By Mosarrap H. Khan
On 7 April, 2015, in the newly created state of Telangana, five suspected Muslim ‘terrorists’ were gunned down in a police vehicle with their hands cuffed to the seats. While the police claimed the under-trials tried to snatch their guns, the civil rights activists believed that this was a case of cold-blooded murder.
The case of police overreach involving the minorities, especially Muslims, is nothing new in India. In another case of custodial killing of 42 Muslims in 1987, a sessions court in Delhi acquitted all the 19 accused police personnel on 21 March, 2015.
Hashimpura Massacre, 1987
It was the month of Ramadan, considered by Muslims to be holy. On the night of 22 May, 1987, during the outbreak of a riot between Hindus and Muslims in Meerut city, India, 42 Muslims from the Hashimpura locality of the city were hauled up in a truck by the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC), a reserved police force of the state of Uttar Pradesh. They were taken to the outskirts of the city near Murad Nagar in Ghaziabad district in Uttar Pradesh and were allegedly shot by the PAC personnel. Their bodies were thrown in the water canals and some of the bodies were seen floating days after the incident.
One of the survivors, Mohamad Usman, later recounted the horror, “We were sorted out on the basis of our strength and physique, while elders and children were picked up and set free. The youth were grouped together and put in a yellow PAC truck…was pulled out of the truck, shot at twice and thrown into the Ganga stream.”
A case was registered against 19 PAC members at a court in Ghaziabad, which was later transferred to a sessions court at the Tis Hazari complex in Delhi at the intervention of the Supreme Court of India. In 2002, 16 of the 19 accused men surrendered; 3 of them were already dead by that time. In separate applications filed at the office of the Director General of Police, UP, by the family members of the victims in 2007 under the Right to Information Act, it was revealed that all the accused were still in service and none of their Annual Confidential Reports (ACRs) had any mention of the incident.
While charge sheets were filed against the accused PAC personnel in 1996, nine years after the massacre, the state government delayed the appointment of a Special Public Prosecutor until late 2004. On 24 May, 2006, formal charges were framed against the accused under various provisions of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the trial was listed to begin in July, 2006.
Loopholes in Prosecution
Twenty-eight years after the massacre, on 21 March, 2015, the Tis Hazari court in Delhi acquitted all the 19 accused for lack of sufficient evidence. There were two key elements that the prosecution focused on and both proved to be inadequate to sufficiently link the accused to the murders.
All the seventeen .303 rifles used that fateful night were tested at the forensic lab and compared with the fired bullets but “no conclusion could be given due to want of sufficient characteristics marks.” A single fired bullet matched the characteristics of a .303 rifle used for shooting the victims. And most strangely, no official records were kept of the arms and ammunitions that were used that night, making it impossible to prove “that any of the above mentioned seventeen rifles were actually issued to the accused persons or they were having possessions over the same on the relevant date and night.”
The second most important evidence was the vehicle – URU-1493 – in which many of the victims were allegedly indiscriminately fired on. While the members of the forensic team visited the Motor and Transport section of 41st Battalion of the PAC to which the 19 accused supposed to have belonged, they found wet earth and reddish water, hinting that the vehicle must have been washed off in a hurry after the crime. However, the court observed that there was nothing on record to prove that it was this particular vehicle that was washed at the spot and there was no chemical examination of the reddish substance done “to suggest that there was blood mixed in the water due to washing of truck.” The case was further weakened as the truck was inspected by members of the forensic lab about eight months after the incident.
In the case of PAC personnel accused as culprits, after careful consideration of evidence from multiple witnesses, the court observed that “apart from absence of direct evidence against the accused persons, the circumstantial evidence produced by prosecution is also not sufficient to establish their identity as culprit.” Since there were hundreds of PAC personnel deployed during the riots, the prosecution couldn’t provide a basis on which the names of nineteen accused have been shortlisted.
The judge, Sanjay Jindal, observed that the accused couldn’t be held guilty because there was no direct evidence against any of them and the court had to depend entirely on circumstantial evidence. The judge, referring to an earlier case – Sharad Birdhichand Sarda vs. State of Maharastra (1984) – of circumstantial evidence as the basis for pronouncing the accused guilty, observed that “there must be a chain of evidence so complete as not to leave any reasonable ground for the conclusion consistent with the innocence of the accused and must show that in all human probabilities the act must have been done by the accused.”
While the civil rights and Muslim groups in India plan to appeal the judgment in the higher courts, the Hashimpura massacre raises larger questions about poor investigation in such cases. As a prominent lawyer Vrinda Grover mentioned that “there was a deliberate plan to either not collect the crucial pieces of evidence, conceal them or allow them to be lost in the passage of time.” It takes an inordinate delay in filing charge sheets and often the First Information Reports are surreptitiously destroyed.
Continuous Police Apathy
In another deadly communal riot in Muzaffarnagar, erupting between 7 and 9 September, 2013 in Western Uttar Padesh, only about sixty kilometers from Hashimpura, 52 people were killed, 50,000 were displaced from their villages, and a large number of Muslim women were allegedly raped. In a glaring example of police laxity, out of 233 people charged with murder, only a third had been arrested three months after the riots, allowing the accused to intimidate the displaced witnesses, who lived in temporary camps. Despite First Information Report by raped women, the accused roamed freely and were not even questioned by the police.
While the generally shoddy investigation by the police force is often discussed, what is often left unsaid in such cases of custodial and extra-judicial killings is the attitude of the police officers toward the minorities, especially Muslims in India. PAC was known for its anti-Muslim bias. Different commissions set up to investigate cases of riots since independence have explicitly highlighted the partisan attitude of the Indian police.
The Justice Jagmohan Reddy Commission on the Ahmedabad riots of 1969 pointed out that more than half a dozen Muslim religious places adjoining police stations were attacked during the riots. In their defense, the police argued that they were busy quelling the riots and didn’t have adequate personnel to protect the religious structures. The commission, however, countered the claim by stressing that the Hindu religious places close to the police stations didn’t witness a single damage during the riots.
Similarly, the Report of the Justice B. N. Srikrishna Commission on the Mumbai riots of 1992-93 indicted the communal bias of the police explicitly, “Police officers and men, in particular at the junior level, appeared to have an in-built bias against the Muslims which was evident in their treatment of the suspected Muslims and Muslim victims of riots.”
In a recent interview, Vibhuti Narain Rai, a member of the Indian Police Service (IPS) and the first officer to file an FIR after the Hashimpura massacre corroborated the communalization of the police force as a reflection of the larger social distrust between Hindu and Muslim communities.
If one were to believe the judgment in the Hashimpura massacre case that “the evidence required to connect the accused persons with the crime is actually missing”, the question persists: who killed these 42 Muslims on the night of 22 May twenty-nine years ago?
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