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Trapped in the Killing Fields

(Source: Praveen Jain)

Excerpts from the forthcoming book on the Hashimpura Massacre by Vibhuti Narain Rai, IPS retired

Translated from the Hindi original by Darshan Desai 

Hashimpura – May 22, 1987

Time heals, indeed, but it sometimes drags some dark nightmares into the recesses of the present and of the future. That horrifying night in 1987 and the subsequent days are etched on memory like a stone – it was something that overpowered the cop in me. To such an extent that the intrigue in me just refuses to pass over. Looking for the living among blood-bathed bodies strewn around a canal and between ravines near Makanpur village on the Delhi-Ghaziabad border in the dead of night – the intervening night between May 22 and May 23 – with a dim struggling torchlight and ensuring one doesn’t trample upon bodies, all still stream through mind like a horror film. It was around 10.30 pm when I had just returned from Hapur; having dropped District Magistrate Naseem Zaidi, I returned to my house – the residence of Superintendent of Police. Just as I was reaching the house gate, my car headlights hit a frightened and nervous sub-inspector VB Singh, who was then in-charge of the Link Road Police Station. I could understand there was something wrong in his area of jurisdiction. I asked the driver to halt the car and I stepped down. 

VB Singh appeared too scared to explain coherently what exactly had happened. Whatever he said in stammered voice and broken words was adequate to shock anyone. I could make out immediately that the jawans of Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) had killed some Muslims near the canal crossing the road leading to Makanpur. Why were they killed? How many were killed? From where were they picked up? All this was not known. After several attempts to get Singh to be more clear about the details, I drew up a narrative of the incident like this: It was around 9 pm when VB Singh and his colleagues sitting at the police station heard gunshots from near Makanpur; they thought there was some dacoity in the village. In sharp contrast to today’s Makanpur all dotted with malls and flashy housing complexes, the Makanpur of 1987 was a barren sprawl of land. It was on a single-track dirt road right through this barren land on which VB Singh speeded his motorcycle towards Makanpur with a sub-inspector and a constable sentry riding pillion. They had not reached even a few metres on the road when a truck charged towards them at break-neck speed and if Singh had not swerved his mobike 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 in the rear. It was not difficult for them to understand that it was the 41st battalion of PAC. VB Singh and his cops wondered why was a PAC truck coming from Makanpur at that hour of the evening and if it had any relation with the gunshots they had heard. They started their journey towards Makanpur.  

It must have been hardly a kilometre’s drive when what Singh and his colleagues saw was scary. They saw bodies of people in pools of blood in the ravines around a canal and a culvert much ahead of Makanpur. The blood was fresh and still oozing out and spreading around. From what Singh could see from the headlights of his mobike, there were bodies lying in the bushes, on the canal banks and floating on the canal. The sub-inspector and colleagues tried to figure out what must have happened there and could not help finding a link between the speeding PAC truck, the gunshots and the bodies. Leaving the constable with him behind to keep watch on the spot, VB Singh and the sub-inspector then left for the headquarters of 41st PAC battalion close to his police station on the Delhi-Ghaziabad Road. The gate was closed and despite much explaining and argument, the sentry there would not open. VB Singh then came to me and I could gather that what had happened was frightening and could have serious repercussions the next day, given the fact that the neighbouring Meerut district was burning in communal passions for the past few weeks and there was an uneasy calm in Ghaziabad. I called up District Magistrate Naseem Zaidi first who was just about to hit the bed and told him to keep awake. The next call was to my additional SP and then to some deputy SPs and magistrates – I asked all of them to get ready quickly. In the next 45 minutes we were on our way to Makanpur, stacked in some seven to eight vehicles and reached the spot near the culvert and the canal barely within 15 minutes. Makanpur village was just across the canal but nobody was there – probably they were too scared to venture out. There were indeed police personnel from Link Road Police Station, trying to figure out things with their dim torchlights, which were too inadequate. I asked the drivers of our vehicles to turn towards the canal and put on their headlights. Although this spread light all around, we still needed the torchlights for a closer look since there was a thick foliage of bushes. What I saw then was the nightmare that has stayed with me. Blood-bathed bodies, some immersed in the ravines, some hanging from the canal embankments partly in water, partly outside, some floating on the water. The blood had not even dried up.  

Before the counting the dead and extricating the bodies, I found it crucial to check if anyone was alive and needed help. We fanned out in all directions to find out if anyone was still alive; while checking this with our torches we also called out aloud if someone was alive. There was no response. We even shouted that we are friends and not enemies and were there to take the wounded to the hospital. Still, no response – some of us got disappointed and sat on the culvert nearby.  

I and the district magistrate decided there was no point spending time and it was necessary to chalk out the strategy for the next day given that the neighbouring Meerut district was burning in communal fire and this incident could flare up passions in Ghaziabad the moment these bodies go for post mortem the next day. So I instructed junior officials to oversee extrication of the bodies and wrap up the necessary paper work while we would proceed to Link Road Police Station to plan the next day’s security arrangements. No sooner had we turned to go then we heard somebody coughing, we immediately stopped in our tracks. I rushed towards the canal. We worked the torches again and called out that we were indeed friends. Then our lights zeroed in on someone convulsing a bit – here was someone hanging between the bushes and the canal, half in water; it was difficult to figure out at first if he was alive or dead. He was shivering with fear and it took long to convince him that we were there to help. The man who was to later tell us the bloody and horrific tale of that night was Babudin. Bullets brushed his flesh at two places, but there were no injuries on him. In fact, after being helped out of the canal, he walked down to where our vehicles were parked. He also sat down and rested briefly on the culvert. 

Twenty-one years later, when I was collecting material to write this book I met Babudin at the same place in Hashimpura from where the PAC had picked him in 1987. He had forgotten my face but the first thing he recounted on being introduced was that I had taken a beedi from a constable to give him when he sat on the culvert that night. Babudin told me that it was during routine searches that a PAC truck picked up some 40 to 50 people and drove them away. They all thought they had been arrested and would soon be lodged in custody. While it appeared rather strange that it was taking too long to reach the jail from curfew-bound streets, everything else looked so normal that they had no inkling of what was in store for them. But when they were de-boarded at the canal and were being killed one after the other, they understood why their custodians were so silent and why they kept on whispering into one another’s ears.  

The story beyond this is a sordid saga of the relations between the Indian State and the minorities, the unprofessional attitude of police and a frustratingly sluggish judicial system. The offences I lodged in the Link Road Police Station of Ghaziabad and Muradnagar on May 22, 1987, met with many obstacles during the last 23 years and are still struggling in various courts to reach their logical conclusion.  

I kept on thinking how and why a bloody incident like this could happen? How could someone in his senses kill another like this? And that too of a group of people? That too without any enmity that spawns uncontrollable anger? There are many such questions that confront me even now. 

The answers to these questions lie in the horrifying phase in which this incident occurred. The Ram Janmabhoomi agitation that had been going for nearly a decade had hopelessly divided the entire society. The agitation that was getting aggressive by the day had especially made the Hindu middle-class incredibly communal. The maximum inter-community riots after the country’s partition happened during this phase. It was but obvious that the PAC and the police could not have remained insulated from this social chasm. Moreover, the PAC has been perennially accused of being communal.          

I had a long interview with VKB Nair, who was the Senior Superintendent of Police during the initial days of the riots in Meerut. From what he could distinctly remember 23 years later when I met him was this poignant episode. Just the second or third day after the riots started, Nair heard some commotion outside his house. When he came out, he found the Muslim stenographer of his office with his wife and children, all scared and crying. They were staying in police quarters and the PAC jawans camping there were continuously taunting them. That day if they had not fled with the help of other colleagues, they could have been attacked and killed. Till the riots subsided the stenographer’s family took shelter in the SSP’s bungalow. Those days were so horrifying that when some Muslim prisoners were taken to Fatehgarh jail from Meerut, they were killed inside by other prisoners and warders.  

Coming back to the incident near Makanpur, I was intrigued that the killers went to this extent. They put their rifles on the chest of unarmed hapless youngsters and shot them and even after they fell on the ground shivering, kept on pumping bullets in them to make sure they die. All this without knowing them, without any personal enmity! Why? I have spent 23 long years in resolving this conundrum, to understand the psyche of those who did it. And now when I know the answers, I have got around to write this book. But it is unfortunate that PAC’s Platoon Commander Surendra Singh, who is the hero or the villain of the piece, is not alive and I will only sparingly use the notes I took after spending hours understanding his psyche that ordered a small team to execute this pogrom. I will not use the details I got from him to avoid any allegation that I have added or deleted facts to make my point. Similarly, the then Commandant of PAC’s 41st battalion Jodh Singh Bhandari too is not alive and I will not mention about the long interview I had with him unless it is inevitable.

This saga is the repayment of a debt that has weighed on my chest since the 22nd of May, 1987.  


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