In 1987, close to fifty Muslim men were rounded up by police and killed while in custody. Three decades later, the families of the victims and the survivors, have finally found some form of closure.
After more than three decades of demanding justice for the murder of their friends and family, residents of Hashimpura, a small locality in Meerut city of Uttar Pradesh, have finally found a sense of closure and justice.
On October 31, the Delhi High Court sentenced 16 former policemen to life in prison for the killing of more than 40 Muslim men in Hashimpura in 1987.
“We waited for this moment for 31 years. Finally, the judgement we all had been waiting for has come. We are very thankful to those who supported us in our fight for justice,” survivor Babuddin, 49, told TRT World.
Babuddin is one of the few who survived what has become known as the ‘Hashimpura Massacre’. The court called the incident a “targeted killing by armed forces of the unarmed, innocent and defenceless members of a particular community”.
In 1987, Hashimpura was the scene one of the country’s most brutal incidents of custodial violence. That year, Meerut was engulfed in communal violence that went on for a couple of months.
Many attributed it to the social and communal disturbances caused by the UPA government’s 1986 opening up of the disputed site of Babri Masjid, or Ram Janmabhoomi, believed by many to be the birthplace of Lord Ram.
On May 22 that year, when people were returning from Friday prayers, the 41st battalion of the Provincial Armed Constabulary force (PAC)—a special unit of the Uttar Pradesh police—made its way into the area and ordered men from Muslim households to come out with their arms raised and assemble in lines.
The PAC then took roughly 50 men who looked adult and able-bodied and loaded them on to a yellow coloured truck, taking them first to the Gang Canal in Muradnagar, about half an hour away from Hashimpura.
The night that Hashimpura never forgot
Babuddin remembers the events of that night as if it were yesterday. He comes from Darbhanga village, in the nearby state of Bihar, and moved to Hashimpura as a teenager to work in one of the power looms, like many other migrant labourers from Bihar and other parts of Uttar Pradesh.
“At the canal, the PAC started firing at us in the truck. I took a bullet above my ribs on the left side. They took out those who had died and tossed their bodies into the river. Then they took the rest of us further to Hindon River canal in Ghaziabad and started dragging us out of the vehicle,” Babuddin, who was 17 at that time, recollects.
“After they shot the person sitting next to me, they dragged me out, shot at me and threw me in the water. I somehow survived and hid behind a bush and could see the PAC shooting at the rest of the men.”
He was later rescued from the river by the local Ghaziabad police who took him to file a police report and be admitted to hospital.
Later, many bodies were recovered from the two canals.
Apart from those who lost their lives, many were arrested and imprisoned for weeks.
“Over 700 of us, including children and senior citizens, were loaded onto a truck and taken to a thaana (police station) and were beaten up. Then we were held in prison for no reason,” Riyazzudin, who was 14 years old at the time, told TRT World.
Riyazzudin’s elder brother, Qamaruddin, was one of those who was killed in the gunfire.
The long wait for justice
For the families it has been a long wait for justice. Many lost their brothers, fathers, sons, husbands and in some cases, sole breadwinners.
The high court bench hearing the case comprised of Justices S Muralidhar and Vinod Goel. They stated in their judgement that the monetary compensation the victims and their families have received “cannot make up for the lives lost” and that the judgement is “perhaps too little, too late.”
These words are a resounding admission of the complex, tedious and lengthy judicial process which often takes years before justice can be dispensed.
“It is absolutely inexcusable that a custodial murder and torture case of such proportions took so long. It’s shameful and reflective of something deeply rotten in our system,” Rebecca M. John, a senior advocate who fought for one of the two appeals filed by the survivors, told TRT World.
“And the only people who paid the price were the survivors of Hashimpura. Those accused were never suspended or dismissed from service and continued getting salaries and promotions.”
John’s sentiments are echoed by Vrinda Grover, a senior advocate for the National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRC), who added: “The fact that this judgment took 31 years, is itself a grave miscarriage of justice.”
An accidental delay or collusion?
According to Grover, the delay was orchestrated.
“The state in a way allowed the delay. The charge sheet was not filed before 1996 and the charges were framed even later. The biggest loss that happened in terms of the evidence because of the delay was that all the investigators died during the course of the trial and could never be examined,” Grover explained.
According to John too, there was no real progress in the case while it was being heard in Uttar Pradesh. It was only in 2002 that the case was transferred to Delhi on a petition filed by the survivors and the families of the victims in the Supreme Court.
The charge sheet which was filed in 1996 by the Crime Branch, Criminal Investigation Department (CB-CID) had named 19 PAC members as the accused, of which charges were framed against 17 for murder, attempt to murder, tampering with evidence and conspiracy. But in March 2015, the trial court acquitted all of the 16 accused (one had died during the trial) citing lack of evidence against them.
The clinching piece of evidence which has led to the conviction of the accused this time by the Delhi High Court is a general diary with details of the personnel, their arms and ammunition and trucks which were sent to Meerut. The diary included the names of all the accused named in the charge sheet who were assigned to riot duty the day the killings took place.
It was only this year that the state government submitted the original diary after being ordered to do so by the high court.
“The state had suppressed the original document for over 30 years. It shows clear collusion between the state and the investigative agencies to shield the accused. It was only after appeals were filed on behalf of the NHRC after the 2015 judgement that fresh evidence was recorded and such a crucial document came to the front,” Grover said.
The high court judgement has certainly come as a relief to the residents of Hashimpura. But it has also come as a much-needed message in a country where custodial and 'encounter' killings are rampant.
According to Grover, this judgment is a warning to the men in uniform in the country that: “There may be a delay and they may be able to suppress the evidence, but there’s a likelihood that the law will eventually catch up with them and hold them accountable.”
The accused may file an appeal in the Supreme Court contesting the conviction, but for now the judgement is being hailed as a landmark verdict and has finally given some peace to those who had waited for it for too long.
Babuddin is delighted and plans to go back to his village in Bihar to spend more time with his family.
“I had come here to just work for some time but had to stay here because of the case proceedings. Half my life is gone now and I have spent a lot of time making the rounds of courts. Maybe this was God’s will.”