Once upon a time, Harsh Mander was a member of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). His predecessors in the colonial-era Indian Civil Service were known as the ‘heaven-born’. Then, in 2002, Gujarat was convulsed by hatred and orchestrated violence, and at least 1044 people—and more likely as many as 2000, according to the Concerned Citizens Tribunal as well as other independent investigative bodies—were killed, predominantly Muslims. More than 100,000, and perhaps twice as many, Muslims were displaced. It is at this time that Mander resigned from the IAS, giving up what has long been one of the most coveted jobs in the country, and turned to a life of political and social activism. One might say that he had found his voice and his calling. Since those dark days in Gujarat nearly two decades ago, Mander has more than distinguished himself as a human rights activist, a tireless advocate of social justice, a friend sans pareil to the poor, the homeless, and the hungry, and as the very conscience of a nation that is now being undone by those who are utterly bereft of principles, compassion, and the ethical mores that make possible brotherhood and sisterhood.
Mander is soft spoken, perhaps civil to a fault; he never raises his voice, whatever the provocation, and has embodied what in one verse after another has been described in the Mahabharata as akrodh, non-anger. “Anger is in this world,” we read in the Vana Parva (“Forest Book”), “the root of the destruction of mankind. From anger, a man may kill one who should not be killed and adore one that should be slain; an angry man may even despatch his own self to the abode of Yama. Beholding these evils, anger must be conquered.” An artist friend in Goa who also knows Mander well recently described him to me as someone very much in the mold of Gandhi. In happier times, that would have been seen as a decisive mark of approbation, but we are living in obscene times when a comparison to Gandhi is seen by many as unflattering. In these days of bloodlust, when decent people have to prove that they are not anti-national and marauding mobs lynch at will, and when Gandhi himself has been cast as a traitor to the nation, it is not surprising that the qualities that Gandhi stood for are despised by many who now wield power and their acolytes on the streets and in middle-class homes. Mander is, in any case, much too modest to claim to be anything more than someone who is committed to the practice of nonviolence, to the secular values on which the foundation of modern India was laid, and to the hopes of millions of India who in their own fashion cherish the very promise that is the Constitution of India.
Mander has been a thorn in the side of Hindu nationalists since they came to power in 2014 and they have undoubtedly been thirsting for his blood ever since. But the trial to which he is now being subjected staggers the imagination, more so because of the unlikely scenario that has precipitated the allegations against him by the Delhi Police. Mander has been critical, and rightly so, of the failure of the Delhi Police to stem the recent bloodbath in northeast Delhi, even as he also condemned all political parties for their wholly inadequate response. At a news conference on March 3rd, he was blunt in his appraisal of the Delhi Police’s role as “shameful”: “Even the biggest riot cannot go on if the state does not want it. . . . Even a very big riot can be controlled within six hours. And this was not such a big riot.”
On March 4th, Mander appeared before the Supreme Court in an effort to seek a FIR against BJP leaders Kapil Mishra, Anurag Thakur, and others for having indulged in hate speech that was a prelude to the killings that commenced in North East Delhi on the night of February 23 and continued for several days before being brought under control. India’s Solicitor General, Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Government of India, turned the tables on Mander and sought to persuade the court that he himself had engaged in hate speech, besides bringing the Supreme Court into disrepute. By way of evidence, Mehta produced an edited segment of a speech delivered by Mander on December 16 at Jamia Millia Islamia, where, on the previous night, Delhi Police had barged into the university, brutally beaten up dozens of students, and engaged in absolutely lawless behavior. Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde summarily dismissed Mander’s petition and reprimanded him thus: “You made statements against the Supreme Court. We will not hear you now. If this is what Harsh Mander feels about the Supreme Court, then we will have to decide on that first.” The Hindu newspaper reported it a bit differently, making the Chief Justice’s stern admonition to Mander sound more ominous: “If this is what you [Mander] feel about the Supreme Court, then we have to decide what to do with you.” The Supreme Court has since also asked Mander to respond to the allegations levelled against him by the Delhi Police that he delivered hate speeches during the anti-CAA protests in the capital.
As senior advocate Dushyant Dave, who is representing Mander, has aptly noted, this appears to be a case of the government wanting to shoot the messenger and refusing to “to take action against those whose speeches are actually causing unrest.” So what did Mander say during his seven-minute address on the evening of December 16 to the crowd gathered outside Jamia? This fight, he begins, “is a fight for our country, our constitution, and our love.” He argues that the government has instigated a war against the people of India: it is supremely ironic that the ruling party, inspired by those who played no role in India’s independence struggle, yet feels emboldened to wage a vendetta against those who stand for the values enshrined in the constitution, even daring to brand all those who stand in opposition to it as “anti-nationals”. This is not, of course, what the Supreme Court took offense at, however much slighted the BJP and RSS might feel by the claim, which Mander is scarcely alone in making, that the ideological forefathers of today’s Hindu nationalists did absolutely nothing to aid the anti-colonial struggle. In describing the anti-CAA protests and the spirit of resistance that was already beginning to be felt throughout the country by mid-December, Mander goes on to state, in the most critical part of his address: “This fight will not be won in the [Indian] Parliament. Nor will it be won in the Supreme Court. This matter will be resolved neither in the Parliament nor in the Supreme Court, but rather on the streets.” Mander goes on to affirm, in wholly unambiguous language, that the answer to darkness is light, and that the only answer to hatred is love (mohabbat).
It is astonishing that a bench of the Supreme Court headed by the Chief Justice should have dismissed Mander’s petition for a FIR against those who openly advocated hatred of a religious community and should have prioritized what the judges deemed to be aspersions on the highest court of the land. It is astonishing that the highest court should have failed to comprehend the underlying meaning of Mander’s claim that the matters before the nation cannot be resolved in Parliament or by judicial bodies. Mohandas Gandhi, put on trial in 1922 on charges of sedition and fomenting contempt for His Majesty’s Government “duly established by law”, famously said to the court: “Affection cannot be manufactured by the law.” The Supreme Court cannot make us love one another; the law can stipulate that one might not discriminate against another on grounds of religion, caste, sex, or some other characteristic, but it cannot even make us respect one another. Far from advocating lawlessness, or instigating people to violence, Mander was bold enough to suggest that the state cannot win over, in the classic expression, “the minds and hearts” of people except through love and the disavowal of violence. Moreover, it is the people of India who, in the last analysis, must through nonviolence take the fight to the state and so give to themselves the liberty, justice, equality, and feelings of brotherhood that are enshrined in the preamble to the Indian Constitution.
It is astonishing, too, that Harsh Mander, the very person whose indomitable will and courage have time and again been placed in the service of the nation should now have to answer charges of having indulged in hate speech. It may be that, for the sophisticated, talk of love is sentimental drivel. Harsh Mander has never been embarrassed in speaking the language of love. As the agenda of the state against him has established, he does so at his own peril. Pity the nation, says a character in Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo, that breeds no heroes; “pity the nation”, replies Galileo, that “needs a hero.” Pity the nation, I would say, that has so lost its moral compass that it cannot recognize one who stands by not only the Constitution of India but by the twin languages of nonviolence and love.
This is a very slightly revised version of an article first published on March 10 at abplive.in, here.
The Hindi version of the article was also published at abplive.in, here .