Between a Man and a Mob
A young couple from different faiths. An irate crowd intent on violence. An honourable man brave enough to do the right thing
The Garjiya Devi temple near Ramnagar in Uttarakhand is crowded with people on a sunny, summer morning. Ganga Dussehra, an auspicious Hindu festival to mark the descent of the river Ganga on earth, has drawn large numbers of devotees on this day (22 May) to the shrine, not far from Jim Corbett National Park. Among the teeming multitudes is on-duty sub-inspector Gagandeep Singh making his rounds and keeping watch.
At about midday, Singh's attention is drawn to a growing cacophony of raised voices. Hindu devotees have gathered around a lean, bearded young man in jeans and a yellow T-shirt, worn under a collared shirt, gesticulating angrily. He is completely unaware of the growing size of the crowd surrounding him.
Concerned, Singh decides to step in to see what the matter is. It turns out that the man, identified only by his first name, Irfan, had come to the temple to meet his girlfriend, who happens to be Hindu. Both the man and the woman appear to be in their 20s. However, the crowd is enraged at the Muslim man's "audacity" to date a woman from the Hindu community, and that too within the temple premises. They have dragged the couple from their meeting spot to the centre of the temple complex. The man is to be "taught a lesson".
Far from backing down in the face of such blind anger, Irfan holds his ground, arguing with the crowd. Concerned by the rapidly escalating situation, Singh tries to intervene but struggles to be heard above the raised voices of the crowd that is fast beginning to look like a mob. Irfan and Singh are soon swarmed by men, some of them wearing saffron stoles and shirts, raising inflammatory slogans.
"ID dikha, ID (show us your identity card)," people in the crowd repeatedly demand. A video of the incident posted online shows Singh standing beside Irfan, trying hard to calm the furious protesters, when, suddenly, something snaps.
The first blow lashes out from a man dressed in an orange shirt. Irfan staggers back as the slap lands on his face. His training kicking in, Singh instantly puts himself between the man and the mob, assuming the role a human shield to protect him from the assault. He continues to block strikes and blows raining down on them from different directions while leading Irfan out of the crowd.
An image of Singh captured from the video, showing him hugging the Muslim man close to his chest, his back half-turned to the mob and a finger raised in warning, is now famous. It's indicative of an extraordinary act of courage during an ordinary day in India's multicultural, pluralistic society where communal harmony, though strained at times, is still a constant way of life.
The full implication of Singh's act only sinks in after a few days, when reports pour in from across the country of grisly lynchings often sparked by baseless rumours spreading through social messaging apps. While Singh and his team are able to escort the man and the woman out of the temple in Ramnagar, many others have not been that fortunate. A couple of days after this incident, a frenzied mob beat a transgender woman to death in Hyderabad, while three police inspectors risked their lives to save two others.
Singh's is now a household name---splashed across the media, both nationally and internationally---for his sense of duty and fortitude that saved two young lives. Some have argued that Singh was doing his job and that amplifying his act through the lens of excessive social media approbation would establish it as the exception instead of the norm. Singh agrees entirely.
"Darnewaali kya baat hai? (What's there to be afraid?)," Singh tells Reader's Digest over the phone. "I was doing my job. And besides, no one has the right to take the law in their own hands," he says. Singh's actions not only won him praise and a token monetary reward (Rs 2,500) from his senior colleagues, but it also sent a powerful message to a country reeling under a spate of violent and communal hate crimes.
And Singh says social media is largely responsible for the divisiveness. "We no longer communicate directly. We post things on social media without the slightest thought of how it will affect someone," he says.
28-year-old Singh lives with his mother in Ramnagar. He laughs uproariously when told that he's the subject of many romantic fantasies on social media and quickly points out that he is engaged to be married. His mother, he says, is proud of his act of courage.
"Look, I am the son of a farmer. I come from a middle-class family. The [armed] forces and the uniform have always attracted me growing up," says Singh, who finished his school education from Kashipur's Templeton College.
Singh is strictly against moral policing of any kind. "Nobody has the right to stop two adults from entering a consensual relationship, as long as they are not disrupting law and order," he says. Singh says Irfan is 24 and, according to media reports, the woman, whose name the police have withheld for her security, is around 19 years of age. An FIR has been lodged and investigations are on, according to Vikram Rathod, station house officer at Ramnagar police station.
Not everyone is happy with Singh's actions, though. A few days after the incident, Rajkumar Thukral, a BJP MLA from Uttarakhand, said the Muslim community was trying to sully Hindu society. "We don't have the right to go to mosques. How dare they come to a temple? They [Muslims] will destroy Hindu society," Thukral told news agency ANI. Sadly, Thukral's view is echoed by many Hindus suspicious of Muslims who marry into their community. They accuse them of 'love jihad'---a conspiracy to spread Islam by conversion of Hindu women through marriage.
In this veritable tinderbox of religious fervour, few would be surprised by the prospect of this simple act of humanity giving bigots cause to inflict harm on Singh or his family. His scheduled leave of absence became the subject of widespread media speculation after the incident at the temple. However, Singh is quick to lay any false claims to rest, clarifying that he has not received any threats for saving Irfan's life. "It's fake news. No one threatened me. MLA saab [Thukral] expressed an opinion. That's his opinion. I had applied for the leave much in advance."
Singh has not met Irfan again, neither has he kept track of his life. But his act resonates with many in India struggling to reconcile to a growing tide of hate and suspicion tearing families apart. Singh, on the other hand, fears no one. He says he was "doing the right thing"---a simple enough statement that forces us to acknowledge that such humanitarian instincts are sorely missed in today's climate of violence, and upholds the dream of a diverse and harmonious India.