In the pitch dark of 22 May, as the north Indian city of Meerut simmered with communal fires, one particular locality received a stinging jolt of cold-blooded horror.

As uniformed personnel from the 41st Battalion of the Uttar Pradesh Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) walked into Hashimpura, a Muslim-dominated neighbourhood in the centre of the city, the stage was set for a revolting massacre.

Aided by the army, which was called in to quell the sectarian violence in Meerut, barely 90 kms to the northeast of Delhi, PAC troops began rounding up the men in the neighbourhood. According to eyewitnesses, more than 700 Muslim men, most of them migrant workers employed in the local handloom factories, were yanked out of their homes. While many were sent to a jail, around forty were lined up and packed into the rear of police trucks.

What happened next has been called “a permanent horror story of Indian history”.

Instead of depositing them at the police station, the trucks drove the detainees to the Upper Ganga canal in Muradnagar, which falls in the neighbouring Ghaziabad district. The terrified men were then unloaded from the trucks and taken to the banks of the canal.

Immediately, the uniformed personnel, acting upon orders of Platoon Commander Surinder Pal Singh, started firing at the detainees at point blank range. The bullet-ridden bodies were flung into the canal.

The cold-blooded violence continued till a vehicle passed by, alerting the PAC boots, who then decided to flee from the area. The survivors were put back into the trucks and driven to the nearby Hindon canal. There, the armed police finished off the rest.

There was something very Holocaustian about the whole incident – right from the systematic and exterminatory tone of the crime to the pinpoint precision with which a single community was targeted.

As seen in the unsettling but important photographs of the pre-killing detentions clicked by Sunday Mail photojournalist Praveen Jain (which later served as crucial testimony before the court), the manner in which the PAC rounded up Muslim men in Hashimpura is a grim reminder of how SS troops in Nazi Germany rounded up Jews from ghettos for transfer to death camps.

The total body count is sketchy on account of multiple corpses being thrown into the canal and never recovered. But at least 42 are presumed to have been murdered on that bloody night.

Miraculously, however, six people survived the firing. Some of them even managed to file FIRs at the local police station. It is from their first-hand accounts, that investigators have been able to draw a comprehensive picture of what went down during the late hours of 22 May.

“I survived because the bullets couldn’t kill me and I was left on the bridge on the presumption that I was dead,” Babbudin, one of the survivors, told Firstpost in 2017.

One day later, on the afternoon of 23 May, another PAC contingent arrived in the working-class suburban cluster of Maliyana, about 5 kms out of Meerut city. There, aided by Hindu mobs, the uniformed men unleashed hell on the 4000 odd Muslims in the locality – looting, pillaging, burning down houses and shooting at random.

In an India Today report written a month after the twin massacres, journalist Inderjit Badhwar described the daylight horror in Maliyana:

“It took them precisely two hours to complete the task they had assigned themselves. At the end of those two hours, nothing stirred in Maliana as people sat huddled together, gripped by fear as the stench of smoke and human bodies rose about them. Those who ran out to escape the inferno were showered with gunfire by PAC men positioned on rooftops. Scores fell to the bullets.”

Saleem Akhtar Siddiqui, a Maliyana-based journalist who had covered the carnage, later told NewsClick:

“They [PAC] targeted them [Muslims] to kill as they were shot on the head. The most horrific incident was that 11 members of one family were killed and their bodies thrown in well. Another six persons of a family were burnt alive while senior officers of the district were mute spectators.” 

According to the immediate official tally, seven people were killed. But army officers later admitted to India Today that they counted over fifty bodies when they reached Maliyana. A May 1989 report by the Peoples Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) puts the tally at a minimum of 30, including two minors. The final tally is now put at 72.

There was, however, one crucial difference between Hashimpura and Maliyana. The former was mass murder under police custody – the kind that independent India hadn’t seen till then.

“Both events were unfortunate and equally horrifying, but I consider Hashimpura more serious and worrisome given that all those killed were under police custody and not victims of mob violence,” Vibhuti Narain Rai, novelist and Superintendent of Police of Ghaziabad district at the time of the massacre, writes in his book, Hashimpura, May 22.

At that time, Congress governments were in power in both New Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi initially announced that he would visit Meerut, but later postponed it. Instead, his Home Minister, Buta Singh, was flown down to the strife-torn city for a brief visit. The political leadership’s apathy towards the hapless victims and general nonchalance over the situation was conspicuous in the choices it made.

Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, 1988 | Photo: Santosh Kumar Shukla, Wikimedia Commons

The precise motive behind the massacre remains unclear, but a 2015 Outlook report claims that it might have been a revenge killing orchestrated by one army officer, Major Satish Chandra Kaushik, whose younger brother, Prabhat Kaushik, was shot dead in Hashimpura one day before the massacre. According to the report, Prabhat was an RSS worker.

Around fourteen hours after his younger brother’s death, Major Kaushik was reportedly seen conducting search-and-arrest drives in Hashimpura along with two others, Major BS Pathania and Colonel PP Singh.

A “secret note” dated 22 June 1989 sent to Prime Minister Gandhi by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the UP Police’s Crime Branch outlined Major Kaushik’s role very clearly:

“Soon after the incident, there was some speculation in the press that a brother of a locally posted Major Satish Chandra Kaushik had died of gunshot injuries on 21.5.87 in Mohalla Hashimpura. It was said that as a consequence of this personal tragedy Major Satish Chandra Kaushik engineered the murder of residents of Hashimpura on the Upper Ganga and Hindon canals.”

In 2013, Rai, who was heading the Hashimpura investigation before the CID took over, met the 75-year old aunt of Major Kaushik. According to Rai, she called the killings “an ideal atonement by the Muslim community for the murder of her younger nephew”.

Vibhuti Narain Rai’s book on the Hashimpura massacre | Penguin India

Further, more than a dozen witnesses testified before the CID that “Major Pathania was ordering people with a loudhailer to come out of their houses.” He was later issued several summons by the court, even a notice to the defence ministry in 2013, but never turned up.

Was Major Kaushik, who retired as a colonel in the Indian army, using the PAC as his personal hit squad? We’ll probably never know.

Justice for the victims of Hashimpura did finally come, even if in its most stripped-down form. After a long drawn out investigation by the CID and an even longer legal battle at various courts, the Delhi High Court on 31 October 2018 overturned an earlier trial court acquittal and sentenced sixteen former PAC personnel to life for murdering 42 people.

Four amongst the convicted later told The Hindu that they had nothing to do with the massacre, as they got off the police trucks at the Meerut Police Lines.

The 72 odd victims of Maliyana, however, are yet to get even a whiff of justice. Sure, an FIR was filed, but remains missing from the case diary. The police made procedural lapses, such as failing to record statements from all the witnesses. A report was even submitted to the government by a committee led by retired Allahabad High Court judge, Gur Saran Lal Srivastav, but no government has yet dared to make it public.

According to the victims:

“Unlike in Hashimpura, where the then Ghaziabad SP V N Rai made sure that a just FIR was lodged against the PAC men….the law enforcement agencies were careful in registering a weak case in the Maliyana incident.”

Probably that is exactly why justice remains suspended for the dead, maimed and broken in Maliyana.

Incidents like Hashimpura and Maliyana are stark reminders of an ugly truth about India – religious minorities, especially Muslims, have always been the state’s primary target of aggression and retribution. They are the ones who will always suffer disproportionately in any instance of sectarian violence, regardless of which government is in power. The February 2020 violence in Northeast Delhi is only the latest reminder of this.

“The relation between the Indian state and the minorities is almost the same now as it was then in 1987 or even earlier, in the 1950s and the 1960s. The same absence of trust, the same hatred, the same prejudices, the same notions, and the same requirement and attempt to prove their ‘Indian-ness’. Nothing has changed. It is as if the more things change, the more they remain the same. Or perhaps, worsen,” Rai wrote in his daring account of the Hashimpura horror.

There is little doubt that for the Muslim community today, the looming shadow of state-sponsored violence is even darker and denser. The revolting visuals of the Hashimpura round-up were recalled recently by activists when the Delhi Police shepherded young Muslim students of Jamia Milia Islamia University out of the campus with raised hands after storming it using brute force.

As the public discourse gets saturated with cultural majoritarianism and the ruling party makes its sectarian agenda clearer by each day, it is only time before the liberal Indian civil society is shaken out of its stupor of complacency through a redux of Hashimpura.

This is certainly a grim projection to make today, but yet, it is one that remains a real possibility under this regime. That, perhaps, is the most terrifying trait of today’s times.

Angshuman Choudhury is a New Delhi-based researcher working with the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.

Featured image: PAC personnel rounding up Muslim men in Hashimpura before the massacre | Photo by Praveen Jain | Taken from Twitter.