He Who Walks Barefoot…

November 19, 2013 at 9:15 AMNov (Activism, Cinema, Literature, Media, Musings, Slice Of Life)

Harsh ManderIn his book on Gujarat Fear and Forgiveness: The aftermath of massacre Harsh Mander quotes Horward Zinn as, “Human history is not just a history of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will define our lives.” For Harsh Mander the complex nature of history is clear but to him emphasizing on both becomes important for they are inseparable and all these qualities, though opposing, are coexisting in our daily lives and are a part of this very world.

In his article Cry, The Beloved Country written immediately after the 2002 Gujarat genocide he makes a mention of the water bottles carried, to quench their thirst, by those who attacked. Those who attacked were, like you and me, flesh and blood with drives of hunger and thirst. Hate politics is what turned these men in flesh and blood into blood thirsty devils. This is how complicated human history is! Harsh Mander in all his writings, in wanting to disclose the violence of our times, which he condemns, doesn’t close his eyes to this complexity.

At the same time his writings while celebrating the strength of marginal humans don’t simplify the fight they are fighting against the system for their survival. In his article on Gajalachmi, a lady from the Madiga Dalit caste who died of hunger, he writes, “She quietly surrendered in her brave but unequal battle with hunger.” He emphasizes on both qualities of this battle which is ‘brave’ and ‘unequal’. While upholding the brave struggle of Gajalachmi against hunger he doesn’t forget and doesn’t let us forget that this battle was an unequal one and that its battle fought because of the unequal nature of the human society.

It is this unequal violent and oppressive system which makes Gajalachmi die of hunger and those water consuming people in flesh and blood take up arms against humans. This is clear for Harsh Mander.

To speak of this narrative of an oppressive violent system and the strength of human will Harsh Mander chooses small actors of life. More than often the protagonists of his narratives are invisible humans and more than often the villain is also the invisible violence. While speaking about Gajalachmi and similar humans who are fighting against hunger he strongly says that every hunger death is an assassination.  Hunger is not written on their forehead by an invisible almighty but written in their fate by the unequal system and this is not visible to naked eyes. This invisible villain gains strength with another invisible villain about which Harsh Mander speaks with an example. He writes in his book Ash In The Belly: As special commissioner of Supreme Court, I have investigated many alleged starvation deaths across the length and breadth of the country (too many indeed for several lifetimes). One of these was in a village in Telangana in Andhra Pradesh. An aged destitute man had pleaded before a television crew, which visited his village, to be saved from death by starvation. This was aired on television, but no official was moved to act. Three months later, he actually did die. This was to me indisputably an assassination of a powerless dispossessed citizen, by a weapon more deadly than any firearm- Indifference.

Because Harsh Mander walks barefoot with these invisible humans he can see the invisible violence and also the banality of evil and the pulse of the marginalized small actors of history. When the film Slumdog Millionaire was released there were many objecting to the outsider’s depiction of the native. But who is the insider? Does every Indian become an insider just because the filmmaker was not of Indian origin? During those days Harsh Mander took slum kids to a movie theater and made them watch the film and wrote in his column on what those kids had to say of the film. Those kids are the real insiders to the world that was depicted. Harsh Mander cared enough to know what these kids had to say. He walks with them barefoot and that is why these invisible humans open their hearts out to him. Because he walks barefoot with the invisible humans he knows the soil, thorns, stones, cow dung, flowers, grass, scorching sunlight and shades of the trees nearby.

Because he walks barefoot with these small actors of the world, he knows these small actors of the world in flesh and blood he doesn’t turn them into statistics. He speaks of them with great respect and brings them to us as humans. And yes, statistics don’t bleed the way language does.

Though he walks barefoot with these small actors he is skeptical about him being able to capture their reality in its flesh and blood. In the book Ash In The Belly he says in the very beginning itself that he has not experienced involuntary hunger anytime in his life which he sees as a limitation to understand involuntary hunger in its complete senses. But through compassion he is able to cross, to a great extent, this border. This can be seen in the absence, unless necessary, the usage of ‘I’ in his articles. There is an absence of the author. It comes through the author yes, but who speak to the readers are the small actors of the world.

Cover page of 'asamaanateya baNNagaLu'. Cover photo: Archana Ghangrekar. Cover design: Apaara. Back page photo of Hash Mander: Ashwin N.

Cover page of ‘asamaanateya baNNagaLu’. Cover photo: Archana Ghangrekar. Cover design: Apaara. Back page photo of Hash Mander: Ashwin N.

This absence of the author should not be mistaken for a kind of distancing from the subject. There is great involvement. A compassionate involvement. His articles don’t fancy being neutral. As a student of journalism, teacher of journalism and practitioner of journalism (for some time) I have seen many classmates, students and colleagues subscribing to this belief that reports should not take sides. I have always failed to understand this. It is but commonsense, for me, that taking side is not equal to being biased. The latter is a state where an issue is approached with a conclusion while the earlier is just the opposite where you take a position after having seen, smelt and felt the issue with great proximity. Given this only an apolitical person can afford to be neutral and not take sides. S/he who has a sense of history will not make such mistakes. Harsh Mander clearly takes sides, after having seen the reality in all its complexities, even when making himself invisible in his writings.

Because Harsh Mander takes sides and approaches to his subjects with great compassion his writings have a humanizing factor. I am of the strong belief that there is nothing called as conscience inside us which keeps us awake. It has always been outside us and inside somebody else. We all are censors of each other. What we all have inside us is a sense of shame and a sense of guilt which needs some beating from the hammer of conscience which comes from outside. That makes us more and more humane. That is why rebels, as a dear friend once said, are important for the society as they keep society in check. Harsh Mander’s writings are our conscience keepers and thus humanizing factors.

It is important for every society to have conscience keepers so that the invisible humans can be given justice and the indifference of the large middle class can be fought. That is why Noam Chomsky said that power knows the truth and it is not to the power that truth needs to be spoken but to the people. He had said this in response to the Edward Said who believed that a true intellect is the one who speaks the truth to the power.

Truth. Gandhi in his early life believed that God is truth. But in his later life he came to believe that truth is God. These are not just play of words. There is a great shift of philosophy. That apart there is an interesting correlation between God and truth, at least in the south Asian cultures i.e. both truth and God is ‘bahuroopi’. There is no single truth. There are multiple truths and all of them need not be contradicting each other. Truth that is seen, truth that is made to see, truth that is seen through that which is visible etc. Harsh Mander’s writings capture these various kinds of truths. In his writing on the demolition of Babri Masjid after examining the factors that lead to Dec 6 he says under the rubble of the broken mosque lies the idea of India itself. Mosque, the politics, the idea of a democratic India all of this are truths that coexist and Mander draws our attention to all of this in one sentence. In his article on the winters of Delhi where several people die every year during winter he speaks of the violence of nature and also the violence of the system where these people are homeless. Along with all incidents of great violence he makes sure in his book on Gujarat that the voice of a small girl named Shaheen finds space. Shaheen tells a fact finding team of what she lost during the riots- toys. “Ek cycle thi” she says and adds, “Doosri cycle bhi thi. Ek kursi, ek vimaan. Ek choolha bhi tha, Choolhe pe roti banaate tey. Gudiya bhi thi.” (I had a cycle. I also had another cycle. One chair, one aeroplane, one stove. I used to make rotis on my stove. I also had a doll.) The truth of the child’s loss is a loss to Harsh Mander which needs to be documented because the truth of a child’s imagination and world is as true as the blood running the veins of the humans, the house, the shops which were all, like these toys, got burnt in the riots.

Amidst all the invisible violence of the system Harsh Mander is able to see hope and that is because he is aware, through his barefoot walking with the small actors of life, that humans have the strength to fight which makes him see hope in between all the mind boggling tragedies. One of the last chapters of his book Fear and Forgiveness is titled Love in the Times of Fear and Hate where he speaks of Dhuraji and Babuben who sheltered more than 100 “mortally afraid Muslims” during the 2002 attacks. He dedicates his book Fear and Forgiveness to people like Dhuraji and Babuben “who resisted the storms of hate and divide with compassion and courage.” He adds to it, “Because of them I can still hope.” Because he finds hope in such stories he speaks of it and gives us the hope that there is scope for humanizing this system too by fighting the violent system with compassion and love.

[L to R] Bhanutej, V.S. Sridhar, K. Phaniraj, Samvartha 'Sahil'

Releasing the book. [L to R] Bhanutej, V.S. Sridhar, K. Phaniraj, Samvartha ‘Sahil’

Because he can see both the oppressive violent system and the strength of human will that he calls dissent a virtue and disobedience a duty. He speaks of this with civil servants in his mind. But it applies to all who dream for a better tomorrow. Harsh Mander is one among them. His act of dissent came in the form of his resignation in 2002 after the Gujarat riots. During his resignation to civil services, he mentioned that the failure of system was responsible for the massacre in Gujarat. His active involvement in social work and social movements after his resignation shows his commitment for making a better tomorrow happen.

To make this better tomorrow happen he speaks to the people, not by standing in the balcony and addressing the people on the street, but by walking with them and being their conscience keeper. At the same time he has been continuously speaking to the power too for he realizes that what both Chomsky said and what Said said is important and essential for the creation of the better tomorrow. In this battle he has been continuously speaking to the power as a member of the National Advisory Council, a special commissioner to the Supreme Court of India in the Right to Food case and also as the Director of the Centre for Equity Studies and being founder of the campaigns Aman Biradari (for secularism, peace and justice) Nyayagrah (for legal justice and reconciliation for the survivors of communal violence) and Dil Se (for street children and homeless people)

Because he has been speaking the truth to both people and power and has been effective on both sides the Prime Ministerial candidate of the Bharateeya Janata Party Mr. Narendra Modi feels threatened by Harsh Mander and hence unleashes a hate campaign against Harsh Mander. This is an attempt by Mr. Modi to silence Harsh Mander. The cunningly smart Mr. Modi realizes that to silence Harsh Mander is to silence all the unheard voices which keep coming out through Harsh Mander. So this battle for the right to speech and expression of Harsh Mander is entwined with the right to livelihood of the invisible humans who are marginalized in this society. More than often we think of them as voiceless people. But no. They have voice. But we never care to hear them and so does the power. That is exactly why Harsh Mander titles one of his books as Unheard Voices.

This battle of the right against the might must be guided by a methodology which must be based on the principles which Harsh Mander names as: empathy and respect (Ash In The Belly). That is what makes him walk barefoot with the invisible humans. That is what makes him understand the invisible violence. The empathetic affection for life and world makes him dream and battle for a better tomorrow.

One personal anecdote to end my speech: When Harsh Mander wrote the article Selling One’s Child I had expressed great disgust to Harsh Sir about our system and legality too which was responsible for the death of a child. In response to my anger Harsh Sir had said, “Love has to become also our politics.”

[Speech prepared for the release function of the Kannada translation of Harsh Mander’s writings- asamaanatteya baNNagaLu (Edited by G. Rajshekhar and K. Phaniraj. Publisher: Aharnishi Prakashana)- in Hassan on 16 November 2013. The book was released by independent journalist Bhanutej and the function was presided over by V.S. Sridhar.]

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