Police officer appointed for initial probe of Hashimpura massacre depicts the horror
The Hashimpura episode is a "sordid saga of the relations between the Indian State and minorities, the amoral attitude of the police and a frustratingly sluggish judicial system", according to the then superintendent of police of Ghaziabad Vibhuti Narain Rai who conducted an initial probe into the killings.
In 2016, Rai had come out with a book titled "Hashimpura May 22: The Forgotten Story of India's Biggest Custodial Killings" on the gunning down of 42 Muslims by jawans of the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) in 1987.
The Delhi High Court on Wednesday sentenced the 16 former PAC jawans to life imprisonment, terming the massacre "targeted killing" of unarmed and defenceless people.
A bench of justices S Muralidhar and Vinod Goel reversed a trial court's verdict which had acquitted the accused in 2015. The high court verdict came on pleas challenging a trial court's decision to acquit 16 policemen of charges of murder and other crimes in the case.
Rai says that horrifying night of May 22 in the humid summer of 1987 still weighs heavy on his conscience.
"And the subsequent days, similarly, are etched in my memory like as if on stone - it was something that overpowered the cop in me. The Hashimpura experience continues to torment me," he says.
Translated by Darshan Desai from the Hindi version, the book is published by Penguin Random House India.
"It was around 10.30 p.m. and I had just returned from Hapur. After dropping the district magistrate, Nasim Zaidi, at his official residence, I reached the residence of the superintendent of police.
"Just as I reached its gates, the headlights of my car fell on the frightened and nervous sub-inspector, V.B. Singh, who was then in charge of the Link Road police station. I could guess something terrible had happened in his jurisdiction. I asked the driver to halt the car and got out," Rai recalls.
According to him, Singh seemed too scared to explain coherently what had happened exactly.
"Even then, his string of broken words was enough to shock anyone. I could make out that the jawans of the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) had killed some people, most likely Muslims, near the canal crossing the road leading to Makanpur," he writes.
Why were they killed? How many were killed? From where were they picked up? All these questions came to Rai's mind.
"After several attempts of trying to get Singh to be more coherent about the details, this is what I gathered about the incident: It was around 9.00 p.m. when V.B. Singh and his colleagues sitting at the police station heard gunshots from near Makanpur and they thought there were some dacoits in the village," he says.
"Singh turned his motorcycle towards that track, with another sub-inspector and a constable sentry riding pillion. They had barely travelled a few metres down the road when they spotted a truck driving towards them at breakneck speed.
"If Singh had not swerved his motorcycle off the road, the truck would have knocked them down. Just as he was trying to control his vehicle, Singh looked behind at the yellow coloured truck with '41' written on it and some men in khaki uniform sitting at the rear. It was not difficult for professional policemen to figure out that the vehicle was from the 41st Battalion of the PAC," Rai goes on to add.
Wondering why a PAC truck was on that road at that hour of the night and if it had any connection to the gunshots they had heard, they proceeded towards Makanpur.
"They must have driven just a kilometre further when Singh and his colleagues saw something very scary. Just short of Makanpur, there were bodies strewn in a pool of blood in the ravines around the canal. The blood was still oozing out of the bodies and was slowly seeping into the ground.
"From what Singh could see from the glow of his motorcycle's headlights, there were bodies lying in the bushes, on the canal banks and floating in the water as well. It did not take the sub-inspector and his colleagues long to link the speeding PAC truck with the gunshots and the bodies in the canal," Rai writes.
He says the story is a "sordid saga of the relations between the Indian state and minorities, the amoral attitude of the police and a frustratingly sluggish judicial system".
What triggered their killings?
Rai attributes these to the horrifying period when this incident occurred.
"It was nearly a decade since the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation had hopelessly divided the entire nation. The agitation that started in the late 1970s, and was getting more aggressive each day, had driven the Hindu middle-class towards communalism.
"The maximum number of inter-community riots post Partition took place during this phase. It was obvious that the PAC and the police could not have remained insulated from this social chasm for long."
Rai says that just a few days after the Hashimpura massacre, he decided to write about it and bring its details out to the open but his writing began at a slow pace because of his busy schedule.
"But when the National Police Academy, Hyderabad, granted me a research fellowship in 1994, my prospects brightened. My subject was related to the image of the police among Hindus and Muslims during communal riots, and I deliberately chose this topic in order to work on the book; it also provided me with a year-long relief from regular routine," he says.
(With inputs from agencies.)