Rights and faith groups in the United States, Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR), Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), and Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) held a press conference to call on the Indian government to immediately and unconditionally release Gandhian peacemaker Faisal Khan from prison in Mathura in Uttar Pradesh on Thursday.
Khan, who is the national convenor of the Khudai Khidmatgar, founded by freedom fighter Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan – popularly known as Frontier Gandhi, was arrested by UP police for offering prayers at a temple in Mathura on 29 October. The Uttar Pradesh Police have arrested Khan on charges under section 153A (promoting enmity between different groups), 295 (injuring or defiling place of worship with intent to insult the religion), and 505 (public mischief).
Sunita Viswanath, official of Hindus for Human Rights, laid out the simple facts of the case in her opening remarks, “Faisal Khan is a Muslim Gandhian peace activist. He was arrested because he did namaz, which means Muslim prayer, in the courtyard of a Hindu temple. The truth is that the priest invited him to pray there, but four days later the same priest filed a police complaint against Faisal Khan and he was arrested on 3 November, more than a month ago.”
According to Viswanath, “Hindus for Human Rights has a special voice in calling for his release as progressive and inclusive Hindus who live by the spirit of ‘vasudhaiva kutumbakam’ which means that all the universe is one family, and that we are one.”
Representing Indian American Muslim Council, Minhaj Khan spoke of Faisal Khan’s arrest in the context of the targeting and arrests of Muslims across India, especially in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
“Equally important to point out now is that the blasphemy laws under which he has been accused are the laws that India should outlaw…In a robust democracy, people like Faisal Khan are feted, not imprisoned. He is a prisoner of conscience. We demand his immediate freedom,” Khan urged.
Ani Zonneveld who is the founder and president of Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV) and Dr. Anantanand Rambachan, vedantic scholar and professor of religion also urged the government authorities to release Faisal Khan.
Rev. Dr. Chloe Breyer, executive director, Interfaith Center of New York ans associate minister, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church referred to Article 25 in the Indian Constitution, which proclaims equality of all religions.
“The concept of the state practicing equal distance from all religions [as opposed to separation of church and state] was a model for the rest of the world. It is a pity that we should be gathered here to ask India to follow its own constitution,” he said.
Rabbi Alissa Wise, deputy director, Jewish Voice for Peace and JVP-Action, stated, “It is no secret that the greatest threat to the forces of domination and control is the threat posed by stretching arms of solidarity across faith, religion, race, gender, ethnicity…There is great power in interfaith solidarity. One of the tools [governments] wield so readily in response is to divide our solidarity by propagating the idea that we must fear each other. That we must isolate and insulate. What they cannot do is to bend our will, so they…jail and incarcerate powerful cries for political freedom. The priest at Nand Baba temple and Faisal Khan were engaged in an ancient, sacred practice of hospitality. Just like Abraham, my ancestor in the Torah. In the book of Breishit, Genesis, we have a story of Abraham encountering guests in his town, and he offers them water, to bathe their feet, to enter his tent. Woe to all who criminalize and fear such tender gestures, such core tenants of an ethical, free, just society.”
Govind Acharya connected the arrest of Faisal Khan to the spate of other arrests in India and to the shutdown of Amnesty International-India.
At press meet, Colin Gonsalves, Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court of India, Founder of Human Rights Law Network, and Faisal Khan’s Legal Counsel, gave concrete details of charges against Khan and expressed cautious optimism that the courts will soon release him.
Lawyer talked about the case: “On the Namaz point: Our pleading is, he told the Pujari – ‘It is Namaz time and I want to go outside the Mandir and we will do our Namaz and come back for lunch.’ And the Pujari says, ‘Not necessary. We have a place at the back of the Mandir please do it there. It will save you some time’… The delay in the filing of the FIR for three days shows that certain developments took place, conversations took place, certain people intervened. As a result of which a complaint which would normally be filled within 1 hour of the incident is filled 3 days later. A very important point…Then there is the accusation of him falsely appropriating the work of – Khudai Khidmatgar, which is not worth talking about at all. This is not a blasphemy case at all. It’s a hate speech case.”
Gonsalves said that the evidence is totally in Khan’s favour.
“That this should happen shows the weakness of our legal system in Uttar Pradesh and the ability of political people linked to CM Yogi of course,” he added.
Rajmohan Gandhi, biographer, scholar and grandson of Mohandas K. Gandhi, delivered an impassioned statement for Faisal Khan, who is a close friend of his.
He brought particular attention to the need for Hindus and Indians to speak up and demand justice, particularly for Indian Muslims: “There are around 200 million Muslims living in India. Making 200 million Indians feel uncertain about safety or equal rights in their country is not the recipe for a harmonious future. A word also to fellow Indians and fellow Hindus. Most Hindus would like their Muslim brothers and sisters to enjoy dignity and equality. I urge them to speak out and demand justice for Faisal Khan, and for all who are being denied their rights.”
Documentary director and human rights defender Anand Patwardhan speak about one of the thousands of other prisoners of conscience in India: “I’m also worried about the others who are in jail, like Umar Khalid for example. On the 23rd of this month, it will be his 100th day in prison. Someone like Umar has not received the public attention that he needs to get his release. He has been victimized because he is a Muslim just as Faisal has been victimized because he is a Muslim.”
Patwardhan agrees that they have a 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.”
Activist Medha Patkar said it was so important for her to speak for the immediate release of Faisal Khan, whose work she has known for years.
Shaffaq Mohammed, member of the European Parliament since 2019, spoke from the United Kingdom, and focused on the need in the world today for interfaith unity in the face of right-wing intolerance not just in India, but in Europe and the world.
And he went on to say, “It’s really important that we all come together and keep on shining that light on the intolerance that’s happening at the moment and let’s ensure that the likes of Faisal Khan are freed and are allowed to do their well worthy work that’s badly needed in India to bring those different faith communities together on one platform.”