Harsh Mander- a Gandhi after Gandhi was in coastal Karnataka on the 19th and 20th of February. In these two days he delivered four talks in Mangalore-Manipal and Udupi. This post is an attempt to summarize the four talks and map his major preoccupation of this period.
The talks were anchored in four major points:
- Erasure/ exile of the poor from our conscience and consciousness.
- Legitimization of prejudice.
- Normalization of violence.
The popular films made during the first two decades of independent India had poor people as characters and said the films showed the life of the poor in a respectable manner. But now, Harsh Mander said, the films do not have poor people as central characters anymore. There is an exile of the poor person from the popular cinema which, he said, is an indicator at the exile of poor people from our conscience and consciousness. The malls that we go to keeps the poor man outside of it, the multiplex cinemas that we go to makes it impossible for the poor to enter, the soaps that we watch doesn’t include the poor in its narrative, our apartments have huge walls and gates that keeps the poor people from entering. All of these factors are a result and also cause for the exile of the poor people from our consciousness and conscience opined Harsh Mander who remembered the previous Finance Minister saying poverty will be eradicated by 2040 and said the absence of any sense of urgency and absence of any promise to come up with policy and programmes to accelerate erasure of poverty shows how the poor people have lost significance in our hearts and minds.
When the food bill was presented the public debate was more against the bill. Lot many, remembered Harsh Mander, asked why the tax paid from the hard earned money of the people be used to provide food for the poor. “But nobody asks similar question when the taxpayers money is spent on arms,” said Harsh Mander and connected this apathy to the exile of poor people from our conscience and consciousness. The poor, he said, actually works harder than the taxpayer and the taxpayers are wrong in thinking earning and hard-work are usually proportional to each other.
Speaking of the exile of poor from our minds the following words of Arundhati Roy’s were remembered by Harsh Mander: “The only successful secession movement in this country is that of the middle class from the poor.”
Holding the opinion that poverty is also a systemic violence Harsh Mander believes that normalization of inequality and violence is one of the major tragedies of our times.
In a year around two million people in this country die out of purely avoidable causes. But the State doesn’t seem to take this into consideration and take some action to avoid this, pointed Harsh Mander.
In Delhi thousands of men, women and children sleep in the open as they are without shelter. These homeless people usually sleep very close to the road because the fume of the vehicles acts as mosquito repellent. Though it damages their lungs slowly for the sake of a few hours of peaceful sleep they sleep close to the road and sometimes get run over by the vehicles. During winter most of the homeless women sleeping in the out do not cover their face and head because that would be an invitation to be raped. Recollecting these Harsh Mander said, “When I put my daughter to sleep at home after reaching home crossing all these homeless people on my way home if their faces do not haunt me then the distance between me and those sleeping just one kilometer away from my house is the largest distance between any humans in the world.”
Such distance and such indifference, he opines, is created by a kind of normalization of violence and inequality. Distances and indifference are created, he said, also by legitimization of prejudices. “Earlier,” he said, “while speaking of people belonging to another faith people would hesitate to speak badly about them and try to hide their prejudices.” But now, he observed, people voice their prejudices and utter their hatred for people of another faith, especially Muslims and Dalits, so openly and confidently that the prejudices have been legitimized. The prejudiced talks have become normal to our dining hall and drawing rooms. This he linked to the normalization of violence and indifference.
Speaking to the students of media he said that with writing it is possible to fight legitimization of prejudice, exile of the poor from our consciousness and conscience, indifference and normalization of violence. For this, he said, the writer should have an essential quality: Empathy.
When Harsh Mander asked the students how they understood empathy one of the students answered saying, “It is to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes.” Immediately Harsh Mander said, “And that somebody may not even have shoes for us to enter,” and demonstrated what empathy means and how imagination is intrinsic to empathy.
Continuing the talk to the students of media he said the core and common element for all humans in the human dignity and said it is important for us to recognize that the dignity of a homeless lady who is mentally unwell and unclean is as much as the dignity of our mother. To recognize this element of human dignity is also key to empathy, he said. If writers are so empathetic and that empathy reflects in their writings then according to him we can fight, to an extent, the exile of poor people from our consciousness and conscience, normalization of violence, indifference and legitimization of prejudice.
Making a mention about the public rage following the rape of a girl in Delhi in December 2012 he said that the rage was possible because of the empathy in people. Speaking of the innumerable rape and killings of Dalits and Adivasi women across the country by upper caste, upper class people and also the army he said, “There is a limit to our empathy,” and raised concern about the absence of outrage regarding the violence and oppression of the marginalized.
Addressing the employees of a newspaper Harsh Mander remembered how several Muslim friends thanked him in 2002 when he resigned from Civil Services as a mark of protest against the Gujarat carnage. “I was told ‘We are grateful to you for what you did for us’ and I couldn’t understand the ‘Us’ that was being segregated. I used to tell them, ‘You people are equally my people’.” One of the things that the minorities in Gujarat couldn’t come to terms, he said, was the fact that the Dalits and Adivasis attacked them. To this he said he would answer by counter questioning them- “When the Dalits and Adivasis were oppressed, did you speak up?” and ask them to find him a village where the Muslims offered their well water to the Dalits. Recollecting these exchanges from his memory Harsh Mander said that our solidarity should be with all those who face injustice and we must fight injustice everywhere.
“The Prophet said that to oppose violence and injustice from your heart is the least you can do. A better way to respond is through your lips i.e. speech and the best way is to respond with your hands i.e. action. But never did the Prophet say that respond only when injustice is targeted at a Muslim. The Prophet also said that if you keep your hand on an orphan child then you will get that much blessings as many hairs are there on that child’s head. But never did the Prophet say that it has to be a Muslim child,” said Harsh Mander and added, “We cannot equate Hindutva communalism and Islam fundamentalism but we should fight both because violence, separatism and retaliation cannot be erased by the same tools. We have to fight them with love and solidarity.”
Speaking about the threat of Hindutva politics Harsh Mander recollected one of his former colleagues saying, “I have to protect my religion the Hindu religion from Hindutva,” and opined that in every religion majority of the people are secular and not fundamentalists or communalists and hence the riots can be called as riots between seculars and communals rather than as between Muslims and Hindus because in riots the communals from all religions are against the seculars of all religion. “Secularism” he said “doesn’t mean tolerating the differences but celebrating the diversity.”
“Mahatma Gandhi and Azad were deeply rooted in religion and they dreamt of a secular nation. Jinnah and Savarkar were atheists and they demanded for a religion based country,” he said and explained that there is no one definition of India or one thing that people of India had to subscribe to be called as Indians. The beauty of India, he said, is its diversity. The tribe in Arunachal Pradesh that speaks a language of its own with a population of only 400 is as much Indian as others. There is no conformity that is expected to be an Indian. “Hindutva politics,” he said, “intends to erase this diversity by setting some qualities to confirm to become Indians. This is threatening not just the diversity but also the liberty and fraternity of the nation and hence the Hindutva politics is against the Constitution of the country.”
“One of the street kids that I was working with had run away from home not being able to tolerate the violence of his father. When he came to the city again he was harassed by the elders on the street. He had been subjected to repeated oppression and violence by elders everywhere,” narrated Harsh Mander the story of a boy he worked with. When he asked the boy if he had come across at least one elder person who was good to him the boy said that a pickpocketer was very kind to him who had warned him against substance abuse and also took care of him when he fell sick. “The boy chose a pickpocketer over all of us because the pickpocketer hadn’t been indifferent to him and we all looked away.”
The forthcoming book of Harsh Mander is tentatively titled ‘Looking Away: Injustice, Prejudice and Indifference.’ This as he says is his “most important book.”