Every now and then, there is an exception to the Great Indian Obsession with things mathematical and scientific. I refer to the well-established calculus of response whenever there is an incident that involves Hindus and Muslims. The tabularisation goes something like this: if the so-called liberals march and hold protest meetings after a Muslim is killed by a Hindu, then they should do the same in case the opposite happens. The argument also goes: just as they interrogate Hindu opinion in the case of a Muslim killing, so they should ask questions of Muslims in the obverse case. But the family of Ankit Saxena, a young man whose life was cut short by the blind rage of human senselessness, have bucked this calculus. They have spurned offers of assistance by politicians and others to cast the tragedy as an instance of Hindu-Muslim violence.

In their hour of unimaginable grief, they have refused to be swayed by an imagination of good and evil whose key aim is the persistent pursuit of social disharmony in the cause of political gain.

It has been reported that members of Saxena’s extended family have publicly said his murder by the family members of a young women he intended to marry should not be seen as communal. Rather, they have appealed, the murder should be seen as a tragedy at a personal level, a disaster visited upon one family by the mindless actions of another.

It would, of course, have been easy for them to align with a political cause and, perhaps, gain some material benefit as well as the gratitude of some very important people. They did not. And by refusing to let their personal suffering be the stage for enacting cynical political dramas, they served an important pedagogical function. They told us that the calculus of public rage ought to be reconsidered so that we better understand the relations between action and reaction. They told us that we must not be threatened into becoming robots with a mechanical understanding of outrage.

A human understanding of outrage against violence – marching and protesting, say – must direct our attention to situations created by systematic, planned and normalised violence. It should enable us to realise the difference between personalised violence and the kind of violence that requires one community to be seduced into thinking of another as the enemy. Grief deserves an answer, but it cannot be the same under different circumstances. This only serves to make banal the nature of empathy and political outrage. We should, of course, be outraged by Saxena’s murder. Further, it should be deeply concerning that those who murdered him did so because they did not want a member of their family marrying a person from another faith. But this in itself does not constitute communal violence, as Saxena’s family has pointed out.

Communalism as context

Preparations to unleash communal violence – for it is almost never spontaneous, but results from careful groundwork and calculations regarding costs and benefits – damage the social fabric. A Muslim family murdering the Hindu suitor of their daughter damages individual lives. Moreover, and perhaps ironically, while the act may be motivated by the horror of having to welcome someone from another religion into the family, it may not necessarily be inspired by a dread of that religion. There are many Muslims who cannot imagine marrying a Hindu and many Hindus who would be just as resistant to the idea that one of their own might marry a Muslim. This, however, does not mean such Muslims and Hindus hate the other community. In many parts of India, these communities exist peacefully, recognising the right of the other to its own lifeways.

Communalism is the context in which the right of another community to exist is questioned. Identities are complex: I may not wish to enter into certain kinds of relationships with you but that does not mean I wish to destroy your identity and seek to subsume it within my own. We know each other’s boundaries and occasionally wander across them and relate to one another in some contexts, but not in others. This maynot be the ideal situation for a multi-religious society but it is how most lives in such societies are lived. Historically, too, the situation has not been much different.

This, then, is what the Saxena family’s reaction tells us in all its undeniable tragedy: in their sorrow, they seek no false comfort of hating that which they can tolerate.

This is also why we must resist calls to hit the streets in protest against the murder of Saxena as an act of Hindu-Muslim violence. It cheapens pathos by casting it as part of an abstract drama of identity, rather than the site of personal grief. And it sets rolling preparations for greater tragedies.

Sanjay Srivastava is a sociologist.