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Hashimpura Muslim Massacre Trial Reopens: Can Justice Be Expected?

By Azim A. Khan Sherwani

26 September, 2006
Countercurrents.org

The criminal proceedings against the accused in the notorious Hashimpura massacre case have recently reopened in New Delhi's Tis Hazaree Court. It is a chilling reminder of the apathy of the state towards access to justice for Muslims that it has taken nineteen long years for this to happen.

In May 1987 policemen belonging to the Uttar Pradesh Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) shot dead 42 Muslim men, most of them youths, including some minors, from the Hashimpura locality in Meerut. The massacre occurred in the wake of the communal riots that broke out in Meerut in April that year after the Rajiv Gandhi government decided to open the gates of the Babri Masjid to allow Hindus to worship therein. The violence was brought under control in a few days. In May, however, Meerut exploded again.

The violence this time was unprecedented and a massive force, including the Army, was deployed in the affected areas. Curfew was imposed and PAC personnel conducted searches in several Muslim localities in the city. On May 22, 1987, they booked hundreds of Muslim youth from Hashimpura, although there was no rioting in that area of Meerut city. Nineteen PAC personnel, under platoon commander Surinder Pal Singh, took about 50 Muslim youths, most of them daily wage labourers and poor weavers, in a PAC truck from Hashimpura to the Upper Ganga Canal in Murad Nagar, Ghaziabad, instead of taking them to the police station. They shot them dead in cold blood and threw their bodies into the canal. The PAC personnel then drove ahead in their truck to the Hindon Canal in Makanpur and shot dead several other Muslim youths they had taken with them. Two of the persons who survived the Hindon Canal massacre and managed to escape lodged an FIR at the Link Road Police Station. One of the four others who managed to escape the massacre at the Upper Ganga Canal filed an FIR at the Murad Nagar police station.

The horrific incident outraged sections of the media and Muslim organisations. The People's Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court seeking more compensation to the families of the victims and an inquiry into the incident. The Supreme Court directed the state government to pay an additional compensation of a mere Rs.20,000 to the families of each of the victims. In 1988, the state government ordered an inquiry by the Crime Branch Central Investigation Department (CBCID).

During the CBCID inquiry, Sub-Inspector Virendra Singh, who was in charge of the Link Road Police Station, related that when he received information about what had happened he set off towards the Hindon Canal. On his way, he saw a PAC truck heading back from the place where the massacre had taken place. He then tried chasing the truck and saw it enter 41st Vahini, a camp of the PAC. The gatekeeper on night duty stopped it. Soon, Vibhuti Narain Rai, Superintendent of Police, Ghaziabad, and Naseem Zaidi, District Magistrate, Ghaziabad, reached 41st Vahini. They tried getting the truck traced through senior PAC officers, but to no avail.

The CBCID identified 13 of the 16 bodies recovered from the Hindon Canal and filed a charge sheet against 19 PAC personnel under Section 197 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC). Since most of the accused were public servants, the state government's sanction under Section 197 was needed to prosecute them. The policemen were accused of murder, attempt to murder and destruction of evidence. The charge sheet was filed before the Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM), Ghaziabad.

The CJM issued summons to the accused, asking them to appear before the court. When the accused did not appear before the court, bailable warrants were issued six times between January 1997 and February 1998. Later, non-bailable warrants were issued 17 times between April 1998 and April 2000. But the accused evaded the summons and warrants.

Finally, as a consequence of the pressure of the Supreme Court, 16 of the 19 accused surrendered before the court in May 2000, 13 years after the incident. However, although their bail applications were initially rejected by the CJM, the accused managed to obtain bail from the court of the District Judge, Ghaziabad. While granting bail, the Judge claimed that since the accused were members of the PAC there was no chance of them absconding. Since then, the case has been repeatedly delayed. In 2001, on the petition filed by the victims before the Supreme Court, the case was transferred from Ghaziabad to New Delhi as the conditions there, it was argued, would be more conducive to the trial. The Supreme Court transferred the case to the Tis Hazari Court and ordered for day- to-day hearing. But the case could not be argued because the Uttar Pradesh government deliberately delayed the appointment of the Special Public Prosecutor (SPP). "We are at loss to understand why the state has been taking this matter so casually and why we were not informed over all these years the correct position," a three-Judge Bench, headed by the then Chief Justice A.S. Anand, lamented while hearing a petition on the Meerut riots.

The state government had time and again failed to comply with the directions of the apex court. The first of these directives was made in 1996 while hearing a petition drawing the court's attention to the riots and the massacre in Hashimpura. The petitioner had demanded to know what the government had done on the basis of the recommendations of the Justice CD Parekh Commission, which had been earlier constituted by the state government to look into the violence in Meerut. In this context, the Supreme Court observed:

"We wish to emphasise that any further lapse or failure to do the needful on the part of the state would invite not only adverse comments from this court but may require the personal presence of the Home Secretary in this court to explain the lapses with a view also to consider the question of starting proceedings for contempt of court by the delinquents."

The court put on record that due to the non-cooperative attitude of the state government in the matter, "the case still remained in the preliminary stages", although 14 years had passed since the filing of the petition.

In February 2004, the Supreme Court issued a notice to the Director-General of Police (DGP) and the Chief Secretary of UP to appear before it in person. Initially, the Special Public Prosecutor (SPP) appointed by the UP government took no interest in discharging his duties. The victims were clearly dissatisfied with his functioning and so he was removed after they complained. In November 2004, the government appointed Surinder Adlakha, a less than mediocre lawyer, as SPP. Recently, on 15 th June 2006, when the case started in the Tis Hazari Court, the Additional Session Judge, N.P Kaushik, wrote very strong words against the ill- preparedness of the SPP.

One of the lawyers representing the Hashimpura complainants, Vrinda Grover, feels that the victims have the right to be consulted before the SPP is appointed. She accuses the UP government of deliberately causing miscarriage of justice in the case by trying to create hurdles in the proceedings and appointing a lethargic and professionally incompetent SPP. The case has not been properly investigated and more evidence could easily have been collected from the site of the massacre.

As the apathetic attitude of the government to the case of the hapless Muslims of Hashimpura seems to suggest, it is not just the fanatic Hindutva lobby, including the BJP that is indifferent, if not hostile, to the plight of Muslims repeatedly denied justice. Today, UP is ruled by Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party and a Congress-Left combine rules India. The present MLA and Minister in UP government from Meerut, a Muslim elected on the Samajwadi Party ticket, too, has shown little or no concern to take up the cause of the victims of the Hashmipura massacre, so supine are many self-proclaimed Muslim 'leaders', who are answerable to their parties rather than to their own constituencies, concerned more about their own personal political gains than about issues afflicting the community.

Access to justice in riot and carnage cases is a distant dream for Muslims in India. The Hashimpura massacre is a part of a long series of cases of denial of justice to Muslims. Vibhuti Narain Rai, who was the Superintendent of Police, Ghaziabad, when the massacre took place, states very clearly in his pioneering book 'Combating Communal Conflicts--Perception of Police Neutrality During Hindu-Muslim Riots in India' that most of the police personnel posted in Meerut saw the riots as a result of Muslim "mischief", while ignoring or overlooking the role of Hindutva groups in fanning them. They claimed that Meerut had become a "mini-Pakistan" because of "Muslim intransigence" and that it was necessary to teach the community a lesson. He argues for combating such deeply-rooted communal prejudices among the police and insists on the need for adequate Muslim representation in the police services. Yet, communal biases remain firmly entrenched, as reflected in the State's reluctance to prosecute guilty police personnel in the Hashimpura trial.

There is a desperate need to scrutinise the role of public prosecutors who, in many trials related to communal riots and anti-Muslim pogroms, take a leading role in facilitating impunity to the accused. In the wake of the state-sponsored massacres of Muslims in 2002, Gujarat witnessed the same kind of modus operandi adopted by the state, resulting in mass acquittals of Hindus accused in heinous cases. This calls for Muslim organisations to work along with human rights groups as well as organisations representing other marginalised communities to carry on the struggle for justice.


The writer is based in Delhi and writes on issues related to human rights & peace building. He may be contacted on azimsherwani@gmail.com

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