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Brutalised, but not broken

The police bullet pierced through his shoulder. If it had entered his body just a few inches lower, he would have died, like the 40 others, writes Harsh Mander.

india Updated: Dec 18, 2006 06:27 IST

The police bullet pierced through his shoulder, stunning him with pain. If it had entered his body just a few inches lower, he would have died, like the forty other young men that the constables had bundled into the truck with him. They took him for dead, throwing him into the canal. Zulfikar was then 17 years old.

A few hours earlier, constables of the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) had surrounded Hashimpura, a working class and predominantly Muslim colony of factory workers and weavers in Meerut.

It was the evening of May 22, 1987, and the city was still smouldering with the fires of more than a month of embittered and brutal rioting, that had left many slain by police bullets and burning alive, hundreds of homes, factories, shops and vehicles gutted, and people of both communities convulsed with sullen hate and anger.

The PAC forced all the residents of Hashimpura out of their homes onto the road, and searched their homes, randomly smashing their furniture and valuables. It was the sacred month of Ramzan, and most were still observing the ritual fasting as they tensely cowered for hours outside their homes. Almost all the able-bodied men, totalling 324 according to official records, all Muslim, were arrested and crowded into police trucks.

They were first driven to police lock-ups, where they were beaten with police batons. They were then shifted to jails, where they were attacked by prisoners, leaving five dead.

In Hashimpura, after the strong able-bodied men were arrested and driven away, nearly 50 among the teenaged and old men who remained behind were then rounded up by the PAC constables into a yellow truck. Many of their loved ones wailed as they were driven away. Yet, none dreamed that this would be the last time that they would see most of them alive.

Zulfikar and others thought that they too would be driven to the police station. They panicked when the truck instead began to drive them out of the city; they shouted hopelessly but there were none to heed their cries in the shrouds of curfew.

The truck rumbled to a halt more than an hour later near the banks of the Upper Ganga Canal in Muradnagar, Ghaziabad. By then, the sun had set. The terrified men packed in the truck still did not know what the men in khaki planned for them.

The man nearest the edge was first pulled down, and the sound of rifle-fire echoed through the uneasy silence; he fell, and his body was dragged to the canal and thrown in. A second man was then pulled down, and met the same fate. Zulfikar was the third.

The bullet passed through his shoulder; he too collapsed, but was alive. He held his breath, and the constables took him for dead, and flung him also into the canal. He floated briefly, but soon found himself tangled in some weeds, which he grabbed and silently waited with intense foreboding, blood flowing from his bullet wound into the water.

By then, the men in the truck comprehended the terrible truth of what was happening, and they raised a great uproar. The constables panicked, and changed track.

They mounted the truck and opened fire blindly, killing at least half the men there. They dragged out the bodies and threw them into the canal. The remaining men fell silent in cold terror, recalling their God and those they loved, certain now that they would not escape alive.

Zulfikar listened as the truck finally drove away. He came to know later that they then drove to the Hindon Canal, and completed the massacre of the remaining men. Of the nearly 50 men who the PAC picked up, only six survived. A policeman later testified to seeing the blood-stained PAC truck enter the premises of the camp of the PAC.

Zulkifar finally pulled himself out of the canal an hour later, and hid in a urinal. He had to continue his fast amid the stench of urine and his throbbing shoulder the next 24 hours, until he felt it was safe to slink to the home of a relative the next night.

Days later, he took a bus to the home of Syed Shahabuddin, MP, in Delhi, and together they broke the story of the massacre in a press conference to a (briefly) outraged world.

Meanwhile, many bodies were found floating in the canal. The Superintendent of Police, Ghaziabad, VN Rai, insisted on filing police complaints, even though the top political and police leadership reportedly wanted to suppress the story for fear of a rebellion in the forces.

In 1988, the state government directed the Crime Branch Central Investigation Department (CBCID) to investigate, but its report, submitted six years later in 1994, was never made public, and no charges were initially framed.

However, the survivors and members of the families of those killed moved the Supreme Court in 1995 to make the report public and to prosecute those indicted in it. The court refused to intervene, and instead asked the petitioners to approach the High Court.

The case remains unresolved in the High Court, but the state government finally bowed to pressure in 1996 by filing criminal chargesheets against 19 PAC personnel. Not a single senior official is included in the chargesheet. Even the 19 of the accused from the lower ranks of the PAC were not arrested, despite 23 non-bailable arrest warrants. They were in active service, but the government pleaded that they were ‘absconding’ throughout!

Ultimately, rights activist Iqbal Ansari and relatives of those slaughtered applied to the Supreme Court to transfer the case, in the interests of justice, from Uttar Pradesh to Delhi, which it ordered in September 2002. More years were allowed to pass over the wrangle of which government should appoint the special public prosecutor.

The case continued to be adjourned on technical grounds, enabled by a reluctant public prosecutor appointed by the Uttar Pradesh government. Human rights lawyers Vrinda Grover and Rebecca John took up the reins as their advocates.

It was finally in May 2006, 19 years almost to the day after the massacre, that charges were finally framed against the accused. Three of the accused have died, the remaining 16 appear in every hearing in the cramped untidy Tis Hazari courtroom and listen tensely to the statements of the survivors — but continue in active service.

A large number of residents of Hashimpura crowd the courtroom. All working class people, many widowed and aged, unsupported by any organisation, gather money from their own savings for travel for every court hearing, only to give wordless strength to each other as they speak out their harrowing truths in court.

Zulfikar, now 36, knows that the battle in the courts will be arduous. Yet, he still longs above all for justice. “Those who did this zulm must be punished. We do not want our children to see such a day again. It is for this that we fight.”

Some fear that they may still lose the case, but their lawyer Vrinda Grover counters, “The survivors and their families have already won. By their brave resolute epic fight. By bringing 16 PAC men to court every hearing. If the case is dismissed, it is the country that will lose. But not them. They have already won.”

Harsh Mander is the convenor of Aman Biradari, a people’s campaign for secularism, peace and justice.

First Published: Dec 18, 2006 00:12 IST