The Hashimpura judgment of March 24, 2015, acquitting all the personnel of the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) of Uttar Pradesh in a case of murder of 42 young men and boys, has disturbed the conscience of the nation. The victims were all picked up by personnel of the 41st battalion of the PAC on May 22, 1987, during a search operation in the context of communal riots in Meerut and were shot in cold blood. The incident has been described as “the worst custodial communal killings in independent India”.
The judgment makes a pathetic reading. “It has been duly proved and established on record that several hundred persons belonging to different mohallas of Meerut city were apprehended or arrested by PAC and other forces from Mohalla Hashimpura on 22.05.1987 out of which about 40-45 persons belonging to Mohalla Hashimpura were abducted in a yellow colour PAC truck by the PAC officials. It is also proved that those abducted persons were subsequently shot at and thrown into the waters of Gang Nahar, Murad Nagar, and Hindon River, Ghaziabad. It is further established that some of them survived, some expired and some are still missing. But it has not been proved beyond reasonable doubts that the accused persons facing trial are the PAC officials who abducted and killed the people from MohallaHashimpura.”
It is “very painful” to observe, the judge went on to say, that several innocent lives had been taken away by the state agency, but the investigating agency as well as the prosecution had failed to bring on record reliable material to establish the identity of culprits. The accused persons facing trial were, therefore, entitled to benefit of doubt.
The judgment raises several questions of a fundamental nature. Why did the Uttar Pradesh CID take nine years to file the charge sheet? Why is it that 23 warrants issued by the court during the period 1996 to 2000 could not be executed? Why did the Supreme Court have to order transfer of the trial to the sessions court in 2002? Why did it take the state government three years to appoint a public prosecutor? What was the culpability of senior officers/politicians? What was the role of the Army? What was the contribution of the PMO? It appears that there was not only complete abdication of responsibility at every level but some kind of conspiratorial inaction too so that the guilty policemen were not brought to book.
It would seem that everyone contributed to the miscarriage of justice. The state government of Uttar Pradesh was complicit in the incident. The bureaucracy was privy to the crime. The police/PAC went all out to shield their brethren. The prosecution agency dilly-dallied. And the judiciary played it cool.
The judgment has brought into focus the serious flaws in our criminal justice system. Justice Malimath, who headed the Committee on Reforms of Criminal Justice System, had made a very salutary recommendation that ‘quest for truth’ should be the guiding star of the entire criminal justice system. He wanted the courts to be empowered to summon and examine any person as a witness it considered necessary, and to issue any directions to the investigating officers as may be necessary to assist the court in its search for truth. The courts, police and prosecution, according to the committee, should play “a dynamic and proactive role in the process”. Unfortunately, the recommendation was not accepted. If it had been, the judge would not have acquitted the accused in the manner he did.
It is also high time that the state crime branches are insulated from extraneous pressures and converted into mini-CBIs. As it is, the workload on the CBI is increasing manifold and the organisation is finding it difficult to cope with that. The crime branches have, over the years, been politicised and made totally subservient to the establishment.
The incident also raises the question of accountability. Police accountability forms an important ingredient of the police reforms package ordered by the Supreme Court in 2006, but who is interested in implementing the directions? Status quo suits the political class. Would the policymakers wake up now at least— unless they are prepared for more Hashimpuras.
Singh is a former DGP of Assam and an expert on Naxal affairs