New Delhi – Yashpal Saxena, a frail Hindu man, sat in the middle of a gathering of strangers on a hot evening in the Indian capital of New Delhi.
He was hosting an Iftar (the meal with which Muslims open their fast during Ramadan), months after his son was violently murdered near their home in the neighbourhood of Raghuvir Nagar in west Delhi.
Ankit, a Hindu, was murdered by a Muslim couple for dating their daughter, a brutal end to a three-year-long relationship.
On Sunday, a few minutes before sundown, more than a hundred people gathered in the narrow lane outside Saxena’s home.
“I tremble, I cry when I remember my son, he was a piece of my heart, my hero,” Yashpal said in a choked voice.
“His murderers were Muslims but that doesn’t mean I will have a grudge against the community,” he added.
Scores of devout Muslims came after prayer to join Yashpal and other activists as the sky started to darken. The family had spread mats in the alleyway so people could sit and dine.
“The idea of a non-Muslim family hosting an iftar for Muslims is exactly what is needed to heal a people divided by hate and bigotry,” said Anas Tanwir, a supreme court lawyer and organiser of #Iftar4All.
Ankit Saxena, 23, had his throat slit open by the family of his Muslim girlfriend on a busy street in New Delhi in February this year.
Marriage outside one’s faith or caste is still frowned upon in many parts of India, at times resulting in violence.
“Honour killings” – when a person is killed by a family member who believes the victim has brought shame on the family, clan or community – are common in India.
According to government data, 288 cases of honour killings were reported between 2014 and 2016 in the country.
For Ankit’s father, Yashpal, breaking bread with these men and women meant a rejection of hate.
“This man is celebrating a festival of the same faith as that of his son’s killers. This resonates with the India that Mahatma Gandhi wanted to build. In an atmosphere of hate, it’s critical that we stand with people like Yashpal,” activist Mohammed Amir Khan told Al Jazeera at the event.
Yashpal’s reaction immediately after his son was killed and in the months that followed have counteracted the possible politics of division that could have played out around the incident.
“Please do not communalise my son’s death,” Yashpal had told local media after his son was the target of the violent hate crime.
He also stayed away from a candle-light march in memory of his son organised by local leaders of the right-wing ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
A Muslim guest broke down while meeting Ankit Saxena’s father who hosted an iftar party at his residence.
I don’t know if this breaks my heart or warms it. But I am just so ashamed today.
Ashamed as a Muslim and as an Indian.
What have we done to this beautiful country ! pic.twitter.com/7EOnVGdybO
— Arfa Khanum Sherwani (@khanumarfa) June 4, 2018
In doing so, he rejected the increasingly poisonous rhetoric directed against Muslims in everyday life in India.
Many right-wing leaders and supporters including a legislator in New Delhi aligned to the ruling party had attempted to stir religious discord, following Ankit’s death. They posted provocative messages on Twitter.
Yashpal now says he wants his son’s name to be synonymous with “communal harmony”.
The family is also planning to set up an organisation to help people who want to marry partners who are not from the same community.
‘This Iftar is a message’
Communal tensions are a constant worry in the world’s biggest democracy. Indians are being whipped up by the demonisation of the other, egged on by the rhetoric of politicians and a feverish media.
Activists claim anti-Muslim sentiment has increased in some places since Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu-nationalist BJP came to power in 2014.
Yashpal, 59, now plans to help couples who do not belong to the same community. He is being aided in his efforts by young Hindu and Muslim men, and members of his family like Ashish Duggal, Ankit’s cousin.
“This iftar is a message … in India, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians all are equal. We will celebrate festivals of all faiths. Today is just a beginning,” Ashish said.
“Many people after Ankit’s death approached us with sectarian messages, they probably wanted riots to follow this tragedy. I had told journalists that please report what we are telling you, ‘don’t use additives.’
“I remember some media showing cartoons of a visibly Muslim-looking man taking a sword to Ankit’s throat.
“What was the need for this? My brother is gone, but don’t do this,” he adds.
Members of the family and Ankit’s friends have rallied around Yashpal and his wife both of whom are battling medical conditions.
The government has yet to provide any financial help to the family, they say.
“They try to be happy, we try to make them happy, neither can I become Ankit, nor can they forget their son,” says Ashish.
Groups of curious policemen guarded both ends of the lane leading to Yashpal’s house although most residents were indoors after a particularly hot day.
‘I will not direct hate’
Memories of that day, when Ankit was killed, are still fresh, says a neighbour who did not want to be named.
Their only child has been killed, they are trying to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of a great tragedy, she said when asked about the old couple’s life since that fateful day in February.
A charge sheet has been filed by the New Delhi police against the four accused – the girl’s father, mother, uncle and brother are in police custody.
I want my son's killers to be hanged, but I will not direct hate towards any faith.
“I want my son’s killers to be hanged, but I will not direct hate towards any faith,” Yashpal told Al Jazeera.
India is predominantly Hindu but with large religious minorities peppered throughout. About a fifth of India’s 1.27 billion people identifies as belonging to faiths other than Hinduism.
Horrific episodes of Hindu-Muslim violence have periodically scarred India’s history since it gained independence from the British rule. Around one million people were killed during the partition of British India into India and Pakistan in 1947.
Many at the event said they don’t know what the lasting answer to the problem was, except to continue challenging such violence and hate when they arise.