Hashimpura-Maliana riots: Massacres that stripped India of its secular veneer

The Hashimpura-Maliana incidents in 1987 underscored the partisan nature of the state, the political myopia of non-BJP opposition parties, besides ensuring that the Babri Masjid-Ram temple issue remained the principal political issue in the years ahead

The events over two successive days, May 22-23, 1987, marked a transition in communal politics, the relationship between the security forces and religious minorities, and the impact of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement for a Ram temple in Ayodhya. Pic: iStock

Even phrases have their fair share of dispute. Take ‘time heals all wounds’. Several online grammar resources describe it as an idiom, while others list it as a proverb. Some others play safe, and label it a saying.

Its grammatical categorisation is not the only issue on which there is disagreement. Some people believe that time is indeed a great healer, while others are of the view that no wound is completely healed; time only makes the pain more tolerable.

This is especially true about loss, material as well as of loved ones. People lose family members and friends all the time besides, of course, material possessions that are particularly dear – a house destroyed in accidental fire or deliberate arson, a bundle of currency notes or even a notepad containing important notations for use in future. It is not often that people mourn their losses all the time. There are sudden flashes when memories come flooding back for inexplicable reasons. Besides this, over which no one has any control, there are anniversaries of deaths and other events that serve reminders of the loss, damage or harm.

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A bloody tale

In a country where communal conflict has been a constant, it might appear odd to suddenly recall the violence in two localities, Hashimpura and Maliana, in Uttar Pradesh’s Meerut, 35 years after the incident. But the events over two successive days, May 22-23, 1987, marked a transition in communal politics, the relationship between the security forces and religious minorities, and the impact of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement for a Ram temple in Ayodhya.

In hindsight, it is evident that the Indian political discourse took a decisive turn towards incessant hostility between Hindus and Muslims, but at that point there was no one, barring the communist parties, who sensed the onrushing danger. 

Even the two communist parties were either a force of significance in just a few pockets in northern India, or were blind to the emerging mainstreaming of the BJP, since anti-Congressism was the primary sentiment of the two parties and their regional allies in West Bengal and Kerala.

Conjoined public memory

Odd though as it may sound, Hashimpura-Maliana exists as a conjoined public memory. For minority community and secular groups, it’s a sad reminiscence; for majoritarian groups, this was a chapter to draw malicious satisfaction from. 

Of the two tragedies, there was greater ‘certainty’ of the fate of those who were detained by Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) personnel from Hashimpura. It was established early that the young men were detained and, in cold blood, shot dead by the PAC at two locations, one on the banks of the Upper Ganga Canal near Muradnagar and the other in Ghaziabad, from where several bodies were fished out from the Hindon river. 

Likewise, there was a final ‘closure’ of the gruesome act in 2018, when the Delhi High Court, after a protracted legal battle, sentenced 16 PAC personnel to life imprisonment besides awarding the families of the deceased ₹25 lakh each as compensation. This judgment was challenged by the PAC members in the Supreme Court even while they remained interned in Delhi’s Tihar Jail.

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In contrast to the Hashimpura case, the incident in Maliana remains a more painful sore because of the ambiguity over the actual number of Muslims killed by the PAC in connivance with some Hindu residents of this once-rural pocket on the outskirts of Meerut. In April 2021, the Allahabad High Court directed the Uttar Pradesh government to file a counter-affidavit as its reply to a writ petition (PIL) seeking re-investigation into the killings – the death toll was pegged at 72 Muslims in the petition. 

Among the petitioners were journalist Qurban Ali and former director general of police, VN Rai, who was posted in Ghaziabad as superintendent of police during the killings and ensured that an FIR was registered promptly on the Hashimpura incident (the bodies were fished out from rivers and canals in Ghaziabad district). 

Investigation into the Hashimpura case was delayed for decades before the Delhi High Court started hearing the matter. But eventually, poetic justice was served with the court awarding compensation and pronouncing several PAC men as guilty and interning them for life.

In contrast, the trial in the Maliana case went on in the Sessions Court in Meerut for well over three decades. The PIL filed last year claimed that key documents, including the FIR, were missing. The petitioners also claimed that there had been no hearing of the case since 2017. After the initial success in getting the PIL admitted, the Maliana case has not picked up pace in the high court.

First marker of Hindu-Muslim divide

The Hashimpura-Maliana incidents cannot be seen as just one of the many riots in the country. The twin brutalities were effectively the first major clash between Hindus and Muslims after the Ayodhya issue came to the fore.

It needs to be briefly recalled that the communal temperature had risen steadily after the Supreme Court’s Shah Bano judgement in 1985 and the Rajiv Gandhi government’s decision to accede to demands of the Muslim orthodoxy and nullify the verdict by legislation. To ‘balance’ this, it is acknowledged, the government facilitated the unlocking of the Babri Masjid, and from February 1, 1986 allowed Hindu devotees access to the idols that were introduced by stealth in December 1949. 

The year witnessed Muslim groups organising protests against the development, while Hindu groups led by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) took out marches against Muslim organisations and in support of the court order while celebrating the ‘restoration’ of Ram Janmabhoomi.

By late December, the conflict assumed serious dimensions and to precipitate the discord further, Syed Shahabuddin, the former diplomat-turned-stormy petrel of Muslim politics, asked the community to boycott Republic Day celebrations in January 1987. This raised tempers and although the call was withdrawn, headlong protest marches were planned by Babri Masjid groups and the VHP. 

The Meerut riots broke out in April 1987 in this background and although they were triggered by a local factor, the real reason was the charged-up mood on both sides on account of divergent positions on the Ayodhya issue. The Hashimpura-Maliana incidents deepened the schism further – mainly because the PAC played the role of a participant and not that of a peacekeeper and adjudicator.

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While the Congress government in Uttar Pradesh sided with the PAC and against the Muslims groups that protested the killing and demanded justice, non-BJP opposition parties took on the stand expected from secularist parties, but at the same time, made common political cause with the BJP. 

Meerut riots

The Meerut riots of 1987 lingered on for more than three months starting April. It was during the same period that the non-Congress and non-BJP parties were demanding justice for the Muslims killed in Hashimpura-Maliana, and the Jan Morcha was established by VP Singh. In the summer of 1987, the Devi Lal faction of the Lok Dal forged an alliance with the BJP in Haryana for the assembly elections and the BJP was part of a coalition government that was formed after the alliance secured a majority. 

In two years, this alliance was scaled up for the 1989 Lok Sabha polls when even the communist parties allied with the Janata Dal, a decision which tacitly endorsed its alliance with the BJP in several states.

The Maliana massacre was a grisly tragedy and it requires to be recalled alongside Hashimpura for being episodes when India decisively took a turn when the majoritarian sentiment acquired political legitimacy. This was the chapter when the discord over the conflicting demands for ‘repossession’ of the Babri Masjid and ‘liberation’ of the Ram temple effectively signalled that the genie had escaped the bottle. 

After this chapter in 1987, it became increasingly difficult to abide with the post-Independence ‘agreement’ to an existence where ‘accommodation’ with one another was key to the way Hindus and Muslims viewed another. The Hashimpura-Maliana incidents underscored the partisan nature of the state, the political myopia of non-BJP opposition parties, besides ensuring that the Babri Masjid-Ram temple issue would be the principal political issue in the years ahead.

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(The writer is an NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is ‘The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India’. His other books include ‘The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal)