Dance of Death
Imagine such a close encounter with death that when you open your eyes to bodies – dead and half dead – you may want to touch them to believe you are still alive. When molten lead rips through your flesh and flings you in the air like cotton balls, there is no pain, no fear and there is not even time for memories to torment you. There are rifles blazing around you and then there is the cacophony of abusive screams from your killers. And with numbed senses, you wait for one of the bullets whizzing past you to enter your body in a way that you are tossed in the air for a moment and collapse on the ground with a thud.
How will you describe such a death? Especially when you are seeing your killers for the first time and despite cracking your brains cannot just figure out why would they want to kill you.
What would have been the state of mind of Babudin, Mujibur Rehman, Mohhamad Naeem, Arif, Zulfikar Nasir or Mohammad Usman when they must have seen their friends, relatives and colleagues getting tossed in the air and then falling with a thud, convulsing and writhing in pain, and their senses so numbed that they could not even dare to do the obvious thing of trying to run away? Everyone made an identical attempt to save their lives. They all fell in different directions after being hit by bullets but the effort to protect themselves from the impending death was the same. Both the massacres where these 42 people were forced out of the PAC truck and killed happened on the banks of canals and in both canals, the water flow was rapid.
Every survivor who hit the ground after being shot at tried hard to pretend he is dead and most hanged on the canal’s embankments with their heads in water and the body clutched by weeds to show to their killers that they were dead and no more gunshots fired at them. Even after the PAC personnel had left, they lay still between water, blood and slush. They were too scared and numbed even to help those who were still alive or half dead. So much so that even after their tormentors had gone, they considered every person coming there as a member of that gang. Leave alone seeking help, they would further squeeze their bodies into themselves – this especially if the person was in Khaki.
I met Babudin some three hours after he was shot at. A frail, hollow cheeked boy of average height stood before us, diffident and scared like some sparrow with wet wings. His trouser muddied by slush on the canal embankment and the shirt was so wringing wet that you could extract a litre of water from it. Shivers would occasionally pass through his body even in that scorching summer. I noticed an uncanny coldness in his voice though it did have a stammer in it. His ennui was surprising after he had grappled with death from such close quarters and seen many others strewn all around him. A shiver ran down my spine when he narrated his anxious journey from Hashimpura to Makanpur in such an impersonal manner. Two decades hence when I think of it, I realise that when death hounds you it indeed scares you but if it becomes your co-traveller for some time and then lets you alone, you are filled with some kind of a casual indifference.
Babudin’s clothes were all drenched and there were faint crimson smears on them. On a closer look, it was clear that his wet shirt was stuck at two places on his body and the blood patches there had not dried up despite water streaming through him. One patch was behind the left shoulder towards the waist and another was on right corner of his chest where one could see a splash of dark reddish-brown. It seemed the bullets had bruised past him at these two places.
He indeed appeared exhausted and sad but was able to walk on his two legs. We were taking him to Link Road Police Station but just as he walked a few steps his legs started trembling. We made him sit on the culvert with the support of a police constable. The impact of hanging with the help of weeds for hours was showing now. Though monsoons would be still far away, the last week of May in Ghaziabad and surrounding areas have such humidity that you remain perennially drenched in sweat. We all were tired and drained out. Babudin was the only one who occasionally shivered. Twenty-one years later when I met Babudin in Hashimpura for this book at the same place from where he and his close relatives were picked up, he had forgotten my face and when introduced he smiled and reminded me how I took a beedi from a constable to give him when I saw him shivering. But he didn’t smoke and nodded his head to say no.
After that he started talking and went on for very long. In between, he would shiver but what he said in in-coherent pieces was no less than a nightmare for some eight to 10 officers who listened to him as well as for a government staff of some 25-odd people there. He was narrating a tale that was incredibly startling and tragic.
We – me and district magistrate Naseem Zaidi – realised there was no point hanging around since whatever Babudin narrated was frightening and could push Ghaziabad into communal flames. We discussed in hushed tones that we must first lodge an FIR after getting all information from Babudin and send the bodies to the mortuary at the crack of dawn as well as ensure that rumours related to the killings don’t have an incendiary impact on the city’s peace. Ever since Meerut was caught in communal passions, we were all tensed up to ensure Ghaziabad remains insulated from it.
Leaving some police personnel we started walking towards our vehicles parked about 50 to 60 steps away. A group of 10 to 15 personnel walked ahead of us in a queue and Babudin was second or third. He didn’t need any support to walk and refused help. The scene of Babudin and police personnel getting into the vehicles and the grim face of DM Zaidi while walking as though in a funeral procession – all sweating it out in that May humidity – is still etched on memory like it happened yesterday. Our cavalcade of half a dozen vehicles reached Link Road Police Station in 10 to 12 minutes.
We once again started questioning Babudin. I, along with the district magistrate and four-five other officials sat around a desk in the room of the police station in-charge and Babudin occupied a chair across us. After the initial procrastination, Babudin started recounting the tale. This time he was more comfortable and confident. Probably, the passage of time and realisation that our Khaki was different than the Khaki of his tormentors had allayed his fears of death. This time he was more coherent. He described in great detail how he and others with him were picked up and packed in the PAC truck. The similarity between his earlier version at the culvert and now was that his voice had maintained the same chilling stoicism. To me, it appeared to be the world’s first such incident where somebody described his scary brush with death with such uncanny coldness. The difference was that this time’s narration was a blow by blow account and synchronised.
And this is why he did not miss out on a very vital and significant fact that shocked all of us no end – it was a startling disclosure that a similar kind of massacre happened the same night earlier and the PAC personnel had already left many killed and wounded from among those who were on that truck. It so happened that after picking them up from Hashimpura, the speeding PAC truck suddenly turned right parallel to a canal and some 50 metres away from the main road. Trundling through that gravelled road for some time, it stopped abruptly. Then, everything happened that was to happen in Makanpur an hour later.
Some jawans sitting besides the driver jumped out of the truck and the sound of their shoes hitting the gravelled track aroused the suspicion of Babudin and his folks that something unexpected and terrible was in store for them. Babudin was getting butterflies in his stomach and desperately felt like relieving himself but his sixth sense told him it was too late for anything now. A few of the jawans came to the rear and opened the truck’s shutter that covered one-third of the back and was tied to thick iron chains. Just as it opened, some other jawans standing there hopped out too leaving a couple of them inside. They seemed to be in a tearing hurry and had no time to waste. The sound of their shoes hitting the bricks lying all around as they jumped was somehow frightening. Despite all his stoicism, I saw the same fear in Babudin’s face that must have been there on that of others with him too. Then suddenly, a commanding voice from outside ordered them to jump out – Babudin felt there was something terribly wrong. He tried to sneak inside the truck so that he may not have to hop out.
And now all hell broke loose. Since Babudin’s back was towards rear gate he could not see anything except hearing the sound of some people got out of the truck and then gunshots with choicest of expletives from those firing. Perhaps, the screaming abuses by the jawans were to subdue their fears. Everything was confusing but it was clear that they were firing at the Muslims jumping out of the truck. All this between the deafening cries of mercy and fright of those who fell to the bullets. Jawans standing outside ordered their colleagues inside to catch by the collar and throw out those hesitating to jump. They pushed their victims with the butt of their rifles and by holding their collars; some who were difficult to handle were virtually lifted and hurled outside. Everytime somebody fell outside, he could hear gunshots and the painful cries of someone dying. Babudin felt breathless, when a strong hand was pulling him by his collar while he tried to resist this by pushing himself into the overcrowded space. It was like a see-saw struggle that did not last long. Soon, he realised two hands trying in vain to hold on to his shoulders from behind for support but was slipping away towards the rear. Trembling with fear, Babudin looked behind and was dumbfounded to see Ayyub, a handloom worker near his place, soaked in blood. Hearing the screams and wails of those besides him and inside the truck as well as the abuses of the jawans outside along with sounds of gunfire made it clear to Babudin still standing with his back to the rear what was happening. Angry with failed attempts to get several others out, the jawans were now firing indiscriminately inside the truck while shouting at their colleagues to push out people. Babudin felt the firm grip of Ayyub’s arms on his legs loosening as someone was pulling him away. When he recounted this tale many years after that narration, I saw the same expression of helplessness on his face of being unable to do anything for his childhood friend as he saw him for the last time.
Babudin saw people around him being pulled away one by one. Everyone struggled hard to drag himself forward, while being pulled from behind. The pressure on Babudin’s shoulders had eased – perhaps frustrated over his resistance the PAC jawans were taking it all out on other prey. He felt butterflies in his stomach and sometimes shivers ran down his entire body. It was clear to him that if he wanted to remain alive, he should do everything possible to be glued onto the truck.
Suddenly, something unexpected happened, something that the hunters and the prey both had not thought of – a small glimmer of light emerged on the horizon that slowly grew bigger and sharper. The driver noticed it first and at a closer look found that the ball of light he saw had turned into two beaming balls. Babudin also saw this. It was anybody’s guess now that they were headlights of a heavy vehicle. Babudin saw a bright hope of life there, even as he tried to regain himself. The driver looked out of the door on his side and started calling out the PAC jawans, who were so busy firing at and abusing their victims that first they didn’t hear it in the din. He even shouted dirty expletives at his accomplices but when even this did not help, he started honking – slowly at first and then continuously. As the oncoming vehicle closed in, the honking got all the more louder but by the time everyone got alerted, the headlights of that vehicle had covered the entire scene of the shootout. This was a milk van, perhaps returning after collecting milk from some nearby village.
The light had broken the magic of darkness and as it scares killers worldwide, even here the PAC jawans got frightened by that light and two-three of them rushed towards the milk van brandishing their rifles. Babudin, who was standing at the rear of the truck, could understand that the jawans were abusing the driver of the other truck, threatening and banging him with rifle butts to get him to switch off his headlights. From what Babudin could make out watching the scene from the iron-netted windows of the truck, the PAC jawans conferred with each other in hushed tones and some of them went to the milk van and commanded the driver to reverse his vehicle without the lights, while the PAC truck also revved up to drive towards the road. Both vehicles then stopped – the PAC truck driver put his vehicle in the reverse gear and whizzed past the milk van almost brushing it and pushed into the field a bit in the back and turned towards the highway. In the commotion, people standing on both sides of Babudin brushed him and doubled his pain. The jawans standing outside rushed and hopped onto the truck that soon started speeding towards the main highway. The crowd in the truck had thinned down after many people were left behind after the shootout – the thin crowd made it difficult for them to keep their balance since the truck bumped and jumped through the road at a fast pace. With every jolt, people would fall over one another. The wails of pain after every such bump made Babudin realise that others too were injured on that truck. These were those victims who had resisted getting down the truck earlier and were wounded when the killers fired inside the truck.
At the only T-junction on that highway, the truck took a sharp turn towards Ghaziabad without braking and as the injured people fell over each other, they screamed in pain. The truck paced at a break-neck pace. Usually the road from Delhi leading to Dehradun and Mussourie via Meerut would be bustling with traffic at that hour during the May summers but this time it was different since there was curfew in Meerut and only a rare vehicle passed through the highway. Obviously, the districts neighbouring Meerut felt the impact of the communal riots and Ghaziabad especially was on the verge of exploding. The situation was being fanned by scary communal rumours. So, it was obvious the cries of the injured people and the screaming abuses of the PAC jawans may not have emanated from the speeding truck. And even if it did, few would take note since it was a PAC truck passing at high speed.
The truck took a sharp right turn in the same pace at Meerut tri-junction towards Hindon river. Having sped past the Mohan Meakins distillery that makes the famous rum brand Old Monk, it slowed down; the cries of the victims behind increased but nothing happened that could hold back the speed of the truck. Soon after the truck took a left turn towards the single dirt track that led to Makanpur. This lane too was similar to that of Muradnagar where the first massacre took place near the canal – this road too flung the passengers inside on one another and they wailed and screamed loudly. Besides the pain from the wounds, the victims could sense that the dirt road was leading them to the jaws of death. There are concrete jungles at the place today where there was nothing on that night of May 1987. On one hand of the road was Link Road industrial area where majority of the factories were sick and closed and on the other was a barren sprawl of infertile land. This dirt road crossed a canal and a culvert leading to Makanpur.
The truck halted at the canal. The same episode was repeated. Some jawans first jumped out of the truck, opened the rear barrier and once again commanded people to hop out. This time nobody did; instead people tried to push inside further. They remained silent for a moment but again started crying and wailing loudly. The killers were even more in a tearing hurry this time and the screams of the victims galvanised them further – two-three jawans got hold of one of the victims, who pushed and pulled in vain to get his hands and legs free, and threw him out. The guns blazed and the crying injured person fell into the canal with a splash – splitting the silence of that humid night. This is what happened with others who were being hurled outside despite their strong resistance, some plonked down in the canal, some fell on the ground with a thud. When Babudin’s turn came, the jawans were all tired – it appeared as if they were completing a mundane routine.
He was hit by two bullets, one brushed him past him behind the left shoulder towards the back and another near the right corner of his chest. He fell halfway between the canal embankment and thick bushes. His head was in water while a part of his body was stuck in the ravines, but he was alive. That intervening night of May 22 and May 23, he would break into “Allah ka karam hain (mercy of god)” while recounting the tale of his miraculous survival.
Babudin had understood as he collapsed on the ground that he must impress upon his tormentors that he had died and they need not fire at him again. After the shootout, the killers made all efforts to ensure that nobody was alive; they searched for life among the dead through the ravines with the help of a torch – whenever they saw even a little moment, they would open fire. They kicked the bodies lying outside the canal to ensure nobody was alive. Babudin held back his breath for a long time and kept his eyes closed; he could feel a torch light on his face but he remained stone-cold. Then he heard the truck engine rev up and felt the vehicle’s light all over the killing field. As darkness fell with the vehicle having gone, he opened his eyes to see a pitch dark zone under a veil of deafening silence. He was too scared to make any movement and would immediately pretend to be dead at even a hint of any sound. That is why it took us long for us to impress upon him that we too donned Khaki but ours was different than those who fired and tortured them earlier.
It did not take us long to identify the spot of the shootout ahead of the one near Makanpur since most of us, including me and the district magistrate, often travelled on the Meerut-Ghaziabad route. The truck earlier must have turned towards Gang canal near Muradnagar. This canal cuts through the road after Modinagar just ahead of Muradnagar. I immediately spoke to Muradnagar police station in-charge Rajendra Singh Bhagor from a wireless set at the Link Road police station. Our suspicion was correct – this incident also happened in the same way as the one near Makanpur and exactly similar to what Babudin had told us. The only difference was that Babudin was not aware that there were three survivors at the earlier spot and had been brought to Muradnagar police station.