Meerut: Even after 31 years, Hashimpura has tears to spare. In an alternate history, Nizamuddin, then 16-years-old, would have been 47 today. He would have been married and his children would be close to finishing school. Mohammad Naeem would be 48, a grown man with greying hair. Javed Ahmed would be 47 too, taking care of his father Zaheer, who would also be alive.
The families of these men sat with their old photographs in hand and cried a day after the Delhi High Court verdict held 16 Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) personnel guilty of the massacre that left 42 young men dead, and sentenced them to life imprisonment.
On May 22, 1987, following communal riots in Meerut, 19 PAC personnel marched into Hashimpura locality, rounded up about 50 Muslim men, some just 16-years-old, packed them in a truck, murdered them in cold blood and threw their bodies in the Gang canal near Muradnagar. Five of them survived to tell the tale and fight for justice.
“It was the month of Ramzan, day of Jumma,” said Mohamad Usman, 58, who was shot twice and left to die. He survived and later, as witness, testified against the PAC personnel.
“I was sitting at home when they knocked on our doors. They took us out on the street. All men from the locality were on the street, around 600 people,” said Usman. Later, the PAC released the children and the elderly and filed young men into lines.
“They picked out healthy young men from the crowd, around 50 of us, and put us into a truck. We thought they would take us to a police station, but after a driving for a while, the truck stopped at Gang Nahar (canal).”
The PAC personnel took one youth out of the truck and shot him dead, Usmal recalled. “No jail, no police station; they were going to murder us,” he said. When Usman and other detainees realised this, they stood up and started screaming, just as another was shot. “When we stood up, they open fired at us.”
The PAC personnel then climbed the truck and two of them held Usman down. A third shot him in his stomach. One of them held his hands, another his legs, and they threw him into the canal. Usman caught another stray bullet on his leg as he fell. He pretended to be dead in the water for over two hours. He heard more gunshots, screams and splashes as the PAC threw more bodies in the canal. Later, when the men had left, he swam to the edge and crawled out.
Like Usman, Zulfikar Naseer also survived. “They were shooting us one by one. I was the third one. When they shot me, the bullet hit me on my side. It was night, so they thought I was shot up front on my chest. Thinking I was dead, they threw me in the canal,” Naseer said.
He fell on the side of the canal and managed to grab some shrubs. Naseer hid in terror as the PAC continued shooting. “I could hear the screaming,” he said.
Naseer got help from the locals and later went to his relatives in Ghaziabad. When the case was brought to light, Naseer’s eyewitness testimony was crucial. After a long legal battle, however, the accused PAC personnel were acquitted by Tis Hazari court in Delhi in 2015. Naseer then filed the petition in High Court that resulted in the October 31 verdict. “They had tried to suppress the case. We gathered more evidence with the help of NHRC because of which this verdict has come,” Naseer said.
Usman and Naseer survived, but they have lived in the shadow of the massacre. While they came back to a Hashimpura that was in perpetual mourning, their neighbors and friends never returned.
Naseem Bano lost her young brother, Siraz Ahmed, in the incident. Siraz was only 23 and was about to get married. “They said they only wanted to ask some questions. Siraz was about to give his BA exams. He didn’t want to go. But they put him in a truck. Three days later, we got to know that they had killed him,” Bano said.
Zareena had given birth to a son a week ago. She was resting when the PAC personnel came for her husband Zaheer and her son Javed, who was only 16 at the time. “It was the month of Ramzan and my son and husband were sitting and reading the Quran. When police came, they said ‘enough reading, come with us’,” Zareena said. That night, her husband and young son died at the canal.
Mohammad Jamaluddin said the PAC came inside their homes with guns pointing at them. They took Qamaruddin, his newly married 23-year-old son, away. He never returned. “They took the young. In some cases, they took the son and the father,” Jamaluddin said.
Hazra, who lost her 17-year-old son, has a similar tale. She thought the police would question him and let him go. “If he had lived, he would have had a life. He would have had a son, a daughter. Puri nasal khatam kar di (they wiped out an entire generation).”
The victims’ families not only lost the young men of their house but also their livelihoods. Those who used to hire labourers are themselves labourers today, Jamaluddin said. Any future the families of Hashimpura might have had was shot and thrown in the canal that day.
Bano and her three sisters mourn their only brother, who would have earned for the family. Qamaruddin was Jamaluddin’s eldest son and the only earning member. His father, now 81, still sits at his general store. Zareena said her living sons do not have a stable livelihood as they grew up without a father. “My left leg doesn’t work now. What life do I have?” Usman asked. Most families in the locality have been reduced to selling fruits or working as labourers. If some had a family business, there was no one left to carry it forward.
The little compensation they received was hardly of any help. Hashimpura knows its lives were uprooted the day police came for their sons and fathers. “Thirty-one years have gone by, but the heart still pains,” Bano said.
The families that waited so long for justice said while they welcomed the High Court verdict, they wanted death penalty for the accused. “At least they accepted that they were guilty. At least they believed us. No one believed us for so many years,” Usman said.
Bano said though the verdict acknowledged the massacre that took her brother’s life, it did not achieve much. “The decision means at least they accepted they killed children. But what did we get after fighting for 31 years? They should have been hanged,” she said. “We got little financial aid. Nobody in our family was given jobs. How do we support ourselves?”
Naseer feels vindicated by the verdict as it was his petition that started things off after the disappointment of acquittal. But he too would have liked to see the accused sentenced to death. “I was happy to hear the verdict. I would have been happier if it was a death sentence. But I am happy. At least there is some law that prevails in this country,” he said. “But the truth is that it took 31 years to prove them guilty. By now the accused have lived their lives. What is a life sentence, if they don’t have much life left anyway?”