Nearly 25 years old, the black-and-white photograph of his son’s body has begun to fade but Jamaluddin Ansari’s anger has not waned. Having lost his eldest son Qamaruddin in the 1987 Hashimpura massacre in Meerut, the 75-year-old still awaits closure. “All prosecution witnesses have said what they had to state at the court but it keeps announcing one hearing after another instead of its decision,” he says, referring to the prolonged trial of the 19 accused Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) personnel involved in the targeted killings.
Meerut had witnessed a series of fatal communal clashes in April-May 1987 under Congress rule, largely because of the decision to open the Babri Masjid gates and local confrontations during community events. Tensions simmered and the PAC was called in, provoking further clashes with the forces. Then, an act of outrage: on May 22, the PAC picked up 42 Muslim men from the Hashimpura locality, lined them up, gunned them down and then threw their bodies into a nearby canal. The PAC also landed in nearby Maliana a day later for a patrol, allegedly accompanied by rioters. The arson and killing that followed on the afternoon of May 23 took the lives of over 70.
That the guilty still roam free hasn’t helped heal the wounds of the bereaved. Moreover, their struggle with a system that has repeatedly stalled prosecution to “ensure acquittal” of the accused has made them more vulnerable. Vrinda Grover, a lawyer for the Hashimpura victims, says she sees no reason why similar incidents cannot happen with the “same brazenness and impunity” as before. “That they have not is not for any good reason, but only because of the victims’ resilience in seeking justice and because of a more vigilant media,” she says.
A lane in Meerut’s Hashimpura today. (Photograph by Jitender Gupta)
Memories of that day, and the protracted quest for justice, has singed Hashimpura residents’ lives, and the fear that similar violence could recur with the complicity of a state turned predator is palpable. “Until those responsible for the killings are punished, they will not fear and shall repeat what they did,” says Nazmeen, who lost her father. As Shamsuddin Ansari, Qamaruddin’s brother, points out: “We thought nothing like this was going to happen again, but Gujarat followed. So what is the guarantee that they cannot happen elsewhere?” he asks.
Others argue the city has moved on as people have realised how much the riots cost and how they set back Meerut’s progress. Despite being just about 70 km from Delhi, Meerut festers much like any other small UP town. “People have matured to understand how much they lost,” says Mohd Junaid, an advocate who represents the Hashimpura victims. People now want stability and progress. Also, there are more Muslims now in politics and administration, adds Zulfiqar Nasir, who survived the PAC shootings.
Local politics, where the Congress has since been marginalised, has also given way to forces who want to keep votebanks intact across religious lines. “The BSP wants to keep Dalits and Muslims together and this explains why the administration reacts swiftly to any communal incident here,” says Shahzad Ali Siddiqui, a resident of Maliana, where neighbouring Dalits allegedly attacked and looted Muslim homes along with PAC men. Saleem Akhtar Siddiqui, a city journalist who reported on the riots, agrees that times have changed. “Meerut has seen riots, including a small local clash in June 2009 and in April last year, but these were contained as people elsewhere didn’t react.”
But progress hasn’t brought communal amity, just uneasy, reluctant coexistence, whether in Hashimpura, from where Hindus continue leaving, or Maliana, which remains divided into Muslim, Harijan and Pandit quarters. Maharam Singh, from Mandir Wali Gali, a Hashimpura lane dominated by Hindus, says he locks himself inside his house at any sign of trouble. “After voting on February 28, it’s going to be no different. I am going to lock myself in.”