The last time he walked into my home in Guwahati, my dad asked him, “Tumi tumaar jota khini nakata? Maa deutai eku nokoi?” (Won’t you trim your dreadlocks? Don’t your mom and dad say anything?) To this Neel, known to the rest of the country as Nilotpal Das (one of the two men who were lynched last week), beamed his usual mischievous smile and replied jovially, “Maa deutai Kamakhya te thakibo dise aru!” (My parents have asked me to stay in Kamakhya itself.)
All of us, including my father, laughed.
That’s just who he was. Never taking life too seriously, yet bringing passion and a deep sense of gratitude to everything he did.
We first met at Faculty High Secondary School, when we were 13. Although we spread out far and wide after graduating, we never lost what we shared. Every time we met, we’d turn into our carefree teenaged selves all over again – lost in our rib-tickling banter.
Everything changed on that fateful night.
On the night they lynched Neel and Abhi, they took away whatever precious innocence we had left. The mob mercilessly tore down the (admittedly) utopian idea of Assam and the northeast that me and my friends cherished so much – the idea that we, at least, are different.
As the rest of India has been ravaged by social violence, I thought that we had managed to retain our small-town warmth. Our part of the country has always had its issues, but we always believed that we were safe amongst our own folks. That if things went wrong, we could count on familiar strangers. Not anymore. Not anymore.
This time, Neel decided to travel from Goa to Assam on a bike – a 6,000 km-journey that took him across the breadth of our country. Knowing him, he must have shared music, laughter and meals with the diverse people he met while traveling, always feeling safe. Neel made it home without a scratch on his body or a scar on his soul. How could he have known that his own people would lynch him to death?
I don’t need to vent here about how I feel because I know everyone in Assam feels the same way today. There isn’t a single soul who doesn’t hear Neel’s anguished scream, “Moi Axomia!” We all share the same rage and despair.
What happened in Panjori village was not an isolated episode. The northeast, like the rest of India, has seen a string of gory incidents in the recent past. Each new report feels like a rewind of the past – innocents killed brutally, huge public outcry for a week at best, then everyone moves on and the government looks the other way. And repeat.
Today, we, as a society, are at a critical crossroad. If this time too, the public’s angst fades away without justice being delivered, then our humanity will be lost forever. Our apathy will only imply that innocent lives don’t matter in our country. That monstrous people can stain the earth with blood and there will be no retribution, just momentary tears.
We can’t let that happen. Not this time. Neel and Abhi are dead; nothing will bring them back. The least we can do is ensure that no other life is snuffed into oblivion like this.
I have a special appeal for our parents and elders.
We know you have nightmares every time you close your eyes. We know you worry about our safety. But do not stop your children and loved ones from exploring, traveling and building bridges. We all came back enriched because of the places we saw and people we met. Do not raise your little ones behind walls and closed doors. Instead, teach them to be compassionate, tell their hearts to be brave. Teach them caution; it is important in this big bad world. But also teach them to lay their guards down and embrace difference with their arms wide open.
Until we do that, we will always live with this ‘us versus them’ feeling. And we’ve all seen how that ends.
Bikash Pathak is a 29-year-old based in Dubai.
Featured image credit: Twitter