Vinay Lal

1 October 2007

I have been reading over the last few days about the death of Rizwanur Rehman. The young man’s body was found on train tracks in Calcutta on September 21st. Though foul play has been strongly suspected, Calcutta’s Police Commissioner seemed to be in undue haste to pronounce his death a clear case of suicide.

It is said that India’s metros have changed beyond recognition. The cities appear to be flush with money: thousands of millionaires have been created over a short period of time, malls have become (as in the US) ‘cultural’ spaces frequented by youth, the streets are clogged with cars, a culture of dining out has grown by leaps and bounds among people who a few years ago seldom stepped out to eat, and even ordinary shopkeepers no longer bother with a single rupee when doling out the change. The 50 paisa coin has virtually disappeared and is now found, if at all, in only small towns and villages.

The French, however, have a saying: the more things change, the more they remain the same. And at least in one fundamental respect this proverb remains amply proven: inter-religious, and among some communities even inter-caste, marriages are just as perilous for lovers today as they were some decades ago. ‘This is a free and democratic country,’ the Supreme Court of India observed in the celebrated case of Lata Singh (2006), ‘and once a person becomes a major he or she can marry whosoever he/she likes.’ The court noted that this is a ‘crucial transitional period’ in the nation’s history, and that several instances of ‘harrassment, threats and violence against young men and women who marry outside their caste’ had come to its attention. Lata Singh was pursuing a Masters in Hindi at Lucknow University, and of her own free will entered into a marital relationship, solemnized with rites at an Arya Samaj Mandir, with a businessman. Her brothers, deeply offended that she had married outside her caste, and without heed to their wishes, proceeded to beat up her husband, wreck their home, and destroy their marriage.

I doubt that Rizwanur was aware of the Court’s lofty judgment. He nonetheless took the plunge and let his love guide him. His supreme offense was to have loved a Hindu woman, Priyanka Todi, and that too a woman not merely several notches above him in the social ladder but a member of one of India’s ‘industrialist’ families. Priyanka’s family is said to have been aghast at their daughter’s choice or rather effrontery, rejecting parental authority, social and religious norms, and the trappings of luxury – all for the love of a Muslim teacher. Priyanka obviously had reason to fear her father, if the police protection sought by the couple, who were married in August under the Special Marriage Act, on the 30th of the month is any hint. Her father, Ashok Todi, and other male members of the family are now suspected as having plotted, with the active connivance of the police, Rizwanur’s death. Whether Todi persuaded the police to file a false charge of kidnapping his daughter against Rizwanur, or bribed them into engineering his death, are details that may perhaps emerge in the next few weeks.

It has long been thought tolerance for deviation from rigid social norms is virtually non-existent in north India, but that other states, such as the left-ruled West Bengal, are more progressive. Never mind that West Bengal is, on most counts, one of the most mis-managed states in India, and that with respect to many diverse social indices, such as the prevalence of hunger and caste oppression, it belongs with maligned states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. West Bengal is popularly (and falsely) believed to be relatively immune from the social prejudices so vividly on display in the Rizwanur case, and I suspect that the whole matter would have excited much less press had it occurred in north India.

The extreme hazards to which lovers and other intrepid souls are subject when they act in violation of social norms and patriarchal codes has been made amply clear in the case of Rizwanur Rehman. Some will construe these hazards as indicative of the supposed fact, sanctified by decades of colonial ethnography and respectable schools of anthropology, that there is no conception of individual autonomy in India and that ‘the community’ alone matters. That inter-religious marriages receive so little approbation in Indian communities is deplorable, but nonetheless it is far from clear what inferences are to be drawn from the opposition to such marriages. I recall an animated conversation with Meera Nanda some two years ago at a screening of Suma Josson’s film on Gujarat 2002, where she took the view that, as she put it, the ‘myth’ of the composite Hindu-Muslim culture was best put in its place by considering the near absence of Hindu-Muslim inter-marriages in India. She argued strongly that societies where inter-marriages across lines of religion or ethnicity are common are least likely to erupt in violence, but it is not easy to be persuaded by this reasoning. Close to a million Tutsis were massacred by Hutus in the spring of 1994, and all the evidence on record points to the fact that the rate of inter-marriage between the two was not only very high but that in many respects the two social groups are nearly indistinguishable. The violence in Bosnia, a place equally marked by a syncretic past, is another telling instance of the sudden fragility of apparently solid social bonds.

There are compelling arguments to be made about the desirability of inter-religious marriages. It is not necessary to believe that such marriages are an index of religious harmony, or of cultures of syncreticism; indeed, one should be wary of turning such marriages into fodder for the social scientist out to demonstrate the reliability of one theory or another. There is, it appears to me, a much more fundamental consideration. Muslims and Hindus in India have lived for so long alongside each other that there is something of the Hindu in every Muslim as much as something of the Muslim in every Hindu. That is the inescapable truth to which the love story of Priyanka Todi and Rizwanur Rehman was a fiery witness and to which Rizwanur became a martyr at the hands of those who are unable to live with a part of themselves.