(Mohd Asim is Senior News Editor, NDTV 24x7)
On Saturday, a Delhi court acquitted 16 Uttar Pradesh police personnel accused in the 1987 Hashimpura massacre, in which more than 40 Muslims were killed in cold blood. The policemen have been set free on account of lack of evidence, and the failure of the state government to establish the identity of the accused policemen.
Here is what happened on that fateful night of May 22, 1987.
Riots had broken out in Meerut in April 1987, following the Rajiv Gandhi government's decision to open the locks of the 17th-century Babri Masjid. After a brief lull, riots restarted in May in Meerut. Curfew was imposed and Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) personnel conducted searches in several Muslim localities in the city. On May 22, 1987, they booked hundreds of Muslim youth from Hashimpura, though there was no rioting in that area of Meerut city.
19 PAC personnel, under platoon commander Surinder Pal Singh, allegedly took about 50 young Muslim men, most of them daily wage labourers and poor weavers, in a van from the Hashimpura locality in Meerut to the Upper Ganga Canal in Murad Nagar, Ghaziabad, instead of taking them to the police station. They then allegedly shot some of them, one by one, and threw them into the canal. The remaining men were taken in the truck to the Hindon Canal in Makanpur on Delhi border and shot. A few of the men survived, pretending to be dead and later filed FIRs against the policemen.
The court judgement acquitting all the accused has come a good 28 years after the incident. And now, we are made to believe that no one actually killed those over 40 innocent Muslims. A typical case of justice not just delayed, but also denied.
So why is Hashimpura important? In 1987, I was a six-year-old kid. So I don't remember hearing or reading about the carnage. But growing up in Aligarh also meant living through many subsequent riots, especially in the early 90s. Hashimpura came up in household discussions every time there was a communal skirmish in the town. It was the first-of-its-kind case of custodial killing. It became synonymous with the PAC - the dubious, notorious and blatantly communal Provincial Armed Constabulary of the UP Police.
Vibhuti Narain Rai, who was the Superintendent of Police, Ghaziabad when the massacre took place, said in his book 'Combating Communal Conflicts--Perception of Police Neutrality During Hindu-Muslim Riots in India' that most of the police personnel posted in Meerut saw the riots as a result of Muslim "mischief", while ignoring or overlooking the role of Hindutva groups in fanning them. They claimed that Meerut had become a "mini-Pakistan" because of "Muslim intransigence" and that it was necessary to teach the community a lesson.
Mr Rai, who is also writing a Hindi book on the massacre, titled 'Hashimpura May 22', has posted some translated excerpts of it on his blog: http://vibhutinarain.blogspot.in/
Here is a chilling account from his book of the police barbarity that unfolded on that dirt track by the canal.
"Every survivor who hit the ground after being shot at tried hard to pretend he is dead and most hanged on the canal's embankments with their heads in water and the body clutched by weeds to show to their killers that they were dead and no more gunshots fired at them. Even after the PAC personnel had left, they lay still between water, blood and slush. They were too scared and numbed even to help those who were still alive or half dead. So much so that even after their tormentors had gone, they considered every person coming there as a member of that gang. Leave alone seeking help, they would further squeeze their bodies into themselves - this especially if the person was in Khaki."
Politically, too the killings reverberated loud. The Congress that was in power in UP has never won Meerut since then and also could not make it back to the power in the state. Mufti Mohd Sayeed, who today shares power with the BJP in Jammu and Kashmir, resigned from the Rajiv Gandhi cabinet after the incident.
But somehow, Hashimpura didn't become as big a political and media issue as would be natural for a massacre of this kind. Was it because it happened under the Congress' watch, and so it was easy to paint it as only a case of police excess? How can a gang of policemen dare to execute a killing as stunning as that without orders from top -- and I include both their administrative as well as political bosses?
Successive state governments headed by SP and BSP never showed any interest in taking the case to its logical end. This was evident in the case being transferred to Delhi in 2002 on the orders of the Supreme Court.
Even if we were to believe that these 16 men were not responsible for the killings, we as a country need to know who were. Even if it is 28 years later. A democracy that is run by the rule of law and Constitution cannot let such a heinous crime go unpunished.
Saturday's order that set the killers of Hashimpura free is a stark commentary on how the institutions of state conspire to deny justice to its citizens. May be in this case there was no "collective conscience to satisfy".
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