By Rafia Zakaria/Dawn
Yes, those who killed my son were Muslims but every Muslim cannot be branded for this. Don’t use me to spread communal tension, don’t drag me into it. I appeal to everyone not to link this to religion and vitiate the atmosphere.” These words were spoken by the father of Ankit Saxena, a 22-year-old Delhi photographer recently murdered by his girlfriend’s parents, who opposed the relationship.
Ankit was Hindu and the girl’s family are Muslim, a combination that has led both the Indian media and Indian politicians to disregard the grieving father’s plea. In the days since the killing, Hindu nationalists have taken to Twitter to whet their already raging fury against Muslims, unabashedly using a tragedy to birth many more tragedies.
It all began, as things usually do in contemporary South Asia, with a mobile phone. The girl’s brother looked through her phone and found intimate messages that she had exchanged with Ankit.
This caused an uproar within the family; the brother took the mobile phone to the father, who was enraged that his daughter was involved with a Hindu boy. He started to beat the girl, promising that he would marry her off in no time. The girl’s mother intervened and prevented the father from attacking the boy. Things seemed to have calmed down to some extent for the next several hours.
That didn’t last long. The next evening, the girl slipped out of the house and sent a message to Ankit to meet her at a metro station. The two had known each other for a while and had planned on having a court marriage in March. Ankit had even invited his friends to be witnesses. On her way out, she locked her parents and other family members inside the house. They managed to break the lock and get out, sure that their daughter had been abducted.
All of them immediately rushed to Ankit’s house, which was only a short distance away. There, a huge fight ensued, with the girl’s family accusing Ankit of abducting their daughter. He denied the allegation and tried to calm things down, but the girl’s father attacked him with a knife. When Ankit’s mother tried to intervene, she was pushed aside. The girl’s father, brother and uncle were all present at this scene, and eventually the girl’s father cut the young man’s throat with a knife. Ankit, bleeding heavily, was rushed to a nearby hospital. There he soon died of his injuries.
All of this took place on a public street. In a CCTV video captured just before the attack, Ankit can be seen pacing the sidewalk, speaking on his mobile phone. Cars and people are milling about all around him. According to his father, many people were present even when the attack took place. None paused or tried to intervene in the seven minutes it took to perpetrate the attack. None of them tried to stop the attackers as they left the scene. On a busy public road in Delhi, attacks can take place and attackers can disappear.
In the days since the murder, the attackers have all been apprehended. The Islamophobic fury that seethes just beneath the surface in Modi’s India seems to have found a target and a new narrative. If the old narrative had been that all Muslims are terrorists and affiliated with this or that ‘jihadist’ group, the new narrative is that even if they’re not ‘jihadists’ they are murderers, eager to do away with Hindu men at the slightest pretext.
It is just the sort of rhetoric that can whip up communal frenzy to the point it becomes difficult to control. None of that seems to have concerned those in charge. Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of Delhi, vowed to avenge the death of Ankit Saxena and to hire the best lawyers to prosecute the case.
Muslim celebrities, forever on the defensive in Modi’s India, have tried to change the narrative, to bring it back to the old ideas according to which relationships of choice result in crimes of ‘honour’. Indian cricketer Mohammad Kaif tweeted, “What age are we living in? One can’t love and marry the person of his/her choice and this is happening in an urban city like Delhi. Real shame on the killers and justice must prevail and more importantly mindset needs to change. Peaceful ka P bhi nahi raha.”
Even if it may have been motivated by distancing himself from the ‘bad’ Muslims who committed the gruesome act, Kaif’s question is a crucial one. One possible way in which it could be restated within the context of contemporary India is whether interfaith marriages of choice can escape allegations that one or the other side is using ‘emotional appeal’ in an attempt to get the other to convert. Even in rapidly urbanising South Asia, love marriages continue to be frowned upon, but within the context of Modi’s faith-obsessed India they appear impossible.
The conclusion that there is no room for love, interfaith, or, really, in a general way, is an odd one to reach about a country whose best known national products are movies that routinely show people falling in love. Even within that context, however, Islamophobia has seeped in. The week before, the tragedy saw the much-awaited release of Padamvat, a movie that seems to commend mass suicide of Hindu women in the face of hyper-villainised Muslim invaders.
Tragedy and families fighting over marriages of choice are not new to India or to South Asia. This level of hatred, though, where the crimes of one Muslim family are magnified and politicised into branding all Muslims as criminals — a ready and available excuse to justify persecution and pogroms — is new. The father of Ankit Saxena, who has suffered the greatest loss, is refusing to give in to this sort of hatred and propaganda. Amid so many committed to hate, there is at least one grieving and suffering father who refuses to give in.
(The featured image shows writer Rafia Zakaria, who is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy)