Troubled by the rising tide of hate across India, unabated, as we entered the new year, we resolved to continue the Karwan-e-Mohabbat through all of 2018 – and even longer, if necessary. We would take our Karwan to at least one state every month, visiting the homes of families hit by acts of hate violence.
Once again, as we had done in our travels to eight states in September 2017, we would tell the families that they are not alone, that there are many in the country who care and who suffer with them. We would seek their forgiveness on behalf of the country we have made together – and try to assist them in ways we could, in their unequal struggles for justice and healing. We also resolved that we would continue to tell their stories to the rest of the country – not just for solidarity, but also to appeal to the conscience.
We began the year with a journey into Bengal. My colleagues went to Basirhat on January 24, 2018. I could not join them on this first half-day of the journey, as I was in Assam (working with the National Human Rights Commission looking at the problems of persons declared foreigners and confined for years in detention camps with no end or hope in sight).
But, I joined them in the evening in Kolkata – and together, we caught a night train to Malda. This time in the Karwan, there was a smaller group of around 20 very fine people, senior and young journalists and writers, lawyers, a photographer, a trade unionist, an amateur filmmaker, researchers, students and rights and peace workers.
For me, it was fitting but emotionally wrenching to start this year’s Karwan with a visit (this morning) to the home of Afrazul Khan, the migrant worker whose life had ended at the end of last year in a particularly brutal hate killing. As part of a fact-finding exercise, I had gone to Rajsamand (in Rajasthan) days after he had been bludgeoned, hacked and then burnt alive, which were assiduously filmed by a teenager on December 6, 2017.
There, we learnt that the Rajsamand district, like many parts of Rajasthan, is served by thousands of circular migrants from Malda in West Bengal, mostly Bengali-Muslim workers skilled in construction and road-building. They live lonely lives of hard labour – some stretching to ten months every year, far away from their families and home, just to feed and educate them. Just four days after the killing, most of the workers had fled home in terror. We had met Afrazul’s son-in-law, who the police had asked to stay and assist with the investigations. Then, I resolved that the Karwan must visit Afrazul’s family in Malda.
This morning, we passed flowering mustard fields and freshly-transplanted paddy fields, before we wound our way through the narrow lanes to Afrazul’s home in Saiyadpur village of Malda district. Due to his long years of hard labour, his family lived in a pucca brick home. Led inside, we met his widow, Gulbahar Bibi, and his three daughters. He had no sons.
We explained to his family who we were, and what our mission was. Her elder son-in-law, Musharraf, who we had met in Rajsamand after the murder, recognised us. Afrazul’s widow Bibi was composed, her face strained, breaking down only occasionally. She said that now, they wanted nothing, except the hanging of the man who killed her husband so cruelly, for no reason except his religion.
She and her daughters fondly recalled their father, who had devoted his entire life to their care. He had educated all his daughters and married off the elder two. The youngest, 16-year-old Habiba Khatoon, was in class 10 and wanted to study further. A private residential school had given her admission after her father’s cruel death.
Afrazul would come to see them every few months and stay a few days or weeks each time. His last visit to them was during the festival of sacrifice, Eid ul Zuha. But, even on the morning he died, he had called his wife according to his custom – at 8.30 in the morning. He had asked after his beloved daughter – had she gone to school? In turn, his wife had asked him if he had eaten. He had said that he would come to see them at the village at the end of that week. This was the last time that they spoke.
His eldest daughter, Jyotsnara Begum, wept as she repeated, “My father was a good man. We have no brothers. There is no one to take care of us now. I want that his killer be hanged.” I tried to tell them gently that I agreed that he deserved severe punishment – although I believe no one should be given the death penalty. But, I said I felt that far more than the culprit, it is the people, the organisations, and the leaders (up to those who hold high offices) who are guilty, because they have fostered the hate that blinds men like their father’s killer. I told them a little about what I had learned about the man who had killed their father. We had visited Shambhu Lal’s family as well when we were in Rajsamand.
We left them with our eyes moist.
Outside Afrazul’s home, a large number of men from the village had gathered. Most of them said that they were circular migrant workers. “We have little or no land here. There is very little work to be had in agriculture. There are no factories. We can stay alive only if we travel to far corners of India in search of work,” they said. We asked them how much they earned. They said that they managed to save ₹6,000 to ₹7,000 a month, which they sent home. They know that they should have been registered as inter-state migrants, and be given many protections and services – but none of these have come their way.
Many of them had returned in droves from Rajasthan after Afrazul’s killing, and were still too frightened to go back there to work. They said that they had never faced violence in Rajasthan before this. “But, after all the killings of Muslims that we see all over India these days, we have started living with fear. We never know who will attack us, and where,” the workers said. However, they also know that they will have to set out one day again – otherwise, their families will starve, and they would not be able to educate and marry off their children. “If not Rajasthan, we will have to find another part of India to travel to, in search of work,” they stated.
We made one more halt in the same district – in the village Sharikganj – to meet another bereaved family. But, this was a more ambiguous meeting. Over one month after Afrazul’s hate killing, another Bengali migrant from Malda was found killed in his room in Jaipur. He was working in the tent business – another field that has attracted a number of migrants from Malda. Some 10 days before our visit, his body had been found mutilated in his room in Jaipur, a limb severed and damaged with acid.
No one knows why he was killed, and by whom. He could have been killed by his enemies for other reasons than religious hate. But the worry is that, just as Afrazul’s body was found similarly savaged and mutilated, if his killer had not had the murder videographed, the same mysteries would have surrounded Afrazul’s murder as those in the case of this migrant worker, Sakir Ali.
It is hard enough to be forced to spend most of your adult life toiling at low and uncertain wages, without a decent room or food or the company of your loved ones in lonely, faraway lands. Now, if you also have to live with the fear that you might be killed just because of your religion, just trying to survive for those you love becomes an enterprise so fraught and dangerous that it becomes hard to bear.
A version of this post was first published here.