By Harsh Mander
March 1, 2018
We began this New Year with a journey of the Karwan e Mohabbat into Bengal. Few parts of India are untouched by the swirling tides of hate; therefore we had resolved to take our Karwan to at least one state every month, visiting the homes of families hit by acts of hate violence. There, as we did in our travels to eight states in September 2017, we would assure the bereaved families that they are not alone, that there are many in the country who care and who suffer with them. We would continue to tell their stories to the rest of the country, for not just solidarity, but to appeal to our conscience. A score of senior and young journalists and writers, lawyers, a photographer, a trade unionist, an amateur film-maker, researchers, students and rights and peace workers joined the Karwan in Kolkata.
For me it was fitting but emotionally wrenching to start this year’s Karwan with a visit to the home of Afrazul Khan, the migrant worker whose life had ended last year in a particularly brutal hate killing. I had gone days after he was bludgeoned, hacked and then burnt alive, assiduously filmed by a teenager on December 6 2017, to Rajsamand. We learnt there that Rajsamand district, like many parts of Rajasthan, is served by thousands of migrants from Malda, mostly Bengali Muslim workers skilled in construction and road-building. They live lonely lives of hard labour some 10 months every year far away from their families and homes, to feed and educate their families. Just four days after the killing, most of the workers had fled home in terror. We had met in Rajsamand Afrazul’s son-in-law, who the police had asked to stay to assist with the investigations. I had resolved then that the Karwan must visit Afrazul’s family in Malda.
In our journey in Malda, we passed mustard fields in flower and freshly transplanted paddy fields, before we wound our way through narrow lanes to Afrazul’s home in Saiyadpur village. The fruit of his long years of hard labour was that his family lived in a Pucca brick home. Led inside, we met his widow Gulbahar Bibi, and his three daughters. He had no sons.
We explained to his family who we were. Her elder son-in-law, Musharraf, who we had met in Rajsamand after the murder, recognised us. Afrazul’s widow Bibi was composed, but her face was strained, breaking down occasionally. She said they wanted nothing now except the hanging of the man who killed her husband so cruelly, for no reason except his religion. Her daughters fondly recalled their father, who had devoted his entire life to their care. He had educated all his daughters, and married off the elder two. The youngest, Habiba Khatoon, 16 years old, was in Class 10, and wanted to study further. A private residential school had given her admission after her father’s cruel death.
Afrazul had come to them last during Eid ul Zuha. But even the morning he died, he had called his wife according to his custom, at 8.30 in the morning. He had asked after his beloved youngest daughter — had she gone to school? His wife asked him if he had eaten. He said he would come to see them at the village at the end of that week. This was the last time that they spoke.
His eldest daughter, Jyotsnara Begum, wept as she repeated, “My father was a good man. We have no brothers. There is no one to take care of us now. I want that his killer should be hung.” I tried to tell them that I agreed that he deserved severe punishment (although I believe no one should be given the death penalty). But I said I felt that even far more than him, the people, the organisations, and the leaders — up to those who hold high offices — are those who are even guiltier than him, because they have fostered the frenzied and irrational hate that blinds and drives men like their father’s killer. I told them a little about what I had learned about the man who had killed their father. (We had visited his family as well when in Rajsamand).
Outside Afrazul’s home, a large number of men had gathered. Most said that they were circular migrant workers. “We have little or no land here. There is very little work to be had in agriculture. There are no factories. We can stay alive if we travel to far corners of India in search of work.” They managed to save six or seven thousand rupees a month which they sent home.
Many had returned in droves from Rajasthan after Afrazul’s killing, and were still too frightened to go back there to work. They said they had never faced violence in Rajasthan before this. “But after all the killings of Muslims that we see all over India these days, we have started living with fear. We never know who will attack us, and where.” But they know they will have to set out one day soon again, otherwise their families will starve, and they would not be able to educate and marry off their children. “If not Rajasthan, we will have to find another part of India to travel to in search of work”.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee recently made a welcome and important announcement for such workers, that her government would ensure 200 days of work each year for them near their villages if they chose to stay back. If she ensures this, it could be a model for the entire country for all circular migrants, estimated at 100 million workers forced to leave their homes in search of work each year.
It is hard enough to be forced to spend most of your adult life toiling at low and uncertain wages without a decent room or food or the company of your loved ones in faraway lands. If now you also have to live with the fear that you might be killed just because of your religion, just trying to survive for those you love is an enterprise so dangerous that it becomes too hard to bear.