Minutes before Mohammad Akhlaq was lynched by a mob baying for his supposedly beef-nourished blood, he called up childhood friend Manoj Sisodia for help.

Sisodia, as the name suggests, is a Hindu. That Akhlaq, a Muslim who feared death at the hands of Hindus, chose to call his Hindu friend says something about the social fabric on which India was mapped.

We cannot emphasise enough the significance of this friendship in the current milieu – not only to enhance its constitutive value for Indian democracy, but also to understand and make majoritarian fundamentalists understand how they are consistently hacking away even at what they consider their own.

Friendly duty

According to Sisodia, he tried to respond to Akhlaq’s pleas as soon as possible. With no credit on his phone, he borrowed one to call the police’s emergency helpline. He also dialled Ranvir Singh, the officer in charge of the local police station, and another powerful man he could think of – a senior officer of the National Thermal Power Corporation. Sisodia was promised an immediate response. Alas, only Akhlaq’s son, not Akhlaq, could be saved.

While Sisodia’s efforts went in vain, they must be seen as commendable as compared to the actions of the large mob that killed Akhlaq. It is an indicator of the times we live in that we must view things in this manner.

For what Sisodia did was no act of heroism, but the least that a friend must do for another. Having grown up with Akhlaq and broken bread with him on numerous occasions, it was his duty to worry about his friend’s well-being.

It is a great pity that the vested interests of some goons prevented a man from fulfilling his obligations to amity. The state also failed to meet its responsibility to preserve the life of its subject.

Collateral damage

The group of disgruntled men, who used religion to prioritise the life of an animal over that of a human, do not appear to have considered the loss caused to one of their brethren.

Did they think of the bereavement to Manoj Sisodia? People who claimed to share his faith took away a person he called his brother.

Sisodia may not understand the notion of fraternity enshrined by the watershed moment of modern democracy – the French Revolution – but his notion of fraternity was clearly far more inclusive than that of the mob.

The question of our time is whether the same applies to our country.

In an interview to NDTV, Sisodia repeatedly reiterated that there had been no history of discrimination in his village based on religion. Even so, he did not feel entitled to stop Akhlaq’s family from moving away from their village in Dadri. Choking up slightly on admitting to this inability, there appeared to be sense of loss, of having betrayed the code of friendship that forms the core of society – particularly a multilingual and multi-ethnic society like India.

Since time immemorial, people have elegised and sought redemption over the demise of their friends through song and deed. Sisodia’s inability to do the same, to speak up for the dead and to look after his deceased friend’s family, is because of pressure exerted by a society being split through the middle.

Who is his friend, who is his brother, which is his community? No citizen of any country should have to answer these questions. But in today’s India, they are asked not just of the minority.

Maaz Bin Bilal has recently received a PhD in English from Queen’s University Belfast for his thesis on the Politics of Friendship in E. M. Forster’s work. He teaches at Ashoka University in Sonepat.