2015, Meerut, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Back in Hashimpura after 28 years: It is not about memory alone; it is about not forgetting

After mass police acquittals, survivors ask: How can we forget loss of 42 sons?

Zamanuddin, Hashimpura victim-survivor, breaks down as he displays a portrait of son Qamruddin who was shot dead by the PAC in May 1987
Zamanuddin, Hashimpura victim-survivor, breaks down as he displays a portrait of son Qamruddin who was shot dead by the PAC in May 1987

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 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.

Zamanuddin replays how Hashimpura’s adult men were paraded out of their dwellings in the raid
Zamanuddin replays how Hashimpura’s adult men were paraded out of their dwellings in the raid

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.

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2014, Bihar, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Why Development Doesn’t Pay, And Caste Does: The ABCD of Bihar Elections

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Blacktop highways, powerlit villages, teeming schools, beehive health centres and block offices are not the news from Bihar any longer. The news from Bihar is you fetch no votes for any of that.

All along the 300-odd-kilometre journey I made north-east of Patna to this rural outpost, the state and its people offered resounding testimony that chief minister Nitish Kumar’s dream of fashioning “Naya Bihar” is a fiction of his fancies, no more. It’s a dream he had the silly cheek to dream; it has turned into a nightmare slapping him. If he thought — as he told The Telegraph repeatedly in 2010 and 2011 — that he had created a new Bihari identity that overarched caste and creed and endorsed development with common purpose, he thought erroneously and fatally ahead of time.

Constituency after constituency, Bihar is voting neither indigenous work nor imported wave, but current and counter-current of caste and creed. If Nitish is floundering in those currents it is down to him having no history of winning a mandate on his own. He wrested Bihar from Laloo Yadav after a decade-long effort only upon allying with the BJP. His wager that he had achieved enough through governance to hold his ground is about to become a sorry manifesto of how poorly he read the ground he has ruled for nine years. Democratic victories in Bihar are not yet achievable through delivery; they remain a tribal rite of alliance-building, cynical but effective “jod-tod”. Continue reading “Why Development Doesn’t Pay, And Caste Does: The ABCD of Bihar Elections”

2014, Patna, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Zero-Cost Eggs, And The Loneliness of Giriraj Singh

Patna: A country egg hatching in a remote poultry pen has become Giriraj Singh’s thing of armour against invited assault. But we shall come to the eggs presently; first, the reason why this tale’s protagonist is on eggshells.

Such a torrent of censure and rejection he never did expect to descend on him for uttering the “undiluted truth of my heart”. Such a clap of overhead thunder it was, resonating from foe and friend, it left the bellicose Giriraj moping in a corner of his west Patna bungalow.

“I have been told I must hang, I have been told I must be arrested, I have been told I should be charged with treason, I have been told I am anti-national, and nobody is defending me. Everybody, even people in my party, is tearing into me. For what? For telling the truth? I am devastated, this moment has brought me to think if I should leave public life altogether, what’s the point if I cannot say the truth?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The counter-torrent issuing from Giriraj is in spate. He won’t stop. “I am telling you, and maybe I should not be telling you, but I feel like leaving politics, doing something else. I have probably won the Nawada Lok Sabha seat (polling in Nawada was held on April 10) , but even so, I feel so wronged, I want to give it all up.” Continue reading “Zero-Cost Eggs, And The Loneliness of Giriraj Singh”

2014, Bihar, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Between Anisur And Akhtarul, The Confounded Bihari Muslim

Between one Akhtarul and one Anisur could lie the scrambled clues to the confounded run of the Muslim voter in Bihar.

The former junked his JD(U) ticket from Kishanganj on Tuesday in the name of preventing a split in the Muslim vote. The latter sits a little shaken if the move will leave the minority voter confounded mid-election. Anisur sounds not terribly pleased with what Akhtarul has done. “We have prospered under Nitish Kumar as has the whole state, such decisions spread confusion, this is not the time to be confused.”

As general secretary of the Imarat-e-Sharia, a pre-Independence charitable body with a jurisdiction spread across Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and parts of Bengal, Maulana Anisur Rahman believes he has commitments to the community that transcend the exigencies of an election.

“We must be able to think ahead,” he sagely counsels no one in particular. “This is an important election, probably the most important we have seen in recent times, this is a time for united approach, not confusion. What Akhtarul has done creates khalbali(confusion), I find it hard to approve.” Continue reading “Between Anisur And Akhtarul, The Confounded Bihari Muslim”

2013, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

For Bihar’s Muslims, A Double Whammy of Silence

Darbhanga, (North Bihar): The tea arrived quickly, with slices of lime and freshly fried savouries. Beyond that, there was nothing on offer on the bare patio of Nafees Haider’s home in Bisunpur. “Kaahe ko mushkil mein daalte hain?” (Why do you want us in trouble?)

Reclined in a charpoy in a near corner, Haider’s wizened uncle, Khudabaksh, spoke into the silence, but only to buttress it. “Aap to sab samajhte honge, hum kuchh bhi bolenge ulta pad jaayega, dil ki baat dil mein hi rehne dein. Hamari soch sab par zahir hai. Chai peejiye.” (I am sure you understand everything; anything we say we turn on us, let our thoughts remain in our hearts, everybody knows what our thinking is. Have your tea.” They wouldn’t talk, the wouldn’t have a picture taken. “Kaahe ko?” Why?

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The formalities of hosting done, Haider courteously escorted us up the slope from his hamlet to the road winding one way to Darbhanga, another to Patna. “Jo hoga chunav mein to pata chal hi jaayega,” he offered as parting shot; what’s to happen will be clear in the elections.

Continue reading “For Bihar’s Muslims, A Double Whammy of Silence”

2013, New Delhi, News, Telegraph Calcutta

At Jallianwala, Sorry Fades from the English Dictionary

OR, A BRIEF INVENTORY OF CONTEMPORARY APOLOGY

British Prime Minister David Cameron has joined a sparse line of compatriot eminences to hang their heads at the ringside of a most ignoble theatre of Empire but return without shaking it in regret.

Over nearly a century now, British protagonists have approached the 1919 massacre ground of Jallianwala Bagh thumbing the thesaurus for an appropriate word to pick. Sorry has not been among them.

The feisty imperialist and then Secretary of War, Winston Churchill, described Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer’s shoot orders on the unarmed Baisakhi-day gathering as a “monstrous event”. His disapproval seemed to stem not so much from the hundreds dead and injured as from his considered view that the slaughter did not represent “the British way of doing business.”

Around the time Churchill made his annotation on that disgraceful chapter of British dominion over India, Dyer, though relieved of charge, was being feted as a hero on his home island; among the tributes he was showered with was a 26,000 pound sterling purse. Fifty of those crowns had come from Rudyard Kipling, who called Dyer “the man who saved India” and initiated collections for his homecoming prize.

Continue reading “At Jallianwala, Sorry Fades from the English Dictionary”

2000, Essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, Kargil

Kargil: One Side of a Bleeding Fence

A fragment from a long essay on the Kargil War: Part 3. The essay, Guns and Yellow Roses, was published in an eponymous collection on the Kargil War by HarperCollins India in 1999

Among some of the friendliest creatures on the Kargil frontier
Among some of the friendliest creatures on the Kargil frontier

Kargil: For most of us, Kargil was the biggest story we had been on. It didn’t take the daily whoops of the youthful Gaurav Sawant of The Indian Express — “Guys, guys I’m so thrilled it’s my thirty-third front page byline in a row, I have never had it so good” — to make us realise this. War hadn’t ever happened between two nuclear powers. And this war had happened to everybody — the army and the media — quite suddenly, without chance for preparation. Initially, and fortuitously for some of us, the army was too busy getting its act together to bother about the media. They tried to impose restrictions for a while but realised they would be better served by organized media exposure. Kargil became the most freely reported war — and the first televised — on the subcontinent. Continue reading “Kargil: One Side of a Bleeding Fence”