Hashimpura 22 May: The Forgotten Story of India’s Biggest Custodial Killings by Vibhuti Narain Rai, published by Penguin Books, 2016.
Hashimpura 22 May: The Forgotten Story of India’s Biggest Custodial Killings is a chilling reminder of that pervasive matrix of communal hatred, inhuman violence and gross miscarriage of justice which has systematically corroded the secular foundations of the Indian polity over the last few decades. Vibhuti Narain Rai’s memoir, translated from Hindi by Darshan Desai, provides yet another instance of injustice that ends up exposing the bloody underbelly of agony and outrage which the vaunted rhetoric of democracy strives to conceal.
V.N. Rai was the Superintendent of Police for the district of Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh in 1987, at a time when communal tensions were running high, owing to the growth of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement, and various parts of UP, especially Meerut, were up in flames. It is during this strife-torn context that on the night of 22nd May, 1987, that a group of individuals, belonging to the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC), led by Platoon Commander Surendra Pal Singh, picked up forty to fifty young and able-bodied Muslim men from Hashimpura locality of Meerut city in a truck and then took them near the Muradnagar Canal and Hindon Canal where they were indiscriminately shot at, leading to the death of 42 innocent citizens of secular India. The book offers a vivid and detailed portrayal of the massacre itself, especially from the accounts of survivors like Babudin and Zulfiqar, and Rai’s own involvement in the search and rescue operations that he undertook that night as well as the subsequent twists and turns in the ensuing investigation, culminating in the shambolic verdict of 2015 which exonerated all accused due to lack of evidence.
But the verdict itself did not really come as a surprise, even though it was both shocking and severely disheartening. While delivering his verdict Judge Sanjay Jindal observed,
“The defects in the investigation 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 traumatized 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 the culprits” (156-57).
Rai’s scrupulously mentions the nature of such defects which were deliberately indulged in to weaken the investigation and hush up the truth. Why did it take the authorities to confiscate the truck in which the PAC men carried off the murdered Muslim men, which meant that no worthwhile evidence would be recovered from it? Why did the report of the investigating officer of the CID, not signed by the survivors, refer to jawans in deep green uniforms when both Babudin and Muzibur Rahman (also one of the survivors) had referred to the perpetrators as men in khaki-uniforms in their original FIRs and statements given to the court? Why was it that the CID even listed among the accused a Muslim named Sami Ullah, even though it is quite absurd that he would have been part of the gruesome murders of his own community members? Why was it that the CID insisted from the start that Surendra Pal Singh and his associates were exclusively responsible for such a horrible massacre and that no senior officer was in any involved, even though there were reports of meetings regarding potential raids in Hashimpura and Maliyana, involving superior officers of both police and the local battalion of the army? Why was it that Major B.S. Pathania and others steadfastly refused to cooperate with the investigation and even denied what they wrote in the reports they had submitted to their superiors? Why were army officers actively involved in controlling the law and order situation in Meerut in the wake of communal violence from 18 May, even though there were no specific orders for the involvement of the army? What was the role of Major Satish Kaushik, whom several eye witness accounts placed in Hashimpura on the day of the massacre even though he was not posted there? Was there any link between the massacre and the death of Prabhat Kaushik, Major Kaushik’s brother and nephew of local BJP leader Shakuntala Sharma? The investigation, if carried out properly, should have offered answers to most of these questions. But as Rai confesses,
“Since I had been connected to the case and had monitored it from the beginning, I can say without any hesitation that the investigators were making every attempt to help the accused, right from day one” (154).
Such consequences are the result of an ingrained communalism which not only vitiates the mind of the enforcers of law, but cripples the administration and renders the political establishment altogether incapable to redressing the demands of justice. Neither the erstwhile Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh nor the Prime Minister’s Office took any concrete action, despite being completely cognizant of the events, especially against the PAC. Such deliberate inaction which exposes the sheer vulnerability of the minorities within the nation-state of India threatens to undermine the secular basis by creating an ambience of utter unbelongingness. This is further compounded by the unmitigated agony of the relatives of the deceased who might not only lose faith in the state and its institutions but could well be converted by fundamentalist ideologues into potential terrorists bent on avenging the wrongs inflicted on their families. In fact, the absence of any punitive action against the perpetrators only confirms the notion that people like Surendra Pal Singh, either voluntarily or under orders, will time and again “show the Muslims their place” (60) and go scot free. Any society that fails to prevent such subjugation of a particular section of the population is bound to be riddled with untold violations of humanity that would eventually unleash monstrous countermeasures. As Rai states, “I don’t want the wounds to fade. I want to reiterate in the eyes of the Indian state that it did not bother to do what it was supposed to, rather did everything that our painstakingly created constitution does not allow them to. If we forget one Hashimpura, many more will happen” (179-80). Reading and writing about it are attempts at such reiteration.
At a time when men may be killed for suspecting that they had eaten beef, something the constitution allows them to do, or undertrials may be killed in shoddy encounters to save the expenditure of the state in feeding them or a Muslim mother may be jailed for protesting against the callousness of the administration which fails to locate her “disappeared” son, books such as these become indicators of entrenched maladies we have failed so far to cure. As my earlier reviews of Do you Remember Kunan Poshpora? or Gujarat Files, also substantiate, every section of the Indian state remains besmirched with countless instances of blatant injustice, horrible crimes and heinous distortions of truth and no institution seems capable of redressing these foul atrocities.
The Hindu myths are replete with instances of monsters who keep extending their reigns of terror before finally falling prey to their own evil or being destroyed by some incarnation of divinity. I wonder who keeps track to the gross atrocities of the Indian state and what forces of destruction lurk in our futures. The answer is nowhere in the wind.