We increasingly appear to be turning into a land where killings and rapes of minorities Dalits and tribals happen on a regular basis and yet seldom are there any killers or rapists. Acquittals of those accused of orchestrating and carrying out massacres following long drawn trials spanning decades, has now become a norm. At best, the survivors or the families of the dead are expected to feel grateful if the fact of the brutality having occurred is acknowledged in the first place.
On May 22, 1987, Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) personnel picked about 50 Muslims from a congregation of several hundred outside a mosque in Hashimpura. 42 of them were shot by the PAC personnel in a clear case of communally motivated custodial killings and their bodies were said to have been thrown into cannals. For over 25 years now the families of the victims have been waging a relentless battle for justice and yesterday, on 21 March, 2015, almost 28 years later, with two of the accused already dead, the trial court declared that while there was no doubt that such a massacre had occurred, there were no killers. Triggers were pulled, bullets were shot and yet there was no hand that could be held responsible for pulling those triggers and throwing those bullet carrying bodies in the canal.
The verdict coming in quick succession to a spate of such acquittals ranging from massacre accused of Bathani Tola and Laxmanpur Bathe, to the most recent one of rapists accused of gang raping a nun in Kandhamal, poses serious questions on the process of delivering justice.
In the case of the Hashimpura massacre, it is evident how the process of delivering justice to the survivors and the families of the victims who were killed that day was deliberately made more and more difficult with every passing day.
To begin with, the accused were never suspended from their offices and continued to remain in the force having full opportunity to control or influence the investigative process. Noted lawyer Rebecca M. John, sharing her observations in social media has raised serious concerns regarding the issue of accountability among the police personnel. She writes,
“For all those who call for Police reforms- including the ‘celebrated’ Prakash Singh- why is it that they never talk about accountability? Who is responsible, in this case, for culpable dereliction of duty? It is no secret that when police officers investigate police officers, ‘ties of brotherhood’ (words of the Supreme court, not mine) ensures that the whole process is tainted and defective. The best evidence is deliberately suppressed. In this case, the best evidence was suppressed, destroyed and consequently, never brought to court”.
The observation is particularly significant considering that the massacre also had survivors who had witnessed the entire incident and lived to tell the tale. Zulfikar Nasir, one of the survivors of the massacres who too had been shot in the shoulder and thrown in the canal but managed to somehow catch hold a bush and survive shared his anguish with the ToI, “I am really pained to know about the verdict. I was one of the witnesses. I had seen everything with my own eyes. And, here the court has set free the accused, that too for want of evidence”. The anguish expressed by Nasir echoes that of survivors of several other massacres who have survived to recount the horrors of what befell them and yet despite their eye-witness testimonies, the murderers continue to be acquitted for want of evidence. If those responsible for procuring the evidences and providing safety to the witnesses are themselves co-accused or as the Supreme Court had itself noted, tied to the accused by the ‘ties of brethren’, can there ever be hope of clinching evidences reaching the courts? And even as one raises these questions about the police, the state and central governments cannot be absolved of their biased actions or often enough motivated inactions.
Successive UP state governments obstruct justice
The trajectory of events following this massacre also exposes the hollowness of the secular claims of the Congress, Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party which headed governments in the state during the course of these 28 years. The massacre took place during the Congress rule in the state.
The very fact that PAC personnel who could carry out such a communally motivated killing in such a brazen manner and not even be temporarily suspended is an ample evidence of the tacit complicity of the then Congress government.
Thereafter, the formation of SP government in the state did little to raise the hopes of justice. The CB-CID that was entrusted with enquiry took 7 long years to complete the report which indicted the PAC personnel of the massacre. The report was submitted to the state government only in 1994. The SP government sat on the report for two whole years failing to even order a departmental action against the personnel indicted in the report. It was only after dragging its heels for two whole years that the government finally filed the charge sheet against the accused in 1996.
Additionally, they took another two years to appoint a government advocate. Siddharth Vardarajan in a write up in The Hindu in 2005 pointed out how crucial time was wasted as the governments of the day did not even bother to appoint Special Public Prosecutor (SPP) for years and when after much pressure they did the SPPs were either under-qualified or lacking sufficient interest to even try and understand the complexities of the case. He noted,
“A review of the case record makes it clear that the presence of “secular” parties such as the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party or the Congress in the Uttar Pradesh government has not made the pursuit of justice any easier. Indeed, much of the past two years was wasted because the Mulayam Singh Yadav Government simply did not bother to appoint a proper special public prosecutor (SPP). From October 2002 to March 2004, there was no SPP and the case could not proceed. The Uttar Pradesh Government then named as SPP a lawyer who was not qualified in terms of experience and had to be removed by the court after counsel for the victims complained”
The aforementioned observation is a serious comment on how difficult it is for the underprivileged and the oppressed to even hope for justice. While this may not come as a surprise to several who have been trying to wage difficult battles of justice in face of majoriatarian violence, every such incident only serves to further diminish hopes of several others trying to garner courage and efforts to take on the powerful perpetrators.
The dragging pace of the judicial process
The obstacles met in the particular battle of justice in case of Hashimpura massacre are not restricted to the dereliction of duty and tacit complicity with the accused on the part of the investigating agencies and the state and central governments. The obstacles are further compounded by the extremely slow paced trials where several of the witnesses, survivors and even the accused are either lost during the course of a long arduous journey. Further, in such prolonged trials there is always of a chance of the witness accounts becoming hazier over a period of time. There is sufficiently long time for gaps to grow thus creating space fertile breeding grounds for ‘benefits of doubts’. For instance, while the prosecution had listed 164 witnesses for this case, by 2007, i.e., 20 years after the massacre, only four witnesses had been examined. As mentioned earlier, the inquiry process had itself gone on for nearly 6-7 years. Thereafter what followed was a routine that most have now got accustomed to- accused failing to show up in courts, not responding to the summons and using every trick in the law book to delay the court proceedings. Given that the UP government, itself took years to appoint a government advocate did not help the cause of justice in anyway. It was only in May 2006 that the 19 PAC personnel finally got charged with homicide!!
Yesterday, when after 28 years, the charged men were acquitted for the want of evidence, the hopes for justice too stood massacred for the survivors and the families of the victims. And the victims who fought courageously for 28 years without losing hope, were failed collectively by the PAC personnel, investigating agencies, state and central governments and also the slower than a snail judicial process.
Today morning, one of the newspapers found it necessary to mention that given that the court had referred the case to the Delhi Legal Service Authority for rehabilitation showed that at least the court did not deny that occurrence of the incident. Given that in several cases involving false encounters of the minority population even the acknowledgement that these are nothing but cold blooded murders remains denied, one is perhaps supposed to feel grateful for such acknowledgements. One perhaps is also supposed to feel grateful for the fact that at least a few newspapers found it news worthy of reporting. The muted response to these acquittals by the visual media who rarely loses an opportunity to play the conscience keeper of the nation and demanding answers on behalf of the nation, though not surprising, is seriously disturbing.
As the survivors and activists gear to carry on the battle in courts and on streets for justice, I am reminded of a few lines from a poem by Brecht-
Throw away the bad justice,
baked without love, kneaded a without knowledge,
Justice without flavour, with a grey crust,
The stale justice which comes too late!
As the Daily bread is necessary,
So is daily justice,
It is even necessary several times a day…
Since the bread of justice, then, is so important
Who, friends, shall bake it?
Who bakes the other bread?
Like the other bread
The bread of justice must be baked
By the people.
Plentiful, wholesome, daily.
Lessons From Hashimpura
(Rebecca Mammen John, one of the lawyers working for justice for the Hashimpura victims and survivors, responds to the Hashimpura verdict.)
1) There cannot be selective calls for speedy trials. Every case involving the life, liberty and rights of individual citizens, deserves a speedy trial. This “fast track court” gimmick is just that – a gimmick – to satisfy a select few at the cost of the multitude.
2) It should never take 28 years to conclude a trial involving the cold blooded murder of 42 men. It shows without a shadow of doubt, that our system cannot deliver and will certainly never deliver when the victim or victims are poor, dalit, marginalised or muslim.
3) For all those who call for Police reforms – including the ” celebrated ” Prakash Singh- why is it that they never talk about accountability? Who is responsible, in this case, for culpable dereliction of duty? It is no secret that when police officers investigate police officers, “ties of Brotherhood” (words of the Supreme Court, not mine) ensure that the whole process is tainted and defective. The best evidence is deliberately suppressed. In this case, the best evidence was suppressed, destroyed and consequently, never brought to court.
4) It must be placed on record that the policemen accused of this massacre, were never suspended. They remained in the force, some were even promoted. They had the means and the ability to control the investigation and charter its outcome.
5) It must also be placed on record that this incident took place on 22.5.1987, when a Congress government was ruling the State of Uttar Pradesh and the Congress was in power at the Centre. When communal flare ups happen and when people are killed along communal lines, all political parties react in the same manner. They have a tacit understanding that men in uniform who target and kill on communal lines, must be protected at all costs. In this, the Congress is no different than the BJP.
6) Why are some victims treated differently from others? How could we ignore the scale and magnitude of police brutality against members of one community?
7) A word about the struggle of the Hashimpura victims. 5 men survived the shootings , though they were grievously injured. (Like their fellow victims, they too had been abducted from Hashimpura, bundled into a PAC truck in the middle of the night, shot and thrown into the Hindon river). They came to court and bravely testified and their testimony is bone chilling. It gives us an understanding of how these crimes are executed – in the most calculated, brutal, sadistic and brazen manner and with complete impunity.
8) Who lost yesterday? India lost its right to be called a law enforcing Constitutional Republic. Not the victims, who had bravely fought for justice for 28 years. During that period, they never lost hope, they were so dignified in their struggle and they always believed that justice would be done.
It was not. And we must hang our heads in shame.