By all accounts, custodial killings of more than 40 innocent young Muslims in Hashimpura on May 22, 1987 by Uttar Pradesh’s Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) of the 41st battalion can only be regarded as a modern day Jallianwalabagh or worse. In Jallianwalabagh, the crowd had gathered to take part in a political protest; here, these innocent youths were chosen from neighbouring villages. PAC’s 41st battalion led by Platoon Commander Surender Pal Singh, selected youngsters in full public view from a crowd of roughly 500 people, loaded them onto an official truck, number URU 1352, drove them to the canal, shot each to death one by one, threw them into the water, and then returned to the camp for a regular life as though they had executed a routine job. Twenty eight years later, on March 21, 2015, the verdict on the crime was pronounced and all the accused were released.
Its key figure, Surender Pal Singh, is no more. The author interviewed him several times and heard him say that Muslims needed to be taught a lesson, but accepts his failure to figure out what made Singh lead this massacre. The murder of Prabhat Kumar; and his influential relatives, and their ideologies could have been the reason. That is how far we travel in this account to make sense of this tragedy.
Vibhuti Narain Rai was the Superintendent Of Police (SP) of the district at the time and a part of the early investigation. In 1992, he decided to write a book. Because, in his words,“ It is my way to pay the debt, without which I cannot go to the grave peacefully.” As a police officer with a national fellowship at the National Police Academy, Hyderabad, he was able to collect a lot of documents from the Criminal Investigation Department(CID), and PAC, which add enormous credibility to his analysis. India’s secularists should be indebted to the author for his commitment, and to others like Vrinda Grover, Maulana Yameen, Rampal Singh and Iqbal Ansari, and to journalists like Naseeruddin and Qurban Ali for supporting the author to keep this story alive even as it vanishes from national memory. This book has become an invaluable source of history, not just on Hindu-Muslim relations but also on the conduct of the Indian state, which appears to have been worse than a colonial one in this case.
Babudin was one of the victims who survived the massacre. His account was the earliest to be part of the official record. There was Jaibunnisa, who gave birth to a baby girl on May 22, 1987, the day her husband’s life was snuffed out by PAC bullets. Zulfiqar Nisar, now a business man, was another victim. He survived and rebuilt his life after earning a degree from Jamia Millia Islamia with the help of a recommendation from Syed Shahabuddin. On May 22, 2011, the author took Zulfiqar to the crime scene to revisit the story and offers a vivid description of his reactions.
The book’s narrative shows how the Indian state operates why the wheels of justice move slowly, often in the direction opposite to justice. We learn how it was hard for Rai to get even the report of the massacre published, and how his friends in the media pushed the story. He details his interactions with the then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Veer Bahadur Singhk, other politicians like Mohsina Kidwai, and Syed Shahabuddin. The most disturbing sections deal with the notorious Provincial Armed Constabulary(PAC), and with how negative perceptions about minorities are often presented in the media. Reports in Amar Ujala and Dainik Jagaran that reflect the media’s communal biases are highlighted. We also learn that an attempt to secularise the PAC was made during VP Singh’s chief-ministership. It barely worked.
Read more: Hashimpura: A tale of injustice
The book suggests that the communal hatred that motivated this group of police officials could be traced to the wider political development of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. But to assume that India or Uttar Pradesh was secular before the Ayodhya movement could be a gross misrepresentation of our history. Rai recognizes this reasoning. Therefore, the big question here is not why communal violence takes place but why it is seen as normal and legitimate, and how the state machinery represents such mindsets. After reading this, one wonders about the emptiness of the claim of India’s secularism. It would be inadequate to blame only Hindutva groups because many other forces worked in tandem to perpetuate communal hatred.
Strikingly, Rai points out that even Muslim figures holding crucial positions failed to facilitate justice through the state machinery. He singles out Syed Khalid Rizvi, Superintendent of Police, CID at the time, Nasim Zaidi, district magistrate of Ghaziabad district, and prominent Congress politician Mohsina Kidwai. The author presents a positive portrait of diplomat Syed Shahabuddin, who he had earlier viewed as a fundamentalist hawk. He reasons that the poor response from Muslim officials could perhaps be attributed to their over-consciousness of their secular credentials.
This book is an attempt to show the various dimensions of the failure of the Indian state, and to examine why justice often eludes innocents. This book presents a unique window into the flaws of India’s secular state as it existed long before the official arrival of Hindutva ideology, with its colourful Gujarati mascots.
Dr Rehman is the editor of, Rise of Saffron Power: Reflections on Indian Politics (Routledge forthcoming). He teaches at Jamia Millia Central University, New Delhi.