Hashimpura retold

Print edition : November 25, 2016

May 19, 1987: In curfew-bound Meerut. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Survivors of the Hashimpura massacre, (sitting from left) Mohammad Usman, Mohammad Naeem, Muzibur Rehman, Babudin, Zulfikar Nasir, and family members of some of the victims at a press conference in New Delhi on March 24, 2015. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

Reading Vibhuti Narain Rai’s Hashimpura 22 May is a nerve-racking experience, but it is a book everyone should read to know how the state denied justice to its own citizens.

BACK in 2007, the former India hockey goalkeeper Mir Ranjan Negi was for a brief while the cynosure of all eyes. His nightmare against Pakistan in the 1982 Delhi Asian Games well and truly forgotten and forgiven, he was now attracting attention for the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Chak De! India said to be based on his life. Such was the craze for the film, which had a no-star cast beyond SRK, that youngsters across the country sang its title song, many without understanding its meaning!

Among them, surprisingly, was Zulfiqar Nasir, a man who had little reason to cheer India. Or so one would think. Yet when the ace policeman Vibhuti Narain Rai called up Zulfiqar, “Chak De! India” was his ringtone. Rai, a hardened police officer who had shot into the limelight after the infamous Hashimpura massacre, was more than mildly surprised. After all, Zulfiqar was no ordinary man. He was one of the few survivors of the May 22, 1987, massacre, a manslaughter that earned the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) such disrepute that it has not been able to wash off the stigma to this day.

Reading Rai’s Hashimpura 22 May is a nerve-racking experience. Zulfiqar, along with Babudin and Kamruddin, was witness to the gory killings of able-bodied, innocent young men who had been rounded up from their village by the PAC men. Hours later they were shot dead and their bodies thrown into the Upper Ganga Canal. The old men and children were segregated from the young men. The old men were let off with a warning and a volley of expletives; the younger men were not so lucky. They were hauled up inside a truck, asked to sit on its floor, surrounded by PAC men and driven to the Upper Ganga Canal, an hour and a half’s drive from their village. Once the vehicle reached the canal, the men were pushed out one by one, shot and thrown into the canal, then in a swell. Most died on the spot. Some like Zulfiqar survived to tell their tale.

Rai tells readers the story of Zulfiqar, Babu and the rest, quietly exposing the prejudiced mindset of the PAC men who rounded up the Muslim men at the height of communal tensions in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, and shot them in cold blood. No sermon. No abuse. Rai lets their stories, in their words, do the talking. Along the way there are glimpses of the mindset of common people keen to help the victims but worried for their own safety. Not to forget politicians, keen to milk the issue one way or the other.

Sample these words of Zulfiqar: “It was around 6:00 in the evening on May 22, 1987, when I went to the terrace of our house to offer namaz, when some policemen came in. They brought me, my father and my two uncles outside our lane on the road where some 400 to 500 people were squatting. We were made to sit with them.... The PAC men divided the people into two groups. On the one hand were youngsters and on the other were old men and children. They left out the old people and kids, and whisked away many others, including my father and two uncles, in PAC trucks. The remaining forty-five physically strong people, including me, were ordered to board the last waiting truck.... The PAC men surrounded us in the truck in such a way that our view of the outside was blocked. After about an hour and a half, the truck turned towards a road running parallel to Ganga Canal in Muradnagar and came to a halt after about a one and half kilometres.”

It is there that the young men were asked to alight. First Yasin. “Zulfiqar saw him fall and then two people lifted Yasin by his hands and legs, and flung him into the canal.” The others would meet the same fate. And Zulfiqar too. Well, almost.

As Rai writes: “A bullet ripped through him, near his chest and ejected from the back. He fell and, realising that the only way to survive would be to pretend that he was dead, he remained still on the ground. Zulfiqar was picked up and flung into the canal. As fate would have it, he did not land in the middle of the canal, where the water current was strong, but near the thick bushy growth where the flow was slow. He floated for some time and then clung to the thick bushes.”

A little later, after the PAC men had driven away, he felt somebody touching him. He stiffened, terrified. The man touching him was his neighbour Arif, who had also miraculously escaped death. A little later, Zulfiqar and Arif found Kamruddin in a worse state. How Arif disappears, how Kamruddin prevails upon Zulfiqar to leave him in the dead of night and escape to save his life, how a man in acute distress attempts to help another similarly placed, and how a man staring death in the face wants to save his compatriot’s life makes for a nerve-jangling reading experience.

Then there was Babu, the man who helped Rai and other police officers immensely in putting together the story. Sample Babu’s story: “Babudin told us that during the routine searches, a PAC truck picked up forty to fifty 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 them so long to reach the jail from the curfew-bound streets, everything else looked so normal that they had no inkling of what was lying in store for them. But [it was only] when they were asked to step out at the first canal and the PAC men started shooting them, one after the other, that they understood why their custodians had been so silent and why they kept whispering into each other’s ears. The story is a sordid saga of the relations between the Indian state and minorities, the amoral attitude of the police and a frustratingly sluggish judicial system. The cases I lodged in the Link Road and Muradnagar police stations on 22 May 1987 met with formidable obstacles for more than two decades and could reach their logical conclusion only after twenty-eight years.”

These 28 years served to prove how the reckless action of a policeman can destroy the lives of many and how politicians, even from supposedly secular political parties, are not above reproach. Here he mentions senior Congress leader Mohsina Kidwai, an MP from Meerut and a Minister in Rajiv Gandhi’s Cabinet, who refused to extend a helping hand to Zulfiqar when he approached her for help at her Janpath residence in New Delhi. While Zulfiqar got help from Syed Shahabuddin, then very much the voice of the urban Indian Muslim, Mohs ina Kidwai’s refusal stemmed from the protests she had encountered earlier on her visit to the township, which proved the limitations of a Muslim politician or a bureaucrat (in this case District Magistrate Nasim Zaidi) to help minorities in case of a riot.

Yet when the case reached its conclusion after 28 years of relentless struggle, Rai was in for a shock. In his words: “It was 21 March 2015. My mind was too tense to let me fall asleep. Twenty-eight years after the massacre the verdict on Hashimpura was finally expected. I was some 800 kilometres away from the Tis Hazari court, in my village, Jokehara, in Azamgarh district, but my heart and mind were in the court.... I called up Zulfiqar Nasir, who assured me that he would inform me the minute the judgment was out. At around 3:00 p.m. Zulfiqar gave me the shocking news—all the accused were acquitted. I was left speechless. What a tragic end to our gruelling efforts spread over twenty-eight years!”

The judgment, though saddening, was not unexpected. Rai himself contends in the book that the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), which Chief Minister Veer Bahadur Singh had tasked with investigating the Link Road and Muradnagar massacres, was engaged in a virtual mission to save the culprits. “I started working on this book first by examining the documents submitted by the CID in the court. The more I immersed myself in it, the more I realised that the investigation’s focus was not on proving the charges against the accused but to botch up the inquiry and create confusing circumstances that no court would have been able to pronounce them guilty.” The CID succeeded in its politics of obfuscation and deflection. Indeed, Additional Sessions Judge Sanjay Jindal said: “[T]he defects in the investigations are of such a nature which go to the very root of the prosecution case and if ignored the same can cause a serious prejudice to the accused persons and such ignorance may result in the miscarriage of justice.... It is very painful to observe that several innocent persons have been traumatised, and their lives have been taken by the state agency, but the investigating agency as well as the prosecution have failed to bring on record the reliable material to establish the identity of culprits.”

Then there was the government’s press conference soon after Shahabuddin brought Zulfiqar’s case to public attention in which the Congress government tried to prove that Zulfiqar was lying and that all those arrested from Hashimpura on May 22 were very much in jail! The same PAC officers later told the CID they had no knowledge of the Hashimpura killings, completing a sordid circle of wilful denial of justice to the innocent.

Hashimpura and Maliana—similarly in the news for mass murder around the same time —will remain more than unfortunate footnotes in the annals of secular India. An officer like Rai, recipient of the President’s Police Medal for Distinguished Service, through a book like Hashimpura 22 May ensures that the faith of minorities in the state is merely shaken, not crushed. More importantly, read the book to know how the state denied justice to its own citizens. Amidst all the gloom, there is hope though. Remember Zulfiqar’s ringtone? “Chak De! India.”

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