Safe Houses for Interfaith Couples and Cities of Refuge

If as a nation, we have to provide refuge for children from their families rather than from sexual and other predators, we have to introspect our cultural psyches.

Newspapers have reported since 2018 that, based on the Supreme Court’s orders, we need to create ‘safe houses’ for interfaith couples, to save them from ‘honour killings’. More recently, the papers report that Madhya Pradesh will be embarking on this project, across 53 districts. These safe houses will be on the top floor of police offices, so that there is ‘security round the clock’, as a senior police officer put it.

This is an extraordinary development, even for Indian ‘democracy’, whose haloed Constitution gives its citizens the right to reside in any part of the country. Apparently you can, except in your natal or marital home if you have not married according to prescription.

So persecuted, threatened and vilified interfaith couples need ‘safe houses’. This is worth thinking about as a major intervention in civil society. But what of its antecedents?

We can consider the historical ‘cities of refuge’. Biblically, there were six such cities (Kedesh, Shechem, Hebron, Bezer, Ramoth, Golan), for the Levites who were not allotted any territory. A murderer-by-accident could flee into a city of refuge to escape the vengeance of the murdered person’s family. Through the ancient period, persecuted peoples sought refuge in various cities. The 20th century, with the Geneva Conventions, codified it as ‘asylums’ (the word ‘asylum’ means ‘sanctuary’, ‘a place where one can seek protection from violence’). Strasbourg in Europe has historically been a ‘city of refuge’ for those fleeing religious persecution. The European Charter of Cities of Asylum became famous for its statement in the wake of Rushdie’s fatwa:

“The Carrefour des literatures européennes proposed that the City of Strasbourg offer Salman Rushdie the freedom of the city and declare itself a “City of Asylum” for persecuted intellectuals.”

On November 8, 1993, the Strasbourg City Council adopted a “Motion regarding Salman Rushdie and his commitment”.

Later, the First Congress of the Cities of Asylum reinforced its stance on offering refuge to persecuted writers. Naturally, writers like Rushdie linked the freedom to write with the freedom to move across countries and landscapes. In his famous ‘Declaration of Independence’, Salman Rushdie wrote:

“Writers are citizens of many countries: the finite and frontiered country of the observable reality and everyday life, the boundless kingdom of imagination, the half-lost land of memory, the federations of the heart which are both hot and cold, the united states of the mind (calm and turbulent, broad and narrow, ordered and deranged), the celestial and infernal nations of desire, and—perhaps the most important of all our habitations—the unfettered republic of the tongue.”

Writers like Rushdie linked the freedom to write with the freedom to move across countries and landscapes. Photo: Reuters

But it is not about writers alone.

In the 20th century, the International Parliament of Writers (IPW) set up ICORN – International Cities of Refuge Network – for writers (expanded to include artists and musicians in 2014). These cities ‘offer long term, but temporary, shelter to those at risk as a direct consequence of their creative activities’. Originating in the ‘Cities of Asylum Network’ when set up in 1993, it was a response to the arrests and assassinations of writers across the world. Its past presidents include Salman Rushdie, Wole Soyinka, Vaclav Havel, while council members have included J.M. Coetzee, Jacques Derrida, Margaret Drabble and Harold Pinter. In the wake of the refugee crisis, many European cities projected themselves as ‘cities of refuge’, ‘cities of solidarity’ and ‘cities of hope’.

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Cities of refuge are places where those whose identities – ethnicity, religious affiliations, language – have caused them to be targeted. Driven out of their homeland by socio-political conditions and economic hardships, they have sought sanctuary where life would be liveable. In philosophical terms, the city of refuge would be open to foreigners, whose language, religion, looks and racial identities were different from the receiving societies. To allow such a one into the city of refuge, Jacques Derrida would argue in Of Hospitality and elsewhere in On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, is the true measure of hospitality. To offer sanctuary, to welcome and save the foreigner who is unlike us, is a responsibility.

Cities of refuge, like safe houses for the victims, is a whole new step up in urban planning for India.

Foreigners in their own home

Our question is: how does one address a civil society, a nation, a community, whose patriarchs and matriarchs turn their children or family members into ‘foreigners’ because they marry outside the family’s professed faith?

When such ‘outcaste’ children require safe houses because their families may hunt them down (the Kevin Joseph case is one in a long line in the recent past), where do they go? Does it become incumbent upon civil society and the courts to provide safe houses? Or does it mean that we have reached a stage where familial relations are determined by the famous ‘love laws’ that Arundhati Roy defined: ‘the laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much’?

If as a nation, we have to provide refuge for children from their families rather than from sexual and other predators, we have something going wrong with our cultural psyches, don’t we? It would seem, then, the young people who marry violating the ‘love laws’ no longer have an ‘inside’ space – the family, relatives – a home, associated with warmth, security and safety to go to. Rather, the only space safe is a ‘safe house’ away from ‘home’. In short, the outside world, where policemen and courts create cities and spaces of refuge for them, is safer than their homes.

Anybody violating a set of prescriptive laws around faith-matters could be similarly condemned to find a home via courts and the police, as far away from natal/marital homes, and preferably in anonymised forms as possible. Since we cannot police families, the police will create a ‘home-away-from-home’ for those who have been ‘unhomed’. The khap panchayats have got into the act already, determining which faiths are legitimate for allowing marriage or romance.

Representational image of a khap panchayat. Credit: Reuters

Extend this and we can see how this plays right into the hands of fascist-totalitarian states where members of particular communities can be targeted for their ‘love jihad’, and their young ones will require such cities of refuge.

What we can foresee is, the state will have to officially create cities of refuge for those who, in the lines of the Moor, ‘loved not wisely but too well’. Or, going by ministerial statements, would there be state-built cities and houses of refuge for Kashmiri girls? (But ministers are the state, aren’t they, so would that be wise?) Misogyny, caste and religion have never been so instrumental in determining architecture and town planning, one could say.

Refugees of diet?

Take a step further. Cities of refuge, state sponsored, may become necessary for anybody who eats a different diet of meat as well, because such people may be lynched. What of vegans then, are they legitimate too, or are they the ones determining who should eat what? Then, we can move on to cities of refuge where those persecuted for their sexual orientation can find sanctuary. Why not cities of refuge for the old, while we are at it, since we are ‘no country for old men’, as the ageing poet W.B. Yeats put it in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’? Women who wear ‘unacceptable’ clothing or hair styles or youth who prefer a different kind of music too, perhaps, need cities of refuge? Perhaps this is all exaggeration. Or is it?

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When civil society and the state set out to make foreigners of its citizens, like families make aliens of their progeny, there is something deeply troubling about our forms of imagining and seeing ourselves. When we look at a person from the LGBTQ community, a person of different skin colour or an interfaith couple, do we see foreigners who can then be disallowed space within our cities? Would we need to build cities where all those who are not ‘in’, as defined from time to time by dominant powers and ideologies, can go and reside? Does it mean that, in the place of the ‘foreign hand’, we have now begun to see foreigners, aliens, strangers, within ourselves: all of whom can be hunted down, or who escape into cities of refuge?

Cities of refuge, state sponsored, may become necessary for anybody who eats a different diet of meat as well. Photo: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

These safe houses are only symptoms of a deeper psychosocial dis-ease (yes, intentionally hyphenated) of seeking and constructing many as our ‘others’. It appears that we can only define ourselves as ‘normal’, as a family, as a community or a nation by marking some – even our own bloodlines – as ‘foreigners’. Whether families go after the Kevin Josephs, Rajkumar Ahirwars, Kanagaraj-Darshinipriyas, or a community is declared anti-national for food practices, the events reflect not on the victims but on the ones doing the sorting, as to who belongs and who does not. For, as the recently deceased Toni Morrison would tell us in her last work, The Origin of Others:

“The urgency of distinguishing between those who belong to the human race and those who are decidedly non-human is so powerful the spotlight turns away and shines not on the object of degradation but on its creator.”

Perhaps we should train our attention on those who make it essential that people require safe houses and cities of refuge. It is an idea whose time has, unfortunately, come.