Photographer Praveen Jain was in the Meerut neighbourhood on May 22, 1987, hours before what has come to be known as the Hashimpura massacre. 28 years later, with a Delhi court acquitting all the 16 PAC men accused in the case, Jain goes back with the album to find the faces who stood witness.
Look at this PAC wala, pointing his rifle at people crouching in fear. It’s as if we are aatankwadis (terrorists),” says one. “Nahin, soch raha hai kitni bahaduri ka kaam kar raha hoon main (he thinks he is being brave),” says another. By now, a small crowd has gathered in the sunlit courtyard of kirana shop owner Jamaluddin as the photographs get passed around. “Yeh to apna Aabid hai, aur yeh Pappu….” “Aur yeh woh jinka haal hi mein inteqaal ho gaya tha (and this is the one who died recently)….” “I have never seen these photographs before,” concludes one.
The black-and-white photographs are what Praveen Jain, now Associate Photo Editor with The Indian Express, shot in May 1987 in Hashimpura, a locality in old Meerut, while he was with The Sunday Mail.
Hashimpura now, like all those years ago, is one of the many lanes that slip out of the main Old Meerut road, opposite the shut single-screen Gulmarg Cinema. It’s a colony of Muslim Ansari weavers, and the rattle of powerlooms fills the sub-lanes. Today, days after a Delhi court acquitted, for want of evidence, all the 16 personnel of the PAC who were accused of killing over 40 Muslims from Hashimpura, a banner calling for justice hangs on the wall at the entrance of the lane. “The fight isn’t over yet. We will appeal in the high court,” says Zulfikar Nasir, 42, one of the survivors of the Hashimpura massacre and now the prime witness in the case.
“What’s the point looking at all these photographs after so many years? Just to bring alive old wounds,” mumbles Jamaluddin, walking out of his kirana shop that shares a wall with his house and into his courtyard, away from the excited group of people who are still discussing the photographs.
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His newly-marrried son Qamaruddin, the eldest of his 10 children, was among those who had been dragged out of their homes that morning. That’s the last they saw of him. “We never got his body. We heard that he was killed somewhere near the Muradnagar canal,” says Jamaluddin’s wife Zainut Begum.
She brings a large framed photograph of their son Qamaruddin and holds it as she sits on a plastic chair. It’s a drill she has done countless times, every time the media comes knocking on their door. Jamaluddin may say, ‘what’s the point’, but for Zainut, this is the “point” her life has revolved around for the last 28 years. “It’s easy for others to move on, but I lost my child… I can’t,” she says softly.
There are now loud guffaws in the courtyard as people identify each other in the photograph. “Look at Riyazuddin, he hasn’t changed one bit.” Then, looking at the photograph of a young boy offering namaz while a jawan points his rifle at him, Shakeel exclaims, “Arrey, ye to Sirajuddin hai. Woh gora sa ladka nahin tha, mere bhai ka dost? They don’t live here anymore. But this is Sirajuddin for sure.”
Mohammad Hanif, then 28
‘All of us have scars, now they’ll never heal’
“Bahut badal gaya hoon (I have changed a lot),” says Hanif, breaking into a smile, looking at his photograph of 28 years ago. The 53-year-old, now sporting a thick crop of grey hair, had been a weaver. “I do nothing now. My kids have taken over,” he says. “I was visiting an ailing neighbour in the house behind ours when we heard of the raid.
Soon, the jawans broke in and asked us to line up in this lane. I saw three of my brothers in the group. We were taken to the main road, sent off in buses to Police Lines and then to the Civil Lines thana where we were tortured. See the mark here,” he says, brushing back his hair from his forehead to show a cut. “Everyone here has these scars. And now this judgement has made sure these wounds will never heal.”
Sirajuddin, then 13
‘Can’t imagine my kids going through what I did’
“That’s me,” says Sirajuddin, smiling, as he points to a newspaper clipping that has the same photograph. It’s now part of his “collection”, his chronicle of pain that has other photographs featuring his father and uncle in bandages, and newspaper write-ups on Hashimpura.
Sirajuddin, the boy in the photo, is now 41, a father of four kids. The family — his parents, brothers and their families — moved out of Hashimpura to Siddique Nagar, 2 km away, in 1990. His uncle and family continue to live in the Hashimpura house he was born in and where they were attacked on May 28, 1987.
“This is the pillar I stood against,” he says at his uncle’s house. “Behind me were my brothers and my cousins. The jawan stood here, with a rifle to my head. Ten people from my house — my father, my four uncles and a few guests — had just been dragged out and I thought it would be my turn next.”
Sirajuddin had instinctively cupped his palms in a prayer, “Allah, raham kar… mujhe bacha. That’s the first time I felt real terror. Until then, Hashimpura had been tense, but we were children and knew no fear. In fact, just a month ago, there had been trouble at the shab-e-baraat procession and we sat at the sawing unit on the road and watched the fun. The next morning, we saw charred shops and still, we weren’t scared. We heard of anishchitkaaleen (indefnite) curfew and didn’t know what that meant. A couple of days later, we stood on our terrace and saw PAC men inside homes in Bansipura, a Hindu locality behind Hashimpura, firing at homes on our side. Still, we stood there till our parents yelled at us and asked us to come in,” he says.
After 1987, Sirajuddin didn’t go back to school. “I had a lot of Hindu friends in school. But after this, mahaul hi aisa tha (those days were tense). You didn’t know who was a friend, who wasn’t…”
That was the Sirajuddin of 28 years ago. Now, the dealer of wholesale clothes says life has taught him to be a lot more cautious. Every time there is a communal flare-up, or even a threatening situation, Sirajuddin and his family pack their bags and leave for Delhi. “I have done it twice now, the last time when there was tension near Bhumiya ka Pul in the city, close to where I now live,” he says. “It’s when you have kids of your own, your wife… that’s when fear sets in. I can’t imagine my children going through what I did,” he says.
Anwari Begum, then 42
‘I couldn’t speak a word to him as they dragged him out’
Anwari Begum had stood with her 10 kids on the balcony of their house that evening, wailing, as she watched her husband being dragged away. He had hidden himself in a neighbour’s house, but the jawans had dragged him out of there.
“I couldn’t speak a word to him,” she says, lying on a cot, a recent operation for an oral tumour leaving her speech slurred. She looks at that photo of hers on the balcony and says, “Tab to mein theek thi (I was fine then).
That evening, her husband had been packed into the rear of the yellow PAC truck that had set off from Hashimpura to neighbouring Ghaziabad district, ending in the massacre of over 40 people from the locality. Nobody brought his body home.
Anwari now lives with her youngest son Samar in the same house that has been partitioned among her sons. “Everything changed after my walid (father) left us. He had a lot of property here in Hashimpura and outside. But we had to sell a lot of that. We dropped out of school soon after. Now when I visit my cousins in Mumbai, I feel illiterate. It needn’t have been this way. Just as I have dreams for my daughter, my father would have had plans for us,” says Samar, a dealer of embroidered kurta material. He was only four then.
Samar says he has visited Delhi’s Tis Hazari courts about six times. “There, when I see the PAC men come in smiling, my blood boils. Tod ke rakh diya hamein (they simply broke us).”
Mohammad Riyazuddin, then 17
‘This is the worst they could have done. I’m not scared’
He stares hard at the photograph before saying, “Yes, that’s me.” Riyazuddin speaks little. And when he does, his words get drowned in the rattle of the powerloom unit that he runs on the ground floor of his house. “That’s okay. I don’t have much to say. We used to live near the masjid, close to Bansipura (the Hindu locality behind Hashimpura). A few days before May 22, security forces started firing at us from that side. My brother died in the firing and we moved to this house,” says Riyazuddin.
When the raid began, Riyazuddin was dragged out with his father and two uncles, but they were let off. “I was taken to Police Lines and then to the Civil Lines thana and beaten up. After about 17 days in Fatehgarh jail, I came home,” says Riyazuddin.
Does he travel to Delhi with the others for court hearings? “No. I didn’t think anything would change. Anyway, I think this is the worst they could have done to us. I am not even scared now,” he says, turning back to look at his daughter, the eldest of his five children.
Wajid Ali, then 16
‘If PAC didn’t do this, who did? Can’t they find out?’
“I haven’t changed much, have I?” asks Wajid Ali, 44, looking at the photograph. “Par andar se to bahut change hai.”
“You want to see what they did to me,” he goes on, taking off his skull cap and bowing his head to reveal a gash on his skull. “They had left me for dead at Civil Lines. Hit me with an iron rod. It was my neighbour Nafiz who saw me and dragged me across to the heap of survivors,” says Ali, who works at a power loom.
He is a father of five, but his eldest daughter died 22 days ago. “These are things we have no answers for,” says Ali, furiously crunching his knuckles. “But in this case, we want answers. If the PAC jawans didn’t do this to us, somebody did for sure. Can’t they simply find out who did it?” he says, leaving for his namaaz.
That May Day
In all these years, Zulfikar Nasir, 42, one of the survivors of the Hashimpura massacre, has lost count of the number of times he has relived the events of May 22-23, 1987 — in front of the investigators, the courts, even on March 24, at a meeting in Delhi their advocate held for the victims, asking them not to lose hope after the court verdict. Today, he does it one more time, talking of that day, 28 years ago.
Those days, Meerut and other cities in Uttar Pradesh were on the edge after Rajiv Gandhi had ordered the locks of the Babri Masjid to be opened for prayers. There had been sporadic incidents of violence and the Army and paramilitary had been called in. A company of the 41st battalion of the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) had been posted in Meerut. Just a month ago, in April, a shab-e-baraat procession had been stoned and a few shops on the road outside Hashimpura had been set on fire. The area had been tense for days after. On the afternoon of May 22, there was to be a raid on Hashimpura and the area had been sealed. It was a Friday in the month of Ramzan and people were hours away from breaking their fast. “We knew of the raid, but thought these would be routine checks. Who knew…” trails off Nasir.
Late afternoon, the security forces arrived — some barged in, others trooped down from terraces, and raided homes. The men and the youth were roughed up and told to queue up in the lane outside. “There were all kinds of troops — police, the Army, PAC. They dragged us out as if we were criminals. Nobody above 10 was spared. We all went out with our hands up,” says Mohammad Jaffar, who then ran a tailoring shop and who was dragged out with his three sons.
Survivors talk of how they were made to assemble on the main road and handed over by the Army to the PAC. There, the forces sorted the people they had gathered and those young and able were told to step aside. The rest were packed into trucks and sent to Police Lines and then to the Civil Lines thana. Survivors talk of facing an unmitigated horror there — thrashings with tubewell pipes, smashed-in skulls and broken limbs — before they were sent to different jails in Meerut.
Those left behind on that road outside Hashimpura, many like Nasir who had proudly put up their hands when the jawans asked for students, thought they would be freed. But they were told to get into a yellow PAC truck, “kneel down, heads down, eyes on the ground”. That truck then set off on a journey that ended in what has come to be known as the Hashimpura massacre.
“We still don’t know why Hashimpura was chosen for this treatment. There was never a riot inside Hashimpura before this and there was never one after this. It’s funny,” says Nasir, shaking his head. However, it was anything but funny being on the truck that night as it raced some 30 km into Ghaziabad, allegedly being on the PAC’s roll call for execution (he says he was No. 3) and facing the shots that rang out. A bullet hit his right arm and he says he pretended to be dead, clutching the weeds in the Upper Ganga canal near Muradnagar, his head bobbing every time they flung a lifeless body into the canal. “Maze ki baat to yeh hai ki hum aaj tak nahin jante (we still don’t know why)…,” he says again, looking at the floor.
It’s only when Nasir and four others made their way back to their homes that Hashimpura made headlines.