Photographs of the young man adorned several large posters. They showed him with gelled spiked hair, colourful shirts, dark glasses, ear studs, teasing laughter and loads of attitude. This collage of his pictures was surrounded by the symbols of various religions.

The young man of the photographs was Ankit Saxena.

Had he been alive, then on March 22, as I wrote this piece, his parents and friends would have celebrated his 23rd birthday. Instead, on a pavement next to a busy highway in West Delhi, at the exact spot he was murdered a month and 20 days ago, his friends organised a tearful and loving prayer ceremony in his memory.

His gentle father, Yashpal Saxena, broke down many times as he sat with me before the programme. “His friends took care of everything, the tents, the mike, the posters, the flowers,” he said. “They assured me that I shouldn’t worry. Only now when I stepped out of my house and saw all of this, so beautiful and grand, I went behind one of the posters because I could not hold back my tears. I wanted his wedding to be like this. Not this!”

Yashpal Saxena said his wife Kamlesh has not been able to fight off her depression. She started walking only two days ago, unsteadily, a few steps at a time. “I try to be strong, for her,” he said. “But this son of mine is stuck to me, all the time, all the time. I get up late at night to go to the toilet, and I look towards the stairs, worried that he has returned home so late. And then I remember.”

Remember. February 1. An evening like any other. Someone phones Ankit Saxena’s parents in their flat, screaming that they must rush to rescue their son. They scramble to the pavement adjoining the highway barely 50 metres from their home. When they arrive, they find him surrounded by the family of a Muslim girl who had been their neighbours until a few years earlier, thrashing him.

They learn later that their photographer son had fallen in love with this Muslim college student and that they wanted to marry. They had lived on parallel lanes as children, and had grown up together, often playing in each other’s homes. Even after her family moved some distance away, they still met. At some point, they fell in love. He had not yet spoken of this to his family, but the girl’s family bitterly opposed the marriage. On the day Ankit Saxena was killed, she had locked her family inside their home after announcing that she was running away to marry the man she loved. The family broke free before she could reach Ankit Saxena. He was returning from his studio when the girl’s family accosted him.

After that, it is hard to unscramble exactly what transpired. But from what we have been able to piece together, the two mothers fought and Kamlesh Saxena fell to the ground. Ankit Saxena ran to help her up, but someone from the girl’s family took out a knife and slashed his throat. His horrified parents saw him sway, then slump to the ground, in a pool of blood. They begged their neighbours to help them, to save the life of a boy they had seen grow from a child in half-pants to a handsome young man. But none gave them a hand. Ultimately, an electric rickshaw stopped, and they took him to the nearest hospital. His mother tried to stem the bleeding from his throat with her dupatta, but her hand went right into his throat. They were almost crazed with grief and disbelief when the hospital authorities told them that he was dead.

"His friends took care of everything, the tents, the mike, the posters, the flowers,” said Ankit Saxena's father Yashpal Saxena.

Communal colour

The days that followed the murder compounded the family’s trauma. It is apparent that the Delhi unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party saw in the crime an opportunity to mobilise hatred against the Muslim community, by portraying the incident through a communal lens. Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar in The Wire traced the bid by politicians to give the murder a communal colour. Among the first to comment on Ankit Saxena’s murder was the BJP-Shiromani Akali Dal MLA Manjinder Singh Sirsa, who tweeted:

“… Ugly truth is out – 23 year old Ankit has been killed in the name of honour in our own Delhi by so-called ‘minority & oppressed’ religion. The girl Ankit was in love with, Shehzaadi has admitted that her family killed Ankit.” 

Delhi BJP president Manoj Tiwari visited the Saxenas and criticised what he called the silence of Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, claiming that he was not concerned when crimes were committed against members of the majority community. Tiwari also demanded Rs 1 crore in compensation for the family. Following this, Kejriwal visited the Saxenas and promised Rs 5 lakh. Meanwhile, Bajrang Dal activists started roaming the area and threatening Muslim residents.

In the midst of all this political melodrama and his own suffering, Yashpal Saxena maintained an extraordinary sense of essential humanity. The magazine Caravan reported that when Tiwari went to meet Yashpal Saxena, the grieving father begged him and the media not to communalise his son’s murder. “I had one son,” he said. “If I get justice, it’s good. If not, even then I don’t have hatred against any community. I have no such [communal] thinking. I am unable to understand why the media is showing this issue in that way.”

As I wrote in a column at that time,

“By affirming that he bore Muslims no ill will, Yashpal Saxena, whose only son Ankit Saxena was murdered by the family of the Muslim girl he loved, demolished one of the most widely used rationalisations for communal hatred. For this, for his luminous humanity even in the face of great personal tragedy, the nation owes him an immense debt of gratitude. Yashpal Saxena rejected what I call the Doctrine of Vicarious Guilt. It is the idea that an entire community must collectively carry the guilt for crimes – real or imagined, committed now or in history – which any of its members may have perpetrated. This doctrine harbours a moral rationalisation of violence that people may wreak on other people in vengeance solely for sharing the same identity as the real or imagined criminal.”

Posters of Ankit Saxena at the prayer meeting on March 22.

‘How can I hate her? Why should I hate her?’

When teams of the Karwan-e-Mohabbat and I visited him, Yashpal Saxena spoke to us in simple words but with the same conviction. Their neighbours in a one-room flat above theirs were a Muslim family. Yashpal Saxena told us that after the tragedy, the family had not walked up the stairs to their own home for a full week. They had taken care of the Saxenas in their grief more than family. “She is my sister,” Yashpal Saxena said of the woman of this home. “How can I hate her? Why should I hate her?”

My colleagues from the Karwan-e-Mohabbat had also participated in the 13th day ceremony in memory of Ankit Saxena. Activists of the BJP and Bajrang Dal had taken over the entire programme, set up a large tent, a Gujarat Hindu Vahini team conducted the prayers, and senior BJP leaders addressed the programme. The chief minister had joined in for a few minutes, but left after political activists demanded he announce the support he would give the family. After he left, BJP Delhi leader Manoj Tiwari had claimed the family of a person named Khan who had been killed had been given Rs 1 crore by the Delhi government. He said, “For Ankit there is only Rs 5 lakh. For Khan, the same government gives Rs 1 crore. If only his name was Ankit Khan instead of Ankit Saxena, only then he too would have got Rs 1 crore.”

It did not trouble him that this deliberatively provocative communal charge was based on mischievous half-truths. The Delhi government has a scheme of awarding compensation to government officials who die while on duty. This scheme does not extend to ordinary citizens. One such official was indeed named Khan and his family did get Rs 1 crore. But four Hindu officers also died while on duty, and their families too received Rs 1 crore each.

Ankit Saxena was his parents’ only child, and they have been left with no support for their old age. Neither have the BJP politicians made good on their promises of support to his family, nor is any support forthcoming from the Delhi government, so far. Two civil society crowd-funding campaigns have been launched to help the family.

Family, friends and well-wishers at Ankit Saxena's birthday prayers.

Amar, Akbar, Amanjeet

A month and a half after Ankit Saxena’s death, politicians of every hue seem to have lost interest in his family. I could not spot a single politician at his birthday prayer meeting. Perhaps this was a good thing, because the event – unlike the 13th day prayers – was small but heartfelt. When he was alive, Ankit Saxena and his band of friends – who called themselves Awara Boys – played pranks, shot fun videos, but also, at his prompting, prayed regularly at temples, mosques, gurdwaras and churches. After his murder, these friends slept in the verandah of Ankit Saxena’s one-room janta flat for weeks, taking care of his parents. He had friends of virtually every faith. My colleagues said that instead of Amar Akbar Anthony, his friends were Amar Akbar Amanjeet. Many of them had not returned to their own homes since the day he died, they told us.

The same bunch of 16 Awara friends organised the prayer meeting the way they thought their friend would have liked it. They wore printed T-shirts with a zany picture of Ankit Saxena in front and the word Awara and their own name on the back. As the havan started, the boys sat in a circle around the ceremonial fire with the Saxenas. I noted some names on their T-shirts – Mazhar and Azhar, Ashish and Ankit, Jasneet and Jaswinder. They were all absorbed in the prayers, and they all joined in serving food in a bhandara to a thousand people. The food they offered was piping hot rajmah chawal – Ankit Saxena’s favourite dish.

Ankit Saxena's friends serve piping hot rajmah chawal – his favourite – at the prayer meet.

As the havan and prayers went on, I looked at the faces of the Karwan team. With me was Mohammed Aamir Khan, a believing Muslim, Ashish Soni, a believing Punjabi Hindu, Amitabh Basu, a scientist and atheist, and I, an agnostic. I smiled to myself. This is as Ankit Saxena would have wanted it.

This is as India should be.

All photographs courtesy Mohammad Aamir Khan.