Led by Harsh Mander, this group of volunteers was arriving from Delhi and would travel by road from Patna to villages in the districts of Sitamarhi, Muzaffarpur, Araria—reaching as far as a remote hamlet on the border of Nepal. The team included lawyers, writers, researchers and human rights workers, most of whom contribute their services to extend the support that survivors need.
My uncle’s question is rooted in a deep concern for my family and me, but in it is implicit the belief that there is an intangible boundary beyond which my empathy is not really justified. Why don’t I stay at home and do my primary work, instead of engaging with others who are not like us?
I didn’t answer him then, but I thought to myself, it is not God who has forsaken these places. It is people like you and me, and the governments we elect, that have abandoned and isolated their own people.
Over the next five days, we met Manju Devi, who broke down with a piercing lament at the sight of our group, and refused to be consoled. Her 19-year-old son Bhartendu had been killed, allegedly because he was in love with a Muslim girl. We met a sharp, angry Shabnam Khatoon, who was a survivor of the retaliatory violence that led to the death of four unrelated Muslim men from families which lived close by.
“We don’t want revenge," said Shabnam. “We want justice. We want peace. Do we not deserve to rebuild our shattered lives? Why is this my cross to bear alone?"
We met dry-eyed, stoic fathers who showed us files of legal papers that have failed to bring them any sense of justice. We consoled the sons of 80-year-old Zainul Ansari in Sitamarhi, who were still in shock as they shared photographs taken by people in the mob of the various stages of violence wrought on their father, who had been attacked and burnt alive simply because he was a visibly Muslim man. Returning from his sister’s home, Ansari had got caught in a Durga Puja procession in which anti-Muslim slogans were being chanted in response to rumours that the arm of the Durga statue had been damaged.
Coming face to face with the grief of others made us weary and exhausted. We would recoup our energies repeatedly. I woke up one morning on the quiet campus of the Roman Catholic diocese in Muzaffarpur, which had hosted us at short notice. I took photographs of the late February sun filtering through semal trees, laden with heavy, red flowers. In response to my uncle’s good morning text asking about our well-being, I sent him photographs of the natural beauty of places he had worried were godforsaken.
In Araria, we arrived at the home of Arshi Parveen and Nawab Raza, whose 18-year-old son had been imprisoned for three months after he was identified in a viral WhatsApp video that had the soundtrack of pro-Pakistan slogans. The fact-checking website Alt News quickly reported that the video was doctored, but three Muslim boys have been scarred by the trauma of imprisonment and the stigma of being labelled anti-national.
“My son spends 18 out of 24 hours a day shut in his own room. He has gone into a shell and we don’t know how to help him," said the mother.
“People are practising the politics of hate to further their personal ambitions," said the helpless father.
Sitting in this room in Araria, listening to these raw testimonies, I had one overwhelming thought—I just want to go home.
But how does one live in a home where there is a sense of loss and occasional terror? How do I go and meet my children who, like many others of their generation, have internalized anxiety about the state of the world they are growing up in? They know that their family is fine. But they don’t know how to make sense of a world that pejoratively refers to their parents’ marriage as “love jihad". A hostile world in which men and women are being brutalized and killed by their own communities for falling in love with someone from another religion or caste.
Are their parents vulnerable to the same kind of violence? Are they wrong? How does one ask a child to stay rational in a world that seems to have gone mad?
As if to address my dark thoughts, Mohammad Aamir Khan, a member of the Karwan and author of the memoir Framed As A Terrorist: My 14 Year Struggle To Prove My Innocence, began to narrate his story about being kidnapped, tortured, incarcerated in solitary confinement and accused in 18 bomb blast cases. It took 14 years for his lawyers and him to win his freedom. Khan talked about the loss of his parents and his post-traumatic stress, but he also spoke of hope and revival. Of refusing to be defeated and of returning to life with a larger purpose and greater vision. He told the people gathered there to not see themselves as isolated victims. To extend their empathy to others who are wrongly targeted and isolated by injustice.
I typed notes into my phone to find a way out of the fog in my own mind. We are all vulnerable to depression and anxiety. But we also wake up every day and choose life. The healthiest response to alarming information is action.
What Khan is demonstrating with his life is a transcendent response to trauma. When something too big for us to handle happens to us, our only healthy response is to grow bigger.
Suddenly, I have a coherent answer to the question my uncle had asked me about why I travel and work with the Karwan-e-Mohabbat. When we step out to confront mindless violence and hate, we also discover the power and grace of those who stand up to it. We find the strength we were afraid we didn’t have.
The less compassion we see in the world around us, the more we need to practise it. We all function best when we are hopeful, when we have something to care about. We may or may not be successful against powers that seem too big to take on, but at least we will foil our own surrender to despair. Acting as if we have hope will give us hope. I know this.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker and the author of the books My Daughters’ Mum and Immortal For A Moment.
She tweets at @natashabadhwar