(left to right) Mujib-ur-Rahman, Babuddin, Zulfiqar Nasir and Nayeem Arif. Tarique Anwar/ Firstpost

New Delhi/Hashimpura: Nayeem Arif was barely 15 when the Hashimpura killings took place. Twenty-eight years on, he still remembers vividly ‘death standing’ before him. He was among the few taken away from his home and survived the night of 22 May, 1987. Five survivors – Nayeem Arif, Zulfiqar Nasir, Mohamad Usman, Mujib-ur-Rehman and Babuddin – recollect wading through bodies strewn on the banks of Hindon River, Muradpur canal and flowing in waters.

After the Tis Hazari sessions court pronounced its verdict in the case last week and let off all 16 accused police men giving them the “benefit of doubt” as the prosecution could not establish the identity of the shooters, there is a sense of disbelief among the five survivors and other residents of Hashimpura mohalla in Meerut.

Here’s the backdrop to the developments on that night. After communal riots broke out in Meerut in April 1987, the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) of the UP police was called in. They were withdrawn as the riots subsided. However, violence erupted again on 19 May and 10 persons were killed. The Army was called out to stage a flag march and thirty companies of the PAC were rushed in too as indefinite curfew was declared. The following day, mobs set Gulmarg cinema hall on fire near Hashimpura, a locality that was made up of of 600 houses then. As the death toll rose to 22 and those injured to 75, shoot at sight orders were issued on 20 May, 1987. Then came the horror.

“On the evening of 22 May, 1987, 19 personnel of the PAC, under their platoon commander, conducted a search operation in Hashimpura and rounded up Muslims. The old and children were later separated and allowed to go. They took around 47 people, mostly daily wage labourers and weavers, in a truck to the upper Ganga canal in Murad Nagar of Ghaziabad district, instead of to the police station. I was one of them. As the truck stopped near the canal, they asked us to get down. Here some of us were shot and thrown into the canal,” Arif said.

“As we were left with no option to save ourselves, we started shouting and tried to overpower two PAC men on the truck but failed as the cops standing outside sprayed bullets on us. Two to three persons died and the rest suffered injuries in the indiscriminate firing. But I was safe. A bullet also injured one of the PAC constables.

“We fell down on the floor of the truck and were stacked on one another. I found myself under the dead body of Qyamuddin, his neighbour. In no time even I became a ‘dead body’. The profuse bleeding from Qyamuddin’s body turned my clothes bloody. The cops then started dragging us out, shooting and throwing (bodies) into the canal. When my turn came, they mistook me for dead because my clothes were blood stained. As I was dragged down, I pretended to be dead. One of them hit me with his boot to confirm that I was dead. As I was being thrown into the canal, a bullet pierced my body and injured my ribs,” he said.

“I fell in the shallow side of the canal and hid in shrubs. After some were killed and dumped into the canal, the headlights of passing vehicle carrying milk made PAC personnel flee the spot with those alive.

“When the PAC men left the place, I came out of the canal. Many people, some of them severely injured, who later succumbed to their injuries, and a few dead were lying on the bank. I somehow made way to main road and reached a roadside hotel. After hearing my ordeal, a truck driver helped me take refuge at a roadside farm house of a person known to him. The next day, he took me to my uncle’s place in Ghaziabad where I underwent treatment for days,” Arif said.

Zulfiqar Nasir, now 48-year-old but 18 at the time, was shot in the armpit.

“I was the first person who was dragged out from the truck and shot. They fired at me and threw me in the canal. Fortunately, the bullet hit my armpit and no vital organ was damaged. When the PAC truck left the canal, I moved towards a village where people helped me. I underwent treatment at the home of someone,” he said.

The police action hit headlines when then MP Chandra Shekhar (who later became prime minister) held a press conference with him. Nasir also filed a first information report (FIR) at the Murad Nagar Police Station.

“I somehow got in touch with MP Syed Shahabuddin who with Chandra Shekharji brought the massacre out in the open. Everyone heard us that day, but the government comfortably chose to ignore us,” Nasir said.

Mohammad Usman, now 55, is permanently disabled and lives in the Kancha ka Pul locality where he sells fruits.

Recounting the horror of the incident, he told Firstpost, “It was Alvida Juma (the last Friday of holy month of Ramadan). We were living under curfew and had no flour, milk or anything. Bullets shattered my hips and waist. Somehow, I pulled myself out of the canal. Around 3 am, a policeman came in a jeep and took me to the hospital. I was asked not to reveal that he had rescued me.”

The remaining men were next taken in the truck to the Hindon River near Makanpur village in Ghaziabad, shot and their bodies thrown into a canal there. Here again, two of the persons who were shot at, survived and lodged an FIR at the Link Road Police Station.

Migrant factory workers from Bihar’s Darbhanga district Mujibur Rahman (44) and Babuddin (42), who had come here to work in a power loom, managed to separate themselves from the lot which was shot at and thrown into Hindon water.

Now a father of two, Rahman said, “I was shot in chest and fell unconscious. I regained consciousness when I was thrown into the river. I drank a lot of water as I was extremely thirsty because I was fasting. It gave me strength to survive. I swam away.”

“When the PAC men left the bridge, I climbed the river bank. Suddenly, two policemen patrolling the area reached there. They spotted me when I jumped into the river once again. They pulled out their guns and asked me to raise my hands. I described the entire sequence of events that took place. They informed the local police station through wireless and called a jeep, which took me to a hospital in Ghaziabad where I underwent treatment for 22 days,” he said.

Rahman met his neighbour 42-year-old Babuddin, who was shot twice and rescued by then SP of Ghaziabad, Vibhuti Narain Rai, in the same hospital the next day.

“I was presumed dead and thrown into the river by the PAC men. After I was rescued, I filed an FIR in the Link Road police station in Ghaziabad,” he said.

“Three labourers from Bihar were killed that day. None of their families got compensation,” Rahman pointed out.

The duo was later escorted to their homes in Bihar by six men of the Ghaziabad police after they were declared fit by the doctors.

Days after the massacre, protests erupted, forcing then Chief Minister Veer Bahadur Singh to order a probe by the UP Crime Branch’s Crime Investigation Department (CBCID). But the administration tried its best to save the guilty. The CBCID took six long years before filing its report in 1994, around six-and-a-half years after the incident.

A case was filed by the state government against 19 PAC men in a court in Ghaziabad in 1996. Six bailable and 17 non-bailable warrants were issued by the court against the accused, and they appeared before the court for hearing even though they were still in government service. The accused were later suspended for up to six months in 2000.

Following media reports, 16 out of the 19 accused turned up in court in May 2000. But all of them received bail between June and July. The court reasoned that since they were government servants, they couldn’t go absconding. The case was transferred to Delhi’s Tis Hazari court in 2002 on the order of the Supreme Court, which took cognizance of the victims’ plea. Ironically, the state government took two years to appoint Special Public Prosecutor (SSP). The appointment of two SSPs was made between 2004 and 2006.

When the court proceedings began in Delhi, all three investigating officers appointed by the CBCID died. Three of the accused are also dead. Some of the accused are still serving the UP police.

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Wading through the bodies: Survivors relive the horrific 1987 Hashimpura killings