ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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A Horror Compounded

The Hashimpura verdict after 28 years is salt in an open wound.

It stands out as India’s worst case of custodial deaths since independence. And now it has earned the distinction of joining a longlist of similar cases that lay bare the fault lines in India’s criminal justice system. On 22 May 1987, 42 Muslim men, the majority of them weavers and daily wage labourers from the locality of Hashimpura in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh (UP), were picked up from their homes. Meerut had witnessed communal riots in the previous months and the army and police had been called in to conduct a combing operation. The men were loaded into trucks by the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC), taken outside the city towards the Delhi–Ghaziabad border, pushed off the trucks and shot dead. Their bodies were found within hours in two different locations. Five men managed to survive the massacre by pretending to be dead. Vibhuti Narain Rai, who was then superintendent of police, Ghaziabad, reached one of the sites of the massacre within hours after being alerted by a local sub-inspector. There, amongst the dozens of dead men in the stream, he discovered that one man, Babuddin, was still alive. Within 24 hours, Babuddin had filed a first information report (FIR); Rai had submitted his report of what he witnessed and the government also had pictorial evidence by way of photographs taken by an intrepid press photographer of the police leading unarmed men with their hands up in the air to what would eventually be their gruesome deaths. Yet, 28 years later, a court in Delhi could not establish who killed these men and despite the “unreliable and faulty investigation” it gave the 16 accused members of the PAC the “benefit of the doubt” before acquitting them of all charges.

At every step, the story of what happened in Hashimpura and thereafter illustrates the impunity of the state and the helplessness of ordinary people, especially if they are poor or belong to a minority community, when faced with criminal acts by representatives of the state—the police, the army, the bureaucracy or politicians. The system closes in to protect its own. The prosecution, tasked with fighting for the victims, does next to nothing to represent them and make a strong and justiciable case. On the contrary, the state machinery ensures that a combination of delay and casual or deliberately botched investigations ultimately add up to “insufficient evidence” to nail the accused. We see this happen repeatedly in state after state in cases of murder, encounter deaths, police atrocities during riots and even in rape cases.

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