How the Hashimpura Massacre Verdict Is Linked to a Loss of Faith in Our Country’s Institutions

The Indian Army rounding up Muslims in Hashimpura, Meerut to hand them over to the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) of Uttar Pradesh. On 22 May 1987, fifty Muslim men were bundled away by thePAC personnel into a truck and taken to the Upper Ganga Canal in Muradnagar, Ghaziabad, under the pretext of a search. Most of these men were shot at as soon as they got off, and their bodies were dumped into the canal, while some were taken ahead to the Hindol canal in Makanpur on the Delhi border and fired at there. Indian Express Archive/Praveen Jain
28 March, 2015

This is part I of a Vantage three-part series on the Hashimpura massacre and the continued delay of justice.

The political and social contract between the state and its citizens is largely founded on trust, or so we are often assured. Yet two recent events have revealed seemingly irreparable breaches in this contract that is meant to bind society together. The incidents in question may seem far removed from each other, geographically and socially, but they both accentuate an inherent and prevalent distrust of our country’s institutions. More importantly, an analysis of these events is useful in understanding some of the reasons that have led to this distrust.

The first incident is the recent acquittal of the men accused in the Hashimpura massacre. Spanning twenty-eight years, the Hashimpura trial—one of the longest in the country—ended last Saturday, 21 March 2015, when a Delhi court acquitted all the sixteen surviving men of the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) of Uttar Pradesh who were responsible for the homicide of over forty Muslim men in Hashimpura, Meerut.

In April 1987, Meerut witnessed an outbreak of communal violence following the Rajiv Gandhi–led government’s decision to open the locks of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. After a brief respite, the riots reportedly gained steam once again in May that year, following which a curfew was imposed in the city. It was during this curfew that a PAC regiment landed in Hashimpura on the night of 22 May. Fifty Muslim men—most of them daily wage labourers and weavers—were bundled away by the PAC personnel into a truck and taken to the Upper Ganga Canal in Muradnagar, Ghaziabad, under the pretext of a search. Most of these men were shot at as soon as they got off, and their bodies were dumped into the canal, while some were taken ahead to the Hindol canal in Makanpur on the Delhi border and fired at there.

Soon, news of the Hashimpura massacre gained prominence, and reports of dead bodies found floating in the Hindol and the Upper Ganga canal triggered a massive public and media outcry. Till date, the exact number of murdered men remains unclear, although most reports testify to the identification of forty-two bodies. The Crime Branch- Crime Investigation Department (CB-CID) of Uttar Pradesh which was investigating the massacre listed 161 people as witnesses.

However, the tragedy of the Hashimpura massacre is not just the brutality of the crime it involved. It is that even after two decades of protracted investigation, the evidence fell short of the legally prescribed norms of beyond reasonable doubt. The verdict, it would appear, put both the victims and eyewitnesses in the dock for failing to prove their case, even as the accused were allowed to walk away. Additional Sessions Judge Sanjay Jindal, who was presiding over the case, said, “I give them—the accused—the benefit of the doubt due to insufficient evidence, particularly on the identification of the accused.”

It would perhaps be judicious to bear in mind that the 1980s were a far cry from our present contemporary image-driven times. It was period that was far removed from the culture of ubiquitous and unabated audits through social media. The paucity of media organisations and the limited reach of those that did exist strengthened a sense of impunity that created barriers between those who consumed the news and the events of crime that such news was comprised of.

It could be argued, for instance, that high-voltage media coverage of the 2002 Gujarat riots led to the relatively speedy retribution that was meted out in the case. Even in this case, the punishment has still been restricted almost entirely to the lower-level perpetrators and riot planners, while only a few senior politicans—such as Maya Kodnani, who is now out on bail—faced the consequences of their actions.

The law seems to have evaded the more relevant, and often the more senior, names in most of these cases. Are the perpetrators of crimes which are committed against the underclasses, dalits and minorities—including women—really treading with fear in a hyper-conversational multimedia-driven world? The reality seems to suggest otherwise.

Had Hashimpura been an isolated case, perhaps we could have drawn some contrived comfort from knowing that it was an exception in our system. Unfortunately, the large number of cases in which justice has not been delivered are spread across our country and belie any such optimistic assumption. Be it the Bhagalpur riots in 1980, the Nellie Massacare in1983, the carnage in Delhi in 1984 or the recent spate of communal violence in Muzaffarnagar in 2013; history would reflect that countless victims of organised violence in India have been denied proper justice.

As the verdict was delivered on Saturday, not many survivors of the Hashimpura massacre had lived to endure yet another travesty of justice. But for the five survivors keenly anticipating the verdict, the acquittal of the sixteen policemen accused in the case would have only served as further reinforcement of their suspicion and distrust of the system. The institutions that were supposedly built with the sole purpose of protecting and preserving this contract of trust—the executive, legislature and judiciary—appear to have abdicated their duty.

Revisiting the memories of that eventful night in 1987, after the ruling, some of the surviving victims recounted their experience in explicit detail. According to a report in The Indian Express: “Massacre survivor Zulfiqar Nasir, of the same age as Babbudin and the first prosecution witness, works out of a dimly-lit metals workshop in Meerut. He doesn’t forget the night they were shot. It was the last Friday of the holy month of Ramzan. ‘Yasin was the first, Ashraf second and then it was my turn. While I was being dragged, I fell flat on the ground. I thought my end had come. They continued to kill, one at a time. I was shot but the bullet hit me in the arm pit. I pretended to be dead. I held my breath and lay in a pile of bodies. They then threw us into the river.’”

Babuddin, one of the survivors and eye-witnesses to the Hashimpura massacre, could not identify the accused in court as the policemen had been wearing helmets on the day of the incident. “Only because of this one mistake, this verdict has been passed against us even though all other evidence was against them,” he reportedly said, bemoaning the ruling.

In this context, the recommendations of the Justice Verma Commission—which was formed to propose amendments for quicker trials and greater punishment to criminals who were accused of committing crimes against women—to hold the superiors or commanding officers accountable for crimes committed by junior officers assumes significance. Perhaps that would be a more effective mechanism to prevent perpetrators from being able to get away simply by adorning helmets.

While recent reports suggest that the survivors and their families intend to appeal against the court’s ruling, the verdict has succeeded in diluting their hope of remedial intervention.

This negative perception has been cemented by sordid cover-ups and the routine denial of justice—minor and major—that can be seen all around us. Consider the outrageous remarks of Ujjwal Nikam, the special public prosecutor who argued on behalf of the state during the 26/11 Mumbai attacks trial. Recently, he confessed that Ajmal Kasab, a member of the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the the prime accused in the case had “never demanded nor was he given” mutton biryani while in custody. “Following the media hype, I saw a tilt in people’s perspectives. It was then that I made up the statement and said he—Kasab—had demanded mutton biryani just to divert the people’s attention,” said Nikam.

Nikam succeeded. Not only was Kasab awarded the death penalty with surprising alacrity, the statement “why feed them biryani” soon became an expedient phrase liberally used by hawks and supporters of strong anti-terror legislations. Most recently, it was also used by the Deputy Inspector General of the Indian Coast Guard, BK Loshali, when he reportedly ordered that a Pakistani boat which was spotted near the Gujarat coast be blown up.

This brings me to the second event, in which this conditioned distrust of our institutions appears to be—perhaps erroneously—at play and in active combat with the system.

A little  prior to the Hashimpura verdict, the streets of Bengaluru witnessed a slew of protests that had been sparked by outrage around the mysterious death of the thirty-six-year-old Indian Administrative Service officer DK Ravi. Ravi was discovered dead in his flat on 16 March.

On the basis of prima facie evidence, the Bengaluru police described the case as a suicide. However, before the police inquiry could even begin, protesters hit the streets expressing their anger over what they suspected was a cover-up by the police and the state administration. Refusing to buy the official version of suicide, the protesters were convinced of foul play in the death of the Karnataka bureaucrat, known for his honesty and his raids on the sand mafia and corrupt real estate players.

While some media reports suggested that Ravi’s case might be more complicated, including the possibility of harassment and strained interpersonal relations with a female colleague, substantiated by recent reports of his Whatsapp records, this side of the event did not seem to find much traction amongst people who were determined to be wary of accounts from the state and the police. That there was little direct or indirect evidence to link Ravi’s death with the mafia seemed not to matter at all. Accumulated cynicism about decision-makers continued to stoke the indignation in Bengaluru.

Thus, while these two events—the Hashimpura verdict and Ravi’s death—do not seem to share much in common, the way justice, or the lack thereof, played out in the former case is an insightful indicator of why we are so willing to believe that a similarly sinister script was played out in the latter.

In a country where faith in the government and institutional structures is eroded incrementally every day, it is hardly surprising that people appear to gravitate towards a version of Ravi’s death that would imply foul play. As I have had the occasion to say before, both our institutions and hopes of repairing them have been fundamentally broken, and every time we fail to deliver justice, the crisis only gets deeper.

See part II, 'Survival and Loss in Hashimpura: a Photo Essay,' by Parthiv Shah, here.

Monobina Gupta is a senior journalist and author based in New Delhi.