On May 22, 1987, members of the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) rounded up about 50 Muslim men from Hashimpura, a settlement in Meerut, and allegedly shot at least 42 of them in one night, before dumping the bodies in nearby canals. Nearly 28 years later, the Delhi High Court has pronounced no one guilty of the Hashimpura massacre. It was nine years before a chargesheet was filed, 15 years before the case was shifted to Delhi, 19 years before the current public prosecutor was appointed by the government and the first prosecution witness could give his testimony. After nearly three decades, it is perhaps inevitable that the court should find insufficient evidence against the 16 PAC personnel who stood trial. But if those 16 did not murder the men from Hashimpura, who did? This question cannot be left unanswered.
The turbulent 1980s and early-1990s spawned a raft of unresolved cases of large-scale communal violence — Moradabad 1980, Bhagalpur 1989, Mumbai 1992, and Delhi 1984. Hashimpura, like these cases, symbolises the many ways in which the state has failed the victims, especially the minorities. In every instance, processes of justice meandered as timelines stretched into eternity and crucial evidence was irretrievably lost. The familiar story of judicial delay is complicated by the charges of state complicity, through apathy, inaction or active involvement. At Hashimpura, the PAC was directly implicated in the violence — it is not without reason that it established a reputation for being a flagrantly communal force — and the subsequent delays could easily be read as attempts by the state to protect its own.
Gujarat 2002, which played out before a horrified national audience on live TV, sparked a clamour that forced the Supreme Court to step in and take charge, monitor the judicial process and even transfer several cases outside the state, leading to justice and closure in many instances. But for the rest, the state’s record on delivering justice in cases of large-scale communal violence has remained dismal, as has been most recently on show in Muzaffarnagar. Kneejerk solutions like those proposed in the communal violence bill — giving draconian powers to the state government in areas declared communally disturbed and addressing offences already covered by existing laws — or fast track courts to dispose of special cases are not the answer. The search for long-term solutions must be triggered by, and it must return to, urgent questions such as this one: Who killed the victims of Hashimpura?
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