of the impoverished working-class women and men of Hashimpura for justice to prosecute the men who killed their loved ones, and their interminable court vigils all these three decades, reflects their iridescent but heart-breaking faith in the ultimate justice of India’s democracy. But even today, 31 years after the custodial massacre by men in uniform, justice is still only partial. The foot soldiers will perhaps spend their remaining lives in jail. The 64 officers found guilty by the Crime Branch-Central Investigation Department of ordering or enabling the killing, those who destroyed the evidence, those senior political and police leaders who protected the killers, all have escaped punishment.

India continues to stand profoundly diminished.