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Hashimpura, the massacre that everyone forgot

By Darshan Desai

A media frenzy next year will mark the 10th anniversary of the horrifying Gujarat riots. But few will remember that 2012 will also mark 25 years after the shocking Hashimpura massacre in which a reserve force of the UP police rounded up 42 people and allegedly shot at them with impunity. After 23 years of research and investigation, former SP Vibhuti Narain Rai’s forthcoming book will for the first time tell the complete story

Hashimpura massacre 1987
At a programme commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Hashimpura massacre

A little over six months from now, the media will be bracing for a ritual that one could easily describe as ‘anniversary journalism’. By the calendar, 2012 will herald the 10th anniversary of the Gujarat riots and 10 years of Narendra Modi in office -- both obviously don’t need any introduction. Newsrooms of 24x7 TV channels, newspapers, magazines, and now websites, will be agog with discussions and brain-storming sessions on how to handle the anniversary. Intellectuals, activists, NGOs will plan demonstrations, hog websites/edit pages with comment pieces, and organise seminars across the country. It will also be election year in Gujarat, but that may not be newsworthy as Narendra Modi will more than match Sheila Dixit for a third successive run as chief minister of Gujarat, unless the BJP decides to pitch him at the national level.

Between all the hype and the hoopla, another anniversary -- and a longer one in timespan -- will struggle for print space and time slot. The 1987 massacre of Muslims in Uttar Pradesh, arguably shouting distance from New Delhi, where 42 people were summarily picked up from Hashimpura town near Ghaziabad -- dotted at present with flashy malls and multiplexes -- and killed one by one at almost point-blank range by a group from the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC), a reserve force of the Uttar Pradesh police.

The two killing sites, by the side of water canals leading to Delhi, on the night of May 22/23, 1987 may be smaller in spread and toll, but were arguably worse than Gujarat 2002 in their intensity, ferocity and impunity. In Gujarat, the police turned a blind eye to marauders; here, a special arm of the police planned and executed the murders. And how! Muslims were thrown out of a PAC truck like gunny bags and, as they fell, were showered with bullets until they died.

All this happened against the backdrop of communal violence in neighbouring Meerut district that had started four days earlier, on May 18. Meerut has a long history of communal violence. Even before Independence, this and the surrounding districts of Muzaffarnagar, Saharanpur, Panipat and Karnal were fortresses of the Muslim League and Arya Samaj. Soon after Partition, a large number of refugees settled in Meerut. The district emerged as a key centre of electoral politics for the Jan Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The ’70s saw regular communal riots in Meerut; it was in this decade that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) came into existence. This paved the way for the emergence of a new trend of communal polarisation across the country, which was more pronounced in Uttar Pradesh. The Ram Janmabhoomi movement -- the key programme of the VHP -- hopelessly polarised the Indian middle class. By 1985, the programme had gathered aggressive momentum and rath yatras were being taken out across virtually every nook and cranny of the country. During the yatras, riots occurred in areas and villages of Uttar Pradesh that had been insulated from them even during Partition.

Meerut continued to witness riots at regular intervals through the ’80s. The May 22/23, 1987 Hashimpura massacre was thus an intrinsic part of a heinous project that began in the ’70s and continued through the ’80s and into the following years till Gujarat 2002. The polarisation process did not spare even the government machinery and police force.  

So, in 2012, it will also be 25 years of India’s most horrifying custodial killings since Independence. But, while it may not get the same media space as 10 years of Gujarat, a book coming out around the same time, by a senior UP IPS officer who was then a superintendent of police, will not only retell the story of the Hashimpura pogrom, it will reveal for the first time why it happened and who instigated it.

It is ironical that the offences lodged by Vibhuti Narain Rai -- the author of the book -- back in May 1987, are still stuck in the courts though they are now in the final stages, after a very shoddy investigation by the UP CID that tried its best not to reach the real culprits, whilst helping those who were booked. First, the case went on endlessly in a Ghaziabad court; later, following orders from the Supreme Court, it was transferred to a Delhi court.

And yet, the court cases do not answer why innocent people, unknown to their killers, were picked up randomly and shot. Gujarat knows the whys and hows of what happened in 2002, since it enjoyed 24x7 media coverage and support from alert and committed activists. But Uttar Pradesh doesn’t, and basks in the glory of its avowed Ganga-Jamuna tradition.

After 23 years of research and investigation, Vibhuti Narain Rai, now vice-chancellor at Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University, Wardha, in Maharashtra, has the answers to why this massacre happened. Was it the decision of a sub-inspector of the PAC to plan the gruesome incident? Was there political complicity? What was an army major doing at the spot when he had no business being there? Weren’t senior officials of the state aware of the atrocity?

What is extremely poignant is that even now, 25 years down the line, the investigators are simply not aware or don’t wish to reveal the motive behind the crime. This book explains it all. And yet, ironically, it will have no political (more specifically, electoral) significance despite the fact that 2012 will also see elections in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, where the massacre took place.

Vibhuti Narain Rai is an acclaimed Hindi writer whose book Curfew in the City was translated into six languages, including English. At one time, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad had demanded a ban on the book.

Here are translated excerpts from the forthcoming book, depicting the brutality with which the PAC executed the killings:

Imagine such a close encounter with death that when you open your eyes to bodies -- dead and half-dead -- you want to touch them to believe you are still alive. When molten lead rips through your flesh and flings you into the air like a cotton ball; there is no pain, no fear, not even time for memories to torment you. There are rifles blazing around you and then there is the cacophony of abusive screams from your killers. With numbed senses you wait for one of the bullets whizzing past you to enter your body in such a way that you are tossed into 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 racking your brains you just cannot figure out why they would want to kill you.

What would have been the state of mind of Babudin, Mujibur Rehman, Mohhamad Naeem, Arif, Zulfikar Nasir or Mohammad Usman when they saw their friends, relatives and colleagues tossed into the air and then falling with a thud, convulsing and writhing in pain, their senses so numbed that they could not even dare to do the obvious -- run away? Everyone made an identical attempt to save their lives. They all fell in different directions after being hit by bullets, but the effort to protect themselves from impending death was the same. Both the massacres where these 42 people were forced out of the PAC truck and killed happened on the banks of canals, and in both canals the water flow was rapid.

Every survivor who hit the ground after being shot tried hard to pretend he was dead. Most hung onto the canal’s embankments with their heads in water and their bodies entangled in weeds to show their killers that they were dead and to have no more gunshots fired at them. Even after the PAC personnel had left, they lay still in the water, blood and slush. They were too scared and numb even to help those who were still alive or half-dead. So much so that even after their tormentors had gone, they considered every passing person a member of the gang. Let alone seeking help, they squeezed their bodies further into themselves -- especially if the person was in khaki.  

I met Babudin some three hours after he was shot. A frail, hollow-cheeked boy of average height stood before us, diffident and scared, like a sparrow with wet wings. His trousers were muddied by slush from the canal embankment and his shirt was so wet you could extract a litre of water from it. Shivers would occasionally pass through his body even in the scorching summer. I noticed an uncanny coldness in his voice even though he did have a stammer. His ennui was surprising considering he had grappled with death at such close quarters and seen many others strewn all around him.

A shiver ran down my spine when he narrated his journey from Hashimpura to Makanpur in such an impersonal manner. Two decades later, when I think of it, I realise that when death hounds you it does scare you but if it becomes your co-traveller for some time and then lets you alone, you are filled with a kind of casual indifference.

Babudin’s clothes were drenched and there were faint crimson smears on them. On closer inspection it was clear that his wet shirt was stuck at two bloody patches on his body. One patch was behind his left shoulder near the waist; another was on the right corner of his chest. It seemed the bullets had brushed past him at these two places.

He appeared exhausted and sad but was able to walk on his own two legs. We were taking him to Link Road police station, but as soon as he took a few steps his legs started trembling. We made him sit on the culvert with the support of a police constable. The impact of hanging on the weeds for hours was showing now.

Though the monsoons were still far away, the last week of May in Ghaziabad and the surrounding areas are so humid that you are perennially drenched in sweat. We were all tired and drained. Babudin occasionally shivered…

After the initial hesitation, Babudin recounted his tale. This time he was more comfortable and confident. Perhaps the passage of time and the realisation that our khaki was different from the khaki of his tormentors allayed his fears. This time he was more coherent…

And this is why he did not miss out on a very vital and significant fact that shocked us all -- the startling disclosure that a similar massacre had happened the night before and that the PAC personnel had left many killed and wounded from among those who were on that truck. It so happened that after picking them up from Hashimpura, the speeding PAC truck suddenly turned right, parallel to a canal and some 50 metres from the main road. Trundling over the gravel road for some time, it stopped abruptly. Then, everything happened that was to happen in Makanpur an hour later.

Some jawans sitting beside the driver jumped out of the truck. The sound of their shoes hitting the gravel  made Babudin and others suspect that something unexpected and terrible was in store for them. Babudin had butterflies in his stomach and desperately felt like relieving himself. But his sixth sense told him it was too late for anything now. A few of the jawans came to the rear and opened the truck’s shutter that covered one-third of the back and was tied with thick iron chains. Just as it opened, other jawans hopped out too, leaving a couple of them inside. They seemed to be in a tearing hurry and had no time to waste. The sound of their shoes hitting the ground was frightening. Despite all his stoicism, I saw the same fear on Babudin’s face that must have been on the faces of the others who had been with him. Then, suddenly, a commanding voice from outside ordered them to jump out -- Babudin felt something was terribly wrong. He tried to creep further into the truck so that he would not have to hop out.

Then all hell broke loose. Since Babudin’s back was towards the rear door he could not see anything. He heard people getting out of the truck, and then gunshots and the choicest expletives from those firing. Perhaps the jawans’ screaming abuses were meant to subdue their fears.

Everything was confusing but it was clear that they were firing at the Muslims jumping out of the truck. All this and the deafening cries for mercy of those who fell to the bullets. The jawans standing outside the truck ordered their colleagues inside to catch those who hesitated by the collar and throw them out. They pushed their victims with the butt of their rifles and by their collars; some who were difficult to handle were virtually lifted and hurled out. Every time somebody fell outside, he could hear gunshots and the painful cries of someone dying.

Babudin was breathless as a strong hand pulled him by his collar. He tried to resist by pushing himself further into the overcrowded space. It was like a see-saw struggle that did not last long. He realised that two hands were trying to hold on to his shoulders from behind. And he was slipping towards the rear. Trembling with fear, Babudin looked behind and was dumbfounded to see Ayyub, a handloom worker who lived near his place, soaked in blood. The screams and wails of those beside him and inside the truck, as well as the abuses of the jawans outside and the sounds of gunfire, made clear to Babudin, who was still standing with his back to the rear, what was happening. Angry at failed attempts to get several others out, the jawans were now firing indiscriminately inside the truck while shouting at their colleagues to push people out. Babudin felt the firm grip of Ayyub’s arms on his legs loosening as someone pulled him away.

When he recounted this tale again, many years after that narration, I saw the same expression of helplessness on his face at being unable to do anything for his childhood friend as he saw him for the last time.

Babudin saw people around him being pulled away one by one. Everyone struggled to drag themselves forward, whilst being pulled from behind. The pressure on Babudin’s shoulders had eased -- perhaps frustrated at his resistance the PAC jawans were taking it out on other prey. Shivers ran through his entire body. It was clear to him that if he wanted to remain alive, he had to do everything possible to stay glued to the truck.

(Darshan Desai is an independent journalist. He is translating Rai’s book from Hindi to English for Penguin)

Infochange News & Features, July 2011