Hindu Muslim Bae-Bae
Anand Venkatkrishnan is Assistant Professor in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. He specializes in the study of Hinduism, Indian philosophy, and Sanskrit literature. His research interests include the everyday lives of scholars past and present, and the relationship of religion and left politics in modern South Asia.
A few months ago, while Indian citizens filled the streets in protest against a bigoted law, a Hindu and a Muslim celebrated their wedding. My partner and I have been married for a couple of years, but because much of our extended family lives in the same city, Mumbai, they came together at the end of December to celebrate us at a secular reception. The occasion was special because we feel that our relationship has always been about bringing people together. For two to three hours, people who lived next to each other, but would have otherwise had no reason to be in the same room, shared food, stories, and warm wishes. As I have learned, proximity does not translate to pluralism; it requires acts of civic cooperation. I didn’t know that I would organize one like this, but I’m glad we did. Although, to be honest, our parents did all the work.
We like to think of ourselves as just people with our own simple quirks: I’m an early bird, she’s a late person; I like watching sports, she likes experimental film; she likes to host parties and I like leaving them. But we know that we represent a lot more. To be a Hindu-Muslim couple is inherently political. It emerges defiant from the long shadow of Partition. It troubles the boundaries of caste that separate people. It resists the forces that pull us apart, and appeals instead to a different Indian history: one of cooperation, friendship, and shared values. When M.K. Gandhi and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan walked through the villages of Bengal and Bihar in 1946, delivering relief and a message of peace to the victims of communal violence, it is this history that they tried to exemplify.
Unfortunately, our marriage stands in stark contrast to much of what is currently happening in India. Long before the coronavirus exiled India’s most vulnerable workers from its cities, bereft of state protection, many of its poorest citizens, mostly Muslim minorities, braced for a law that would render them aliens in their own country. The central government’s dual implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Registry of Citizens (NRC) sparked protests around the country that called into question its fidelity to the secular credentials of the Indian constitution. In Delhi, the government’s agents of terror, both official and rogue, inflicted violence on university students in retaliation for their protests, invading the grounds of the Jamia Millia Islamia and Jawaharlal Nehru University. The same week that tens of thousands descended on the August Kranti Maidan in Mumbai to voice their dissent against these acts of repression, a few dozen Hindu and Muslim families gathered to witness a quiet ceremony in another corner of the city.
As I write this reflection, a different set of protests rage outside my window in Chicago. This time, it is American citizens returning attention to this country’s history of state-sponsored violence against its own minorities. Each protest echoes the other, and for good reason; the ideological architect of the Hindu right wing, V.D. Savarkar, planned to treat Muslims in independent India like Black people in America. The political struggles for Black liberation in America form part of our inheritance, though as South Asian Americans, we occupy an ambivalent space in the racial caste system. The history of South Asians’ relationship to Black lives oscillates between symbolic analogy and shameful disavowal. While we cannot either answer for the sins or claim the virtues of our ancestors and kin, we can challenge the inevitability of inequality, and the impossibility of reparations. Revolutionary values — to bring about the end of imperialism, the end of capitalism, the end of exploitation — brought Hindus and Muslims together once. In our case, it was love, tracing a single luminous streak into our dense, dark histories of violent belonging. A Hindu and a Muslim walk down the aisle one day, and down the streets the next.
My partner and I share many values, but one of the most important is hospitality to the stranger (gharib nawazi), to those whom you have no reason to know. In other words, it is the promise of learning from and learning to love those very different from yourself. This is what we do as scholars in our work, and as partners in our life. In these days, that require physical distancing but social solidarity, the question of who our neighbor is, and what moral claims they make on us, has become pressing. May our small act of faith inspire renewed commitments to our shared traditions of justice, peace, and compassion for all.