By Wasi Manazir
A few years ago, I came across a mushaira on YouTube where preeminent Urdu poet Bashir Badr recited a rather mournful sher
log toot jaate hain ek ghar banane mein
tum taras nahi khaate bastiyan jalane mein
(It takes a lifetime to build a house
yet you remorselessly raze colonies to the ground)
Badr didn’t reveal the context of his sher and I took it as an incisive take on the unfortunate but all too common phenomenon of communal riots in the country. However, I inadvertently came across the context of his sher while reading Vibhuti Narain Rai’s book Hashimpura: 22 May. Rai is a retired Indian Police Services (IPS) officer and was posted in Meerut in 1987. Hashimpura fell in his jurisdiction.
Rai’s book recounts the story of the custodial killing of 42 Muslim men by the notorious Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC), an armed force in Uttar Pradesh, on May 22, 1987. The book describes in chilling detail the way Muslim men were rounded up from the Hashimpura locality. The young and healthy among them were handpicked for – what they didn’t know at the time – cold-blooded execution.
One petrifying detail from the ghastly incident is that it was conducted in two parts.
After selecting men to face the brunt of their gunfire, the PAC loaded them into their vans and took off for a canal on the outskirts of Ghaziabad district where they started their killing spree and throwing the dead bodies in the canal only to be interrupted by the headlights of an approaching vehicle. They ceased their act midway and directed the vehicle in another direction.
They took the survivors to another canal, this time in Makanpur village of Ghaziabad, and proceeded to repeat the act that began at the Murad Nagar canal. However, despite the PAC’s best efforts, there were four survivors from the first execution and two from the second.
Rai writes that in the aftermath of the massacre at a meeting attended by then Uttar Pradesh chief minister Vir Bahadur Singh, other politicians and senior bureaucrats there was a suggestion to kill the six survivors as well so as to omit all eyewitnesses to the ghastly events. Better sense prevailed. But the fact that such a suggestion was even uttered in such a responsible company shows that the rot ran deep.
Rai points out the majoritarian bias of the state institutions with right-wing elements dominating the PAC, local police and political leadership. The institutions had their bias backed by the canard of the “savage” Muslim espoused by the residents of Meerut district.
Before the massacre
May 22 didn’t materialise out of thin air. Rai recounts meetings “of all top civil and police officers” on May 21-22 which also saw active involvement of “army officials”– who were posted in Meerut due to the precarious law and order situation at the time amid continuous communal conflagrations. The would-be killers and those tasked with selecting the victims were chosen at these meetings.
S.K. Rizvi, CID officer in charge of investigating the massacre, in a note to the prime minister’s office mentioned, “[…] it may be pointed out that soon after the incident there was some speculation in the press that a brother of a locally posted Major Satish Chandra Kaushik had died of gunshot injuries on 21.5.1987 in Mohalla Hashimpura. It is said that as a consequence of this personal tragedy Major Satish Chandra Kaushik engineered the murder of residents of Hashimpura on the Upper Ganga and Hindan Canals. In this connection Sri Deep Chandra Sharma, father of the deceased, was also examined.”
“[…] the bullet appeared to have come from the direction of the neighbouring Mohalla Abdul Wani. Sri Deep Chandra Sharma also stated that no postmortem was conducted on the dead body of his son Prabhat Kaushik because of the long delay occurring in postmortem period.”
Prabhat Kaushik also happened to be a nephew of a local Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Shakuntala Sharma. Rai had met her twice during the course of research for his book and describes her thus: “If you listen to this 80-year-old woman uninterrupted, she will take you in a unique world of hatred, counter-violence, religious pride, attack, and counter-attack.”
Rai notes that Shakuntala Sharma was writing her autobiography at the time of their meeting, but her entries had stopped on May 21. He is explicit in noting that the plan for the May 22 massacre was set in motion during the May 21-22 meetings. However, botched investigation meant that these meetings were never seriously probed and the masterminds of the massacre were never tried for their crimes.
Several CID reports note Major Kaushik’s presence in Hashimpura when Muslims were being selected for their impending slaughter, however, he was never called for investigation. Rai asserts that senior police officer B.K. Chaturvedi would have been a key witness to the meetings. He was called for polygraph tests, but he never appeared. He never faced consequences for his absence. Major B.S. Pathania, who was the armed forces’ column commander at the time, also failed to appear despite being repeatedly called by the investigating authorities. He didn’t face any consequences either.
Justice delayed and denied
Ultimately, 16 PAC personnel were tried for their alleged crimes and a Delhi court acquitted all of them due to insufficient evidence in 2015. Published in 2015, Rai’s book stops at the acquittal. However, the Delhi high court overturned the trial court’s verdict on October 31, 2018, and sentenced all 16 to life imprisonment.
After the 2015 verdict, Rai muses in the book, “Would I be happy if the accused were convicted?” He answers that the verdict was unfortunate, but not unprecedented as it would have been difficult for any court to convict the accused on the basis of the evidence produced before them. He also questions if there was a miscarriage of justice as a Muslim PAC personnel was also an accused. Rai couldn’t fathom a Muslim’s participation in such an act against his own community. It didn’t add up.
“Being part of this case since the beginning, I can say that investigators tried to protect the accused from day one,” he laments.
A communal mindset among the men in uniform
Rai’s book, which was 28 years in the making, shines a light on numerous dark crevices in the Indian psyche, bureaucratic malpractices, political indifference and media’s complicity: a tale that will sound all too familiar to the victims of the February 2020 pogrom in Delhi.
The Hashimpura massacre was meant as a collective punishment to the Muslims for the death of a high-ranking official’s family member. There was no real intent to find the culprit who shot Prabhat Kumar, instead a decision was taken by the higher-ups to select the healthiest Muslim men, akin to choosing the strongest cattle at a fair, and murder them.
Rai’s book also lays bare the communal mindset in the police ranks. He writes that Hindu localities saw the police personnel as one of their own, while the Muslims had a morbid fear of the men in uniform, never seeing them as allies who would protect them or help them get justice, but officers who would team up with the Hindus to plunder and murder them. It’s telling that in their conversations police personnel referred to the Hindus as “us”, while their Muslim countrymen were “they”.
Mohsina Kidwai was the Congress MP from Meerut at the time, but when the victims approached her offices in Delhi, they were denied any help. Instead they were directed towards Janata Party MP Syed Shahabuddin’s office. He took up their cause for justice.
Media played its part in depicting Muslims as raving lunatics which hardened the Hindus’ stance against them, paving the way for their otherisation and ultimately, massacre. Rai cites headlines from mainstream Hindi dailies to illustrate the media’s role. Amar Ujala (May 28, 1987): ‘Removing PAC will push Meerut to the brink of destruction’; and Dainik Jagran (May 29, 1987): ‘PAC’s timely intervention averted imminent destruction’.
Muslim bureaucrats had their own battles to confront. Rai notes the dilemma of district magistrate Naseem Zaidi and the CID investigating officer S.K. Rizvi as they made their moves. One can guess the tight rope Muslim officials are likely treading in the current sociopolitical climate in the country.
Badr didn’t lose his house in Hashimpura. Tragedy befell him in another Meerut locality in 1987. The poet was among a handful of middle-class Muslims who moved out of Muslim-majority areas and settled in the newly built locality of Shastri Nagar on the outskirts of Meerut.
In another communal flare up in 1987 in Meerut, rumours spread that Muslims in Shastri Nagar were chopping off Hindu women’s breasts, robbing their houses and setting them alight. The reality was its opposite. In the wake of their destruction in Shastri Nagar, Muslims sold their homes at throwaway prices and moved back to the narrow lanes of their ghettos which they had tried to escape.
Badr took refuge at his friend Ghanshyam Singh Raja’s house in Ghaziabad. His lament has become an elegy for many Muslims’ in the years since.
This story was first appeared on thewire.in