Wednesday, February 25, 2009
From Haryana With Love
The story of Chand and Fiza Mohammad in Haryana, India, appears to have all the elements of a Bollywood Masala movie, except the as-yet undetermined ending.
Mr. Chander Mohan aka Chand Mohammad, Deputy Chief Minister of Haryana, whose overwhelmingly Hindu state of 23 million people is among India's most prosperous, announced that he had converted to Islam. The 43-year-old father of two added that he had also just wed his second wife, Anuradha Bali aka Fiza Mohammad, another Muslim convert, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Serving his fourth term in Haryana's legislature, Mr. Mohan was widely touted by his supporters as a future chief minister. But soon after the conversion announcement, he was removed from his job and relieved of his security guards. The Haryana government also dismissed his new wife, 37-year-old lawyer Anuradha Bali, from her position as the state's assistant advocate-general.
The official reason for both sackings was that Mr. Mohan, now known as Chand Mohammad, and Ms. Bali, who now goes by the Muslim name of Fiza, failed to perform their government duties. Both dispute this assessment. "This was all just because we became Muslim. There is no other good reason," Fiza told the media recently.
Piecing together different accounts and the unfolding events, it appears that Chand was primarily motivated by love for Fiza. But he faced many obstacles. As a Hindu, he could not have two wives and divorce under Indian law would be a long and complicated process. He had the option of having Fiza as a mistress like many other politicians but the couple decided against it. So they chose to convert to Islam and marry in a religious Muslim ceremony recognized by Indian law and went public with it. The shocking announcement came as India was reeling from the Mumbai terrorist attacks in December.
What Chand underestimated was how crucial religious identity remains in a country that bills itself as the world's largest secular democracy. Mr. Mohan's supporters, who have followed the twists and turns of the case reported by the Indian media, largely agree that religion played a huge role in the drama as it unfolded. Their logic: It was politically untenable to have a Muslim deputy chief minister in a state like Haryana, which was the scene of some of the worst violence between Hindus and Muslims during partition along religious lines in 1947.
Mr. Mohan "has lost his Hindu vote bank, and he would lose the next election here if he stays a Muslim," says 52-year-old engineer Jeevan Singh told the Wall Street Journal. Mr. Singh resides in the politician's Panchkula constituency and voted for Mr. Mohan in previous elections.
The Haryana government's information secretary, K.K. Khandelwal, denied that religion was a factor. He said that Mr. Mohan and Ms. Bali had been fired simply for not doing their jobs. Yet, he added: "In public life you have to maintain certain standards and cannot behave like Romeo and Juliet. This became a matter of jokes. The government -- and the chief minister -- had to save their image."
As a result of the tremendous social hostility and family pressures and extreme stress, both Chand and Fiza are now apparently estranged and physically separated from each other. Fiza has been hospitalized after an overdose of sleeping pills and Chand's whereabouts are unknown.
This story is still unfolding. How it will end remains a mystery. But it does raise serious questions about the reality of the secular nature of India's democracy.
Here's a video clip of Fiza sharing the amorous text messages Chand sent her in his pursuit of her as a devoted suitor:
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