After mass police acquittals, survivors ask: How can we forget loss of 42 sons?
Meerut, April 4: Hashimpura lives down the belly of a violated orifice gaped upon the midtown street. Ripped walls and leaky sewer veins make the darkened cavern; its low dwellings are a mangle of rusted girders poked through unfinished masonry; fly and mosquito squadrons drone about leprous pools of defecation, decay is a work in progress.
It’s a molested air Hashimpura wears. Over the low-voltage trundle of its many loom sheds, residents look upon the arrived outsider with furtive victim eyes.
” Hamari khabar 28 saal purani hai, uske baad yahan kuchh nahin hua (Our news is 28 years old, nothing has happened here after that).”
A patina of weary resignation has come to settle on their anguish and anger, and any hope of redemption there might have been. The pleas they regularly put out – one such vinyl banner hangs limp on the Hashimpura walls calling attention to, among others, the Prime Minister – are no more than notes to themselves, tatty dressing gauze on what won’t stop to bleed.
To sit down in Hashimpura’s bedraggled courtyards and listen to its people talk is to feel the cold suspicion they won’t be terribly beset if justice doesn’t step into their street after all. It’s been gone too long.
Almost three decades ago, in May 1987, male residents of Hashimpura were rounded up in a cordon-and-search op by army jawans, herded out onto the main road and handed over to the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC), Uttar Pradesh’s chief paramilitary formation.
It has never been clear what Hashimpura had done to call upon itself the raid, save that it was a time of communal simmer and confrontation. The unlocking of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute had spurred sectarian fires across Uttar Pradesh; Meerut had erupted recurrently – arson and clashes between rival processions in February 1986 that put the city under curfew for a fortnight; in April, just a month before, a more purposeful and bloody collision that brought up a dozen dead, several more injured, and a city beginning to fear itself. Meerut was on the burner.
The custody of Hashimpura from the late afternoon of May 22 accounted for more than 250 persons. They were all loaded onto the back of constabulary trucks and driven off – most to lockups and jails, and 55-odd to the banks of the Gangnahar, or the Ganga canal, which cuts through Muradnagar on the Meerut-Delhi road.
There, by dark, they were ordered down and lined up by the waterfront, arms raised, shot and left to float down the water. Forty-two of those died, a handful survived, feigning death until the PAC jawans thought their job done and departed, lying still on the mud-bank or slithering into thickets of elephant grass.
The Telegraph ‘s front page of June 1, 1987, carries a photograph of Zulfiqar Nasir, then 17, vest pulled over his head displaying wounds from bullets that had grazed his armpit. He’d escaped, pretending to be dead, and come to Delhi, aided by rights groups, to tell his tale.
Zulfiqar’s account was widely put down at the time as “exaggerated” or “hallucinatory”. It was only when dead bodies began to float up and along the Gangnahar as far downstream as Hindon, close to Delhi, that the horrific contours of the Hashimpura massacre began to emerge and be accepted.
An execution squad had gone to work and put dozens of blameless men to death in the lee of the nation’s capital, no more than 60 kilometres from Delhi.
Last week, a lower court let off all 16 surviving policemen accused of murder for lack of evidence. In effect, 42 lives had been collectively and abruptly put to end but nobody had done it. After three decades the combined resources of the executive and the judiciary had conjured a whodunit. Justice delayed, then denied.
Much of it was achieved through serial denial and dereliction – destruction and disappearance of evidence, tardy investigation and case-making, leaden progress in the courts.
One of the first FIRs in the case vanished, the weapons used to kill were never seized or cited, the bodies of victims were swiftly cremated rather than being buried so they could not be exhumed for examination.
Vrinda Grover, counsel for the Hashimpura litigants, is blunt to allege a collusive conspiracy to bury the massacre: “From the very beginning, there was a deliberate plan to either not collect the crucial pieces of evidence, to conceal them or allow them to be lost in the passage of time.”
Zulfiqar, now 45, might well believe it irretrievably lost. In the 28 years since he stood up at a press conference in Delhi to display his wounds and tell the story few survived to tell, Zulfiqar has trained himself as a machine-tools worker, established a small trade, got married, had three children and built a life of sorts.
But his central pursuit has eluded him – murder he witnessed first hand and himself narrowly escaped, but murder he cannot pin on the guilty, a constant shadow he can see but cannot grasp and nail.
” Khaate-peete hain, lekin naa izzat hai naa insaaf,” he says. ” Lekin chhor kaise dein, bhool kaise jaayen (We are well-to-do but we have neither self-respect nor justice; but how are we to let it be, leave it alone)?”
You don’t give up on your living; often, you don’t give up on your dead. It is not about memory alone; it is also about not forgetting.
It may seem a despondent enterprise but it is the enterprise of each Hashimpura home – an honourable closure. Unassuaged shadows shift about in these homes, heaving in dank corners, waiting to present themselves to anyone who would care.
Each home had men. Each home suffered scars from the operations of the afternoon of May 22, 1987. Those scars have aged but they remain sore, awaiting the poultice of, if nothing else, respect.
Zamanuddin, 78 and retired from most of life’s chores – “Now I just sit around and enjoy the company of friends while I can, there’s not much else to do” – wouldn’t bring up his murdered son until more than an hour into our conversation.
He wouldn’t bring up his battered other son, he wouldn’t bring up the rifle-butt wounds received on his own back that afternoon. He spoke at length of general grief and grievance.
“Everybody suffered, this whole mohalla, each of my friends, all these men you see.”
Half a dozen of them were there, seated under the dappled shade of a wizened creeper in the old-fashioned well of the house. Then the squeal of a child from some quarrel in some part of the house brought on the tears: ” Bachche rote hain to dil phat jaata hai (When children cry, it tears the heart).”
And the tears brought on a photo-frame and in it the fading image of a young man. Qamruddin, Zamanuddin’s eldest, photographed as he set out at the head of his baraat, handsome as a groom can get on wedding day, garlanded, portrait-ready.
It’s the only picture Zamanuddin has of Qamruddin, or would still be willing to see. There exists another but he has refused to hold or see it all these years.
Azizuddin, Zamanuddin’s youngest, fetches it – a black and white image turned sepia. It shows Qamruddin prone, a bullet hole in his upper chest, dead. He was among those the execution squad took to the banks of the Gangnahar on the night of May 22, 1987, and never came back.
“I was taken out too that afternoon and because I came back I assumed Qamar would too, we had done no wrong,” Zamanuddin says, now choking.
“I was 50 and they spared me for my age, they were after the younger lot, but it did not strike me while they were separating us, it did not strike me that was the last I was seeing of Qamar.”
He asks for the photo-frame be taken away, back to its dark corner in the anteroom; he gives his face a wipe, and then he steps out into Hashimpura’s rancid belly to point to us the way they were taken by the bayonets.