This is my son’s last photograph,” Harpal Singh said matter-of-factly as he flipped through several other pictures, and then showed a colour photograph from a winter 20 years ago: young Dr. Prabhat Singh and his wife, also a doctor; their little son, beaming, sitting in the middle, and their daughter in her father’s arms in a white and red shirt.
“A mob surrounded him. He was burnt in his car … nothing was left, only his ashes. I couldn’t even recognise the car,” said Singh, 77, a retired political science professor in Meerut. “He was going to administer anasthaesia to a Muslim patient, at an operation to be conducted by a Muslim doctor.”
The man across the table looked on, anxiously twitching his fingers, keen to say something. This was Maulana Mohammed Yamin, a Muslim scholar with a thick white beard and a sheaf of papers. A conversation about a religious riot in Meerut had taken a poignant twist.
“Dr. Harpal and I have the same story. My son was also killed in riots — in 1990. Write down his name — Tariq Arshad. He was 24,” Yamin said, pointing to the reporter’s notebook. “He was killed because he was trying to save the life of our Hindu neighbour. My son said: ‘My neighbour is a good man, he has stood by us — why are you killing him?’ They said: ‘Why are you protecting a qafir (non-believer)?’ That was it. Then they stabbed him.”
Tariq was studying to become a lawyer. Prabhat had recently completed his training to become a doctor.
With a sense of shared pain, Singh and Yamin have known each other since, unflinching in their support for a common cause: seeking justice for the survivors of Hashimpura.
On May 22, it will be 20 years since 43 Muslims, all neighbours, were taken from a Meerut lane and killed execution-style, allegedly by members of the U.P. Provincial Armed Constabulary. Yamin and Singh lead a legal aid committee formed to support the long and tortuous legal battle.
Six men survived the killings, pretending to be dead, and are now witnesses in the trial. Nineteen PAC men were accused of mass murder. Three of them are dead, and a judge has ordered the trial of the remaining sixteen.
“Hashimpura was done to teach a lesson to the Muslims,” Singh said. “There is a misconception in India that rioting is always done by Muslims. The police also come from the same society that we live in. They mostly suspect Muslims.”
Yamin goes to every court hearing to provide support to the victims’ families. Singh has also been a pillar of support despite his advancing age, and both have been heroes for the families for two decades when there was no one else to support them, leave alone a Hindu.
In a city where riots have happened frequently, Yamin and Singh gently quibble over the details of 20 years ago. What happened first, and where? Which police station was how far from which killing site?
In 1987, it was April 16 when the trouble began. Muslims were celebrating their Shab-e-baraat festival and right opposite, across the road, a Hindu family had loud music playing at a family celebration. An argument began over requests to lower the volume. Stone-throwing followed. A riot erupted and curfew was imposed.
Tensions flared elsewhere too, and continued sporadically for more than a month. A new wave of violence broke out on the night of May 18.
The next morning, despite the rioting, Prabhat drove out in his newly bought, second-hand Fiat car, stacked with used and new oxygen cylinders at the back, and portable instruments.
On a long stretch of the road, near a house where an army general’s family had just been trapped and burned alive, Prabhat was mobbed. The assailants released oxygen from one of the cylinders, quickly stoking a raging fire.
“They thought they had killed a very big doctor — he had portable instruments, after all. But he wasn’t that big. He had just started his practice,” Singh said.
Three nights later, the Hashimpura massacre took place. Despite his personal loss, Singh went to inquire in the neighbourhood.
Yamin was in police custody that night. He was one of those taken in by authorities as a preventive measure to prevent riots.
“I read about Hashimpura in a newspaper in jail. I was stunned. I knew I had to do something,” said Yamin, a former municipal councillor.
Three years on, another riot raged, and his own son was dead.
The deep sense of loss has lingered, but there is no sense of religious animosity against the attackers.
“The two communities, they are made of the same stuff,” Singh said. “There are good people and communalists on both sides.”
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