In the deeply religious Hindu household in which I grew up in Kolkata, there were at least 132 photographs of various gods adorning the dilapidated walls of our ground-floor home. The most prominent of them, in our multipurpose living room, were the standing trio of Ram, Lakshman and Sita along with a genuflecting Hanuman, enclosed in a glass chamber with a light fitted inside.

At dusk, like a ritual, before turning on the lights in the other rooms, we would first turn on the light for this photograph. Ash smeared on my forehead, every evening I would pray to the ensemble of gods as my sisters sang the Hanuman Chalisa. The melody and rhythm of every version of this song that I heard later in life seemed off. For peace and for humanity to be free of strife, my grandmother read the Sundara Kandam in Tamil everyday.

My ill-tempered father worked all his life at the Allahabad Bank with a patriotic zeal for nation building and took great pride in his uncompromising integrity. A deeply religious man, he would fondly recount how our forefathers had constructed a Ram temple in our ancestral village in Tamil Nadu.

Our home, with a daily deluge of visitors ranging from the priests of the Kali temple to flailing foot soldiers of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), was often referred to as a dharmshala. The visitors formed a rainbow coalition of political preferences. Frequently, Henna, the daughter of our working-class neighbours Alam and Urmila, would sit by our window to watch the city mutate ever so slowly.

In addition to two newspapers and the occasional Sportstar magazine, we had subscribed to two obscure magazines, Sanathan Sarathi and Proletarian Era. While Sanathan Sarathi had an orange cover, Proletarian Era was like a folded newspaper with a 15-paise stamp embossed on the top right corner.

April was always the cruelest month due to my annual examinations. It was also the month of Ram Navami, a vital marker of the annual calendar of religious celebrations, of which there were many. Ram Navami meant that the multipurpose living room got a makeover: the sofa was moved to the balcony after covering the torn part with sheets and the room was readied with hired microphones, loudspeakers, 35-40 bhajan singers, a harmonium, a dholak and other instruments. It was the only day when the lights in the living room would be turned off in the evening and the singers would regale the entire para, or locality, with their bhajans.

Between two such annual Ram Navami musical extravaganzas in the house, the Babri Masjid was reduced to rubble in Ayodhya. The mood in my usually chaotic house turned sombre and I remember feeling a sense of acute unease at how a mob could destroy a place of worship.

A curfew was imposed in Kolkata. When I asked my dejected father why, he despondently said: “It is barbaric of some Hindu fanatics claiming to be devotees of Lord Ram to destroy a mosque. How can any Hindu feel comfortable after such an act? The curfew is imposed to avoid further destruction.”

My prayers continued.

A member of a Hindutva group protests in Calcutta, in this file photograph from July 2005. Credit: Reuters.

Classes at our school resumed some days later. In my class of 47 students, there were four Muslims, all of whom were from economically poor backgrounds. I do not recall how the others felt, but I distinctly remember that Rizwan, one of the four Muslim students, was visibly perturbed.

Rizwan, an ardent fan of actor Revathi, lived in the cramped Tiljala neighbourhood in Kolkata, which continues to be a working-class Muslim ghetto. Rizwan and I had immense respect for each other on the cricket field. He was a genuine fast bowler with a smooth run-up who could bowl toe-crushing yorkers at will with precision.

Following the curfew, I recall an anguished Rizwan telling me how tense his neighbourhood had become. I felt like apologising but did not have the right vocabulary. We continued to run into each other later in college where he studied literature. He was a gifted writer, and among others, I remember that he recommended that I read Amit Chaudhuri’s A Strange and Sublime Address.

We did not keep in touch. Eight years after graduating from college, during my days as a PhD student in the United States I learned one morning that Rizwan had been found dead on the railway tracks in Kolkata in 2007.

He had been in love with and married a Hindu woman under the Special Marriage Act, much to the chagrin of her industrialist father, Ashok Todi, the head of Lux industries, a leader in the innerwear garments segment. Expecting violent backlash, the couple had petitioned the police for protection. Reports following Rizwan’s death indicated that the police, instead of protecting the two consenting married adults, had instead harassed and threatened them.

Apparently, two days before his death, Rizwan had written to the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights saying, “I’m an honest and sincere citizen of India and have done everything respecting the Constitution. As adults, we have married according to the law of the land.” West Bengal was under the rule of the Left and Rizwan’s death sparked a massive public outcry against the police and the state government.

The Trinamool Congress joined the public protesting on the streets demanding justice. The state government transferred the senior police officials and the case was handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation based on an order by the Calcutta High Court. Rizwan’s death was declared a suicide by the central agency. Charges for abetment to suicide were framed against the woman’s industrialist father and senior police officials.

In the state elections that followed, the Trinamool Congress came to power in West Bengal. Rizwan’s family, including his frail mother, still await justice as the trial and hearings by the central agency have dragged on till now and will continue. The alleged perpetrators remain free.

During my PhD, I discovered an album of bhajans by Pandit DV Paluskar. Among its many Ram bhajans, I would often listen to and sing Janakinath Sahay every time I yearned for solace. It helped in the days after Rizwan’s death.

In Ayodhya in October 2003. Credit: Reuters.

These vignettes flash by as I witness the apathy and even complicity towards the everyday communal targeting of Muslims. Rizwan’s death drew people from across religious divides to protest due to a shared sense of injustice. Some felt that the Trinamool Congress’s resolute support for Rizwan’s cause was political opportunism. It may be so, but it is the responsibility of political parties to stand up and align themselves with voices seeking justice.

Today, the opposite is true. The measured silence among political parties across states at the selective targeting and persecution of Muslims is perhaps the new form of opportunism that stems from not wanting to upset the Hindu vote bank.

This kind of opportunism signifies that the barometers of fairness and justice are being transformed for the worse. We risk creating a society where violence will be honoured and celebrated. Such violence will engulf everyone.

Despite overwhelming evidence, the public outcry after Rizwan’s death did not spark communal riots in Kolkata. But the overwrought scenes of the consecration of the Ram temple in January following incident after incident of hatred against Muslims emboldens the growing edifice of insensitivity while putting a disproportionate onus of restraint on Muslims.

While continued provocations by Hindutva forces are deliberately being glossed over today, my devout Ram bhakt father had in 1992 unequivocally placed the blame on Hindu fanatics.

Allahabad Bank ceased to exist as an independent entity in 2020. In the Ram Navami proceedings I witnessed in Jharkhand last year, nobody sang Paluskar’s bhajans. Gone were the bhajans of my childhood. Instead, there were intoxicated men with red tilaks on their foreheads wielding swords near a mosque with strobe lights and loud music.

I do not know if the Ram Navami singers who would come to my house are now celebrating or commiserating the demise of dignity. I wonder if priests and the proletariat still congregate somewhere.

What I do know is that the Rizwans of today lead an even more burdened life, their anxiety amplified. What I want is to sing Janakinath Sahay, whose lyrics state, If the Lord of Sita were to help, who ever can cause trouble to you?” But what I end up humming is Sahir Ludhianvi’s Jinhe Naaz Hai Hind Par Woh Kahan Hai. Where Are Those Who Say We Are Proud Indians?

Rajendran Narayanan teaches at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, and is associated with LibTech India. His handle on X is @rajendran_naray. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the views of Azim Premji University.