The widows of Hashimpura

By Rubina Saife with Reyazul Haque,

Located in the heart of Meerut, Hashimpura is about 70 kilometers from Delhi. The desolate cinema hall, Gulmarg opposite Hashimpura uncannily resembles the forlorn locality where the weaving machines painfully mourn the denial of justice.

Sixty five years old Hazara reminiscenced her wait for the appearance of moon to celebrate Eid. Along with her family, her nephew was most excited about buying a new pair of slippers. For most of the Muslim families, Eid is an occasion to stock up on your clothes.

Her husband was a mason who earned enough to sustain a family. They looked forward to the day when their sons would be contributing to the family’s earnings.

She vividly remembers the sequence of events which unfolded, twenty eight years ago. Eid was just a week away and it was the last Friday of the month of Ramzan. Men were just back after offering their Friday prayers.

It was three pm in the afternoon when people suddenly heard the tap of footsteps marching towards the locality. Before Hazara could register anything, armed and uniformed men jumped inside the house. These helmeted men sternly said that they had to conduct an investigation.

They had specifically asked men to come out for interrogation. Hazara couldn’t understand what these uniformed men were looking for?

Much later she figured that these armed men were from PAC, army and district police station had been conducting this surprise investigation in every other house of Hashimpura.

The armed men had asked woman and children to stay behind. Amongst the nine men they took, one was her husband, Abdul Hamid, two sons and four brother-in laws. That was the last time she saw her son Javed, his hands held up trying to wear his slippers. The police took jibes at him by saying that they were taking him to a place where he would have ample time to wear his slippers.

The yellow van vanished in front of their eyes but they held on to their hope of reuniting with their fathers and husbands. But their hope breathed its last when the wounded Zulfikar returned from the hospital. He told them that the police had taken them to Muradnagar where the rest were shot and thrown in the canal. He along with four people had managed to escape. Some of them had been taken into Fatehpur jail but the families remained clueless about the status of their loved ones. The fear of their death lingered after hearing the painful trial of Zulfikar.

Hazara knew that the pain of separation and loss could not feed her remaining sons. She along with other wailing mothers knew that something had to be done to make the ends meet. People were sending stuff like flour, peas, tealeaves and candles but these could not sustain the families.

Her first job was to fix the embellishments on the clothes. She got 30-40 rupees a week for this job. Knowing that this would not suffice she started working as a building construction worker which earned her two rupees a day.

Over a period of time, she got to know that one of her sons, brother in law and nephew Naeem had been killed. When police took her to identify her relatives, she identified them by the fabric and stitches of the clothes. She was never given the last remnants of her loved ones as it had to be produced in the court as evidences. It was a different thing that she never wanted the remnants which would remind her of the people she could never get back.

While nursing the wounds of her heart she was also bowed down by the responsibility of nursing the wounds of the people who had come back. Six members had come back. Her husband was beaten up badly and the wound needed immediate medical intervention. The head wound was particularly bad as it was festering with insects.

It has been twenty years since then and Hazara till date works to keep her family together. She has managed to grow her sons and treat her husband. One of the sons, Qayyum who managed to stay behind was 12 years old then. He had been helping his mother to support the family. However, there is no regular job and he only manages to earn 300 rupees.

Their life has never been the same since then, her husband is too weak to take up any job and they still continue to struggle with difficulties of day to day existence like incessant inflow of drainage water. Along with the day to day struggle, their struggle against those bitter memories of bullets, searches and uncelebrated Eid on a hungry stomach continues.

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Nassim had been eagerly waiting for Eid and the marriage of her brother, Siraj Ahmad. Siraj, was the only brother of the four sisters. He had done his MA and use to make typeface. Their father use to sell bangles. When the family was busy preparing for Iftaar, they were suddenly halted by the raid of the policemen who ‘arrested’ their brother.

He never came back.

But his father could never come to terms with the fact that his son would never come back. His mother lost her sanity in the endless wait, while the sister Nassim, the only one left behind, is still paying the price for being ‘sane’ in this insane world.

Nassim was the only married sibling. She took up odd jobs like folding text books and embroidery to make ends meet. Later she joined as a primary teacher in a private school. She wanted to marry off the rest of her sisters but the society never allowed it to happen. One of her sisters had to stay with her as she couldn’t give her in-laws the desired dowry.

Nassim has picked up broken pieces of life and put them together. She is constructing a room in the old house. But she knows that her life can only be a disjointed whole.

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Zarina’s husband and son were also taken in that yellow truck. They like others went away to never come back again. At the time she had eight sons and two daughters. The youngest one was four days old.

She took up odd jobs like cutting ropes to sustain her family. The hope of building the lives of her remaining children died along with the hope of getting her son and husband back when the former were forced into child labour.

*
Ninety years old Nasseban still screams in her sleep. ‘Don’t take my son away from me’, these are the lines which accompany her at night. She had once been a mother of two sons but the 28years old incident has left her only with scarred memories.

Her two sons were picked up during the raid. One of the two sons had succumbed to the police torture while the other committed suicide on a cold winter night in 2013. Being unable to deal with trauma, she has started drinking heavily. But even alcohol is not helping her forget the custodial killing of her husband in Fatehpur jail.

Both of her sons and her husband were taken by the PAC in 1987. Only Salim came back, her husband Jamil was taken to the jail while Nassem was shot and drowned in the canal.

Salim was married off after he came back. His bride, Anjum studied till 12th standard and was adept in household chores. She kept complaining that the house lacked life. It appeared to her that they were living because they had to.

The family had a hand weaving machine but there was no one to run it. Salim had opened a hardware shop and the family gained some financial stability and they bought a scooter, car and a sewing shop. But none of this could make him get over his haunted past. He lost his life in the second suicide attempt.

Salim was survived by his wife, five daughters, two sons and his mother. His wife runs the hardware shop he has left behind. She was initially a little inhibited but through the support and cooperation of people around she was able to run the shop. Destiny had its own plans for her. When things were running smooth, her husband’s uncle (during the 1987 incident he was in Pakistan) interference forced her precarious life in disarray. He made claims on the house and business saying that after her husband, the property rightfully did not belong to her. After her husband’s death she had bought an embroidery machine and took computer classes. Despite her attempts to bring the life back in order, she was pushed into the corner by her husband’s uncle family. They managed to throw her out of the house. She has lodged a police complaint against them.

She is struggling with her life. Both of her sons need special attention because of their illness. Her hopes are pinned on her daughters. One of them is doing B.com while the other has been sent to her sister’s house.

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Everyday has been the same for Shakeela Begum. Every day she has to work round the clock to make ends meet. In despair and hopelessness she believes that there is nothing much to look forward to in life. She has spent lonely and fearful days in her small room since her husband, Mohammad Shakeel, was picked by the police in 1987. Since then she has been doing odd jobs of working as a domestic help in various households of the locality. These jobs only fetch around 200 rupees a month. She raised two sons and four daughters in this meager earning. The sons have picked up their father’s job of sewing while her daughters got married.

Her travails of life did not end with settling her children. After some years, her daughter in law contracted some disease in the process of blood transfusion in the municipal hospital (P.L Sharma Hospital). Since then she has been spending 3000 rupees a month in medicine and 8000-9000 rupees in check ups. Private hospital charges are difficult to afford but she does not want to take any more chances with government hospitals.

Shakeela’s eldest son has been suffering from asthma but they don’t have enough money to treat it. All their pain and agony is trapped in their old and forlorn house. Shakeela fears that the dilapidated house might just come down in a torrential rain someday.

She been working for the past thirty years but she is tired now and her body has been asking for rest. She cannot see properly and her intestines have also been troubling her. Despite of all the tiredness, she cannot stop working. She is not being able to avail the widow allowance, so she sustains the family by giving polio drops and working as a help in neighborhood households.

She carries a photo of her husband in a violet paper in her pocket. Along with the photo there is a twenty rupee note. She says that it’s for the stranger who might find her dead body somewhere. ‘I don’t want him to pay for the ride to my home’ she says.

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Another Shakeela has been fighting the battle of survival in Hashimpura. Her husband had also been picked by PAC. He too left her to never come back again.

She got married to him when she was just eighteen years old. She is now 58 years old and more than half of her life was spent in widowhood. Her husband used to run a small printing set up which had to be shut down after his death. She is surviving by giving rooms for rent and through the sewing machine which she acquired through the relief scheme.

She has been keeping unwell for a very long period. One of her kidneys had stone which was left untreated, later her other kidney also got affected. But now she neither has the means nor the will power to treat her illness. She is surviving because of her adopted daughter and her brothers in law. Sometimes her brother in law’s family comes to visit her but mostly she stays alone.

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Haseena lost her sanity after her husband; Mohammad Usman was picked by the PAC. Her children took it upon themselves to take care of her. In the process they could never finish their studies.

It has been twenty three years since Rehana has come to the house as a daughter in law. She says that she feels the palpable effect of the incident in the house till date. A small sewing machine was bought by her to support the family but now the machine has been outmoded by computer run sewing machine which has come in the family. The machine does not even have a resale value. It rusts in the balcony, leaving her desperate for survival.

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Haseena held back her tears to narrate one of the worst nightmares of her life. She was amongst those women whose husbands were picked by the police who believed that they were coming back but the surviving men narrated a different story. Along with her husband, Md. Sadaruddin her brother in law was also taken away. By some stroke of luck, her brother in law came back from the Fatehpur jail but her husband did not. He did not live to see his six daughters and one son grow.

Haseena got married at a younger age. She cannot recollect much about her initial days at the house. She faintly remembers the birth of her youngest daughter who was born in the afternoon of 22nd May.

Haseena still cannot comprehend the action of the uniformed men. She cannot understand how could these men not think about the lives of women and children who would be left behind?

Hassena still remembers the wait of that night. All the women decided to stay in one big hall after their husbands were picked up. They provided support to each other at the dark hours of the day. Their hope of the comeback of their husbands was dashed when one of the picked up men came back to tell them how their husbands were shot dead.

Since then Haseena has been working overtime to feed her family. Initially some support was provided by the colony, relatives and relief grocery but later she had to find her own means to survive. She started doing odd jobs like stitching embellishments on clothes. However, this job did not even provide meager sustenance. There was a time when it was difficult to manage a cup of tea and they had to survive on little or no food for days.

In addition to food she also had to pay for maintenance of the house. Medical expenses were also an added burden. She had to undergo two operations in the last few years. Her father in law has also not been keeping well. In this entire process, she couldn’t send her children to school.

After fifteen years of hard work, her financial status is a little better as her sons have started earning. But they have their own respective families to fend. For Hassena life has since that fateful night never been the same.

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We will find 43 or more stories like this in Hashimpura.

These women have gone through a lot in their lives. They have seen their loved ones, fathers, brothers and husbands been taken away by the murderers. In one flash their life changed forever. In order to survive they picked up the broken pieces of their lives and put it together piece by piece. They fought against memories and pain for the sake of their families. The resilience and resistance of these women gave food and shelter to the children and survivors of the deceased.
Hashimpura now has a power loom which stitches and designs clothes. The power loom has provided employment opportunity to the women. Muslim women have been doing this work for long and so it was easier for them to take up this work. These power looms provided support to the women who had nothing to fall back upon.

Around 43 men from Hashmpiura have been killed. We have narrated some of the stories of the families who had lost their people in the incident. The women, who were left behind, struggled to survive. The children who were left behind lost their childhood after the incident. They did not have the luxury of school education. They had to fill in for their fathers and brothers. Many of the children worked long with their mother to make ends meet.

Hashimpura has not yet recovered from the loss and trauma of suddenly losing scores of people. Probably, they will never recover. Justice has yet not been delivered to the people. Haseena says that many people tell her that they should not complain as now the areas have roads and they have four storey buildings. Haseena retorts “will the building and road give us, what we have lost”.

These women managed to survive not only deaths but also hostile circumstances. They were not only fighting memories but a situation where the minorities were being persecuted during the Babri mosque controversy. All around India, minorities were butchered by the mercenaries of the state. Finally, the mosque was brought down setting ground for another round of persecution of the minorities.

One can only imagine the mental state of women who had to battle death, destruction and the constant fear of attack.

In all these difficult circumstances they hoped for justice. There was no way of getting back their husbands, sons and brothers, but punishing those who were guilty of taking them away from them was what they were fighting for. Women of Hashimpura are working hard and saving money for the legal and political battle against the unjust killing of their family members. They travel to Delhi and Luckhnow to participate in rallies to raise their voices to demand justice.

After all this, the verdict was a cruel and ruthless joke. They said, “They are asking us to recognize the faces of the policemen. How will we be able to recognize them? It happened years ago. They were wearing helmets. The state knows them as they were appointed by them only”.
Kayyum, who lost his brother sadly says, “In our country, the message which is being sent across is that nothing will happen to you if you kill Muslims”

Nassema, has lost her brother. She says, “Who would want to fight legal battles if such judgments are given”

Kayyum, Naseema and Haseena do not know for how long they will have to wait for justice to be delivered.

Translated from Hindi to English by Ufaque Paikar