Saturday, March 28, 2015

In Cold Blood - Was Hashimpura a revenge killing? by PAVITHRA S. RANGAN

The collusion of the state, political parties, police and investigating agencies ensured that evidence was destroyed and neglected in a systematic manner, denying families of the victims any closure even after a trying 27-year-long trial.

A night before May 22, 1987, when 42 young Muslim men from Hashimpura, a mohalla less than two kilometres away from Meerut city, were murdered in cold blood by men in uniform, another death was registered in the nearby Civil Lines police station. The death was due to a bullet injury, the shots allegedly fired by someone from Hashimpura. Prabhat Kaushik, 23, an RSS worker, died around 9.30 pm sta­nding on the roof of the house of his aunt Shakuntala Kaushik, a feisty BJP leader of her time.

Curiously, less than 14 hours after Prabhat’s death, his elder brother, Major Satish Chandra Kaushik, posted in Meerut, was seen conducting house to house searches in Hashimpura, along with two ot her army officers, Major B.S. Pathania and Colonel P.P. Singh. His brother cremated, he was also seen dr   agging young Muslim men out of their homes and handing them over to the dreaded Provincial Armed Constabulary raised by the Uttar Pradesh police. The chilling aftermath—the biggest custodial killings  in independent India, in which the PAC gunned down 42 men in a cold, calculated and brazen manner—is now a permanent horror of Indian history.

According to documents available with Outlook, Prabhat Kaushik’s death appears to have triggered a series of events that point to the involvement of the army and the PAC. However, these events have been buried in the recent judgement of a Delhi sessions court in which the 16 accused PAC personnel were let off for want of evidence that could nail their complicity in the dastardly act.

Major Kaushik’s presence at the site was recorded in the initial ‘secret’ reports of the Crime Branch, Crime Investigation Department (CB-CID), UP, submitted to the prime minister’s office. Rajiv Gandhi was the PM at that time and Meerut was in the grip of a communal frenzy. S.K. Rizvi, SP of the CID, in a report dated June 22, 1989, wrote: “Soon after the incident, there was some speculation in the press that a brother of a locally posted Major Satish Chandra Kaushik had died of gunshot injuries on 21.5.87 in Mohalla Hashimpura. It was said that as a consequence of this personal tragedy Major Satish Chandra Kaushik engineered the murder of residents of Hashimpura on the Upper Ganga and Hindon canals.”

Despite this cloud of suspicion over the role of Major Kaushik—who retired as a colonel from the Indian army—in paving the way for the gruesome murders as retribution for his brother’s death, the CID made no effort to investigate him or even record his statement after pointing it out in the first place. No search warrants were obtained and no records of the search and arrests maintained. The investigating officers did no more than simply document the statement of his father, Deep Chandra Sharma, who said that no postmortem was performed on the body of Prabhat Kaushik as there may have been delays in procuring the report in a riot situation.

The confidential note to the then PMO goes on to record that although “the statements of Army and CRPF personnel deployed for the searches at Hashimpura are also very necessary in this investigation, but despite repeated requests to Army and CRPF authorities none have reported so far for recording their statements. On the other hand, a reply has been received from the Sub Area Headquarters at Meerut very recently requesting more time. Efforts to obtain their statements are continuing.”

This startling revelation is part of the CID notes (in Outlook’s possession) to the PMO. It is not known if these were even acknowledged or acted upon by the government. In the subsequent reports of the CID, submitted to the PMO, the Major’s role appears to have slipped through the cracks and finds no further mention.

Till date, no statements of anyone from the army have been recorded for a trial that has dragged on for an unreasonable 27 years. In the nearly three decades that the investigation was prolonged over, the probable role of the Major in the killings is completely wiped out and no mention of it has been made since. The army on its part has failed to ensure that Major Pathania, who was commanding the search operations, appeared before the court despite repeated summons and a notice to the defence ministry in November 2013.

There are many who believe that the CID’s report to the PMO could also be an attempt to deflect attention from the communal and ruthless disposition of the PAC. However, it is telling that such strong suspicions and omissions were brought to the notice of Rajiv Gandhi’s PMO, which simply sat over these documents and did nothing to ensure that the matter was efficiently investigated, and the mass murderers held culpable, coming as the massacre did in the backdrop of the Ayodhya build-up and the Shah Bano affair.

Interestingly, two years ago, Vibhuti Narain Rai, the then SP of Ghaziabad, met Major Kaushik’s 75-year-old aunt at her residence more than once to understand the sequence of events that unfolded on May 22, 1987. “Answering seemingly innocuous questions that I posed to her, she spoke of how the killings were an ideal atonement (sic) by the Muslim community for the murder of her younger nephew,” says Rai, who was heading the Hashimpura investigation before it went to the CID.

For nearly two decades, Rai has been conducting his own investigation into the Hashimpura case for his book. “If I could talk to her as an author and get a lot more information, I find no reason to believe that the CID, in its capacity as a legal authority, could do nothing to test the veracity of the suspicions of killings being a means at personal retribution.” This, it turns out, is only one of the many glaring loopholes, left on purpose, to ensure that those responsible for the brutal killings go scot-free.

Highly-placed officials in the Rajiv Gandhi government at that time reveal that the PMO was fully aware of the complicity of the then UP CM, Vir Bahadur Singh, with the PAC in executing the murders. “It was very clear at that time that the CM was hand-in-glove with the PAC. He was also responsible for the tense situation of UP at that time, which was partly a result of his communally charged remarks,” says a source.

Hours after the bloody incident, at about 4 am on May 23, 1987, the CM and nearly 12 high-ranking IAS and ips officials assembled at the Meerut Circuit House to deliberate on the future plan of action. Rai was a part of this meeting, where he was attempting to persuade senior officials to apprehend the murderers from the 5,000-strong PAC camp in Meerut with the help of external support, so that the still-fresh evidence could be gathered. “We wanted to take the CM into confidence so that arrests could be made immediately. However, this did not find favour among majority of the officials present and no timely arrests were made,” he says.

The arrests were not allowed to be made despite Rai and the then Ghaziabad district magistrate, Naseem Zaidi, having visited the battalion headquarters soon after the murders, where a yellow PAC truck (registration no. URU 1493) in which the victims were shot was washed, and water mixed with blood was all around. The secret CID notes to the PMO also recorded that the logbook of this truck was tampered with and overwritten. On the contrary, for having suggested that immediate arrests be made, Rai was transferred from Ghaziabad and not assigned a posting for nearly three months after the incident. Within 36 hours of the murder, the case was also transferred from him to the CID. “Usually, it is a good decision to hand over the case to the CID. However, in this case, they acted in favour of the accused from the very beginning,” says Rai.

Thereafter, the whole massacre was successfully hushed up to the extent that there no reports in the press for a whole week. In fact, a day after the incident, sources in the district administration leaked the news to Navbharat Times, but the then editor refused to carry it. It was finally reported by local language daily Chauthi Duniya on May 29, 1987. Only then was the news picked up by the national and international media.

“The final chargesheet of the CID was filed nearly nine years after the brutal incident,” says Rebecca John, the senior advocate who argued for the victims in the sessions court. “This is an unreasonably long time, as even the CrPC mandates that it must be filed within a maximum of 90 days for complicated cases. Nine years is an unreasonably long period. Even that chargesheet is nothing short of a gimmick. It almost made it seem as if the PAC was falsely implicated.”

The CID has failed to produce all the link evidence that is mandatory to establish the identity of the accused and deliver justice. While it zeroed in on 19 PAC personnel from the initial 66 men, it failed to produce any evidence to establish the method or the logic for doing so. Moreover, for the first time, weapons which were used to kill the victims were handed back to the PAC and were continued to be used for official purposes, instead of being used as crucial objects of evidence by the prosecuting agency. “This is absolutely absurd,” says John. “For the first time ever, weapons from a crime scene are not sealed and produced before the court. Instead, these are used by the PAC so that no further evidence can be gathered from them. They produced nothing that could have assisted the prosecution.”

Shockingly, not even a single cartridge was picked up from the spot where the young men were shot. Reports of the CID also recorded that several officials of the PAC, including Commanding Officer B.K. Chaturvedi, were summoned for a polygraph test. However, Chaturvedi, like other PAC officials, simply refused to heed the summons and undergo the test, on account of his being a senior officer. On this, the CID took no further action. It is to be noted, however, that the seniormost among the 19 accused held the rank of a sub-inspector. Orders for the killing, therefore, would have had to come from a higher authority. 

But the CID never followed this line of investigation. They never bothered to establish the motive behind the crime; neither did they ask any questions about the larger conspiracy. Even the witness testimonies recorded by the CID, say police sources, appear more in defence of the PAC, rather than doing anything to substantiate the prosecution’s case. Bail, therefore, was granted almost immediately to the accused.

Thus the collusion of the state, political parties, police and investigating agencies ensured that evidence was destroyed and neglected in a systematic manner, denying families of the victims any closure even after a trying 27-year-long trial.

“Except for five eyewitnesses, we had no control over the rest of the case,” argues John. “This is prosecutional misconduct of the highest order by the CID. The judgement should have reflected this and the court could have summoned an internal inquiry into the matter and fixed responsibility on the CID. But these paragraphs are entirely missing from the judgement.”

While some believe that a fresh appeal makes no sense without any attempt to gather fresh evidence by a team of expert, dispassionate members, those in favour argue that an appeal would place on record the culpable abdication of duty by the CID and account for the grave miscarriage of justice.

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