Barefoot Harsh Mander

Betrayed once more

Protesting against the massacre...  

Uzma was born the terrifying night that her father was dragged from his home by men in khaki, packed into a truck and driven to the banks of a canal, shot at point-blank range and thrown into the canal. Forty-one other men died that night. Their only crime was the faith they followed.

Today Uzma is 28 and two heroic pursuits have shadowed her life. One, the struggle of her widowed mother to raise her children, grappling with the anguish of memory and penury. The other, the treacherous journey of the criminal case against her father’s alleged killers: 19 functionaries of Uttar Pradesh’s Provincial Armed Constabulary.

Nearly three decades after perhaps the largest incident of custodial killing in free India, the trial court passed judgment on March 21. The magistrate accepted that killings of these persons by men of the PAC did indeed transpire. However, the court acquitted the 16 accused (three died in the course of trial) on grounds of benefit of doubt. For Uzma and other kinsfolk of the 42 men killed, the agony is of being bereaved and betrayed once more.

The facts of the massacre have almost been erased from public memory today. The year was 1987. Communal tempers were dangerously inflamed by the dispute over the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. The Rajiv Gandhi government had ordered the opening of the mosque’s locks, enabling Hindu prayers and sparked angry Muslim protests in many parts including Meerut, where fierce riots broke out. Amid curfew and shoot-at-sight orders, on the night of May 22, the PAC rounded up nearly 50 Muslim men, all working-class men including weavers and migrant daily-wagers. Instead of taking them to the police station, they were driven to the Upper Ganga canal in Ghaziabad. According to eyewitness accounts of four men who survived the deadly rain of bullets — pretending to be dead and swimming through the canal — the policemen fired in the dark at point-blank range, threw the corpses into the river, and drove away.

The story after that has been one of shameful cover-up by state authorities and the deliberate erasure of evidence. The truck in which the men were allegedly transported and killed was washed and repaired, destroying critical forensic evidence, and the rifles used were redistributed to PAC personnel for regular use, instead of preserving these as case property. Under public pressure, the state government finally ordered a CID enquiry in 1988. Its report was published only in 1994, but has never been made public to date, even by all subsequent state governments, although the report could supply crucial evidence for the prosecution.

Only in 1996 were charge-sheets filed in a court in Ghaziabad against 19 policemen, none of them senior officials, who remain untouched by the law to date. Twenty-three bailable and 17 non-bailable warrants were issued between 1996 and 2000 against the junior accused policemen, but they were declared untraceable and absconding, although they were serving with the PAC! Bowing finally to public outrage, 16 men surrendered in 2000, were arrested, but released on bail after which they again joined service. Unconscionable state prejudice was further exposed after RTI applications filed by victims’ families revealed that all the accused not only remained in service, enjoying regular promotions but also that the fact they faced trial for murder was not even mentioned in their Annual Confidential Report.

The relatives of the slain men petitioned the Supreme Court to transfer the case to Delhi because of clear bias and this was granted in 2002. The state government further delayed the appointment of a Special Public Prosecutor for four years. Trial actually began only in 2006, 19 years after the massacre. It took another nine years for the court to pronounce judgment, only to acquit all the accused.

I visited the Tis Hazari court to attend one of the hearings, with their lawyers Vrinda Grover and Rebecca John. I was touched to find that around 20 relatives and survivors visited the court for solidarity, every single hearing, month after month, year after year. They were not supported by any NGO; instead these working-class families pooled money for every hearing, sacrificing also their day’s wages. In these years, Uzma grew from a child to a young woman, all under the shadow of a Delhi trial court.

Their epic fight to prosecute the men who killed their loved ones, and their court vigils, all these 28 years, express luminous but heart-breaking faith in the ultimate justice of India’s democracy. How badly have we let them down.

The views expressed in this column are that of the author’s and do not represent those of the newspaper.

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2022 1:32:15 AM |

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