The Mahatma would have approved! On Sunday, a humid midsummer evening in a claustrophobically narrow lane in the West Delhi suburb of Raghubir Nagar, I often felt his presence among us. Yashpal Saxena – who had lost his only son Ankit Saxena exactly four months earlier, murdered because he loved a Muslim girl – had organised an Iftar with his Muslim, Hindu and Sikh neighbours. He invited them to break the roza, the dawn-to-dusk fast observed by believing Muslims during Ramzan, together. On the constricted lane separating the multi-storeyed blocks of one-room tenements, a green mat was spread. Around 300 residents of the colony, and people drawn by news of the event from other parts of Delhi, joined the community celebration. It was an iridescent evening of goodwill and love.

I thought of Mahatma Gandhi many times that evening. When once asked whether only Indian religions should be encouraged and fostered in India, he replied in emphatic agreement. And he went on to explain – Indian religions like Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism… In times when Muslims are continuously portrayed as the outsider, a reminder that Muslims and their faith practices are as Indian as the faith practices of India’s majority religion is necessary and sterling. And when we get together regardless of our religious beliefs to observe Diwali and Holi as much as Ramzan and Christmas, we affirm as well as celebrate the common and equal belonging to our country of people of various belief systems.

At the site of the Iftar just below Ankit Saxena’s home, the walls were adorned with posters of photographs of the handsome 23-year-old photographer. They showed the young man in a turban, a skull cap or bare-headed, worshipping in shrines of various faiths. This was something his group of friends, who called themselves Awara Boys, loved to do. Ankit Saxena would surely have approved of the Iftar organised by his father.

In Gandhi’s footsteps

During his epic 40-day fast to restore peace in a rioting Calcutta in 1947, in an encounter immortalised by Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi, a Hindu man nearly crazed by grief throws a roti at Gandhi’s face, asking him to eat it. The man tells him that Muslim mobs murdered his son, who was this small. How could he ever clean out the hatred in his heart for Muslims? How could he forgive them? How indeed could he find solace? Gandhi tells the man gently that if he truly wants to find peace and healing, he will show him the way. He should adopt a Muslim boy, just this small, the age of his son, whose parents were killed by Hindu rioters. He should raise him like his own son, but in his Muslim faith. Maybe then he would find a cure for the aching of his wounded soul.

I do not know if Yashpal Saxena had heard this story. But his spontaneous humanity moved him in the same direction that Gandhi pointed out to us 70 years ago. A man from the family of the Muslim girl his son had loved had slit the 23-year-old’s throat with a knife, and he had died gushing blood in his parents’ arms. Soon after, activists of organisations like the Bajrang Dal had seen in this tragedy an opportunity to divide the Hindu and Muslim communities that lived peacefully as neighbours in this area and spur communal riots in the Capital. But Yashpal Saxena was unequivocal. He wanted his son’s killers to be punished severely. However, he declared, he bore no ill will to any other Muslim. His son’s best male friend was also Muslim. Yashpal Saxena took the boy along when he travelled to Hardwar to immerse his son’s ashes, and the Muslim boy joined in the last rites like Ankit Saxena’s brother. Muslim neighbours took care of the broken parents of the murdered boy in the weeks after the tragedy, bringing their own lives to a halt. For months, no fire was lit in Yashpal Saxena’s kitchen – the food came from their Muslim neighbour’s home. “She is my own sister,” Yashpal Saxena said of this neighbour.

In his actions, as I wrote in February, Yashpal Saxena rejected what I call the Doctrine of Vicarious Guilt. This is the idea that if a person of a certain identity commits a crime, all persons who are of the same identity carry the guilt for this crime, and revenge against any person of that identity is understandable, if not righteous. This was the rationalisation for the murder of 3,000 Sikhs on the streets of Delhi in 1984 because two Sikh bodyguards had murdered Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. This was the rationalisation for the slaughter of 2,000 Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, many of them children and women, and the gangrape of many others. Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi once said that when a big tree falls, the earth will shake. During the Gujarat riots, Narendra Modi, who was chief minister of the state at the time, said an action will necessarily be followed by a reaction. But Yashpal Saxena refused to endorse this reaction to the action that took away from him forever his only beloved son, even in the midst of his torment when he was crazed with grief.

I thought also of what Mahatma Gandhi would have made of the love Ankit Saxena shared with his childhood Muslim girlfriend. I once shared a platform with Tushar Gandhi, Gandhi’s great-grandson, at a programme about the hatred fostered around love jihad. He said that until the end of his life, Gandhiji would once a year honour people who married outside their caste and religion.

Ankit Saxena and his friends, who called themselves Awara Boys, would often visit the shrines of various faiths. (Credit: via Facebook)

An evening of brotherhood

In the months that I have been privileged to come to know Yashpal Saxena, I have found that his defining feature is his intrinsic decency and humanity. When we helped organise lawyers to ensure he gets the justice he seeks, he would turn to us and say, “But please try to support the girl as well. I worry about her. Think of her predicament. Both her parents and her uncle are in jail, her younger brother in a juvenile home. She will be all alone in the world.” This while he told me that the wounds of his son’s loss were not healing at all. That he remembered his every waking, every sleeping hour. And that his wife had not been able to shake off her depression.

The Iftar was expectedly, even fittingly, chaotic. There were more people of non-Muslim faith in the large numbers who had gathered. Many had never participated in an Iftar before, and we had to make repeated announcements that the guests start eating and drinking only after the appointed hour of dusk and the prayer. Someone stood up and explained to the non-Muslims why Muslims fast. He said it was to understand the suffering of a person forced to remain hungry and thirsty. The gathering covered their heads with skull caps, handkerchiefs and dupattas. Another man recited the prescribed prayer at exactly 7.17 pm, and people then ate together. The Awara Boys served the Iftar refreshments – fruit and vegetarian biryani – to all the guests. As they had done on Ankit Saxena’s birthday in March, the boys were dressed in T-shirts that sported a picture of their beloved friend and their own names embossed under the word Awara – a tribute perhaps to Raj Kapoor, who was an icon of the pluralist values that imbue these young men. After the people ate, they made space in the same narrow lane for the Muslim believers to recite their namaaz. Thus ended this wonderful evening of sisterhood and brotherhood.

The diminutive and shy Yashpal Saxena was clearly embarrassed by the battery of cameras that caught his every move. The mediapersons incessantly, sometimes peremptorily, sought a “bite” from him on the event and indeed, on the affairs of the world. He was hesitant, sometimes endearingly tongue-tied. But amidst all of this, Yashpal Saxena, by organising this Iftar to declare again his goodwill to the Muslim community four months after a Muslim family murdered his only son, has illuminated a pathway for all of us. In these bitter and fraught times of strife, his example is one for each of us to heed.