Twenty-eight years ago almost to the day, 37 unarmed Muslims were killed in cold blood, an act of wanton violence for which no one has so far been held guilty.
Last week Jyoti Punwani and photographer Uttam Ghosh visited the Meerut area after the trial court recently acquitted the security personnel charged with the killings, and found a town untouched by its grim past.
Special to Rediff.com
As the world descends on the narrow entrance of Hashimpura, the rest of Meerut is not amused. "I've lost faith in the media," says a furious Jeet Singh Lodhi, proprietor of Hukum Singh and Sons, a shutter manufacturing unit that shares its compound wall with Hashimpura. "Such one-sided reporting! Yes, Hashimpura happened, but why did it? Kya Hindu nahin marey? Haven't Hindus been killed, too?"
For the Hindus of Meerut, the Provincial Armed Constabulary's killing of 37 unarmed Muslims whom they had picked up in a raid on Hashimpura on May 22, 1987, is certainly not the 'worst case of custodial death in independent India' as it is being described after 16 PAC men were acquitted last month by the trial court.
Indeed, even for Meerut's Muslims, Hashimpura is just another terrible episode in the long dark night that engulfed Meerut for almost six months in 1987, about which wrote local poet Hafeez Meeruthi: Jaate jaate pooch raha hai/aman ke rakhwalonse Hafeez/kyon ji kya achchey logon se/Meerut khali ho jayega? (Will Meerut be bereft of good folk?)
Dr Zaheeruddin Ansari, an eyewitness to the Hashimpura raid who might have been picked up had it not been for the intervention of an army officer, lost his younger brother to a Hindu mob in the riots. "It's not only in Hashimpura that people died," he retorts.
As patients wait, Dr Ansari recounts with the skill of a folk story-teller, every incident of violence that engulfed the city in the days prior to the Hashimpura raid and after it. He leaves out neither incidents of Muslim violence, nor the six Muslims killed in jail, or the killings of Maliana's Muslims by the PAC.
For the Hindus, the high point of the narration of those days is the burning of young anaesthetist Dr Prabhat inside his car by a Muslim mob. The doctor was going to attend to a Muslim patient, confident that his father's fame as a secular Communist Party of India worker would ensure his safety.
Official estimates of lives lost in the violence which started in April, raged through May and lingered on over the next four months, vary from 117 to 125 to 261. The then Congress government in Uttar Pradesh did not table the report of the Gian Prakash Inquiry Commission, and no government since has thought fit to do so.
Suryakant Dwivedi, editor of Hindustan, covered the riots as a reporter, taking shelter in Muslim friends's homes during curfew, getting food for them. He lost three of his friends in the Hashimpura massacre, and a fourth Muslim friend in a riot in 1991.
According to him, such was the intensity of the violence, which came a year after the locks of the Babri Masjid were opened by then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi's government, that those who witnessed it pray every time a small clash takes place that it should not erupt into a riot.
The handloom industry and the Ansaris who worked in it were wiped out, says Dwivedi; labour never recovered and investment eluded the city for more than a decade.
Today, Meerut is 9th among India's top ten income tax paying cities, and boasts of the familiar markers of urban prosperity -- malls, roadside stalls selling burgers, and girls chatting with boys on motorbikes outside the gates of the sprawling Meerut University. But among its older residents, society continues to be seen in terms of who dominates, 'H' or 'M', and the events of 1987 are remembered as if they occurred yesterday.
The victims of the Hashimpura massacre maintain that nothing preceded the sudden raid by the army, the local police and the PAC; that it was done solely to target them as Muslims. But residents who lived through those times link it to two incidents: The attack by a few Muslims on PAC personnel on May 18, in which two rifles were snatched; and the shooting of two Hindus: Sushil Tyagi and Prabhat Kaushik, allegedly by Muslims on May 19 in the Hindu localities of Subhash Nagar and Suraj Kund, both adjacent to Hashimpura. Kaushik's brother was an army major.
But Satish Tamta, the special public prosecutor for the Hashimpura case, dismisses the theory that the raid was an act of revenge by the army for the killing of the Hindu boy. "It's wrong to see this incident in communal terms. At any rate, the army's role ended after handing over the Hashimpura residents to the police and PAC. This incident happened because the PAC had been attacked; its rifles taken away. Hell hath no fury like a force in uniform attacked."
The case diaries of the CBCID (Crime Branch Criminal Investigation Department) inquiry into the Hashimpura incident reveal that during the May 22 raid, the PAC's rifles were found in Hashimpura.
Meerut MP Rajendra Agarwal of the BJP believes the violence could not have ended without the help of the army and the PAC. Indeed, the accusation that the PAC killed 37 Muslims (six survived, one died in a few hours) and dumped their bodies in a nallah would not have been believed by many Hindus had 16 bodies not been found in the nallah with bullet wounds.
Yet, even these killings are seen by Hindus as a reaction by a uniformed force provoked after being pushed to the limits of tolerance. Most Hindus in fact, are simply not interested in a mohalla they avoid, for fear that their vehicle may brush against a Muslim, and they be surrounded by an irate mob claiming compensation.
"This happened with me," recounts advocate Arvind Dutt Sharma, "I was saved after some Muslim elders intervened to point out that the fault was not mine. Since then, I take the longer route."
Yet, it is not as if Meerut's Hindus and Muslims inhabit different worlds.
BJP MP Agarwal describes the relationship between them as a "karobari (business) relationship," but Dwivedi disagrees, pointing out that Agarwal may not move in social circles beyond his vote bank. "Hindus and Musims here have always had a close relationship," says Dwivedi. "Even among BJP supporters, Hindu-Muslim marriages take place quietly."
In the two days we spent there, evidence of this intermingling was visible.
The most rabid Hindu businessmen, who jeered that for Muslims riots were only a ruse to grab compensation, not only employed Muslims, but also boasted of their closeness to distinguished, nationally-known Muslim families. Advocate Sharma described how whole-heartedly Muslims participate in and donate to his NGO. Even Jeet Singh Lodhi routinely shares his workshop's electric connection with the Hashimpura masjid next door.
Yet, in every conversation, Hindus mentioned the dominance of the 42 per cent over the 58 per cent, thanks to successive 'Muslim-loving' governments, specially the current Samajwadi Party regime. The commonest complaint was that Muslim offenders get let off simply by phoning their political patrons; non-Yadav Hindu offenders have no such protectors.
A stark example was cited by Ashok Kaushik, an employee with Hukum Singh and Sons. In September 2013, his 19-year-old nephew Karan was abducted by Muslim criminals, killed and dumped into a freshly dug grave in the graveyard.
The police refused to search for him, but eyewitnesses led Kaushik to the culprit, he alleged. He could get him arrested, but to get the police to arrest his accomplices needed considerable pressure. While the police claimed the killing was a fallout of a money dispute, Kaushik alleged that the main accused had boasted he had done it to avenge the Muzaffarnagar riots that had shaken UP a month earlier. Muzaffarnagar is just 35 km away.
Karan's father was 'persuaded' by the police to appeal for peace to the Hindu mobs who had gathered outside his house seeking revenge, and received Rs 10 lakh (Rs 1 million) as compensation for his son.
What adds to the Hindu resentment is that the political clout of Meerut's Muslims is accompanied by growing financial clout, boosted by Muslim dominance over meat exports. Both Yakub Qureshi, the rabble-rousing former Bahujan Samaj Party legislator, and Shahid Akhlaq, the former mayor and BSP MP, own meat export firms.
Hence, it is not uncommon for a rich Muslim to buy a house in a Hindu colony, triggering off an exodus of Hindus, so that the colony gradually transforms into a Muslim one. But why should Hindus leave if a Muslim comes to live among them? "You know how it is, Hindus may not like some of the Muslim habits, or their visitors," is the reply.
Ironically, in 1987, Hindu mobs drove out Muslims from Hindu colonies. One such Muslim whose house was burnt down in Shastri Nagar, home to BJP MP Agarwal, was poet Bashir Badr, head of Meerut University's Urdu department. Asked about his erstwhile Muslim neighbours, Agarwal recites Badr's sher written after the riots: Log toot jaate jain ek ghar banane mein, tum taras khate nahin bastiyan jalaane mein (People spend a lifetime building a home, and you don't care a whit while destroying it).
Today, the unease with the growing Muslim presence in hitherto exclusively Hindu areas, is not with educated Muslims "who are different," but with those who refuse to shed their religious identity. "Of late, groups of Muslims, with their topis and long kurtas and short pyjamas, can be seen coming for their evening outing into parks in Hindu areas," said Chaudhry Brahm Kumar Singh, who came to Meerut as a student 60 years ago, and went on to become head of the Meerut Bar Association and the city BJP president. "Until now they would stick to their own areas."
Interestingly, the Chaudhry, whose junior advocate is a Muslim, recalled that it was a tradition in his village to hand over the arrangement of family weddings to Muslim neighbours. "We trusted them completely. In villages, Muslims have always been few in number."
Far from few, Meerut's Muslims are everywhere. If poor, they live in their ghettos, but keep on intruding into public spaces rather too cockily for the city's older Hindus; if rich, they "invade" Hindu spaces.
Bur rich or poor, their youth, say Hindus, try to seduce their girls, riding their motorbikes outside colleges, wearing red threads round their wrists, pretending to be Hindus. Even Dwivedi, who dismissed the concept of 'love jihad', feared that this trend may grow to be the biggest danger across Western UP.
Dwivedi saw it not as a Muslim conspiracy, but only as a sign of the younger generation's refusal to heed their elders and their maulanas, as they have done till now. "Nobody tries to do any social reform among these youngsters," he said regretfully.
Yet, within Hashimpura, live Hindus at peace with their neighbours. 'Bhagatji' Tilak Ram sheltered Muslims stranded there during the 1987 riots, and his son is a Samajwadi Party activist who works for Muslims and Hindus. Then there is Sitaram Ramrhi who claims that his spacious house with a tree growing in its courtyard was the first house in Hashimpura.
Slowly though, the Hindu families are leaving, not out of fear, but due to property disputes within their families. Yet, even after they leave, some come back to ply their old trades in Hashimpura's by-lanes.
Interestingly, no political party is trying to encash the Hashimpura judgment -- except the Congress, which suppressed all six inquiry reports into the major incidents of the riots. Last week, it sent a Supreme Court lawyer to the victims, and revived its defunct Minority Front to hold a lacklustre public meeting on the issue. Soon after chief guest V N Rai finished his speech there (he was then superintendent of police, Ghaziabad, and instrumental in starting the legal process against the PAC), the victims walked out.
It appears, then, that the city of Meerut will once again remain aloof from the struggle for justice of the Hashimpura victims.