By affirming that he bore Muslims no ill will, Yashpal Saxena, whose only son Ankit Saxena was murdered by the family of the Muslim girl he loved, demolished one of the most widely used rationalisations for communal hatred. For this, for his luminous humanity even in the face of great personal tragedy, the nation owes him an immense debt of gratitude.
Yashpal Saxena rejected what I call the Doctrine of Vicarious Guilt. It is the idea that an entire community must collectively carry the guilt for crimes – real or imagined, committed now or in history – which any of its members may have perpetrated. This doctrine harbours a moral rationalisation of violence that people may wreak on other people in vengeance solely for sharing the same identity as the real or imagined criminal.
Some of the most brutal mass crimes in recent history were such acts of collective vengeance against a community for the real or imagined crimes of a few of its members. More than 3,000 Sikhs were killed in 1984 in reprisal for the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by two Sikhs guards. The 9/11 attack has been invoked to condone military strikes on civilian populations in faraway Afghanistan and Iraq. Each terrorist attack in Paris inevitably makes the entire Muslim population of France culpable in many eyes. It is the same idea that is invoked to justify communal violence and hate crimes in this country.
Remarkably, though, this doctrine is applied selectively. For the gruesome killing of Dalits in Tsundur, Andhra Pradesh, in 1991, in Jhajjar, Haryana, in 2002, in Khairlinji, Maharashtra, in 2006, or indeed the atrocities against Dalits that shame every generation, the upper caste Hindus are never held collectively responsible. Nor are they pronounced jointly guilty for the massacre of Sikhs in 1984 and of Muslims in 2002. Much less are all men held responsible for the subjugation of women through history in much of the world. Such collective responsibility seems to be apportioned only to religious minorities, most of all to Muslims.

Murderous thinking

When Shambhulal Regar chose the 25th anniversary of the Babri Masjid’s demolition to kill Mohammad Afrazul Afrazul Khan, a migrant worker from West Bengal living in Rajasthan’s Rajsamand town, he did not target him for any crimes he had committed. He felt justified hacking Afrazul to death and burning his body for the many crimes he believed Muslims were responsible for. He listed them in a series of videotaped rants: he speaks of love jihad, a conspiracy theory pushed by Hindutva groups that Muslim men woo Hindu women for the sole purpose of converting them to Islam; of counterfeit money that funds terrorist groups; of films such as PK and Padmavati that make fun of Hindu gods and distort “Hindu history”; of a Muslim conspiracy to destroy a generation of Hindus by attracting them to drugs; of mafia dons who find safe havens in Pakistan while looting India; of sinister black-robed Muslim men who surround mosques; and of Ayodhya, where a Ram temple could not be built even 25 years after the Babri Masjid was razed.
The same rationalisation drove the violence that accompanied the campaign to demolish the Babri Masjid and replace it with a grand temple to Ram. The logic went thus: Babar had demolished a Ram temple and built a mosque in its place – it was irrelevant that there was no convicting archaeological or historical evidence to back this claim – and Indian Muslims today must atone for the 16th century Mughal emperor’s crime by giving up their claim to the site. The Bharatiya Janata Party leader Lal Krishna Advani began his 1989 Rath Yatra, meant to galvanise the Hindu masses for building the Ram temple, from Somnath temple in Gujarat to underline “Muslim guilt” that dates back even further – this temple had been looted and destroyed by the Muslim invader Mahmud Ghazni in 1024 CE.
In 1999, when Australian missionary Graham Staines was burnt alive with his two young sons in Odisha by the Sangh Parivar activist Dara Singh to “avenge the crime” of converting Hindus to Christianity, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee implied the same rationale of vicarious guilt by calling for a “national debate” on conversions.
It was also implicit in Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s notorious remark, in relation to the 1984 Sikh massacre in Delhi, that when a big tree fell, the earth was bound to shake. At that time, I was posted in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, and my wife taught in the city’s Daly College. One of her colleagues, reading out the attendance sheet, stopped and asked a little boy with cropped hair, “Are you not a Sikh?” The boy was petrified, then responded in a shaking voice, “Hanji, Madam, main Sikh hun, par maine Indira Gandhi ko nahi mara.” Yes, I am Sikh, but I did not kill Indira Gandhi.
An identical rationale lay behind the Gujarat carnage of 2002. At a meeting of the BJP’s parliamentary party in Delhi in December 2002, Vajpayee, in a thinly disguised rationalisation of the “Hindu anger” that manifested in the violence that followed the alleged torching of a train coach carrying Hindu pilgrims, lamented: “Why didn’t people of the Muslim community condemn the Godhra incident? Even today, there is no repentance that we committed a mistake or that this should not have happened and that it was a crime.”
Regretting the post-Godhra violence, he had asked in April 2002, “Lekin aag lagayi kisne?” Who lit the fire? The poet prime minister suggested that Muslims as a community should seek forgiveness for the crime that some of their co-religionists had allegedly committed.

The orgy of slaughter, rape, loot and arson that followed the burning of a train coach in Godhra was widely perceived as righteous, or at least an understandable reaction to the “barbaric crime” of the Muslims. Photo credit: AFP
The orgy of slaughter, rape, loot and arson that followed the burning of a train coach in Godhra was widely perceived as righteous, or at least an understandable reaction to the “barbaric crime” of the Muslims. Photo credit: AFP

In fact, ever since that train coach burned at Godhra railway station, an intolerably heavy burden of vicarious guilt has been thrust upon the shoulders of India’s Muslim community. The orgy of slaughter, rape, loot and arson that followed was widely perceived as righteous, or at least an understandable reaction to the “barbaric crime” of the Muslims. Chief Minister Narendra Modi described the gruesome incident at Godhra as a planned “one -sided collective terrorist attack by one community.” In a speech telecast on Doordarshan on February 28, 2002, he said, “This heinous crime, cowardly and inhuman crime, has taken place in Gujarat. It cannot be justified in any civilised society. A crime that can never be forgiven.” He has never made a comparable speech expressing anguish at the murders and rape of Muslims that followed the train burning.
Not just for Modi. For a very large number of my friends, extended family and colleagues in the Indian Administrative Service, the anger and violence against Muslims by Gujarati Hindus was understandable, if not actually righteous, because some Muslims were claimed to have deliberately set fire to a train compartment filled with Hindu women, children and men. If there was evidence this had indeed happened, it would not justify the killing, rape and looting. But even the facts of what happened at Godhra that fateful morning are far from settled.
Still, The Times of India reported that Modi quoted Newton’s law that every action has an equal and opposite reaction to virtually justify the massacre of Muslims. The statement was denied later, but the Special Investigation Team appointed by the Supreme Court to look into the Gujarat riots cases confirmed that Modi had made this statement in a television interview. The team’s report quotes the exact statement: “Kriya pratikriya ke chain chal rahi hai. Hum chaete hai ke na kriya ho, aur na pratikriya.” A chain of action and reaction is going on, he said, we neither want action nor reaction.

Lighting the way

It is these ideas of vicarious guilt and the inevitable, even righteous, action-reaction that Yashpal Saxena has rejected. His photographer son fell in love with a Muslim college student in his neighbourhood and they wanted to marry. Her father was opposed to their relationship and allegedly killed Ankit Saxena in what was a gruesome hate crime.
The magazine Caravan reported that when Delhi BJP chief Manoj Tiwari went to meet Yashpal Saxena, he begged him and the media not to communalise his son’s murder. “I had one son,” he said. “If I get justice, it’s good. If not, even then I don’t have hatred against any community. I have no such (communal) thinking. I am unable to understand why the media is showing this issue in that way.”
One of Ankit Saxena’s closest friends was a Muslim, Mohammed Azhar Alam. He told The Quint he accompanied Yashpal Saxena to Haridwar to immerse Ankit Saxena’s ashes. There he performed puja with his friend’s father. “Uncle even showed me the way in which the holy dip is taken in the Ganga,” he said. “I took the dip with him, and prayed with him.”
The Caravan report is full of endearing stories about Ankit Saxena’s carefree group of friends who called themselves “Awaara Boys”. One of them, Chetan Narang, said, “Temple, gurudwara, mosque, church – we used to go visit every place of worship. It was Ankit who would take us to all these places. He never discriminated against any religion.”
India would be a an infinitely more humane land if we had more people like Ankit Saxena and his father. We owe Yashpal Saxena a special debt for his humanity and fairness, for rejecting the doctrine of collective communal responsibility for the crimes of individuals and of “action justifies reaction”. He lights the way for us in these dark times of hatred.