Photojournalist Praveen Jain was in Hashimpura on May 22, 1987, where he saw a PAC and Army crackdown unfold. Some of the photos he clicked would go on to serve as prosecution evidence against PAC men accused of massacring civilians and since acquitted by a court. Jain, Associate Photo Editor with The Indian Express, recounts what he saw that day.
‘While conducting the search, Army men were beating up the young men with their fists and rifle butts.’
There is this one image that has remained in my memory ever since I saw it. As Army men barged into a Muslim home and dragged the men out one by one, a little boy ran in fear, then suddenly stopped and started offering namaaz — he was turning to the almighty for help. Looking at the child’s face, I could sense how helpless he was feeling. I don’t know what the child’s fault was.
‘They were pleading with the Army to leave their men alone.’
It was the morning of May 22, 1987. I was then with Sunday Mail, working as chief photographer. I had been asked to go to Meerut; I was told that there were communal clashes there. Until then, it was only an assignment.
When I reached Meerut, a police officer told me, “Why you are here? Go visit Hashimpura mohalla (part of Meerut city). That is the place where the Army is conducting its search operation.” That is when I reached Hashimpura.
The moment I entered the mohalla, the tension was noticeable. Army men were marching in groups. Young men were being dragged out of their homes. I took my Canon in my hands and started clicking photos. What was very disturbing was the sight of the distraught women. Standing on their terraces, they were shouting at the Army men, pleading with them to leave their men alone. Not one woman came out on the street, though.
As the operation got more and more intense, it soon became apparent that things were getting risky even for me. I had to hide inside a Muslim family’s house. Today, I cannot remember the name of the family. The Army by then had started entering almost every home. They were conducting their search very fast.
It was mostly the young men who were dragged out. And while conducting the search, Army men were beating them up with their fists and rifle butts. As I was trying to capture one of these pictures, one of the Army personnel saw me and tried to stop me. He asked me to leave. As far as I can remember, I was stopped twice but I did click my pictures, hiding at different places at different times. When the Army completed its search operation, its personnel handed the men over to the Provincial Armed Constabulary.
When I moved out of the house where I was hiding, I saw some men being told to kneel down, others being dragged out, and some others being brutally beaten up. All through, the PAC men kept threatening the public at gunpoint. By then, I had taken more than 15 photographs.
These men were taken to the main road outside the mohalla and made to kneel there. They were all asked to put their hands up. I quickly captured another set of photos. The trucks had already arrived. The young men were segregated from the group and told to get into the trucks. I thought these were preventive arrests. At that point, I thought these men were being taken away to maintain some peace, as curfew had been clamped in Meerut.
It was a three-hour assignment. I then returned to Delhi. It was only after I got back that I got to hear about how Muslim men had been killed in Meerut that day.