A journey to atone and heal
Why it mattered to be a part of Harsh Mander’s Karwan-e-Mohabbat
In a village in the Nuh district of Mewat, on the border of Haryana and Rajasthan, a young man showed us YouTube videos on his phone. He spoke a few keywords into his phone to enable a voice search for videos of gau rakshak dals (cow protection squads) thrashing and humiliating cattle transporters. In another chilling video, a man was giving precise instructions on how to thrash someone so that he didn’t die immediately, but the grievous internal injuries would prove fatal within a week.
Here was a video guide on how to kill a human being without being caught for murder. A primer on lynching.
Two evenings earlier, I was in Kandhla, a small town, or what is called a kasba in district Shamli, Uttar Pradesh. I was travelling with a group of people who had all responded to Harsh Mander’s call to join his Karwan-e-Mohabbat, a journey of shared suffering, solidarity, atonement and love.
Mander, a former Indian administrative service (IAS) officer, is a writer and activist who works with survivors of mass violence as well as homeless people and street children. In mid-August this year, when he announced a civil society initiative to travel across parts of India which are worst affected by lynchings, my husband and I felt an instant connect. “The purpose is two-fold,” wrote Mander in his crowdfunding appeal, “to respond to the everyday fear of Muslims, Dalits and Christians and the worrying silences of the majority.”
In Kandhla, I came face to face with the discomfort of breaking my own silence.
Akram Akhtar, a peace activist and community leader had organized an Aman Sabha—a peace meeting where members of the Karwan met with over 300 residents of the town and nearby areas.
Earlier in the day Akhtar had shared with us that while caste rivalries had always been sharp-edged in this area, communal tension was a new and manufactured phenomenon. We were in a Muslim majority area that has seen a robust participation in the Revolt of 1857 as well as the freedom struggle against British colonization. Stories of valour despite violent oppression are part of the local folklore.
Along with a few others, Mander invited me on to the stage to address the gathering. I looked out towards what seemed to be a sea of people in a long street—almost all Muslim men, dressed in white and wearing skullcaps. Some women were looking at us from partially opened windows of houses on both sides of the street.
As far as my acquired biases and hidden fears are concerned, the men in the audience could have been Hindus wearing saffron robes and rudraksh prayer beads and I would have felt equally wary of speaking up in front of them.
“My name is Natasha Badhwar and my husband’s name is Mirza Afzal Beg,” I began. “My father is called Trilok and my father-in-law is Ashfaq.”
A bearded man in the front row nodded his head vigorously. It was all the reassurance I needed. I stole a glance at him again and again and his expression encouraged me to keep speaking.
“The story of this land and region is the story of my family,” I continued, thinking of my children and cupping my hands protectively when I said family. I spelt out the names of our three daughters and shared that they are often asked if they are Hindu or Muslim. Sometimes their classmates substitute the word “Pakistani” for “Muslim” because they have watched too much news television and heard so much anti-Muslim rhetoric. They need to be told again that Muslims in India are Indians.
I shared the Partition stories of both sides of my family. How a Muslim family in Ghazipur struggled to cope with being cut off from their elder son who had chosen to hold on to his government job in Chittagong when the country was divided into India and Pakistan in 1947. How my Hindu grandparents were uprooted from their home in Lahore at the same time and despite their later successes, died prematurely trying to cope with the trauma they had endured.
How their great-granddaughters—my children—are a symbol of a land trying to heal from the wounds of its past. We are the adults who must turn the tide away from hate.
I had not imagined that I would ever be narrating my love story like this, yet here I was—my voice breaking, my sentences unsure—speaking to people who I have been taught to see as “the other” and receiving complete acceptance and applause. I cannot quantify what I gave them, but I received a life energy from them that has stayed with me.
The Karwan-e-Mohabbat moved on the next day towards villages in the Mewat region of Haryana. Among others on the bus were writers, photographers, educationists, journalists, social workers, activists and a group of men studying to be Christian priests.
We met Dalit and Muslim parents who have lost their sons to lynching and mob violence. We met the wives and children of victims—struggling against poverty and injustice.
“We live by the Constitution, we abide by the law,” Agni Bhaskar Bodh, a Dalit man asserted to us, underlining that he was unbroken by the physical wounds that he was recovering from.
“What made you join the Karwan?” Mander asked me on my third day on the bus.
“I joined for various reasons,” I answered, “but what gave me the strength and conviction to keep travelling away from my own home was what my children had said to me when I had shared with them this hope of resolving conflicts and seeking reconciliation—Go, Mamma, go, this is important work.”
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and author of the book My Daughters’ Mum.