The conviction of 16 personnel of the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) for the massacre of Muslims committed 31 years ago is a rare instance of the justice system responding to the cry for accountability and justice. By sentencing the 16 men to imprisonment for the remainder of their life, the Delhi High Court has signalled an end to the impunity they had seemingly enjoyed all along due to systemic delays and perfunctory investigation. An hour after sunset on May 22, 1987, about 45 men from Hashimpura village near Meerut in Uttar Pradesh were abducted in a PAC truck, most of them shot and their bodies thrown into two canals. They were among more than 600 people rounded up by the security forces after the brother of an Army officer was killed in communal violence and two rifles were stolen by rioters from the PAC. The police later established 38 deaths, but could not find the bodies of 22 of them. The U.P. Crime Branch-CID filed a charge sheet in 1996 against 19 PAC personnel, including Surender Pal Singh, commander of the ‘C-Company’ of the 41st Battalion. The prosecution case was backed by the testimony of five men who survived being shot and thrown into waterbodies. In 2015, the trial court acquitted all the 16 available accused (three, including the commander, had died by then), as it did not have evidence on the identity of the truck or the PAC men travelling on it.
The en masse acquittal was a travesty of justice. There was great concern that documents that could have helped nail the accused had been weeded out. It is to the credit of the Delhi High Court that it was not content with merely examining the evidence produced before the trial court. Accepting a plea by the National Human Rights Commission, it allowed additional evidence to be recorded by the trial court even as the appeal was pending. The C-Company’s registers, with records of the movement of PAC vehicles and the deployment of personnel, provided the evidence to pinpoint both the truck that had left the Police Lines, Meerut, and its occupants. These records were not available to the trial court. Apart from bringing home the culpability of the accused, the High Court concluded that these were custodial deaths as well as targeted killings of people from a particular community. The Hashimpura massacre case will be long remembered both for the unconscionable delay the judicial system has become habituated to and for the manner in which a case almost lost has been retrieved by the higher judiciary. It is also a reminder that there is a constant need for reassurance that policing and the criminal justice process in the country will remain fair, and free from all manner of prejudice.