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People: The Courage and Conviction of Harsh Mander

By Alka Roy Email By Alka Roy
August 2012
People: The Courage and Conviction of Harsh Mander

It is rare to come across someone who is so committed to his ideals that fear and censure no longer faze him. In an interview with Khabar, the resolute activist talks about his journey from the time he quit a prestigious post with the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) to work tirelessly for the victims of communalism in the aftermath of the Gujarat riots of 2002.

Harsh Mander, who has faced quite a backlash for his activism, does not give fiery speeches. A softspoken and small-framed man, he inspires not by style but by his actions and conviction. For the last ten years, his approaches to issues like communalism, poverty, homelessness, and land rights have been diverse—from grassroots advocacy to advising on government policies, from running nonprofits to teaching college students and authoring poignant books about the people he has met along the way (Unheard Voices: Stories of Forgotten Lives, A Fractured Freedom: Chronicles of India’s Margins, etc.).

He sat down with Khabar after giving a talk, “Challenges to Secular Democracy in India,” at Georgia Tech, organized by the Association for India’s Development (A.I.D.), Atlanta.

The list of things you do is long and impressive. You are part of India’s National Advisory Council, a special commissioner to the Supreme Court, director of the Center of Equity Studies, visiting professor at IIM, and have written several books. You also write columns for two of India’s leading newspapers and then run nonprofit, Aman Biradari, with its campaigns such as Dil Se and Nyaygrah. And there’s your family and your personal life. How do you juggle all this?

(Smiles). I do a lot of other things as well.

Time is elastic. You can live as intensely as you believe you need to. If I am in the National Advisory Council for instance, I have a duty to do as much as I can to try to influence policy and law for the poor and the disadvantaged. I can also write and reach out and try to speak on issues I think are important that I work on. If I can speak to people, I need to teach.

So you find all this work interconnected?

The larger goal is a just and caring society and state. In order to make that happen, you work. I like to work directly with people who are disadvantaged. For everything that I do, I must have a face. You talked about the various things that I do, but what I am most proud of is that 300 kids, former street kids in Delhi, call me ‘papa.’ I have a bond with them to pull them off the streets and they look at me as a father; that’s probably more significant than the other things that I do.

How did this come about?

When I quit the [IAS] service and made Delhi my home. What’s wrong in the world and how the middle class deals with it is its capacity to look at injustice and turn its face away. This is most symbolized when you see the homeless children every day—when you go to work, you come back, you go to the cinema. Nobody cares if there are 50,000 of them on the streets. We tuck our child in on a cold winter night after she’s had a great meal and it doesn’t worry us that exactly one km away, there’s perhaps another child exactly her age who found her food under the rubbish heap or that she is going to be sexually abused in the night, she is going to freeze, or she will never see the inside of a school. And so with the wonderful group of young people that I work with, we started meeting the children on the streets, and built a relationship of trust.

How long of a process was that?

Six months to a year. Once they come in, you must never let them down because they’ve begun to have faith again. They come in with drugs and violence and crime and really difficult lives, but with love I’ve found that much can get healed and over a period of time they begin to trust you. We also bridge them for their lost years of schooling and really struggle to get them into good schools.

During your IAS years, you were in a position of power representing the government, and now you are in a watchdog and activist role. Where did you feel more powerful?

I was in the IAS for 20 years. I have been out of it for 10 years. I was concerned about the same issues and I responded to them with the same set of values, whether I was in government or outside, so I was seen as an outsider when I was in the government and I am an outsider outside it as well. I have had 22 transfers in about 17-18 years. I used to land [at my new transfer] running and keep running so fast I would do as much as I could before they caught up with me and moved me out the next time. The solace and power in this present phase is that no one can transfer me out. If I make a commitment to the survivors of the violence in Gujarat, to homeless people, people living with hunger, or to these children, as long as I’m alive I know that it is within my power to adhere to that commitment. That is a power.

What made you leave the IAS?

When the Gujarat violence happened and I saw that this was not a riot but a state-sponsored massacre, as a serving IAS officer I wrote about it in the piece “Cry my Beloved Country.”

What compelled you to take this step?

What is most precious in the idea of India is the idea that it doesn’t matter which god you worship or which caste you are or whether you’re a man or a woman or rich or poor. You are a fully equal human being of equal value, equal citizen with equal rights. This is not simply a modern Western idea that has been imported into Indian soil but a much older civilizational idea, and it is therefore very different from the Western conception of secularism. It is not the idea of separation from faith or the denial of the right to practice your culture in public spaces, but it is about equal respect for every faith and belief system.

The stand that I took at that point of time [in 2002] was really because I felt that if we lose this idea, then we’ve lost everything that is precious in India.

Were you prepared for the backlash?

It became a watershed. A lot of colleagues who had worked with me in service, people I had grown up with, and the extended family, who are also affected by the partition [of India and Pakistan], a lot of them were extremely unhappy about the stance that I took. A huge segment of old relationships actually ended at that point of time, but in the last ten years a whole new set of relationships, extremely valuable, have also grown up.

There are many battles one could fight within government, the battle against corruption, the battle for land reforms, for other forms of social justice, but I thought this was one battle because it was a battle against the Constitution of India itself and what it stands for, so it wasn’t a battle that you could fight from within the system.

But with the National Advisory Council (NAC), aren’t you back in the system?

In a way and yet not quite. Because it is an advisory group, we retain our autonomy and remain extremely critical of government, despite advising it.

What is the achievement (in the NAC) that you are most proud of?

It’s been a really intense two years that we have worked, and I convene the group on drafting a right to food, National Food Security Bill, which I think is really critical. Basically it’s a law that says that there will be a legal duty of the state to ensure that nobody is hungry and that no one is deprived of food and the state has to ensure that people are provisioned food for different kinds of vulnerabilities. It is a very radical idea and India would be at the forefront for a law of this kind.

Then there’s a Communal Violence Bill, which is trying to hold public authorities accountable if they act or fail to act to prevent and perform their duties when communal violence breaks out, so that’s really a very important law.

I am assuming this was inspired by what happened in Gujarat. During your talk you recounted many horrific things that happened in Gujarat. What motivates you to keep going?

The riots, the 2002 violence against the Muslim minority community, [but also] the resistance to that injustice that has come largely from people who are non-Muslims. Whether they are human rights activists or lawyers, journalists, writers, filmmakers, poets, they have stood up and said we don’t accept this, and that’s why secularism is still being lived in that larger sense by ordinary Indians.

Do you think Muslims in Gujarat fear a backlash against them if they speak out?

No, … nationally in India the majority of Hindus and the majority of Muslims don’t support communal ideologies. Gujarat is passing through a phase when one can say that large sections of the middle class seem to have got communalized, and I think that’s something that we need to fight. But the other side of the story in Gujarat, where I greatly draw hope, is that there were enormous stories of kindness and courage, and for every act of brutality there were at least three acts of extreme courage and kindness by members of the Hindu community who saved lives.

If there are so many people in Gujarat with that point of view, then why is Narendra Modi, under whom the riots occurred, not only in power but being exalted across the country for Gujarat’s economic development?

What you see in Gujarat is a model of economic growth which is moving the state ahead in terms of some economic growth [indices] but is extremely excluding of religious minorities, tribal communities, Dalit communities, of groups like salt pan workers and other disadvantaged groups, and so we are seeing extreme inequalities and social discrimination. I certainly wouldn’t like to see a government by such a person. The question of whether Narendra Modi has brought in a lot of investments and development has also been debated, because that was actually a trend that preceded Narendra Modi.

What do you say to people who are from Gujarat who say that it has been ten years and it is time to move on?

By all means we should move on, but we have the right to move on only when the people who have suffered are able to move on as well. This impatience to move on is possible when you have not yourself suffered, either as an individual or as a community, and if we collectively go through a process of truth- telling as in the truth and reconciliation process and we collectively express public remorse, if we join hands and help people rebuild their lives and ensure that justice is done, we can move on. But until then, we have no moral right to ask people to move on.

You want to hold Modi and perpetrators of violence accountable in Gujarat, but when Afzal Guru was convicted for the 2001 parliament attack, you wanted to commute his sentence. How would you explain that?

I am against the use of anti-terror legislation because it doesn’t allow proper democratic processes and the rights of the accused. The problem with Afzal Guru is simply that the evidence is not strong enough and the court at some point of time said the conscience of the country requires that he be punished, which is not ground enough. So I disagree with the particular process, but I do believe that the rule of law must apply to everybody responsible for crimes, including crimes of terrorism, but one must adhere to the due process of law.

What’s your view on the Lokpal Bill and the work that Anna Hazare and his group are doing?

The people who are leading the Anna Hazare movement are close friends and I have great regard for them. I also uphold their right of nonviolent resistance. But having said that, I have deep disquiet and disagreements, which I have expressed from the start, with the kinds of solutions that they are putting forward.

What is being said is that we have no faith in the people we elect—they’re all a bunch of rascals. We have no faith in the people we select, the bureaucracy, the executive—they’re all a bunch of rascals. We have no faith in the judiciary, who are responsible for adjudicating disputes. And so above all of these, we want to bring in this group of nine people who will be somehow different from all of these people and will save us and rescue India from corruption. That’s a completely bizarre idea. [To tackle corruption by] strengthening the bottom of our processes is far more effective. That’s why I found the idea of the RTI (Right to Information) far more powerful, where every citizen is empowered to fight injustice.

In your opinion what is the biggest challenge facing India?

Huge comfort level with inequality.

And what gives you the most hope in India?

My greatest hope is in the ordinary Indian, who still understands that the country and the world has to belong to all of us. I also draw a lot of hope from young people. They will reclaim the ideas of justice that will help change the world. What is your vision for India? There is a book, Small is Beautiful, by E.F. Schumacher. It has a wonderful sub-title, “Economics as if People Mattered.” [We should] look for processes of economic growth in which people are better off. Programs like NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act), investing in food for all, education for all, healthcare for all, are not only morally right, but our youthful population would be far more productive if it was healthy, educated, and well fed.

Whatever is happening in India is already unique in human history, because there is no example of any country in the world that has achieved this pace of economic growth in an open democratic society. If we can find ways of taking those millions along and helping them move out of poverty and hopelessness in the process of achieving economic growth—that’s really the clue.

Alka Roy is an Atlanta-based writer and performing artist, with daytime gigs in technology and business strategy.

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