Mumbai/Srinagar: Faisal Khan believes that the antidote to religious hatred is religion itself, inverting its conventions and pushing its boundaries.
Over two decades, Khan invited Hindu sadhus to eat at a madrasa during a yatra (journey) to save the Ganga. He mobilised Muslim students to run a food bank named after Swami Vivekananda during the lockdown. He walked into temples, with skull cap and beard, and recited the Ramcharitmanas, a revered Hindu-epic scripture on the life of Ram.
A graduate of sociology, Khan, 45, seldom seen without his trademark coloured skullcap and his beard, used a 90-year old colonial resistance movement and reinvented it, using these methods to give new life to the Khudai Khidmatgar, or servants of God. A predominantly Pashtun movement in undivided India, it espoused non-violence and was founded in the 1920s by Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who was called the frontier Gandhi.
In its new avataar from 2011, Khan insisted that at least 35% of the Khudai Khidmatgar had to be non-Muslim.
“Most people feel the way to fight communalism is to criticise the orthodox. But he disagrees—he said you have to learn to live with such people and soften them up and in the process, soften up yourself,” said Khan’s colleague and Khudai Khidmatgar spokesman Pawan Yadav. “He taught us to bow a little and not be rigid about our beliefs.”
But in modern-day Uttar Pradesh (UP), where, as Article 14 reported in October 2020, majoritarianism has become state policy, such flexibility is discouraged.
On 3 November, the UP police arrested Khan, a father of a five-year-old boy, from his Jamia Nagar residence in Delhi on charges of “promoting enmity between groups”, “injuring or defiling a place of worship with intent to insult the religion” and “public mischief”, under sections 153A, 295 and 505, respectively, of the Indian Penal Code, 1870.
These charges, as our analysis explains, have been wrongly applied because Indian courts have always reminded investigators and lawyers that they can only be used if criminal intent is involved, which was absent in Khan’s case.
Khan’s initial 14-day judicial custody was extended repeatedly, despite the fact that he tested positive for Covid-19 right after arrest. He was jailed for 45 days before his release on 19 December by the Allahabad High Court, after two lower courts rejected bail.
A trial awaits him, as the police allege a conspiracy, backed by “foreign funding” and links with the Popular Front of India (PFI), an Islamist organisation, on the basis of a WhatsApp forward.
Khan’s crime was what he regarded an act of inversion—he offered namaaz at the Nand Baba temple of Mathura, while he was on a 84-kos parikrama, a Hindu pilgrimage around sites associated with god Krishna.
Khan visited more than 15 temples in the region, listening to aartis and bhajans, staying the nights in temples, talking to priests and devotees. Through these visits Khan, his aides said, reinforced his message of communal amity and that different religions professed the same belief—love for all, hate for none.
Khan’s Pilgrimage Of Religious Union
Videos from the yatra show Khan as doing what he always did, said colleagues. In one video, he is engrossed in a bhajan sung by a priest, in others, he and his colleagues are honoured with traditional Hindu saffron scarfs by temple caretakers. In another video, Khan and his fellow Khudai Khidmatgars have a meal seated on the floor of a temple, with the sanctum sanctorum in the background.
Three days after his yatra ended, Khan and his colleagues heard that a priest from the Nand Baba temple, Mathura, had alleged that Khan had forcibly offered namaaz in his temple, without seeking permission from the caretakers.
In videos now available across the Internet, Khan, surrounded by the priests and caretakers of the Nand Baba temple, recites from the Ramcharitmanas a verse on how Ram valued only those who spread love. Khan goes on to quote from Quran a similar verse, then linking it with the Sufi poet and philosopher Bulle Shah’s words.
“Just like a hospital is meant to help people get better, the true essence of religion is to understand each other’s pain and compassion,” Khan tells his listeners, all men whose foreheads sport tilaks with prayer beads in their hands. “Like Bulle Shah said, destroy those mosques and temples that make you more narrow-minded.”
Khan’s audience is clearly enthused—one nods vigorously, and another, a thin, lanky man in a long, orange kurta looks so pleased that he welcomes Khan and asks him to have lunch at the temple.
Three days later, that same man, Kanha Goswami, filed an FIR against Khan and three other members of the group, Chand Mohammed, 21, Alok Ratan and Nilesh Gupta, both in their early 20s.
In the FIR, a copy of which is with Article 14, Goswami said he suspected that Khan’s act of offering namaz was funded by “videshi Muslim sangthano” (foreign Muslim organisatons) and questioned—with no evidence—if Khan’s organisation had links to such bodies.
‘The FIR Brought Down Tempers’
Goswami told us Khan and his aides offered namaz without asking any of the priests in the temple.
“They only wanted to take photos of themselves doing namaz, and, then, when the security guard stopped them, they left immediately,” Goswami told Article 14.
Goswami claimed he found out about the incident only three days after, on 1 November. “When these photos went viral, I started getting calls from people asking me about this,” he said. “That’s how I found out.”
Yadav, the Khudai Khidmatgar spokesperson, said it was Goswami who suggested that Khan and Chand Mohammed offer namaz in the temple.
“In fact, Goswami was so impressed by Khan’s knowledge of Hindu scriptures that he decided to recreate the entire conversation for a video he wanted to shoot,” said Yadav.
Goswami denied Yadav’s account and called the namaz “a conspiracy”.
“Their intention was not just to disturb Hindu-Muslim unity but also make Hindus fight among themselves by writing that they had obtained my permission to offer namaz,” he said, narrating how local were angry at him after the photos went viral.
“At that time, people in Mathura were saying a lot of things, and many expressed anger at me for doing such a thing,” said Goswami, who said “tempers had been brought down” by the FIR. “After the FIR, people realised the truth,” he said.
Yadav said Goswami was being pressured: “Khan, minutes before his arrest, told me that Goswami was a good person, but was possibly facing a backlash from locals and hence, was changing his stance.”
Khan’s counter to Goswami was mostly drowned out by the cacophony around the FIR.
‘Talibani Minds’ And Other Unfounded Media Hysteria
Goswami later led havans in the temple premises to “purify” the temple, as other men washed the floor with Gangajal (water from the Ganga).
Local MLA and UP energy minister Srikant Sharma told Republic TV that public feelings were “hurt” by Khan’s actions and that a police investigation would “expose the motive” behind his act. UP minister of state for minority welfare Mohsin Raza said Khan’s act reflected a “Talibani mind” and asked the Congress and the Samajwadi Party to “explain why only one community” was behind “such” things.
News television furthered allegations of a vague conspiracy, raising questions with no evidence.
India TV’s ticker asked: “Namaz bahana, Maqsad Aastha ko Chot Pohochaana?” The namaz was an alibi, was the intent to hurt people’s faith?. A Times Now anchor repeatedly called Khan’s organisation “Khudai Khidmat Nagar,” and said that there was a “big twist” because Khan was “associated” with protests against India’s Citizenship Amendment Act in December 2019. ABP News asked, “will Masjid (sic) allow Aarti?” The channel asked why Khan did not go to a mosque with his Hindu associates to do a puja, and it featured a man wearing saffron robes alleging that Khan’s visit was “mandir jihad.”
Republic TV asked whether “an international group had funded” Khan and his associates and added that “all this seems to be a conspiracy,” referring to the allegation in the FIR that Khan might have been receiving “foreign funding” to create communal tension in the area.
‘What Was The Need To Offer Namaz?’
The superintendent of police for Mathura (Rural), Shirish Chandra, said the scope of the investigations against Khan had widened.
“We found that an advocate who represents the PFI in Mathura had forwarded a message about this incident on a local Mathura WhatsApp group,” Chandra told Article 14. He said he did not remember the name of the advocate but insisted that the latter’s message had heightened police suspicions.
“These things give the wrong message,” said Chandra, “That there is something fishy here.”
At the heart of the police’ investigation is a belief that Khan’s actions, even permitted by the priest, were “not necessary”.
“What was the need to do this (offer namaz)?” said Chandra. “What was their problem in going 15-20 feet further away, out of the temple and offering namaz there, instead?”
Chandra’s opinion does not square with the law: A reading of the charges against Khan reveals that his actions fall substantially out of the scope of the provisions he is booked under.
Wrongful Application Of The Law
The common thread that runs through the offences (and most offences in criminal law) under the sections applied to Khan’s case is the importance of mens rea, or criminal intention.
Section 153A, which deals with “promoting enmity before different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony.”
In Balwant Singh vs State of Punjab, 1985, the Supreme Court held that an offence under section 153A is not made out unless there is an existence of mens rea; 22 years later, the Supreme Court of India in the Manzar Syed Khan case, 2007, held that the intention to cause disorder or incite people to violence is the “sine qua non” of an offence under section 153A. The prosecution has to prove prima facie the existence of mens rea on part of the accused.
Similarly, section 295 has two main ingredients: the actual destruction or damage to a place of worship or a religious object; and the intention of insulting that religion or the knowledge that it could be considered an insult. Unless a person has a malafide intention to hurt religious sentiments, they cannot be held liable under this section.
In 1958, the Supreme Court in the case of S. Veerabadran Chettiar held that intention formed an important part of an offence under section 295. Apart from this intention, there should also be actual destruction or damage.
The other section under which Khan is booked, section 505, deals with offences of “creating and promoting hatred, ill will, and enmity between people of different classes”. The first important ingredient of this offence is the “making, publishing, or circulating of any statement”, followed by intention to cause ill will.
Section 505 excludes from its ambit acts of any person “making, publishing or circulating any such statement, rumor or report, has reasonable grounds for believing such a statement, rumor or report is true, and makes, makes publishes or circulates it in good faith and without any such intention as aforesaid”. Apart from the prerequisite of mens rea, there must also be the “likelihood of causing fear and alarm”. The Delhi High Court in June 2020 endorsed the view in the Manzar Khan judgment, while holding that evidence of any adverse consequences in terms of enmity is important to make out on offence under Section 505. The plea was filed by journalist and anchor Vinod Dua after an FIR was filed against him for a webcast.
It is clear that Khan did not intend to promote any enmity between religious groups, there was no act of defilement, no violence, no publication of any provocative statement. Indeed, the opposite is true.
Not New To Challenges
Khan, who was born into the wealth and comfort of a zamindar family in Kaimganj, a town in Uttar Pradesh’ Farrukhabad district, became an activist after obtaining an MA in sociology from the Aligarh Muslim University.
His friends said that the demolition of the Babri Masjid by right-wing Hindu groups in December 1992, a result of a sustained push by Hindu nationalists, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, to ensure religion played a central role in the country’s politics, was a pivotal time for Khan.
“He has a very good understanding of the religious scriptures across religions and he realised that none of them prescribed hate, as against what politicians made people believe” said Inamul Hasan, a member of the Khudai Khidmatgar. Hasan said Khan’s knowledge was prompted by his need to understand the roots of communalism.
“He thought it was necessary to understand the scriptures to see what each religion said,” said Hasan.
Khan was drawn to Vinoba Bhave and Mahatma Gandhi, especially because of their belief in non-violence and communal harmony. He used their philosophy and organised campaigns on other issues too—earlier this decade, the Khudai Khidmatgar campaigned extensively against female foeticide in Haryana.
In 2005, Khan participated in a cross-border march, from Delhi to Multan in Pakistan. Ramon Magsaysay award-winning activist Sandeep Pandey, who led the march, told Article 14 that Khan was instrumental in organising the Delhi to Wagah border section.
Khan believes activism is done best amidst people. To Khan, time spent meeting people of different faiths, engaging with them in their own habitats “and not in plush seminar halls in Delhi,” gave him the best chance to fight communalism, said Kush Kumar Singh, a close associate of Khan.
In this fight against communalism, religion was his biggest weapon.
“When I go to mandirs, I quote the Quran and in Masjids, I quote the Bhagavad Gita,” he told one of the writers of the story, Kunal Purohit, in late 2018. “That’s when they realise how strikingly similar both religions are, when it comes to love, harmony and sadbhavna.”
In a meeting in Mewat, Haryana, a few years ago, he urged a room full of predominantly local Muslims to join the Right To Food campaign, quoting the Quran to make his point.
“Allah has said that one isn’t a true Muslim if they let their neighbour go hungry,” he told them. In Odisha, he asked a hall filled with over 200 Hindu boys whether they wanted to be “real Ram-wallahs”.
“When they all said yes in unison, I asked them: Who do you think can give them the right formula to become a Ram Wallah—Tulsidas or a politician?” said Khan. “They all said Tulsidas.”
Pandey, a long-time associate and someone Khan refers to as his “guru,” said the peace activist made an effort to “revive the old tradition of syncretism that our society was known for—the syncretism of Kabir, of Guru Nanak and so on”.
“After the Delhi riots [in February 2020], Khan took Swami Shivanand Saraswati on a tour of the riot-hit areas where he got Swamiji to hand over donations collected to rebuild a mosque that was damaged—that symbolism was so rich,” Pandey said, referring to the head of the Matri Sadan, an ashram in Haridwar, known for its commitment to save the river Ganga.
Pandey and Khan are trustees of a multifaith organisation that seeks to establish a harmony centre for people of all faiths in Ayodhya, but they have been denied permission to open a bank account for such a trust.
“I am planning to meet UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath and ask him, where will you find such a Muslim?” said Pandey. “One who can recite the Ramcharitmanas and be as comfortable in a temple as any Hindu would be.”
Khan's determination to mould his personal, professional and political life to his philosophy led to “a social experiment” in communal harmony—five years ago, he invited Singh, a devout Hindu, to share his Delhi residence, located in a neighbourhood predominantly populated by Muslims.
Hasan said the experiment came about when he realised that Hindus were refusing to live in the neighbourhood because it was predominantly Muslim. “So, instead of asking others to practice religious tolerance, he decided to demonstrate it himself,” Hasan added.
Singh, his flatmate of five years a pathologist at a private medical facility in Delhi, agreed and said that this, in essence, is Khan’s approach to his work.
“Khan’s way of dealing with communalism is to go out and explore it himself, like in his yatras as well as in his own life,” said Singh.
That was evident in September 2015, after 52-year-old Mohammed Akhlaq was lynched by a mob in Dadri, a UP town about 60 km west of Delhi. Khan and his aides held a padyatra from Rajghat to Dadri, holding meetings in temples, eating in them along the way.
“We wanted to tell people that hate is not everywhere,” Khan said later. “If humans are capable of evil, we must remember that they are also as capable of goodness—much like a matchstick that can start a fire but can even cook your meal.”
Tushar Gandhi, the great grandson of the Mahatma, who has known Khan for over a decade, said that such tokenism was “very essential” at a time when communal polarisation was increasing.
“Token gestures are a visible fight against the politics of hate,” said Gandhi. “So, each such gesture, be it just a picture of a Hindu and Muslim feeding each other or going to church during Christmas when the Bajrang Dal asks Hindus not to, has become very important today.”
The UP government’s iron-fisted approach to Khan has left many within the organisation and outside troubled at what fate awaits Khan’s approach.
When it granted Khan bail, the Allahabad High Court’s bail order said it was doing so “without expressing any opinion on the merits of the case” and asked Khan to not use social media till the conclusion of the trial.
The administration’s approach is to pick faults with Khan’s life.
“On social media accounts, they claimed that they had revived the old Khudai Khidmatgar,” said Chandra, the police officer. “But, in their registration, they claim to work on issues like education, rather than sticking to the agenda of the old organisation.”
On 24 November, a district court in Mathura rejected Khan’s bail plea. The district government counsel Shiv Ram Singh was quoted by the Press Trust of India as saying that Khan “could not give a convincing reply about Rs 6.5 lakh kept in his account”.
Khan’s long-time aides alleged a witch-hunt against Khan.
Singh, the flatmate, said that selective attention to the yatra was disturbing. “Through the four days, he was sleeping, eating and listening to bhajans in temples,” said Singh. “That was 99.5% of the yatra, yet they chose to highlight only the remaining 0.5%,” he said.
That the namaz was highlighted, however, reveals a lot about India today, said Yadav.
“Khan has worked as a Gandhian activist for over 20 years,” said Yadav. “Yet, the only thing that got highlighted is his Muslim identity.”
(Kunal Purohit is an independent journalist and Mohammad Zayaan Ravouf is a law student.)