KASGANJ, Uttar Pradesh -- A year ago, 21-year-old Surabhi Chauhan made the decision to leave her family and marry Rahat Qureshi, the love of her life. After carrying out a secret romance for four years in their hometown of Kasganj in western Uttar Pradesh, the Hindu woman and the Muslim man married in court and then fled to Delhi to escape the wrath of their families.
Today, Qureshi is behind bars in connection with the communal violence that erupted between Hindus and Muslims in the city on January 26, which claimed the life of a 19-year-old student named Chandan Gupta. Following her husband's arrest on February 2 by the state police, Chauhan quite literally finds herself in uncharted territory.
Not only is she still estranged from her own family, circumstances have forced her to live with her in-laws for the first time in the Muslim neighbourhood of Baddu Nagar. Over 100 people -- both Hindus and Muslims -- have been arrested in connection with the communal violence. On February 14, Scroll.in, after examining 14 registered cases, reported that the police had focused on clashes between Hindus and Muslims within the first 24 hours rather than attacks carried out by Hindu mobs in the following days.
During a recent conversation, Chauhan told me that living with her in-laws is her only option at the moment, but all that she wants is to return with her husband to their own home in Nadrai Gate, where they had moved to after making their way back from Delhi.
As she dried her wet hair with a towel, Chauhan repeated what she has said to the media over the past few weeks. "My husband is innocent. He was with me the whole day at our home on January 26," she said, adding that a family wedding was to have taken place the next day.
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Then, her eyes brimming with tears again, Chauhan said, "I'm here with his family but I feel alone. He does everything for me. I'm able to forget my parents, his people and everything else. I'm for him and he is for me."
The girl from the Thakur community fell silent as the voice of her husband's maternal uncle boomed across the small house. "Where will she go now? She has left her people. She doesn't have her husband anymore. What will she do?"
"Where will she go now? She has left her people. She doesn't have her husband anymore. What will she do?"
Even after the communal strife that gripped Kasganj for several days and her husband's subsequent arrest, Chauhan has not heard from her parents. Never in a million years had she imagined living with her in-laws, but living alone for a young woman in Kasganj is simply not an option.
Later, when I asked her if she agreed with the doomsday scenario that her husband's uncle had sketched, she shrugged. "They are being nice to me now. I cry and cry and cry, sometimes I faint and they take care of me. But they don't think like my husband. He made our own home because he wanted me to be completely free to live and pray like a Hindu. I don't do anything that Muslims do," she said. "There is no other place that I feel completely safe."
He made our own home because he wanted me to be completely free to live and pray like a Hindu. I don't do anything that Muslims do.
Whipping out her phone, Chauhan showed me photos of the "pooja place" adorned with Hindu gods and goddesses, which she had set up in her own home in Nadrai Gate. After furiously scrolling through the images on her phone, she showed me photos of the couple celebrating Diwali together. "I was the happiest woman just a month ago and now things are so bad. We don't even know why all this happened," she said.
One month on
Chauhan's sense of despair and confusion is palpable in many others across religious lines, even a month after the communal violence. So is the polarization.
The minority community blames the violence on the young Hindu men who rode their bikes through a flag hoisting ceremony organized by local Muslims to mark Republic Day, last month. Video footage showed the young men waving a saffron flag along with the Indian tricolor as they took out the unauthorized bike rally through the Veer Abdul Hamid Chowk on January 26. They can be heard shouting, "Hindustan mein rehna hoga, Vande Mataram kehna hoga" (If you want to live in India, then you will have to chant Vande Mataram).
The Hindus insist that the Muslims attacked the young men without any provocation, with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders like Union Minister Niranjan Jyoti and lawmaker Vinay Katiyar stating that Chandan Gupta was killed by Pakistan supporters in Kasganj. Katiyar has previously said that the Taj Mahal used to be a Shiv Temple called "Tejo Mahal." Jyoti, in 2014, had asked voters to choose between 'Ramzadon' (born of Ram) and 'haramzadon' (illegitimately born).
An independent study concluded that the violence was not the result of a spontaneous clash, but the outcome of a carefully planned attack by members belonging to the right-wing groups (the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad and the Sankalp Foundation).
The study, carried out by a fact finding team called United Against Hate, which includes a retired Inspector General from the UP police, journalists and social activists, also found the state police to have played a partisan role, which resulted in its failure to prevent the young men from torching shops owned by Muslims. The team also raised serious questions about the circumstances of Chandan Gupta's death as well as the arrest of the prime accused in his murder case – a cloth seller named Saleem.
"There was no peace initiative by the political class. There is a deafening silence," they noted.
There was no peace initiative by the political class. There is a deafening silence.
Kasganj, unaccustomed to communal strife, is dealing, for the first time since the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, with the tenacious sort of divisiveness and bitterness, which religious violence leaves in its wake.
Baddu Nagar is mourning the death of an elderly woman whose husband and son were both arrested in connection with the violence. While her health had been flailing for several years, neighbours insist that it was the shock of recent arrests that killed her. The dead woman's family member produced a video of an elderly man stumbling as he is dragged by the police. "He is 72-years-old, he can barely walk. Look at how they are dragging him," his daughter said, in a choked voice.
He is 72-years-old, he can barely walk. Look at how they are dragging him.
In Shivalay Gali, a Hindu neighbourhood located just a few kilometers away from Baddu Nagar, a father stared at the photo of his dead son, a wreath around the frame.
As he stroked the small white dog, which Chandan Gupta had brought home just one day before he was killed, Sushil Gupta said, "I don't blame anyone. I don't want any more violence," he said. "It seems that we are living in a country where one cannot say, 'Bharat mata ki jai' without getting killed, well, then we are in a bad situation. Where else will we say, 'Hindustan is great' if not in Hindustan."
Gupta, who works as a compounder, has alleged that his son was shot because he refused to say, "Pakistan Zindabad, Hindustan Murdabad." He told me, "They (Muslims) have never celebrated for January 26 and I don't think they were doing it, this time either. Let them show some proof of ever having celebrated before this year, just one photo or video. It was a premeditated conspiracy on their part."
Om Sharma, who sells watches and electronic equipment in the crowded marketplace called Ghantaghar, appeared torn. On the one hand, Sharma is angry at the Muslims of Kasganj, who he blames for the violence. On the other hand, he has nothing but affection and sympathy for the one Muslim man, who has sold shoes from next to Sharma's own shop for over five decades.
It was Sharma, who on the morning of January 27, tried to stop a Hindu mob from burning down the shop of his neighbour, Mansoor Ahmed Sherwani, and then helped douse the fire that completely gutted it. "Honestly, I was afraid that the fire would spread to my shop as well. But that wasn't the only reason. We have been neighbours for two generations, his father and my father also worked next to each other," he said.
Sharma ended our conversation by saying that he stays clear of the Muslim localities, where, he insists, that they celebrate Pakistan's victory over India in cricket matches. Echoing Gupta's sentiment, he said, "It was a preplanned conspiracy to attack the Hindu boys."
We have been neighbours for two generations, his father and my father also worked next to each other.
Sherwani, the owner of the gutted shoe shop, estimated that he has incurred a loss worth Rs. 25 lakhs. As he supervised the reconstruction of his shop on one recent afternoon, the soft-spoken man told me that he felt the people of Kasganj deeply regretted the violence.
"Let me tell you that when I walk around, I get sympathetic looks from everyone, Hindus and Muslims. I think people realize that something terrible happened and they feel badly about it," he said. "Can I predict the future? No. But we are traders together and traders do not want this kind of trouble again."
I get sympathetic looks from everyone, Hindus and Muslims. I think people realize that something terrible happened and they feel badly about it.
Between two worlds
Chauhan is stuck between the shifting sands of reconciliation and resentment.
As we sat in silence for a few seconds, Shehnaz Begum, her mother-in-law, spoke up. "She is afraid of losing her husband, I am afraid of losing my son. We are both experiencing pain, so how does it matter now who is Hindu and who is Muslim."
But even as she chatted with her sisters-in-law, one of the few conversations that Chauhan has had with them since she got married, the differences were apparent. While her sisters-in-law said they never wore jeans and rarely left the house, Chauhan said that she dressed how she wanted. While her sisters-in-law wore headscarves, Chauhan kept her hair open, even as male relatives filed into the room. And she refused to be intimidated by them.
When her husband's younger brother barged into the room and told her not to speak with this reporter, his sisters fell silent but Chauhan ignored him.
Playing with the pendant around her neck, with an image of Lord Shiva on one side and Goddess Durga on the other, she looked me in the eyes and said, "It is true that it is painful to repeat my story. But you ask me what you want and I will answer."
Even as her sisters-in-law giggled and insisted that their mother leave the room, Chauhan narrated snatches of her secret romance with Qureshi.
They met in 2013, when she was pursuing her BA in college and he was working as a driver. Since it would have been scandalous for the young couple to meet in a small town like Kasganj, they contented themselves with talking on the phone and exchanging wistful glances for four years.
For the few moments that she had delved into the past, Chauhan seemed to forget her recent troubles. Laughing out loud, she said, "He would come into my galli, I would be in the terrace and that was about it. We just looked at each other."
Then, the smile fading from her face, she recalled meeting with Qureshi after he was jailed. "He looked weak, very weak," she said. Chauhan plans to write to Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath about the release of her husband. "Is there someway that I can reach him? I'm sure he will listen to the plea of a young woman," she said. "I'm having sleepless nights. The family is devastated. I must take his case forward."
Is there someway that I can reach him? I'm sure he will listen to the plea of a young woman.
For many residents of Kasganj, the communal violence is a shameful blot on their otherwise peaceful co-existence. But for Chauhan, whose marriage to Qureshi has given her the freedom to live on her own terms, it is inexplicable. "I don't understand it. If we can be happily married then how can it be so difficult for everyone else to get along," she said.
Chauhan continued, "Right now, things are okay. But there are people who are always there to provoke and make people fight. They could still be around."
Chauhan's fears are not unfounded. It is worth mentioning that just hours after Chandan Gupta was killed, Rajveer Singh, the BJP lawmaker from Etah, was heard provoking a crowd. Singh, who is the son of Rajasthan governor Kalyan Singh, said, "the violence was pre-planned where one of our men passed away".
As she straddles two worlds, there are times when Chauhan faces an overwhelming pressure to choose. Although she has decided to stay away from her family, the fact that they see her as a traitor has often weighed on her mind. Chandan Gupta's death has disturbed her.
"Hindus always say that Muslims are bad. Why do they say that?" she said. "Chandan has died. But believe me, even Muslims in this town are feeling really bad about it. Just like Hindus, they want the killers to be caught. There really is no reason to hate each other."
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