It Happened One Night

by Uma Vishnu

Babudin sat on a culvert, his legs trembling, his clothes dripping water. A police officer offered him a beedi. Babudin shook his head and began speaking: There had been about 45 of them, all Muslims, picked up from Hashimpura, a settlement in Meerut city, and packed tightly into the rear of a yellow truck of the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC). Babudin and the others had thought they were being arrested. But the PAC was allegedly on another mission.

Forty-two of those on board the truck that May night in 1987 were killed in two massacres in neighbouring Ghaziabad district — one along the Upper Ganga canal near Muradnagar, and the other along the Hindon canal in Makanpur, on the border with Delhi — in what have since come to be known as the Hashimpura killings.

Twenty-seven years later, Vibhuti Narain Rai, then SSP Ghaziabad under whose jurisdiction the killings took place, is writing Hashimpura 22 May, a book in Hindi on the massacre. Rai, who retired from the IPS in 2011 and worked for five years as V-C of Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University in Wardha, Maharashtra, has published a paper on communal bias in the police. He also has five novels to his credit — Ghar, Shahar Mein Curfew, Kissa Loktantra, Tabadla and Prem Ki Bhootkatha — but he always knew he had to tell the Hashimpura story.

Speaking to The Sunday Express at his house in Noida’s Sector 82, Rai, 63, says, “All these years, this incident has hung like a curse on me and I had to get it off my chest.” The book, for which he has entered into an agreement with Penguin, is in its final stages, with an English translation by Darshan Desai. The Hindi literary magazine Paakhi is also running a serialised form of the book, with four chapters out on the stands.

“Those were tense days, especially in Meerut. This was in 1987, when the Rajiv Gandhi government had ordered the locks on the Babri Masjid to be opened. In Meerut, the Army and paramilitary had been called in. A company of the 41st battalion of the PAC, which has its battalion headquarters in Ghaziabad, had also been sent to Meerut. Almost every day, there would be demonstrations, protests, riots, even killings. It was a divided society,” says Rai.

On the night of May 22, around 10.30 pm, Rai had just returned to his SSP residence from Hapur when he saw Link Road SHO VB Singh at the gate, his face flushed. “I asked him in jest, ‘So, who have you killed in your thana?’. From experience, I know SHOs are most worried when there is a custodial death in their thana. Singh replied, ‘Saab, ek nahin, kai mare hain (Sir, not one, several are dead)’.”

And then, the SHO, too scared to be coherent, spoke about how, around 9 pm, he had heard gunshots near Makanpur and headed there thinking it was a dacoity. He had set off on a bike with a sub-inspector and they were on the dirt-track leading to the village when they had seen a truck of the PAC’s 41st Battalion charging down the road. After the truck had left, Singh had continued down that track and had barely travelled a kilometre before finding bodies lying in pools of blood — some in the ravines around the canal and the others on the embankments, their heads dangling in the water.

“Meerut was already burning and we didn’t want the flames to spread to Ghaziabad. So District Magistrate Nasim Zaidi (now the Election Commissioner) and I rushed to Makanpur. That’s where I saw Babudin,” says.

Babudin had miraculously escaped the killers’ bullets by pretending to be dead. Later that night, first on the culvert and then at the Link Road Station, Babudin had told Rai, “with chilling calm”, how the truck with the Hashimpura residents had made one other stop before Makanpur, at a point along the Upper Ganga canal near Muradnagar, and killed some of the villagers.

“The jawans were interrupted in their rampage by a milk van that came that way. They panicked, bullied the milk van driver, and got him to back off.
Then, the jawans drove the truck back to the highway — Babudin and some of the other wounded still in the rear — past the Mohan Meakins distillery and turned left towards Makanpur. There they completed the job they had begun, killing everyone on that truck. What they didn’t know was Babudin had escaped and so had a few others at Muradnagar. The exact count of the dead or even of those picked up from Hashimpura was never established because some of the bodies had simply been flung into the canal and were never recovered,” says Rai.

It’s the eyewitness accounts of Babudin and the other survivors that would prove crucial when the trial began, first at a Ghaziabad court and later at the Tis Haziri courts in Delhi, where the case was transferred in 2002. The trial against the 16 PAC jawans is now in its final stages.

In his book, Rai writes dramatically of how he swung into action that night — alerting the administration and intercepting then Chief Minister Vir Bahadur Singh’s convoy to tell him about the massacre. “The CM was on his way to Lucknow from Delhi and he was sleeping in the rear seat. I flagged down the convoy. Zaidi knocked on the CM’s car panes and said, ‘Something serious has happened. There have been some killings.’ The CM asked us to join him in the car. Zaidi sat with the CM and I in the front seat. When I turned around to tell him what had happened, he almost fainted. ‘Itne log mar gaye? Woh bhi Musalman… my political career is over,’ he said,” Rai tells The Sunday Express.

Within 48 hours, the case was transferred to the CID. That, says Rai, was the beginning of a series of cover-ups. The PAC truck was never confiscated, neither were the weapons used in the killings. “Hashimpura was the biggest custodial killing case since Independence. Yet, none of the big media houses picked the story, some even deliberately killed the story to protect the big names,” he says.

All these years, he says, he had been looking for answers to questions that have niggled him since Hashimpura. “I kept thinking, why. Why did they kill so many unarmed people? Why didn’t it provoke enough outrage? And most importantly, under whose orders were they killed? A bunch of PAC jawans couldn’t have, on their own, dared to do something like this unless they had orders. The Army, clearly, had a role. They were the ones who arrested those people. Why did they hand them over to the PAC? Under whose orders? I don’t have answers to all these questions, but I can certainly claim to know what happened that day in Hashimpura. I remember every single detail,” says Rai.

So did Babudin. Rai says that when he went back to Hashimpura, years later, to interview Babuddin, he didn’t recognise him. But when Rai introduced himself, Babudin broke into a smile and said, “Oh, so you are the officer who gave me a beedi to smoke that night on the culvert.”

(The jawans) seemed to be in a tearing hurry… The sound of their shoes hitting the bricks… was somehow frightening… I saw the same fear in Babudin’s face that must have been there on that of others with him too. Then suddenly, a commanding voice from outside ordered them to jump out — Babudin felt there was something terribly wrong. He tried to sneak inside the truck… And now, all hell broke loose.

— From the English translation of Vibhuti Narain Rai’s (pic) Hashimpura 22 May —


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