Thirty years ago today, India saw its worst-ever instance of custodial killings. But institutional impunity is yet to be answered for.
Let’s remember the distance. Hashimpura in Uttar Pradesh is 82.5 kilometres away from Sansad Bhawan, the house of parliament in India’s capital.
Let’s remember the date. On the horrifying night of May 22, in the humid summer of 1987, the worst-ever instance of custodial killings in free India took place in Hashimpura.
Let’s remember the details. A group of Uttar Pradesh’s armed reserve police force, the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC), selected 42 Muslim young men, in full public view, from among a crowd of more than 500 people, loaded them onto a PAC-owned, yellow-coloured police truck (registration number URU 1493), and drove them not to the nearest police station but to a spot near the Upper Ganga canal in Murad Nagar (Ghaziabad district).
There, the policemen killed most of their captives one by one, dumping each body in the canal. A bullet also injured one of the PAC constables. While the PAC personnel were firing at the innocent Muslim men in their custody, the headlights of a passing truck carrying milk-containers fell on the killers in uniform and made them panic. They fled the spot with those prisoners who were still alive and took them to the Hindon river canal near Makanpur village in Ghaziabad. There they were all shot at close range, and their bodies thrown into the canal. The policemen then hopped back onto the truck, reached their camp, washed the blood-stained vehicle, plugged the holes in the truck caused during the firing, and went off to sleep.
On that fateful day, Hashimpura was under army control. The then senior superintendent of police, Meerut, G.L. Sharma, has gone on record, saying that he did not know on whose orders the joint operation of searches were conducted, but that he came to know the officers of the local army unit had planned the operation. More than a dozen witnesses deposed before the CID that Major Pathania was ordering people with a loudhailer to come out of their homes. He was also issuing instructions to the PAC and army jawans conducting the searches. The woman unit commander of the Central Reserve Police Force had recorded her statement before the CID that Major Pathania had ordered her to frisk the women.
Let’s remember the individuals. In New Delhi, Rajiv Gandhi, India’s youngest prime minster, perched on the mighty minaret of a three-fourths majority, was in power and was in the third year of his stint. In Lucknow, Vir Bahadur Singh, a Congress leader who participated in Quit India movement as a student, was the chief minister and was into the second year of his stint. When Singh shifted to New Delhi the next year, Gandhi, the tech-savvy leader, appointed him as Union minister of communication.
Let’s remember the delays in investigation, pre-trial proceedings and trials and the genius behind them. The state CID took over the probe within two days of the killing but took nine years to file the chargesheet. One of the two original FIRs was destroyed. The investigating officers did not take the weapons of the policemen into custody and they didn’t recover even a single empty cartridge. The weapons used to kill the victims were returned to the PAC and continued to be used.
Between 1994 and 2000, the chief judicial magistrate (CJM), Ghaziabad issued bailable warrants 23 times and non-bailable warrants 17 times against the accused policemen, yet none of them appeared in court. The UP police, led by the members of the Indian Police Service (IPS) at all leadership levels, failed to arrest the accused policemen. Eventually, after 13 years of the incident, 16 of the accused surrendered before the Ghaziabad court in 2000, were subsequently released on bail and came back in service.
In September, 2002 after an inordinate delay in pre-trial proceedings at Ghaziabad and after the Supreme Court granted transfer of the case from Ghaziabad to New Delhi, the state government didn’t appoint a special public prosecutor (SPP) for the case till November 2004. When the state government finally appointed an SPP, he was found to be under-qualified and was later replaced by another. Finally, in May 2006, charges were filed against all the accused PAC men for murder, conspiracy to murder, attempt to murder and tampering with evidence and the trial was listed to begin in July. On the day the trial was to begin, the court had to defer it once more, after the prosecution said the authorities in Uttar Pradesh were yet to send important case material to Delhi.
Later the Delhi court observed: “The rifles have been produced in unsealed conditions during trial. Further so many fires have been allegedly made but not even a single empty cartridge has been recovered or proved on record.” “The accused person cannot be convicted,” the court said, “on the basis of scanty, unreliable and faulty investigation which has gaps and holes.” The trial court acquitted the 16 policemen accused in the case.
In an affidavit filed in February, 2016 before the Delhi high court where the Hashimpura massacre case was being heard, the UP police accepted that they had destroyed documents “after expiry of their prescribed period.” Following the affidavit, the bench had asked the police to disclose the details of the “weeding out” process of the crucial case papers. But in its affidavit filed in March 2017, the police are yet to disclose on whose orders and by whom the crucial evidence was destroyed. The UP police also contradicted its last affidavit and gave a different date and year in which the papers were “weeded out.” In February last year the UP police had said “…all the details of the case were weeded out on April 1, 2006. Hence, it is impossible to make them available.” But in its March 2017 affidavit they declared that the documents were weeded out on April 20, 1993.
Institutional impunity and bias
Let’s remember the impunity, that is, absolution from punishment or immunity from the injurious repercussions of an action. Impunity becomes the disorder of the day in a democracy when perpetrators of criminal acts are protected from punishment and when there is nothing in the law of the land or in its political tradition to punish the guilty because the state apparatus is either the perpetrator, or it is saving those responsible, either belonging to the state machinery or operating outside its legal ambit.
Let’s remember the arithmetic. According to 2011 census, the percentage of Muslim policemen and women in the Uttar Pradesh police is less than 5%, while Muslims make up more than 19% of the state’s population. UP is not a stray case. Our police organisations are afflicted with a majoritarian bias in their demographic profile. The all-India figure (minus Jammu and Kashmir) for the percentage of Muslim policemen and women is 4%. For Delhi police it is 2%. For Maharashtra it is 1%. For Bihar it is 4.5%. For Rajasthan it is 1.2%. Things were no different in 1987.
India’s policing architecture is collapsing under the burden of rule-based, but unaccountable, discretionary powers available to the police officials at all levels. In the case of politically motivated police action, the lives of innocent citizens and their family members get destroyed beyond redemption and nothing happens to the erring police officials. More often than not, police leaders perform their duties in politically strategic – rather legally correct – ways. Conspiracies between the police leadership, the IPS, and their political mentors are a given. Attesting to this is the fact that no IPS officer ever got punished for dereliction of duty in cases like the Delhi massacre of 1984 or the Gujarat killings of 2002 – despite the death toll running into thousands.
Let’s remember our democracy. India’s tryst with the mount of democracy has been an uphill journey – from being a slave to becoming a subject, and from being a subject to becoming a citizen. We can’t afford to slip down again on the altar of majoritarianism and its institutional bias. A democracy needs institutions willing and able to inquire, take action and bring those committing crimes to trial and punishment. We can’t afford to forget the mass cremations in Punjab, the extra-judicial killings in Manipur, the unmarked graves that the special investigation team appointed by the State Human Rights Commission found in Kashmir.
Above all, let us not avert our gaze. Let us not claim that we were not there and that we didn’t see anything. Let us remember Hashimpura, 1987 can happen again if we let the perpetrators roam free.
Basant Rath is in the Indian Police Service (J&K, 2000) and works in Jammu and Kashmir. The views expressed are personal.