After 13 years, Bombay courts in September finally began to return verdicts on the 1993 bomb blasts in that city that had left 257 dead and 713 injured. The findings included the convictions of five Bombay policemen. Over the years, nearly 700 witnesses had been called and 35,000 pages of evidence racked up. But the number that continues to be discussed with the most awe – and anger – is ‘13’, as in 13 long years. Other cases in India suffer for being less sensational, and are forced to wait even longer for justice – if it comes at all.
According to an India Today article from 2003, “Between 1954 and 1996, almost 16,000 people lost their lives in 21,000 incidents of rioting, while over one lakh were injured. Only a handful have been held accountable.” One such ‘incident’ was the 1987 massacre of 42 Muslims by a group of PAC (Provincial Armed Constabulary) personnel at Hashimpura in Uttar Pradesh. It has taken 19 years to even file a chargesheet for the case, which finally took place mid-July of this year. The following month, the Supreme Court succeeded in having the case transferred to Delhi – four years after it had first ordered the action. But for the perseverance exhibited by a few committed activists, the tragedy at Hashimpura would have joined the growing pile of largely forgotten massacres in the history of post-Independence India.
Ujma, who lives in Hashimpura, Meerut, never celebrates her birthday. She was born 19 years ago, and little time goes by without either her grandmother or mother recalling that terrible day. On the day of her birth, 22 May 1987, a communal conflagration suddenly ignited in their city. The Congress party was in power then, both in the state and at the Centre. The riots were fallout from the decision by Rajiv Gandhi’s government to open the gates of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya to allow Hindus to worship at a shrine there. After both police and PAC personnel were posted at the mosque, a curfew was imposed to contain the escalating unrest in Meerut.
On that late May evening, hours before Ujma was born, her father, a daily-wage labourer, was at home when a PAC team stormed in and demanded he come with them. Days later, his body would return, riddled with bullets. Under circumstances similar to that of Ujma’s father, 41 other Hashimpura residents, from ages 14 to 70, lost their lives that night. All of them were shot at point-blank range, and their bodies subsequently dumped in a nearby canal. No PAC member allegedly implicated in the incident has yet been forced to leave his job.
A 1994 report by the Central Bureau of Investigation shed more light on what happened in Meerut on that summer night. At around eight in the evening, 40 to 42 alleged rioters were loaded into a PAC truck, ostensibly to be taken to the police station. Instead, the platoon’s commander reportedly drove them to a canal of the Ganga in Ghaziabad, where they were “unceremoniously” shot down.
Commenting on the massacre, Vibhuti Narain Rai, then-superintendent of police in Ghaziabad, wrote in a later study critical of the police actions: “Most of the police personnel posted in Meerut saw the riots as a result of Muslim ‘mischief’, while ignoring 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.” Reports by senior journalists such as Nikhil Chakravarty and Kuldip Nayar, and organisations including the People’s Union for Civil Liberties and the People’s Union for Democratic Rights, revealed that the incident was largely a case of cold-blooded murder on the part of the PAC personnel. Chakravarty compared the event with “Nazi pogroms against the Jews, to strike terror and nothing but terror in a whole minority community”. A report filed by Amnesty International in the immediate aftermath of the massacre stated that, “There is evidence to suggest that members of the PAC have been responsible for dozens of extra-judicial killings and disappearances”.
The state government of Uttar Pradesh also asked the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) to look into the incident. This investigation was only completed in 1993, and its report did not come out until the following year. Even after this delay, there was massive procrastination in implementing the report’s recommendations, with orders issued only in 1995 and 1997. Even then, the state government recommended action against only 19 policemen, even though the CID report had recommended action against 66. Due to the fact that most of the accused were public servants, the state government’s sanction was needed in order to prosecute them. Even the 19 individuals named in the report did not comply with the court’s summons – despite six bailable and 17 non-bailable warrants issued between January 1997 and April 2000. Although all of the accused were in active service when the court issued the summons, the government declared them ‘absconders’.
According to Iqbal A Ansari, an Aligarh lawyer and founding member of the Minority Council, an organisation that has long worked for justice for the Hashimpura victims: “The UP government says that the INR 40,000 it paid for each of those killed is enough. It needs to be kept in mind that Hashimpura’s is a case of custodial killings by PAC, not that of killings during riots because of failure of governance, as was the case in 1984 in Delhi, for which the Delhi High Court awarded compensation of INR two lakhs [for each person killed].” A close look at the trajectory of the case exposes connivance between the state and police machinery in denying justice to the victims. This delay in justice, it should be noted, cannot be pinned on any one political group – the case has dragged on for nearly two decades due to the apathetic attitudes of several mainstream political formations.
If the Supreme Court had not intervened in the Hashimpura case, the legal process would have been postponed still further. But in 2002, following complaints that the accused were “exerting pressure and influence” to stall the proceedings in Ghaziabad, an appeal to the Supreme Court succeeded in getting the case transferred to New Delhi. The state government subsequently delayed appointing a special public prosecutor, and the framing of charges eventually took four years, until this past July. A three-judge bench headed by then-Chief Justice A S Anand lamented, while hearing a petition on the Meerut case: “We are at a loss to understand why the state has been taking this matter so casually, and why we were not informed over all these years of the correct position,” referring to the inordinate delay in appointing a prosecutor and framing the charges.
‘84, ‘87, ‘89, ‘92-‘93, ‘02…
Hashimpura is not an aberration in post-Independence India. Indeed, it is one in a line of furious riots that have taken place in the Subcontinent during the past half-century, as well as their unjust aftermaths. The pattern playing out in Hashimpura has been repeated time and again: people lose their family members and friends to terrible violence, and spend much of their remaining years battling for justice. The guilty, meanwhile, remain free years and even decades after the atrocities. The events of 1984 can be seen as a watershed in the history of communal violence in India, and the whole of Southasia in the post-Independence era. While the region had previously experienced riots, the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards on 31 October of that year, followed by the organised massacre of Sikhs with the collusion of the Congress party, ushered the region into an era dotted all too frequently with pogroms and genocidal assaults – many of which enjoyed the active connivance of the state. Of what took place in 1984, Supreme Court lawyer H S Phoolka wrote in 2004: “4000 innocent citizens belonging to the Sikh community were massacred in Delhi, and another 3000 were massacred in other parts of India. The government recorded a figure of 2733 deaths for Delhi alone … Even after the horrendous task of pursuing the cases for 20 long years, only nine murder cases have resulted in conviction, which is not even one percent of the official figure of killings.” None among the senior politicians or senior police officers of the time were included in the list of accused. The scale of the 1989 riots in Bhagalpur District in Bihar dwarfed any previous riot in that state. Indeed, a 1990 report prepared by the People’s Union for Democratic Rights called the violence “the largest Hindu-Muslim riot since 1947”. The first round of rioting went intermittently from the third week of October until early December. More than three months later, in March 1990, rioting again erupted in the town. During the course of the riots, over 2000 people lost their lives, a majority of whom were Muslim; 11,500 houses were also torched, and nearly 50,000 people displaced. In Chanderi village, women and children under the protection of the local police were slaughtered by a mob. Despite the ferocity of the Bhagalpur riots, the subsequent delivery of justice was no different from that in many other cases. Of the 864 cases filed by the police in Bhagalpur, 535 were closed, and most of the accused were acquitted for lack of evidence. The run-up to the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 witnessed rioting throughout India, which only increased in the demolition’s aftermath. Although thousands of people died in the tumult, there have been almost no significant convictions to date. Even though the Liberhans Commission, appointed by the then-Congress government of P V Narasimha Rao to look into the causes of the demolition and riots, has yet to submit a report, there is reason to believe that little will change after it does so. Its fate will undoubtedly be similar to the report of the Srikrishna Commission, which investigated the 1992-93 Bombay riots, and whose recommendations are by now largely forgotten. Reports by various human-rights groups, and the various recommendations and strictures passed by the Supreme Court and the National Human Rights Commission, have castigated Hindutva organisations for their roles in the Gujarat genocide of 2002. The names of scores of activists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal, including members of the ruling BJP, found mention in the numerous First Information Reports filed by victims. But subversion of investigations and justice for the surviving victims is continuing with impunity. Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who allegedly spearheaded this organised attack on minorities, is still holding the reins of power (See Himal Oct 2006, “Gujarat as another country”).
Teesta Setalvad and Javed Anand, leading anti-communal activists and editors of the Bombay-based Communalism Combat, wrote in an editorial in late 2004:
For the perpetrators of a pogrom or genocidal killing, impunity from prosecution and punishment appears to be guaranteed in advance. Armed with this impunity, the mass murderers have mastered techniques of subversion of investigation. And the destruction of evidence is now ‘in-built’ into the very modes of killing adopted. This was clearly visible in Gujarat, where a chemical powder was extensively used while burning people so that no trace of the victims remained and which made it all the more difficult to count the dead.
In a newspaper article entitled “1984 in the Life of a Nation”, also printed in late 2004, Supreme Court lawyer Indira Jaisingh noted:
Our legal system has failed to answer the question: What is the constitutional and personal responsibility of the head of state for mass killings … Apart from holding all those who committed the acts of killing liable, we also have to hold liable people in positions of power, who not only failed to prevent the killings, but encouraged by hate speech, justified it as an understandable response.
Revisiting communal carnage always brings up a dilemma. Some advocate moving ahead and forgetting the terrible past, questioning the good that would come from disturbing delicate inter-communal peace by dredging up past murders, pogroms or genocides. It is crucial to realise, however, that lasting peace can never be achieved without justice. We have no alternative but to keep talking about these issues, and to keep searching for ways of achieving that goal.