NEW DELHI — On the night of 22 May, 1987, the Uttar Pradesh Provincial Armed Constabulary rounded up 42 Muslim men from Hashimpura in Meerut, put them in a truck, drove them to a canal in Ghaziabad and shot them.
It took seven years for the Uttar Pradesh government to complete its investigation, and another two years for the state to file a charge sheet against the 19 accused policemen in a local court in Ghaziabad, where the case was stuck until 2002, when the Supreme Court moved it to New Delhi.
It would be another 15 years before a trial court in Delhi ruled that 42 Muslim men were indeed executed, but there was no clinching evidence against the 16 surviving policemen accused in the case. This week, on 31 October, 2018, the Delhi High Court, sentenced the accused men to life imprisonment for the "targeted killing" of the Muslim victims.
While, on the one hand, it has taken 31 years for the victims to get justice, the Hashimpura verdict is one of the rare instances where mass violence in India might not go unpunished.
In a conversation with HuffPost India, Rebecca John, who has represented the families of the victims for 15 years, spoke of the "very very difficult" journey of the Hashimpura case, the joy after the verdict, and the hidden evidence which made the Delhi High Court overturn the trial court's ruling.
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What does justice after 31 years mean, as the lawyer in this case?
The fact that these men have been convicted, it means a lot to me. When you are officers of the court, and when you are part of a system, this is what we fight for. People who are innocent should be acquitted and people who are guilty should be convicted. In a case as gross as this, where police officers were involved in the gruesome murder of these men, it was a very tough journey because it was very difficult to answer the victims as to why it was taking as long as it was taking. Why one court chose to acquit these people although they were conscious of the fact that the state of UP had not put up its best efforts to give evidence before the court, and had spent the large majority of its time suppressing evidence. It's been a very very difficult journey, but the verdict, 31 years too late, was still a verdict we welcomed and overjoyed about.
How do you see getting a verdict in this case, when other cases of mass violence, 1984 anti-Sikh riots, Kunan Poshpora, have not been resolved?
You can't compare two criminal cases. The only limited thing that I can say is that criminal cases must be investigated within a reasonable time frame. You cannot take 10-12 years to investigate a case and that's happened in all cases of mass violence. Secondly, courts must show a sense of urgency because these are not ordinary cases. I'm not saying one death is less important than another death, but courts must be cognizant of cases of mass violence, and they must approach this differently from ordinary criminal cases and at least push the prosecution within a reasonable time frame.That is not happening. And that is why you see the kind of delays you see in our country.
Criminal trials take forever to complete, but in cases of communal violence, mass custodial violence, these delays are compounded even further because it does not suit anyone to ensure quick justice particularly when the other side, people accused of the crime are either police officers or people whom the state wants to protect.
You cannot take 10-12 years to investigate a case and that's happened in all cases of mass violence.
Would you regard this as the most important case of your career?
Where were you when the verdict was out? How did it feel?
I was actually arguing another matter. I was told by one of my juniors that the order had been pronounced. It was a feeling of relief more than anything else. I didn't want to give them more bad news. They were used to so much bad news. For me, it was just a feeling of relief that finally they were heard.
Were there times when you felt emotional as you plodded along?
Well, part of our training is to plod along. If we don't have training, you can't get up and do your work the next day. Our training helps us to navigate through these delays and these pushbacks and these slaps we get periodically. We were also motivated by the motivation of our clients. I think they were quite spectacular and I can't for a minute underscore the importance of what it was to have clients like these. They totally totally trusted the system. They would come for hearings genuinely believing that things would change. Genuinely believing that aaj to theek sunvayee hui thee, hume to kutch milega aaj. These responses motivate a lawyer to give his or her best the next day.
Despite the frustrations, despite the extreme misery they went through, whenever they came to court, they came with the conviction that their truth would be heard one day and I think that you can't not be inspired by clients who truly believed in themselves, who truly believed in their story and who truly believed that they would be heard one day and I think that was the biggest inspiration for all of us who fought this case.
They totally totally trusted the system. They would come for hearings genuinely believing that things would change.
How did your clients react to the verdict?
They were very happy. In fact, they sent photographs on Whatsapp to every member of the team showing one box of ladoos, which was their message to us. Just a photograph with a box of ladoos. It speaks a lot. They had no words. They were overjoyed.
This judgment is hugely significant, but it still didn't get the kind of attention from the media or the public one would have expected.
It is because we don't value human life, and we certainly don't value human life if they belong to vulnerable communities. We don't really care when people who come from depressed communities die, we don't care if people from minority communities die. I think there is a certain inertia that has set in, maybe because we have seen so much violence over a period of time that we don't know how to react. This is just one more incident in a long list of incidents that we have seen as a nation, but we must react. We must look at each of these cases with compassion, with horror. We must look at each of these cases and introspect as to why it keeps happening and nothing is done.
After all, we did change the course of some cases in this country because it hurt the people's sentiments, individual cases like Jessica Lal and Priyadarshini Mattoo. Why is that we can't do it for horrific cases of mass violence like this and why is that even today people from Kunan Poshpora, people from 84, are still waiting for that elusive justice. I think these are questions that judiciary must ask and we must ask as citizens of this country. And as long as we are lackadaisical in our response, these tragedies will continue.
There is a certain inertia that has set in, maybe because we have seen so much violence over a period of time that we don't know how to react.
The Hashimpura verdict was not the lead story on the front pages of national newspapers. The news cycle was dominated by the unveiling of the Statue of Unity, which also eclipsed the headlines.
It was in small corners in the internal pages. But on the front page, it was tiny. I think it reflects the importance we give to these cases. Obviously, what happened in court number 1, Rafael, was more important. The RBI's fight with the finance minister was more important, the statue of course was very very important, and the death of 40 odd men in 1987 was reduced to some back pages. That's the way we have become as a nation and that really needs to change.
The Delhi trial court said there was a massacre, but it did not have evidence to convince these 16 men. How did that change in the Delhi High Court?
The High Court used its extraordinary powers to get additional evidence recorded in this case. Additional evidence that was submerged in the case files that nobody accessed in the trial court. This is again the failure of the state prosecuting agency because there were hundreds of documents and most were in pitiable condition. They were tearing apart and loose and not in any particular order. It was for the officers of the state of UP to bring it to the attention of the prosecutor that such a document existed.
As it turned out, when the record was scanned, it was brought to the High Court, and that is when we noticed that there was a GD (General Diary) register which essentially on the date of the occurrence recorded the departure of these 19 men (three have died) of the 41st Battalion C Company of the PAC (Provincial Armed Constabulary) to Hashimpura in this truck, URU 1493, with arms and ammunition. And it also records their return entry at night in the same truck. The platoon commander was someone called Surinder Pal Singh, it records. This was the link evidence that was missing before the trial court. Principally, the case shifted because of this very important piece of evidence.
It was for the officers of the state of UP to bring it to the attention of the prosecutor that such a document existed.
Where was the evidence hidden?
With the state of UP.
You will have to ask them.
How did the High Court get it out?
It was part of the trial court record, but these are huge voluminous records. In the High Court, there is a system of digitizing every document. It was in the process of digitizing that document that we and the NHRC (National Human Rights Commission) found out that this particular document existed, at least a photocopy of it existed. And when it was brought to the notice of the High Court, the High Court ordered that the case be remitted back to the trial court for the limited purpose of recording and bringing this piece of evidence on record, and if possible, if there was an original somewhere in the world then that original also be brought and the process of proving that document was to take place. As it turned out, the state of UP did bring the original from the records and the matter was proved. Once it was proved, then it was again brought back to the High Court for the purpose of hearing the appeal and the High Court had the benefit of this additional evidence.
Was there a push to slow down the case?
Of course, there was push to slow it down. There are Supreme Court judgments which were relied up on even in the High Court judgment, when police officers investigate police officers, by and large, this is what they do. My arguments where I cite these Supreme Court judgments have been quoted..."Generally speaking it would be police officers alone who can explain the circumstances in which a person in their custody has died, bound as they are by the ties of brotherhood, it is not unknown that the police personnel remain silent, and more often than not, even pervert the truth to save their colleagues, and the present case is in apt illustration as to how one after another, police witnesses feigned ignorance about the whole matter." These are facts which the High Court noticed.
Was there more pushback because the victims were Muslim?
I think they are pushed back even further. They did not have the means to fight something as big as this. The fact that they were poor and vulnerable and some of them had just escaped the most horrific attack on their lives, made them even more vulnerable. They were scared and they were frightened. They had seen their brethren friends being killed in the most brutal manner and then they were in the hands of a system that wasn't really interested that they should come out and give their full statement. So, unfortunately, even the statements recorded during the investigation in this case were recorded in a very haphazard casual manner. No attempt was made for the entire factual matrix of the case to be brought out in the (Section) 161 (Criminal Procedure Code) statements that were recorded. This is what happens when police officers investigate police officers.
But what makes this case, the court has used the phrase "targeted killings of members of the minority community." I don't think one needs to go beyond that. If it was targeted and you used their religion to kill them, it speaks for itself.
If it was targeted and you used their religion to kill them, it speaks for itself.
Why is there not more outrage from the public? On the contrary, locals say that once Hashimpura (a Muslim-dominated neighborhood in Meerut) was so dangerous that Hindus could not enter, they would fly the Pakistani flag, the police could not enter. Does this kind of narrative blunt public outrage.
What is the veracity of what you have heard? These are statements made by those who wish to color the atmosphere and to paint people living in these neighborhoods as – to use the phrase of the season – as anti-national. We don't have any evidence either as journalists or as lawyers to suggest these people raised Pakistani flags or that they did not allow people to enter. The pictures taken by Praveen Jain are testimony of the fact that in modern India, they were able to pull these people out of their homes, at gun point, push them into a bus and late at night, pull them out of the bus, shoot them and throw them into the river. Is this evidence of the fact that these people were dangerous people who owed allegiance to another country? This is a narrative which interested parties would want people to believe, but this is not a narrative which is necessarily corroborated by facts. Where is the evidence? This is a classic statement that was made in Gujarat (riots in 2002).
All I see are people who lost their beloved family members at a very young age. All I see are people who are poor, who have struggled to keep body and mind together. In fact, I see a community that trusted the system. I see a community that believed the system would deliver justice. That would not be the case if they were a community which were anti-national. This is a typical narrative and it is about time that we break these narrative and we see through the falsehoods of these narratives. These are men and women who belong to our country, who deserve the protection of the law, and who did not deserve the death they got. This narrative is nothing but complete crap.
I see a community that trusted the system, I see a community that believed the system would deliver justice.
Why are we as a society not more outraged in the face of mass violence?
We are a polarized society. We saw in Kathua (rape case), we see it in case after case when members of a particular community are at the receiving end of violence, we look the other way. We are polarized.
19 police personnel felt it was okay to shoot Muslim men and throw them into a river. Now, 16 people have been sentenced to life in prison, but is there a larger accountability for the atmosphere which made the policemen feel it was okay to do it?
That's not a legal question. It is a social question. It is a question that we have to ask ourselves as member of a society, as citizens of this country, that where does this hate come from and what is the justification of this hate and why is perpetrated in this way and why do police officers think that they can do this and get away with it. The fact that this crime could happen the way it did, the fact that it was an unconscionable crime, and that it hasn't really evoked the kind of horror that it should evoke is a reflection of us as a people and it is really for us to introspect as to why we are shocked by some crimes and we are not shocked by others.
The most important observations in the judgment?
The fact that the court has not minced words when it has very clearly said that this was a case of 'targeting' a minority community. The fact that the court has summarized this as a case of custodial torture and killing. When the court says in paragraph 101, a disturbing aspect of the present case is the targeted killing of persons belonging to one minority community, it has called a spade a spade. It has not tried to skirt the issue and simply look at it as a case of custodial killing. It is a case of custodial killing, but it is also a case of targeting members of one community. In today's time, when we tend to skirt these complicated issues, for this court to say it in black and white, is a very important part of judgment.
The court has not minced words when it has very clearly said that this was a case of 'targeting' a minority community.
Have these policemen spent any time in jail?
No. Not a single day.
And they can appeal this.
Do you feel elevated by the judgment?
Of course. I've spoken about this case almost every day, I've interacted with the survivors of this incident, it has been part of my office file for close to 20 years. For me, this was personally a very very important journey and the fact that they were finally heard is very important to me.
If there is an appeal, you will continue to fight it.
Of course. Without a shadow of doubt.
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