Dear Leaders, You Can’t Silence India, Can You?

harsh mander 1

Harsh Mander, distinguished former civil servant and a human rights activist, and founder of Karawan-e Mohabbat, of which I too am a member, has been mentioned in the charge sheet that the police have filed in their case against those protesting at Shaheen Bagh and other places against the Citizenships Act amendments.

I find this mention of Harsh Mander in the police document not just ridiculous and absurd. It is part of a criminal design to silence Harsh Mander himself — he is the most powerful voice currently in civil society in India – and to silence all the civil society, every dissent group, every individual, journalist, writer, speaker and artist who has the courage to question what the Government is doing on various counts. It’s not just the CAA, NRC, and what has happened in Assam, but also the atrocities that have been unleashed on all sorts of people, in Kashmir, in the north east and in the tribal belt.

What people such as I find most objectionable is the selective targeting by the Government of India, by the BJP Party, by the RSS that supports it, of the work that Harsh Mander is doing, and others like him. They are articulating the voice of common people, of all people, including me, including everybody else who do not have recourse to a smart phone, or can not speak on live media, or is not called to television studios, or doesn’t have recourse to reach out to a reporter of a newspaper.

People like Harsh Mander are speaking what everyone wants to speak; everybody hopes to speak, if he or she had the power to express himself or herself. And, therefore, in trying to silence, to intimidate and to coerce Harsh Mande,r mentioning his name in such an FIR or a charge sheet, signals as to what the Government’s intention is.

I have known Harsh Mander for many decades – as an officer in the Indian Administrative Service when he was there, when he headed several NGOs, and in recent years as the founder of Karwan E Mohabbat. I have been a member of the Karawan right from the beginning. Together with many other people, young adults, lawyers, scientists, activists, film makers, singers, and writers, we toured this country. We explored the damage that the NRC did to the psyche of the people of Assam; how it intimidated the common people, the poorest the poor, in the valley of Brahmaputra; how it targeted the Muslims.

We have toured this country visiting every spot almost you could say, where there has been a lynching; where mobs are aroused and radicalised by the dream that the regime is selling them of religion or religious-based supremacy, of the denial of citizenship and the right to live as equal citizens of India to members of a certain community who they see as the “Other”. And the aggressive propagation of islamophobia. These are people who get aroused by it, by religious symbols they see, and then go and attack perceived “enemies” – young people in trains, people traveling in the forest, men at their shops, and in their homes — and kill them in the most brutal manner possible.

We saw that in last two years. Harsh Mander lead the Karawan E Mohabbat from the front, consoling the people, trying to reconcile, trying to bring them hope that country has not forsaken them. He tried to tell them they were just a few people mad people, radicalised people, politically motivated people, and that the rest of the people of India are with them.

The method he used was absolutely Gandhian. In reconciling the victims with the rest of society, we sent out a message to these people, the victims, that they were not rejected. That they were not forgotten .They were not forsaken. And that they would not be targeted. Karawan E Mohabbat, in fact, brought succour and solace when we met widows, old fathers and mothers who would have bathed the body of the son who was stabbed a hundred times, or crushed by rocks or beaten by staves. We met them, looked into their wet eyes, held their hands. They were consoled. We wept with them, and they wept tears that they had not shed before strangers.

That is Harsh Mander’s work. And assuring them that the culprits will not be excused; the culprits will be chased in police stations and courts, using the full might of the law of the land, trusting ourselves in the law of the land. Young lawyers of the Karawan E Mohabbat have done that.

In recent times of the pandemic, the NGOs that Harsh Mander has founded, the people that he has challenged to extend themselves, the people that he encouraged, and the people for whom he became a symbol and an example, have gone out to bring food to people who were supposed to be fed by the government. His young women and men went to areas that are not on the Government’s map, because the Government doesn’t want to see the tragedy of real victims. The elephant in the room.

These were volunteers that Harsh has trained, motivated and galvanized with a dose of his own love, and it was this love that they went out and shared, not just giving them a packet of food. Anybody can bring a bag of grain. Government can go and throw chapatis from the helicopter from which they were showering flowers on the hospitals.

How do you share love? How do you shower love from a helicopter? You cannot. You have to go and touch the victim. You have to go and look into his eyes, or her eyes. Go to pat the child on the head. You have to take the child in your arms. Your love must come from your bosom. That is how a Gandhian would work. This love is Harsh Mander’s obsession, shared by members of Karawan E Mohhabat and mostly its young volunteers.

And this is the Harsh that the government and its political leadership wants to paint, as somebody of its kind, as somebody who hates somebody with the passion that they hate Muslims and Christians, and they have hated other communities. They have exploited Dalits, and Tribals.

I ask this of these political leaders in power – you have closed your eyes and ignored the victims of communally targeted violence. And now you are going to file cases against those who have been tormented; who lost their sons, brothers and husbands. You think they are like you? Or like one of your police man, one of your cadres, one of your party members, one of your MLAs, one of your MPs, or one of your cabinet colleagues who go and garland people who are murders?

Harsh and this kind that you are trying to trap in this web that you have woven is not one of these men. This is not that Harsh. You are trying not to silence one Harsh. You are trying to curb and silence and erase the very idea of India.

The concept that our ancestors fought the British with, the concept that our ancestors fought casteism with, the concept that our ancestors assimilated all elements throwing the windows and the doors open to create a people strong, to create a people who saw no difference in race, creed, sex, gender, age, income – that was Gandhi’s concept of nation building.

That is a concept that Harsh Mander follows. That is a concept which I follow. I may have problems with many of Gandhi’s arguments, arguments he himself had a problem with, as he has shown in his book “My Experiments with truth”.

Gandhi was an honest man, and his greatest honesty was to himself. He saw himself as others saw him, and he saw himself as no other could see, because when we see into our own soul who’s there to watch us.

He has been quoted, documented, mocked, laughed at; his statues in England and America have been sought to be pulled down. But the innate Gandhi is not the Gandhi of Africa, not the Gandhi of Porbandar, not a student in England; but the Gandhi who was shot, Gandhi who was killed by people who thought his idea was dangerous, that the concept of a united India was dangerous to the dream of a sectarian India. Their dream of some mythological regime where they would be Kings and I and the Dalits and the Muslims and the Sikhs, Parsees, Christians would be the subjects, slaves, third-grade citizens. Gandhi defeated them living, and he entombed their dream forever by dying of their bullets.

Those are the lessons that Harsh has learnt, and those are the lessons that Harsh preaches. I am a witness to his preaching. I may not be his follower, but I am his brother. I am not his employee, but I am his colleague, I am not on his staff. I say it because when I continue to be with him, I find something compelling, something strong, something deep in his words. Some of them bring tears to my eyes, some of them bring tears even to his eyes. He is a soft-spoken person. If ever there was a gentleman, that is he, but this is not an age for gentlemen. This is not an age for soft-spoken people.

Is this what you want us to believe, I ask our country’s leaders.

I tell them that I would like to hope that by so targeting Harsh Mander they have sown dragon seeds. They have sown the seeds that will sprout and ensure their own defeat by the people of India, who three generations after Mahatma Gandhi was shot, decades after Jawahar Lal Nehru died, continue to hold dear to the dream that they gave us.

This is a dream that now I would like to dream, not only for my son and my daughter, but for my grandchildren and your grandchildren. The dream is that we live like brothers and sisters in a large family, taking care of each other, loving each other, nourishing together; not targeting each other, not killing each other, not snatching the food over the mouths, and not tearing off each other’s clothes. A dream of living in camaraderie, in brotherhood in the very large village that is India.

The very large hut is full of windows and doors. It has many rooms for each one of us, rooms without doors so you can walk in and walk out into the hearts of each other.

I ask our leaders “You want to kill that dream by putting it in some FIR”. These FIRs and charge-sheets don’t hold water in the court of the people. They will not hold in the court of law.

They have made a move, have done a thing that will not only fail but bring them ridicule. They will be despised not just in New Delhi, not just in India, but in the world. They will be shown to be despotic. To their own people, they will be held out as a father who hates his own child. There are such people. I think it’s a political disease – people who have killed their own children, people who wage war on their own children, their own citizens. The monsters exist in mythology, and apparently they exist in reality.

We must work some for the defeat of such forces, for the defeat of such thought. The people of India have survived five thousand years, as have other civilisations such as China, Egypt, Greece. We know that this phase, too, shall pass.

I wish our leaders well. I hope all of us will live through this Covid pandemic. I hope our economy will rise again. I hope the poor will again find work. l hope the rich will make more money – as long as they don’t make their money by selling my blood, or make it on the bodies of tribals and dalits. We will survive our rulers.

[Edited transcript of John Dayal’s Facebook Live. John Dayal, Editor, occasional documentary maker, and activist is co-author with Ajoy Bose of For Reasons of State, Delhi Under the Emergency” [ 1977, and republished by Penguin in 2018], A Matter of Equity – Interrogating Secularism in India”[2007], and Co-editor with Harsh Mander and Natasha Badhwar of “Reconciliation – Karawan-E Mohabbat’s Journey of Solidarity Through A wounded India” [2019]



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