The most beautiful possibility between Hindus and Muslims lies in their men and women falling in love with each other.
There is a heartbreaking similarity in the way Ankit Saxena, a 23-year-old Hindu amateur photographer, was killed on February 1, 2018, by his Muslim girlfriend’s family in west Delhi, and Mohammad Afrazul, a 48-year-old-migrant, Bengali Muslim labourer, was murdered on December 6, 2017, in Rajasthan by a 38-year-old Hindu vigilante, Shambhulal Regar. Both victims, till they were attacked, did not anticipate the fate their murderers had in store for them. Afrazul and Saxena were trusting individuals. They trusted their attackers. But their attackers were consumed by hate.
As they walked through the woods, Afrazul was led to believe that Regar was offering him work. Instead, he was attacked by Regar from behind, with a pixie axe. Afrazul pleaded with his assailant in Hindi, “What happened, sir? Babu, save my life.” But Regar kept striking blows remorselessly, till his victim was near paralysed and eventually died. Saxena was trapped in the middle of a busy street by two male family members of his lover, Shehzadi. The lover had locked her parents into their home from outside and escaped home to meet Saxena. They, however, managed to break open, and just as Saxena stepped out of home, they confronted him about their daughter. According to an eyewitness account, Saxena suggested sorting out the matter in the local police station. Instead, Shehzadi’s father used a knife and slit Saxena’s throat.
Both incidents are chilling. Not just because all murders with premeditated intent cause alarm and revulsion. In both cases, the vulnerability of the victims is accentuated by their being unaware of their murderers’ intentions. Both men lived in a world of possibilities, whereas those who killed them had decided against it.
The family members of Shehzadi, who killed Saxena, suffer from a similar religious and social conservatism that exists in Hindu society. They both share a culture of patriarchal control in which women are unfree to fall in love with a man of their choice, particularly from another religion. Honour killings involving women and men who choose their sexual partners (for relationships or marriage) are a prevalent social crime in Hindu families of north India. The spectral nature of Saxena’s murder and the fact that it involves a crime committed by a Muslim family have contributed to the huge public attention.
Afrazul’s murder, however, has a political dimension. “It’s my appeal to Hindu sisters,” Regar said in a video he made after murdering Afrazul, “don’t fall into the love-trap of these jihadis.” Regar acted the part of the Hindu vigilante, ready to attack Muslim men for indulging in ‘love jihad’, a rightwing propaganda instrument that alleges Muslim men entrap Hindu women into conjugal relations and convert them to Islam. Regar is convinced by his sexist assumption that (Hindu) women can be easily manipulated and need saviours like him. The other revealing assumption by the Regars of the world is that love is susceptible to manipulation, hate is not. No faith can cure the delusions of such men.
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The self-styled Hindu vigilante won’t, however, speak for the women of their community who are murdered by their families for choosing even Hindu men of their own accord. Feudal Hindu families don’t hesitate to put their daughters to death for exercising their free will to marry a man. The resentment is more acute if the man belongs to a different caste. What goes by the name of protecting a woman’s honour is in reality the protection of the family’s material and social status. The patriarchal system that controls the sexual lives and marital choices of Hindu women is based on casteist and feudal concerns. These concerns feed into the notions of patriarchal pride and dictate its mode of ownership.
The acts of honour killing within Hindu society are an obvious extension of the same religious industry of values that keep Hindu women entrapped within the discourse of honour.
But the larger issue at stake between Hindu and Muslim communities is one of trust. There is a political attempt to sever trust between the two communities in the name of protecting women’s honour. A most regressive sentiment around women is being fanned in the public sphere to spread mistrust. The genesis of this politics goes back to Partition.
In Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, we read about women being abducted, raped, converted and forced into marriages and prostitution during episodes of mass violence. Butalia writes, “The Organiser wasn’t quite prepared to admit that Hindu and Sikh men had been guilty of abductions.” Even debates in the constituent assembly treated it as an “aberration”.
Muslim men alone were demonised for sexual crimes against women during Partition. Both the (secular) Indian state and the Hindu Right treated the matter with moral hypocrisy. This hypocrisy was necessary to render the foundations of the nation, honourable.
What this hypocrisy managed to forcibly remove is the possibility of regathering trust. Instead of Hindus and Muslims sharing collective grief as a mode of healing the wounds of Partition, a collective pride is kept in place to ensure that the narrative of Partition is alive. A nation is also what a nation forgets, as it pretends to remember its past. It becomes a more ‘honourable’ option to memorialise the myth and debunk the shame of independence.
Trust was a forgotten value after January 30, 1948. The secular politics of the Nehruvian state was sincere about minority rights and mutual toleration. But the importance of trust was lost with Gandhi’s death. There was nobody to say like Gandhi did in Young India on June 4, 1925, “I believe in trusting. Trust begets trust. Suspicion is fetid and only stinks. He who trusts has never yet lost in the world.”
Hindus and Muslims, during Partition and after, have been prepared to lose, for the sake of pride, what they could have gained by trusting each other. The secular state is only suited to solve matters of dispute between two communities. It cannot provide ways to engage with (or overcome) deeper matters of trust and reconciliation. For the secular state itself is implicated in the moral mess that founded the nation. In the name of instating a moral order, the (secular) state overlooked its responsibilities regarding the ethical issue of trust.
The foundation of social order is most often a fiction guarded by law. The necessity for such an order needs to be supplemented by public expiation. No law can ensure peace without setting an example of social honesty. In time, the possibility of that honesty degenerates into acceptance of mass crimes. It is testified by Hindu men bragging on tape about rapes they committed during the 2002 Gujarat riots.
It is impossible to police men and women of two communities who desire conjugal relations. The most beautiful possibility between Hindus and Muslims lies in their men and women falling in love with each other. This alone can go a little way to restore sanity in a society where political laboratories of hate are spreading and deepening the moral sickness of Partition. A nation that cannot promise safety to its lovers, and defend them, is guilty of ethical ineptitude. Killing lovers in the name of honour, spreading mistrust and paranoia to serve religious animosity, is a disservice to the memory of all those women who paid the price of Partition incomparably more than today’s loudmouthed patriots.
Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee teaches poetry at Ambedkar University, New Delhi. He is a frequent contributor to The Wire and has written for The Hindu, The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, Outlook and other publications.