NEW DELHI — Ankit Saxena swayed unsteadily before his knees buckled, a second after his girlfriend’s father had pulled back his hair and slit his throat.
Yashpal Saxena, his father, lunged forward and caught him, but he was helpless. The world around him seemed to slow down. He watched his son dying in freeze frame; his eyes fluttering, his breath haggard, his blood spilling onto the street.
The petite man bundled his son’s muscular frame into a passing electric rickshaw and rushed him to the nearest hospital.
“I did not know whether he was alive. My only thought was that if I can get him to a hospital then he will live. You tell yourself that the doctors will perform a miracle and save him,” Saxena said in a recent conversation with HuffPost India.
23-year-old Ankit, who was in a relationship with a Muslim woman, did not make it alive to the hospital. He was attacked on 1 February 2018 by her family members. They did not want her getting involved with a Hindu. Her father, mother, uncle and brother (a minor) are awaiting trial.
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One year on, Saxena and his wife Kamlesh, a soft-spoken couple from West Delhi, are living in agony.
“From class 1 to class 12, I took him to school every morning and went to pick him up every afternoon. I worked day and night so that he could have the things that I could not. Every decision that I made was for him,” Saxena said.
“I had watered this beautiful flower for 23 years and then someone came along and killed it in three seconds,” he said. “You cannot imagine the grief and the rage I felt. I lost control.”
Saxena, however, did not let his emotions push him down the path of hatred.
On the contrary, despite his own anguish, the 60-year-old electrician emerged as an extraordinary voice of reason and calm, even as he came under tremendous pressure to “punish” Muslims.
Soon after his son’s death, he recalled powerful rightwing leaders phoning him and saying, “Danga karan de? (Do you want a communal riot?)... Agar danga hoga to aapko ghar bhete bhete crore-on ka compensation bhi miljayega.” (If there is a communal riot, then you will also get compensation worth crores just sitting at home).
As his locality stood on the brink of religious violence and the Muslim families he had known for years started sending their children away, Saxena put an end to the hate-mongering.
“I told the media that I hate my son’s killers, not their religion. I was not trying be a saint. It was how I felt. Why should I blame all Muslims? By that logic, are all Hindus like Lord Ram?” said Saxena, as his neighbor, a Muslim woman, came to call his wife for a milaap (gathering) at the house of another Muslim resident in the locality.
“Do you see that woman? She cooked food for us every day for three months after Ankit was killed,” he said. “We could not do anything for ourselves, it was Izhar bhai and his wife who took care of us.”
It was, then, surprising to discover that Saxena, a man who champions love and respect for all citizens irrespective of their religion, and lives by these values every day, had grown up supporting the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and attending the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-run shakhas.
The BJP and its ideological parent, the RSS, want India to become a Hindu rashtra.
Saxena, however, plans to vote for the BJP in the 2019 general election.
A day spent with Saxena was not enough for him to explain this paradox in his beliefs and in his vote, though he admits he sees the dissonance.
Saxena is not happy that he will be voting for Narendra Modi. And he is not alone. Millions of Indians are angry at the BJP’s mishandling of the economy, the job crisis and devastation that demonetisation has left in its wake. Saxena, however, has an additional cross to bear: his conscience. He believes himself to be “secular,” and thinks the past five years were horrific for minorities in India.
Even while conceding that he is in some measure influenced by a biased media, pro-Modi propaganda and misinformation, Saxena still believes there is no credible alternative to Modi as prime minister.
The Opposition, it would appear, has failed to convince him otherwise.
“This is the first time I will vote with a heavy heart for the BJP, but you tell me is there any other leader who can lead the country, right now?” he said.
You tell me is there any other leader who can lead the country, right now?
In the past five years, its second full term after the Vajpayee government came to power in 1998, the BJP has allowed a violent attack on minorities to flourish. There have been attacks on churches and on Muslims, while lynchings in the name of cow protection spiked. In June 2017, a teenager named Junaid was lynched just for being, well, Muslim.
There were many, including Saxena, who believed that Modi, in keeping with the dignity of the prime minister’s office, would rise above communal politics once elected. That, however, has not been the case. The prime minister has campaigned on communal lines in almost every state election, including Bihar, Gujarat, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, and currently for the 2019 general election.
Just this week, Modi taunted Congress president Rahul Gandhi for contesting from Wayanad in Kerala, calling it a constituency where the “majority was in minority.”
Saxena, who hails from Bulandshahr in Uttar Pradesh, says his family has been loyal to the BJP since the days of its predecessor, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, and he finds it hard to break that connection.
Five more years under the BJP, Saxena said, would “really test and perhaps even damage” secular values in India, but he is confident neither the BJP nor its allies can “destroy” them.
To him, the immediate danger is in picking the wrong leader, and a dysfunctional coalition of political parties, who could send the country careening towards chaos for the next five years.
“A battle of ideas is going on: secularism versus Hindutva. I wish from my heart that we remain a secular country, but is there any political party that is truly committed to this ideal?” he said.
Saxena continued, “There are many things that go into running a house or a country. You need food, clothes, money for weddings and emergencies. Modi is tough when it comes to national security.”
A battle of ideas is going on: secularism versus Hindutva.
Modi was right, Saxena went on to say, in ordering a surgical strike against a “terrorist camp” inside Pakistan after the Pulwama attack in February, and he doubted whether any other leader would have acted so quickly and decisively.
It is worth pointing out that even as he credited Modi for a “swift” surgical strike against Pakistan, Saxena said that everything he knew about the Modi comes from news channels and social media platforms, and he has often wondered how much of it is true.
He is inclined to believe that most of it is.
“What choice do I have? Everyone in the media and on Facebook is saying that Modi is really tough on Pakistan. They say that the media is sold out, but it’s not as if I can go to Pakistan and check what happened. I have to rely on the news channels,” he said.
60, Broke And In Court
The only time that Saxena smiled during several hours of conversation was when he spoke about his son, his motley crew of friends who called themselves “Awara Boys,” and the “funny” videos they posted on YouTube.
While Ankit was an aspiring model, he was also earning money as a photographer, specializing in deploying drones to take photos at weddings.
As he played one video and then another of the Awara Boys, Saxena said, “He had changed over the past year or so. He was taking care of his looks, going to the gym regularly. He wanted to make it really big. He wanted to be a star,” he said.
For many months after losing his only child, Saxena had lost his will to live. Waking up in the morning and getting through the day seemed like a pointless and painful exercise to him.
One year on, however, Saxena is stronger. He has two reasons to carry on: his wife, whom he loves dearly, and seeking justice for his son.
Saxena is also broke.
After suffering a major heart attack in September 2016, which left him with four stents inside his body, Saxena had come to rely on Ankit.
“The hospital bill must have come to around Rs 2 lakhs. It was impossible for us to pay, but Ankit managed everything. He ran around, speaking with doctors, speaking with relatives, borrowing the money,” he said.
After Ankit was murdered, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Delhi assured his family of compensation worth Rs 5 lakh, and a senior lawyer to fight their case in court, Saxena said.
He is yet to receive the money or the lawyer, Saxena said.
Every month, Saxena makes three or four trips to the courts. He travels 45-50 minutes by metro to the Tis Hazari district court or the Juvenile Justice Court at the Kingsway Camp, where the minor accused in the case appears.
So far, Saxena is making do with two government lawyers and another “young lawyer”, who came to him rather unexpectedly after he narrated his woes on a radio programme last year.
“The government lawyer in the Juvenile Court makes no effort on our behalf. We have to tell him, ‘please say something.’ The lawyer in the adult court is only doing the basics. It is the young lawyer who helps us out, tells us what is going on, prepares us for a cross-examination,” he said.
Saxena’s worst fear is the charges against the accused getting diluted from Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code (culpable homicide amounting to murder) to Section 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder), which carries a maximum sentence of ten years.
In October last year, the AAP government announced the appointment of senior lawyers Rebecca John and Vishal Gosain as special prosecutors in the case.
Speaking with HuffPost India, John said the file on her appointment was still pending with the office of the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, a functionary of the central government, which is currently run by the BJP.
In December last year, Saxena sent a letter to Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal reminding him of his two promises. “Sir, please do something.”
His voice cracking with emotion, Saxena said, “We had really hoped for one good lawyer who would really fight for us. This is so important to us. If we lose, I don’t think we will survive it.”
We had really hoped for one good lawyer who would really fight for us. This is so important to us.
Meanwhile, the BJP MP from West Delhi, Parvesh Sahib Singh Verma, has offered a food stall to Saxena, which he estimates could rake in Rs 12,000-13,000, every month.
Verma, Saxena thinks, wants to hand him the key to the food stall once the election cycle kicks off. At this point, he is indifferent to politicians scoring points at his expense.
“If he wants to make a big show in front of the media, it’s okay, as long as I can get the food stall. But he really needs to hurry. The situation is dire. There is no money coming in,” he said.
On whether he was voting for the BJP in the general election because it was a BJP lawmaker who was on the verge of fulfilling his promise, Saxena said no.
He added that he planned to vote for AAP in the Delhi Assembly election next year.
“I hate AAP on a personal level. Kejriwal has done nothing for me, but he has done some good work for the public. Cheap electricity and free water is a godsend” he said. “People forget that Kejriwal was a newcomer in politics. He fights, he falls, but he does something.”
Kejriwal has done nothing for me, but he has done some good work for the public.
India has changed
A narrow flight of stairs leads up to one of the two rooms in Saxena’s house, which serves as the living room, kitchen and bedroom. A bed takes up most of the room. A portrait of Ankit takes up most of the wall.
A few days after Ankit was murdered, a man from a right-wing organization sat on the bed, urging Saxena to seek revenge on Muslims, he said.
It was when he started talking about “cutting mullahs” that Saxena’s restraint ran its course and he asked the man to leave.
In the immediate aftermath of his son’s murder, there was immense pressure on Saxena to green-light a communal riot. One right-wing leader even told him that “it would be worse than Kasganj,” referring to the communal violence which had broken out in a city in Uttar Pradesh a week before that. Another leader, he said, told him that “thousands of men were ready with weapons”.
While his unwelcome guest had been urging him to seek revenge, Saxena was thinking of another occupant of that bed — Ashraf, Ankit’s best friend, who would eat more meals in his house than at his own place.
“He was always here. They were inseparable. People would tease them as ‘girlfriend and boyfriend,’” he said. “He is also like my son. I had already lost a son to violence. I did not want anyone else to lose their sons.”
In those tense days, Saxena started taking his meals with his neighbour, Izhar bhai, in the narrow lane outside their building. They would share food from the same plate as a show of solidarity, he said.
I had already lost a son to violence. I did not want anyone else to lose their sons.
Love and respect for all religions was a way of life when he was growing up, said Saxena.
Over the past few years, he said, hate seemed to manifest itself in everyday life: while having a conversation with friends and neighbours, in WhatsApp groups, and in the comments on Facebook. It is not the right-wing radicals that frighten him, but the trolls on Facebook who hounded him for hosting an iftaar party last year.
“I was trolled so badly that I almost had a breakdown. There seems to be a movie script that everyone has memorized—‘Muslims did this and then did that, and then Aurangzeb did this...’ Everyone is saying the same thing.” he said.
Saxena says this is carefully constructed propaganda and is worried about its impact on future generations.
“When we were growing up, we were taught to respect all religions. That is what we taught our son. Our children are growing up with lessons in hate. What kind of country will we be in 10 years?” he said. “There is no room for disagreements and criticism anymore, only attacks.”
This time, it was Ankit’s mother who whisked out her phone and showed a photo of her son in a bright red shirt and a white skull cap.
“He would go to the temple, and the mosque, and the gurudwara and the church. He was a good kid,” she said.
There is no room for disagreements and criticism anymore, only attacks.
Saxena has less money now than he had before the Modi government demonetised Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes in November 2016.
It was just two months after he had suffered a heart attack, and Saxena was barely able to stand in the long bank queues to get his old notes exchanged. His wife, he said, would often take his place.
Then they started taking turns to stand in the queue, with his wife taking the morning shift.
“There was no money to buy food. We could not borrow any because no one had cash. I felt then that Modi had to go. He told us that ‘I will do this and I will do that,’ but all he did was put us in a ditch,” he said.
Demonetisation, coupled with the Goods and Service Tax, which was rolled out a few months later, “finished” his “small business” of making electrical appliance parts, Saxena said.
Other “small businesses” run by his neighbour and friends, he said, have still not recovered.
There was no money to buy food.
Modi, meanwhile, has stopped trying to capitalise on demonetisation while campaigning.
Saxena is continuing to live with the scars of demonetisation, but his anger against Modi has faded.
“Modi has done this wrong, this wrong, this wrong. He has done a lot of wrong things, but can anyone else fix this? There is no surety,” he said.
In the weeks following the Pulwama attack, Modi has once again cast himself as the nation’s saviour.
Saxena is sure that Modi is responsible for bringing home Indian Airforce Pilot Abhinandan Varthaman. His friends and neighbours, he said, also believe that Modi has raised India’s profile in the world, and that he has considerable clout among world leaders.
“I don’t think India has had such a standing in the world before. Has it?” he said.
I don’t think India has had such a standing in the world before. Has it?
What to believe?
As he talked about the media coverage of Wing Commander Abhinandan and Modi’s role in getting him home, Saxena once again said that he isn’t quite sure what to believe.
From what he has heard and read, Saxena has come to believe that it was Modi who put pressure on countries like France and Russia, which in turn put pressure on Pakistan to return the Indian pilot.
It is still unclear why Pakistan returned Wing Commander Abhinandan without asking anything of India. It is widely seen as a goodwill gesture on the part of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, which halted a rapidly deteriorating situation between the two neighbours.
This wasn’t the first time that Saxena had misgivings about the news. He is often in a dilemma about how much to believe when it comes to the Prime Minister.
The West Delhi resident has even tried watching YouTube videos about life in Pakistan, and find that these do not correspond to the impression of a country in ruin which Indian news channels have left him with.
“People seem to be doing okay there,” he said. “Then, is it our media that is lying to us?”
Another item which has impressed him, is about how Modi handles the United States. From what he has heard and read, Saxena has come to believe that Modi is thick friends with Donald Trump and has some sway over the president of the United States.
“I don’t know whether Trump listens to him or not. What choice do I have but to trust the media? I cannot go to America and check with Trump,” he said.
What choice do I have but to trust the media?
He has changed too
The past year has changed him, said Saxena. The people he encountered after losing his son have not shaken his core beliefs, but he now has a dimmer view of humanity.
He loathes the rabid right-wing, detests the liberals who were determined to make him the mascot for secularism, and hates the politicians, who used his tragedy to score points, but failed to deliver on their promises.
The biggest tragedy which has befallen India, as he sees it, is that people with a difference of opinion no longer talk to each other. The only ways of communicating appear to be verbal abuse or physical violence, whether on social media or in real life.
The people who attacked Ankit on 8 February 2018, had lived two houses down from the Saxena family for many years before they moved to another lane in the locality. The mothers of Ankit and his girlfriend had crossed each other in the street that very morning.
“India has changed. There is so much hate everywhere that people don’t even want to talk to each other anymore. They just want to gather in mobs, beat, hit and abuse,” said Saxena.
The grieving father, who had remained stoic during a day-long interview, choked up when he said this: “Even the people who killed my son, if they had just come to our house and talked to us — once. I’m sure we could have resolved all our differences, and my son would have been alive.”