During the Emergency’s darkest days, with the sterilisation programme at its peak, 35 men, most of them Muslims protesting against the drive, were allegedly shot dead in three settlements in Muzaffarnagar.
October 18, 1976. It was a little after 2 pm that Mohammed Mustakeem returned to his poultry shop after the afternoon namaaz. That’s when he heard the shots. “The first bullet hit the wall of my shop. I quickly pulled down the shutters. Then, another bullet hit my hand. There was a pause and after that, 11 rounds of firing, all aimed at my shop,” recalls Mustakeem, rubbing his right index finger on a puckered depression on his left hand where the bullet hit him.
That was 39 years ago, the peak of the Emergency. The sterilisation drive launched by Sanjay Gandhi had raised tempers across the country but protests, if any, were squashed with an iron hand. Like it happened in three Muslim-dominated mohallas – Khalapur, Malhupura and Kairana – of Muzaffarnagar city, where 35 men, two of them Hindus, were allegedly killed in firing by the Provincial Armed Constabulary.
It was in Khalapur that it all began. The settlement is on one side of a triangular patch, with a loha mandi (iron market) — one of the largest in western UP — and a row of wrought iron and scrap dealers making up the other two sides. Early noon on October 17, the local police had allegedly picked up a meat shop owner and the customers in his shop for forced sterilisation. Within hours, more than a 1,000 Muslims from the neighbourhood are said to have turned up at the chowk – at the junction of the mandi and the mohalla – to protest. Soon, the PAC was called in and the jawans cordoned off the entire area.
The story of what happened next has been rarely told, buried in the pages of a few books and some newspaper reports that wrote about it after the Emergency. In Khalapur and the other two settlements, there are few left who can speak with authority on the ‘Muzaffarnagar nasbandi goli kand’, as the incident has come to be known. The relatives of those killed that day – many of them lower-caste Muslims who had settled down in Muzaffarnagar over the years to work in its sugar mills and steel units – have mostly moved out of here, leaving behind a few like Mustakeem, 62, to talk.
“They first forced the protesters to disperse. Then, they knocked on almost every Muslim door and warned them. This went on for about four hours. After some time, District Magistrate Brijendra Yadav arrived. He walked down the main road to survey the situation. People had come out on the streets to see what was happening. At one point, something hit the DM. It was from the terrace of a flour mill. He immediately ordered the PAC to open fire,” alleges Mustakeem, adding that the PAC had by then started shooting indiscriminately, “in all directions”.
That’s when Mustakeem’s shop was hit. “When I downed the shutters, they stopped firing at my shop. But from inside, I could hear bullets being fired in the direction of the telephone pole, behind which the men must have hidden to dodge the sudden firing,” he says.
Hours later, when he pulled up the shutters of his shop, he says he froze. “There must have been at least 25 bodies lying in a pool of blood. Most of them were near the pole, which had countless bullet holes,” says Mustakeen.
Where the telephone pole once stood is a transformer, hidden behind a cemented wall that is ‘Shaheed Chowk’, a memorial for the 25 who lost their lives in Khalapur. The memorial itself is hidden from view by a row of shops dealing in scrap.
Since that day 40 years ago, Mustakeem has been asking questions – and answering them himself. “Where did it all start? In a meat shop in the area. Why was there a need to pick the owner as well the customers present there? Because they knew they would find Muslims at a meat shop,” he says.
Those days, he says, there was a constant “feeling of fear among the Muslims”. “All India Radio would broadcast Indira Gandhi’s message, ‘nasbandi jabran nahi, magar lazmi hai (sterilisation won’t be forced, but will be compulsory)’. Muslims were obviously worried. This was against the shariat (Islamic law),” he says.
A curfew was clamped on Khalapur for four days. However, the killings wouldn’t stop here. Within 24 hours of the firing, on October 19, the police would allegedly pick up young Muslim men from Malhupura, another Muslim-dominated mohalla in Muzaffarnagar, and Karaina, then part of the same district but now part of the adjoining Shamli district.
“The police and PAC started gathering after the morning prayers. At first, two men were picked up for sterilisation. When a group of 40 gathered, the police went away. However, within an hour, a bigger force sealed off all the entry points. This time, three men were picked up. When the protesters started sloganeering, the PAC began firing non-stop,” says Mohammed Ali Alwi, former assistant commissioner of sales tax and a resident of Malhupara who says he was a witness to the firing.
“There is absolutely no trace of the families of those who were killed in Kairana. There is no police complaint. It’s said that four people were killed here, but there are no official records to confirm that number,” says Sajjad Alam, a lawyer who practices in the local criminal court.
Like in most other cases during the Emergency, no FIRs were filed and no arrests made. The DM, Brijendra Yadav, was transferred out of Muzaffarnagar soon after. A 1971 batch UP-cadre IAS officer, Yadav was Muzaffarnagar DM from April 21, 1976, to October 29, 1976. He retired in 2008 as chairman of the UP Vigilance Commission and died in 2013.
A retired senior government official, who didn’t want to be named, says it was the close association of Congress leader Vidya Bhushan (who later became Muzaffarnagar MLA) with Sanjay Gandhi that made the district one of the main centres for implementing the sterilisation drive. “The bureaucrats acted on Bhushan’s commands. Every bureaucrat was given targets,” he says.
After the fall of the Indira Gandhi government in 1977, the Janata Party government constituted an inquiry commission headed by retired Allahabad High Court judge Justice Ram Asrey Mishra to look into the killings.
Mustakeem, the eyewitness to the Khalapur deaths, says he had deposed before the commission and had testified that it was on the orders of the district magistrate that the PAC opened fire. “I told the commission there were no warnings or lathi charges,” he says. He says the judge asked him why the residents hadn’t stayed inside when the situation was so tense. “I told the judge that the situation was such that the police would have broken down our doors and taken us out for forced sterilisation,” he says.
Khwaja Abdul Majeeb, whose son Saleem was among those killed, says that after a few proceedings in Muzaffarnagar, the commission was transferred to Lucknow. “Once it was transferred to Lucknow everything changed. They gave the DM a clean chit. I had met Raj Narain in Delhi. He promised us justice but nothing happened,” says Majeeb.
However, the findings of this commission were never tabled in the Assembly. “An RTI was filed in this regard. The authorities claimed they had lost the keys to the almirah that had the report. That’s where it ends,” says Alwi.
Shabiran, in her 70s
On October 19, Shabiran had asked her elder son Nizamuddin, 18, to run up to the kirana shop in Malhupara to get some sugar. When Nizamuddin did not return, she sent her younger son Salammudin to look for him. Minutes later, Salammudin would scream: “Bhaiya ko unhone maar diya, ammi (Mother, they have killed Nizamuddin).”
Shabiran, in her early seventies, sits hunched on the floor, outside the steps of her house. “I ran towards the road and saw Nizamuddin lying there. As I held him, I saw blood oozing out of his chest. He opened his eyes, did not speak. I asked him, beta kyun so raha hai, ghar chal (why are you
sleeping? Let us go home). He held my hand and turned his face away from me. The police then took his body away. I shouted, cried, no one heard me,” says Shabiran, breaking down.
Two hours later, Shabiran’s husband, a rickshaw puller, would come home only to slip into a state of shock for weeks. “When he saw our son’s blood on the road, he started washing it and didn’t stop for hours. He later went to the burial ground and wrapped our son with a shroud. He did not speak to us for weeks,” she says. Her husband died seven years later in a road accident.
“You ask me what I remember of my son? Let you tell me you something. I think of him every day. And then, he asks me, ‘mujhe kyun maara, ammi (why did they kill me, mother)?’. Does anyone have an answer to this?”
Mohammed Umar, 69
It’s late afternoon and Mohammed Umar stands at the corner of a deserted street in Malhupura, trying to set up his kachori stall. “It’s Ramzan, so all my work will start in the evening.”
Forty years ago, on October 19, Umar, who worked at a metal factory, was left partially immobile in his left shoulder after he was hit by his two bullets. “I was returning home after buying some milk when I was shot at by the PAC. I just fainted,” he says.
“They threw us in the hospital like we were animals. The doctors said they would have to cut off my left hand. I told them I would instead go to a hospital in Meerut,” he says, adding that he had to undergo four operations.
Khwaja Majeeb, 93
At 93, Khwaja Abdul Majeeb has had frequent bouts of forgetfulness. But ask him about October 18, the day his son Mohammed Saleem was shot dead in Khalapura, and he talks about it as if it were yesterday.
Saleem’s is the first name on the list of 25 at Shaheed Chowk. Saleem, Majeeb’s youngest son, was among the protesters who had gathered at the chowk.Majeeb says he was working at the bus stand, when policemen picked him up for sterilisation. “They put some of us in a bus that took us to the kotwali. After some time, we heard that Congress leader Hukum Singh had ordered the police to release us. I went home in the evening and by then, there was curfew in the area,” he says.
Majeeb says he didn’t know of his son’s death for almost a day. “I thought he would be alive somewhere. It’s only when I went looking for him at the cemetery that I realised he was dead.” The grave digger at the cemetery had torn bits of clothes of the dead before burying them so that families could identify the spot where their loved ones were buried. “That’s where I found my son’s torn shirt.”
Hasina Begum, 60
Hasina sits by her tailoring machine in the darkest corner of her cramped 500-sq-foot house that she shares with seven others of her family. She says it’s here, at the tailoring machine, that she has spent the last 40 years of her life, ever since her husband was killed and she had to bring up her three children.
Hasina was eight months pregnant when the PAC allegedly gunned down Mohammed Saddique, her 30-year-old husband who was leaving for the steel factory where he worked. “When they brought the body home, I saw a hole in his face. The bullet had entered through his jaw and come out of his neck,” he says.
For years after her husband’s death, Hasina made charpoys for Rs 7 each, besides stitching clothes. “I have sat in the hot sun, making these charpoys. I had to take care of my three children. My son had to drop out of school to work and save for his sisters’ wedding,” says Hasina.
Her son Shahid, 44, now works as a carpenter in Muzaffarnagar. “The government took away my son’s education. I want them to give him some job so that he can educate his three children,” she says.