- It is heartbreaking beyond words that a man of peace and love is behind bars because he is Muslim and dared to pray in a Hindu temple.
Faisal Khan is a friend and an advisory board member of my organization Hindus for Human Rights. He is a Gandhian peace activist and as National Convenor of Khudai Kidmatgar (servants of God, a movement started in 1929 by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan A.K.A Frontier Gandhi), his life is devoted to service to the neediest across India, and spreading and building unity and love among faith communities. Faisal Khan was arrested 6 weeks ago, in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh. And his alleged crime? Doing namaz (Muslim prayers) in a Hindu temple.
As you will see if you read this backgrounder, watch this 5 minute video by Indian documentary maker Anand Patwardhan or watch our hour-long press conference held on Dec. 10, International Human Rights Day, along with Indian American Muslim Council and Amnesty International-USA, there is no validity to this charge.
On Oct. 30, Faisal bhai and three other Khudai Kidmatgars had completed a 5-day yatra in Brij, Uttar Pradesh, the purpose of which was to spread the message of interfaith harmony. They were having a wonderful exchange with the temple priest at Nand Baba Temple. Faisal bhai was even quoting from the Ramcharitmanas, and you can see the delight on the priest’s face. When it was time for the midday namaz, Faisal bhai said he would go outside and pray. The priest said he needn’t go outside to pray. He could pray right in the temple compound. Those are the facts.
In our press conference, Faisal bhai’s lawyer Colin Gonsalves said that even though his team wanted to present evidence in the form of photos and videos of the fact that Faisal bhai was not a hostile intruder but a welcome guest in the temple, and that the priest invited him to pray, the judge did not permit this evidence. Gonsalves was cautiously optimistic about the strength of Faisal bhai’s case.
Anand Patwardhan argued that having a strong case does not guarantee victory, and emphasized the importance of global attention to human rights in India:
“I do agree with Colin that we have an extremely strong case to free Faisal but that doesn’t give me absolute confidence because we are in a very peculiar situation, an unprecedented one. So we can’t completely be sure that having a strong case means that we will win. So the pressure that you are putting is absolutely important. The world is watching, and this is something that will make the Indians stay in some check.”
This is just one more of thousands of stories of unjust arrests in India. As many of the speakers in our press conference discussed, anyone who speaks (or tweets) dissent is likely to be arrested in today’s India. And particularly concerning is that many of those languishing behind bars during this time of coronavirus — for instance, 70-year-old Dalit leader Anand Teltumbde, grandson-in-law of B.R. Ambedkar; 83-year-old father Stan Swamy, Jesuit priest and Adivasi rights activist; and 70-year-old Gautam Navlakha, civil rights and human rights activist — are senior citizens with health issues which put them at risk.
The Indian authorities have given the message loud and clear that they simply don’t care about the health and wellbeing of those they have thrown behind bars, simply because they have exercised their constitutional right to express their views. Father Stan Swamy has Parkinson’s disease and cannot hold a cup in his hand, and yet he was denied a straw or a sippy cup. Gautam Navlakha’s wife mailed him glasses when his was stolen in jail. Even though Navlakha cannot see without his glasses, the authorities refused to accept the package sent by his wife.
In our press conference, U.K.-based E.U. Parliamentarian Shaffaq Mohammed stated, “Those people in authority and power, that’s the thing they want the most, to say to people like Faisal Khan: nobody cares about you. And our message today, with all of us coming together, is that we do care about Faisal Khan. Not only Faisal Khan, but all those other human rights activists, those people that want to bring communities together in harmony.”
As a Hindu, I must add that my faith is unconditionally inclusive. One of our mahavakyas (great teachings) is Tat twam asi (you are that). This means that we are each one with the divine. This in turn means that we are each one with each other. My faith does not allow for the notion of an “other.” It is heartbreaking beyond words that a man of peace and love is behind bars because he is Muslim and dared to pray in a Hindu temple.
I long for the day that democracy is restored to the country of my birth, and that all prisoners of conscience, including my friend Faisal Khan, are released; and the day when Hindus defend their unconditionally inclusive faith against the violent and bigoted ideology of Hindutva.
Please sign our #FreeFaisalKhan petition: tinyurl.com/freefaisalbhaiglobalpetition
Sunita Viswanath is the cofounder of Hindus for Human Rights.