New Delhi: Among the most ubiquitous faces in the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in Delhi has been that of social activist Harsh Mander, a former civil servant.
As soon as the Act was passed in the Rajya Sabha on 11 December, Mander gave a call for mass civil disobedience, pledging to register as Muslim and provide zero documentation for the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC).
Mander spoke at the 14 December protest in Delhi against the new citizenship law — at Jantar Mantar. The next day, as police stormed the Jamia Millia Islamia campus, firing tear gas shells and injuring and rounding up students, Mander spent the night running from police stations to hospitals, identifying students. He also helped draw up a habeas corpus petition to be filed in the Supreme Court the next morning.
The next day, Monday, 16 December, he spent the day at Jamia delivering a speech on the importance of love and empathy. Tuesday, he went to Aligarh Muslim University on a fact-finding mission, after the police had stormed the campus on the same evening as Jamia. Wednesday, he attended a book launch in the capital and agreed to write an opinion piece for The Indian Express.
Then, on 19 December, Thursday, people thronged Delhi’s streets to protest against the CAA, and Mander was among the crowd. He was stopped by the police at ITO, and detained for the next six hours, for flouting Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure — which prevents the gathering of four or more persons.
“It’s quite surprising I haven’t been arrested yet, especially since the Prime Minister has addressed me publicly by name to call me an urban Naxal,” he told ThePrint with half a smile.
The power of radical love
It may sound sentimental, but Mander is serious about his belief in the power of love to overcome differences in caste and creed. It may sound anachronistic, but Mander says this is Mahatma Gandhi’s timeless gift to his country.
“Gandhi’s idea of radical love was the courage to stand completely alone, give what is promised, and not take what is not ours. I think in a time of crisis, like we are facing now, I look most to Gandhi to tell us what we need to do,” Mander said.
But Mander hasn’t suddenly parachuted into the middle of protests with a message of love. For 17 years since he resigned from the Indian Administrative Service, he has made it his mission to fight for issues like the dignity of persons with disabilities, the right to food, the protection of Adivasi and Dalit women, and justice for victims of lynching.
As a man born into privilege — his father was a civil servant too — Mander’s activism is often labelled a “saviour complex”, and he is criticised for fighting battles that are perhaps better fought by those whom he seeks to represent. He has been labelled “anti-national”, “a bleeding-heart liberal”, “a tool in the hands of Christian evangelists”, and even “delusional”. He has even earned a rap from the Supreme Court for “not trusting judges”.
His recent call for civil disobedience against the CAA, for example, has been seen as reductive, for seemingly appropriating a minority identity and expressing token solidarity.
“I’m not trying to deny that my lived reality is very different from that of a Muslim’s, so there’s no question of appropriating identities. I’m born into relative privilege, but does that bar me from standing in solidarity with people who face inequality? No, far from it,” Mander said in response to the criticism.
“I don’t intend to convert, or claim to have had the same lived reality of my Muslim brothers and sisters. I simply seek to tell the state that look, if you punish them for being of a particular religion and having no documentation, you ought to punish me too under the same circumstances,” he explained.
Mander has also been called a Congress sympathiser, for having worked closely with Sonia Gandhi from 2010 to 2012 in the National Advisory Committee, considered “the most powerful club in the Manmohan Singh government”. In 2018, he wrote an op-ed in Scroll, calling Sonia Gandhi a champion of India’s poor. The two most notably worked together on the National Food Security Bill that later became an Act.
In 2017, shaken by a spate of lynchings, particularly against Muslim men, Mander started Karwan-e-Mohabbat (caravan of love), which would visit families and offer help.
“It’s important for me, in the spirit of solidarity, to go and meet people and speak to them,” he said of the Karwan.
In 2018, Mander was appointed by the National Human Rights Commission as a special monitor to inspect Assam’s detention centres, where undocumented migrants were sent if they could not prove their citizenship as per the Assam Accord.
He found the conditions the detainees were living in to be inhuman, and wrote a report outlining the ways in which the foreigner tribunals were biased and flawed. He quit the post shortly after, citing inaction on the part of the NHRC. It also provided him with a peek into what a nationwide NRC might look like.
His report advised the central government to formulate “a clear long-term policy about how it will treat, and what will be the consequences, of a person being declared a ‘foreigner’. This is more crucial than ever, because it is possible that the NRC may declare lakhs as foreigners. In such a case, does the state want to detain lakhs of people indefinitely”?
Making of the activist
Mander was born on 17 April 1955 into a Sikh family that was originally from Rawalpindi but had migrated to Shillong.
“I was born eight years after Independence, when there was still a survival of that spirit of secular idealism, of a country that would be compassionate and which would help people living in poverty and hunger,” he said. “We’ve come a long way since then.”
Mander never aspired to be a civil servant like his father, but spent his early years unsure of what to do. Studying economics at St Stephen’s College was something he almost stumbled into. A subsequent Master’s from Delhi University seemed like the appropriate next step, but the thought left Mander restless.
“I felt restless because it wasn’t really teaching me what I wanted to know about my country. By the time I reached college, I understood issues of injustice and inequality, but I had no experience of them at all. So I dramatically quit and decided that I would basically travel. It was like my own version of Nehru’s ‘Discovery of India’,” he recalled.
The travels went on for four years, and “transformed” him. Living frugally and working with NGOs gave him a perspective into how he could use his privilege to give voice to India’s most marginalised communities. At 25, Mander decided the IAS would be the best way to do that, and made it to the Madhya Pradesh cadre in 1980.
He said his first few years in the IAS were most impactful; his decisions actually affected the lives of those dispossessed of land or those in need of welfare schemes. But in 1984, when he was in Indore as additional collector, Indira Gandhi was assassinated in Delhi by her bodyguards, and anti-Sikh riots broke out.
“I couldn’t believe the horror I saw. It was the first time I had seen a riot, and it scarred me for life. I kept telling the police to act, and they refused, saying we have orders not to. I then remembered I had the power to call in the Army, which I did,” Mander said.
“It took them six hours to stop the rioting, from start to finish. And it was a riot of the same scale as some of the largest we’ve seen. It taught me that when you hear of riots going on for days and then weeks, like they did in Gujarat in 2002, it’s a crime that defies description, because it is only possible if the state wants it to continue,” he said.
2002 — the turning point
The Gujarat riots were the turning point for Mander’s activism. He was on a sabbatical at the time, working with NGO Action Aid, when he visited the state to counsel the victims of violence.
“I went into the relief camps and heard stories that were just so horrifying of what had happened with women and children. I could make out almost immediately that it was not a riot, but a state-sponsored massacre,” he said.
Mander announced his resignation from the IAS, writing a piece titled ‘Cry, the Beloved Country’ for the Times of India. “The blood of hundreds of innocents is on the hands of the police and civil authorities of Gujarat, and by sharing in a conspiracy of silence, on the entire higher bureaucracy of the country,” he wrote.
Mander said the horror of 2002 left him suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition that induces severe anxiety, flashbacks, and nightmares. He continued, nonetheless, working with victims of violence.
“I was able to overcome it because I somehow felt like I could not appropriate the suffering of the person I was working with. I cannot elevate myself and excuse myself from carrying out the work that needs to be done,” he said.
His work since then has yielded over 25 books — heart-warming and heart-breaking tales of India’s most marginalised. He writes columns regularly for Scroll and The Indian Express, and has set up the Centre for Equity Studies, a think-tank whose flagship is the ‘India Exclusion Report’, a document that examines access to public goods and the exclusion of vulnerable groups.
A personal battle
Mander has drawn the ire of every regime, but his battle with the Modi government is almost personal — he believes it has glorified bigotry and “reduced Gandhi to a mascot of sanitation and not remembered as someone who died for Hindu-Muslim unity”. This is why the massive nationwide protests against the CAA are “heartening” for him.
“The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, ideological parent of Modi’s BJP) calls the CAA the unfinished business of Partition. But really, this battle is an extension of the freedom struggle,” Mander said.