08, Feb 2018 | Teesta Setalvad
It was an act of violence and terror, albeit of a critically different kind. When 23-year-old Ankit Saxena’s throat was slit after an altercation with the family members of his childhood sweetheart a few days ago, while the usual suspects of the BJP, Manoj Tiwari, and the Bajrang Dal swung into pre-scripted, hate-driven action, a worrying silence from votaries of “secularism” and “religious progressives” echoed in the public sphere.
It would be easy to assuage the guilt caused by this silence by brushing off Ankit’s murder as an act of individual brutality and insanity, atypical and distinguished from organised, targeted killings in the name of faith or caste. Young Ankit’s death can also then be distinguished aside and away from the “secularism and Constitution in danger” paradigm. Warning bells need not be rung. For the venomous proponents of the “love jihad” myth, this is an act in reverse, with the young man, a Hindu, a victim. For both sides of the deep communal divide, the response is common: Greater segregation, less democratisation for the young, no sharing of spaces. Do no candles need to be lit for Ankit and his lost love?
The traumatised 20-year-old Muslim woman has so far found no friends, terrified as she is of being another victim in her family’s act of violence and hate. She has courageously named her relatives as those who, in all likelihood, are guilty, and is inconsolable in grief. The police have said her life is under threat. So far, at least, she battles alone, clear that she will be coerced into a life shorn of autonomy, choice and love if left to her family and community. Tragically, her younger 16-year-old brother was set upon her as a spy, monitoring the calls that she made and the messages she received from Ankit.
Yes, she is a Muslim and it was a Muslim father and uncle who, in all probability, we are told, did Ankit to his death. Yes, while it was an individual act of brute terror, its construct stood upon an inward, rigid, communal non-negotiable — that the autonomy of choice is out of bounds for a woman. That while we may speak of “secularism”, when it comes to protection of life and liberty and equality before the law and Constitution (and God knows what travesties those notions in today’s India are), this self-limiting definition does not extend to breaching the physical ghettos of space, mind and spirit.
Ankit and his childhood sweetheart played and dreamed together as they grew up on the lanes and streets of a mixed west Delhi neighbourhood, Raghubir Nagar. Their affection and attachment, which was to prove fatal, endured even as her family moved away, physical distance not eroding a bond that an urban, secular space had forged. Newspaper reports say they were planning a court marriage on his birthday next month. Now, with such a tragedy unfolding, rabidly communal outfits like the Bajrang Dal have made even the woman’s family, economically, victims: A beauty parlour run by female relatives of the Muslim woman in the mixed neighbourhood was forcibly closed down reportedly after the owner of the rental premises, Vinod Kumar, was threatened by west Delhi Bajrang Dal chief Jagjit Singh Goldie. In all likelihood, the extended family is likely to flee back to the recesses of Uttar Pradesh to escape the “shame of the limelight”.
Ankit’s father, Yashpal, has made heartfelt appeals to politicians and the media to refrain from communalising the issue. “We have lost our son. We are not against any community,” he has pleaded, objecting to the coverage on some electronic media.
Babasaheb Ambedkar, that critical political philosopher who had the uncanny knack of spotting the deeply political in the personal, had, among so much else, written about and advocated promotion of inter-caste marriages to ensure and enable the withering away of caste exclusion and discrimination.
Such marriages that breach societal and religious taboos break new ground and show us the way, he had argued. He pushed this argument even further, saying that a state wedded to the principles of equality and non-discrimination must encourage such alliances, partnerships and liaisons.
No wonder, then, that in some states like Maharashtra, the government is meant to provide incentives to such unconventional alliances.
Can or will or should the same principle also be extended to inter-faith marriages, partnerships? To genuinely tackle the communal demon, a green, secular and progressive signal must be given to marriages and partnerships between adults of different communities. Not only do we see no reference to this debate but the studied and uncomfortable silence and discomfort after Ankit’s murder can probably be located here.
The battle for constitutional values and secularism has been limited to the rights between ghettos, physical and real. These ghettos have been spawned over decades with targeted violence against minorities being the cause. Within these ghettos, the inter-mingling between equals is limited and even controlled. Our battle for a lived secularism has given up, virtually completely, the re-doubled struggle needed to breach these ghettos, often at great risk, to forge freer, common spaces.
The streets and lanes of Delhi where Ankit and his lost love played and bonded need to be the shared and common spaces in which our dreams of a robust, flourishing Indian secularism prosper and grow. As do other locales still live and present in a myriad, different Indian milieus. This imaginative and creative re-fashioning of the struggle is critical for a real-life secularism to emerge from its own embers.
This article first appeared in The Indian Express on February 6, 2018. The original article may be read here.