It was a rainy Monday morning.
Our guest from India, Deepika Singh Rajawat, wanted to go to a temple for prayers. I picked her up from a friend’s house where she was staying and drove her to the Burnaby Hindu temple, one of the largest in North America.
Once we reached the temple, she greeted the priest respectfully, removed her shoes, and went straight inside the prayer room. She then took several minutes to perform the holy ritual of bathing the idol of Lord Shiva with milk and water.
With eyes closed in devotion and prayers on her lips she was completely immersed in paying obeisance to God. After the prayers were over, she seemed completely relaxed with tears flowing from her eyes.
She had a hectic week as she was here to speak about her fight for justice on the invitation of Indians Abroad for Pluralist India (IAPI), a group I belong to. It was established in response to growing attacks on religious minorities under the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government.
A human rights defender—whom I prefer to call Deepika on purpose in the rest of the text—is a devout Hindu. She is a practising lawyer based in the Jammu region of India.
She came into the limelight after she stepped forward to defend the family of an eight-year-old Muslin nomad girl Asifa Bano, who was raped and murdered by Hindu fundamentalists. The perpetrators of the heinous crime wanted to terrorize and humiliate Muslims and used this little child’s body as a battlefield.
IAPI decided to invite her and honour her for standing up for a minority community and to share her story with the people in Canada. Talking about such an intense subject again and again also becomes emotionally draining, and I could feel that pain in her.
After the prayers she reminded me what true Hindu values stand for and how those using Hinduism as a political tool know nothing about their faith. She has repeatedly said that her brand of Hinduism is based on the philosophy of love and not bigotry.
Her faith in Hinduism did not stop her from taking up the cause of Bano even when Indian society is completely polarized under the BJP government that won another term in the recently concluded election. This is despite the fact that Deepika is a Kashmiri Pandit—an ethnic group which has been persecuted by the Islamic fundamentalists for years.
Being a staunch believer of the law and the Indian constitution, which is based on principles of secularism and inclusion, she did what she thought right. Notably, she has emphasized many times that she is a proud Indian and a proud Hindu.
Those in positions of power in India, on the contrary, stood in support of those involved in the conspiracy to rape and murder Bano. So much so that BJP men marched with national flag to show solidarity with the suspects. They also kept attacking Deepika on social media.
An undeterred Deepika continued to fight until the case was transferred outside Jammu to the neighbouring state of Punjab to ensure a fair trial. However, this fight has never been easy for Deepika. She had to face challenges even from within her own family and the fraternity of lawyers.
The majoritarian sentiment almost alienated her completely. Not only was she branded as anti-national, but anti-Hindu. Whereas the Indian establishment should have given her the highest civilian award for standing up for the values enshrined in the constitution, she was labelled as unpatriotic.
Interestingly, BJP supporters who want the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred Hindu text, to be declared as a national book deviated from its teachings when they tried to malign Deepika, who is a far better Hindu. The Gita teaches everyone to perform their assigned duty with dedication and without any prejudice.
Well, she was exactly doing that as a lawyer, but the self-styled custodians of Hinduism threatened to rape and murder her for coming to the defence of a Muslim family.
One evening during her stay in Vancouver, she cooked dinner for everyone that included goat meat. This was despite the fact that she herself is vegetarian. This gesture, how small it may seem on its own, shows her openness—something the BJP lacks.
This is in sharp contrast to what the so-called cow vigilantes are doing in India. Since Hindus consider the cow as a sacred animal, they have started going after Muslims and Christians suspected of carrying beef in their tiffin boxes.
Another example of her inclusive faith came in her visit to the Gur Sikh Gurdwara, which is a national historic site. There she prayed before Guru Granth Sahib, the holy scripture of the Sikhs.
Members of the Baba Banda Singh Bahadur Society, which operates another gurdwara in Abbotsford, came to see her at a specially arranged meeting in Surrey to give her a small token of appreciation. This shows the kind of respect that she received from the Sikh community, which has the faced the worst forms of state-sponsored violence in the past in India.
Ironically, the day Deepika returned to India, the electorate of that country re-elected the BJP government with a brute majority in spite of the fact that the past five years saw repression of minorities. The verdict of Indian voters was clearly in favour of hate and terror.
While a person like myself hoped that what they did to Bano would bring a new awakening—and the BJP would either be ousted or lose seats—this party has actually increased its strength in the parliament. Those voters who completely ignored the cries of Bano have let us down.
Deepika, which means lantern, continues to give us hope in these depressing times and we believe it will continue to flicker and remove this darkness one day. We need more true Indians and good Hindus like her to rescue that nation from the religious extremists who are bent upon ripping the secular fabric and turn that land of diversity into a Hindu theocracy.