Mander: an icon of courage and hope
Intro by Asif Saleh, Profile
by Sandeep Phukan Interview by
Drishtipat and Gujarat Interview by Deccan
Last February when we were wondering
what on God's earth was happening in Gujarat, then came
the earth shattering piece by Harsh Mander -- a first
on the spot report from the refugee camp. The article
had so much passion and empathy that it brought people
to tears. I personally know a lot of expatriate Bangladeshis
who started raising funds after reading Harsh's piece.
Ever since then, I became a fan of Harsh Mander's write
ups -which are a an appeal to the humane side of the
people ignoring politics, religion, country and just
humanity. My admiration turned into great respect for
this man after I read his book "Unheard Voices"
which tells us remarkable stories of the unremarkable
lives of the less fortunate ones who triumphed their
tragedies. Although he does not mention it in the book,
in most of the stories, Harsh, as an IAS officer, plays
a pivotal role in helping to turn their lives around.
Shashi Tharoor, a famous writer and UN's under secretary
general, based his latest novel "Riot" on
one of the stories in Harsh's book. When I asked Shashi
to comment about his childhood friend Harsh, he said,
have known Harsh Mander for over three decades. He is
one of the kindest, most compassionate human beings
I have ever met, a man of utter integrity and uncompromising
principle -- a man who reaffirms your faith in humanity."
- Shashi Tharoor
That sums of the character of Harsh
as it is also evident from the subsequent profile and
his interview with Drishtipat.
Thirteen years ago, the government of
Madhya Pradesh decided to initiate an inquiry into the
conduct of Harsh Mander, an officer in the Indian Administrative
Service (IAS). He was believed to be close to Medha
Patkar and her associates who were opposing the state
government's stand on the construction of the Narmada
The officer did not wait for the government
to act. Instead, he wrote to the government, not only
explaining his stand, but also admitting that Patkar
was indeed a friend.
have always believed that you should do whatever you
feel is right. I don't think one needs to be a hero
to speak the truth or point out injustice
Frank. Fearless. Committed.
Just some of the words his friends and colleagues use
to describe him. No wonder Harsh's resignation following
the riots in Gujarat was hardly a surprise to them.
"Harsh is a very emotional person. If he sees something
disturbing, it remains with him for a long time,"
says his wife, Dimple. This was evident when he visited
Gujarat to oversee relief operations as the country
director of ActionAid, a funding organisation for NGOs.
Reflecting on the carnage
in Gujarat, Harsh, who was on deputation from the Chhattisgarh
government, wrote: "As one who has served in the
IAS for over two decades, I feel great shame at the
abdication of duty by my peers in the civil and police
administration. The law did not require them to await
orders from their political supervisors. The law, instead,
required them to act independently, fearlessly, impartially,
decisively, with courage and compassion."
About his resignation, Harsh
says, "I have always believed that you should do
whatever you feel is right. I don't think one needs
to be a hero to speak the truth or point out injustice.
If this is the case, then these are the times when we
have to ask the question: why does one need to be daring
to speak the truth? In Gujarat, it is not just the civil
services but the entire civil society that has broken
down. My resignation was an emotional one."
All the same, he does not
regret serving the government for 20 years. Despite
all its shortcomings, he says, there is enough space
for people in the government to do good work."
People who have known Harsh
vouch for his courage and commitment to ideals. "He
is an extraordinary person with a very high commitment
to his principles," says N.C. Saxena, former director
of the IAS Academy in Mussoorie and secretary in the
Planning Commission. "He would risk his job for
his principles. The decision to resign is a personal
one but it is a big loss to the service. He was the
right role model for all future IAS officers as he led
by example. I would have loved to have seen more Harsh
Manders in the academy."
"Harsh has been very
straight and honest," says Rajiv Talwar, a senior
IAS officer in the Delhi government and a batchmate
of Harsh. "If people like him leave the service,
there is need for introspection." Harsh's colleagues
at ActionAid feel he stands out from the others as he
challenges many commonly held beliefs. "His contribution
is in terms of bringing the plight of the marginalised
back into the policy agenda of the government,"
says Ravi Pratap Singh, senior programme manager at
ActionAid. Even when he was posted in the IAS training
academy, Harsh was involved in replacing the age-old
hand pulled rickshaws with cycle rickshaws. "He
was deeply moved by the plight of the rickshaw pullers
in Mussoorie," recalls Singh.
Harsh's reputation has been
built on such commitment and compassion. For a person
born in a family of bureaucrats, joining the IAS was
more a continuing of tradition rather than a voluntary
decision. Yet, he decided to get involved with the underprivilegedÑtribals,
Dalits and sex workers. He participated in social movements
right after he joined the service in 1980 and was extremely
popular in the districts of Madhya Pradesh where he
was posted as collector or commissioner.
In his first independent
posting as the sub-divisional magistrate in Barwani,
a small administrative block about four hours drive
from Indore, he helped start a leprosy patients' colony
and a hospital for the mentally ill.
During his posting as district
magistrate in Khargone, he effectively tackled riots
and became the source of inspiration for his friend
Shashi Tharoor's novel Riot
In 1984, Harsh was posted
as additional collector of Indore where the collector
was Ajit Jogi, now chief minister of Chattisgarh. The
same year, Indore witnessed riots against the Sikh community.
As the man in-charge of the relief camps, Harsh was
so disturbed, that he went sleepless for three nights.
He spent most of his time with the affected people,
recalls a fellow officer. Later, during his posting
as district magistrate in Khargone, he effectively tackled
riots and became the source of inspiration for his friend
Shashi Tharoor's novel Riot.
As commissioner of the Bilaspur
division, (now in Chattisgarh), Harsh started a novel
scheme of 'right to information' in the public distribution
system. He made it mandatory for all ration shops to
disclose the stocks and names of beneficiaries to anyone
who desired to know. This scheme was later adopted by
the Digvijay Singh government and extended to all the
His reputation as an upright
officer got a boost when he refused to bow to pressure
from the then chief minister Sunder Lal Patwa. As managing
director of the Scheduled Caste Finance Corporation,
Harsh implemented a scheme called 'Raftar' under which
autorickshaws were given to Dalit youth on soft loans.
He was asked to purchase the autorikshaws from one particular
firm, which he refused to do. He also launched a scheme
called 'Jabali' to rehabilitate women from the Bedia
and Bachada tribes.
Despite his actual involvement
with a large number of social schemes across the country,
Harsh remains a family man. "He keeps weekends
free for the family," says Dimple. "He likes
catching up on the movies and listens to old Hindi film
songs whenever he gets the time."
He also loves to read and
write. His book Unheard Voices is about the miseries
of the not-so-fortunate citizens.
"He is an agnostic and
does not believe in any religion. He believes that humanity
the is greatest religion," says Dimple.
Perhaps, it is for this reason
that he refused to view the carnage in Gujarat as clashes
between two religious communities, but rather as one
that eroded everything that was human
Harsh Mander spoke to Drishtipat on
his life as an activist. Here are the excerpts:
How is activist life after resigning
from the government position?
First technically, it is not a resignation
from the civil service but a premature retirement. In
all the years I was in the civil service, I tried to
live actively, but I am sure with inadequacy, in the
best way that I knew by my beliefs in a more
just and humane world. In that sense, there is continuity
after moving out of government. I am the same person,
with the same beliefs, working for the same social goals.
The location and vantage position is altered, there
are reduced trappings of power, but there is also even
greater freedom. The energy, the urgency, the solidarity
What are you doing to create more
Harsh Manders in the society?
I am sure there is no merit in the goal
of creating more Harsh Manders. I am sure
one is more than enough! But I feel we need to work
more with young people, helping them reclaim beliefs
in justice, equity, humanism, peace, and truth. We need
to engage them in authentic efforts and struggles for
a more just and caring world.
What's your thought on preventing
the rise of religion based politics in South Asia?
I think psuedo-religious fundamentalists
are a threat to both peace and development, in all countries
of South Asia. There is a huge amount of work that needs
to be done, which requires masses of us to devote time
and energy for the rest of our lives. We need to be
clear not only about what we are ideologically opposed
to, but also about what we stand. What is our alternative
vision for our countries, region and the world, to ideologies
based on hatred and divide? We need to reclaim goals
of equity, justice, peace, harmony, truth and humanism,
not merely as statements of intent but in the way we
live and work. We need to work particularly with children
and young people, impact on the content of education
and how it is transacted. We need to revive and strengthen
all popular social and cultural forums and expressions
that celebrate pluralism. The strongest bulwark against
communal politics would be for engaging once again masses
of people in constructive work and non-violent democratic
mass struggles for justice. Politics of divide has to
be opposed resolutely, and state complicity in communalism
must not only be resisted but the guilty must be made
Tell us about your current project.
Presently, my engagement with poor and
marginalised people is primarily through the agency
of ActionAid India and its partner organisations. We
believe in clearly taking sides and expressing solidarity
with the people who suffer the greatest injustice, exclusion,
deprivation and discrimination, to ensure their access
to rights, justice and equity. Also, that meaningful
change in persistent inequity and injustice was possible
only by addressing the causes of poverty and not just
the distress conditions, and that the primary responsibility
rests with the state, from which it should not be permitted
to retreat, and for which it must be held accountable.
In keeping with our mandate, we have
built partnership with dalit and tribal people, women,
children and other categories of marginalised people.
And within them, those living with destitution and hunger,
migrant and bonded workers, children left out of education,
manual scavengers, disabled people, urban homeless,
people in custodial institutions, trafficked persons,
sex workers, and people with HIV/AIDS, leprosy, mental
illness, and other stigmatised illnesses. Our partnership
has resulted in poor people getting informed and organised
to influence policy changes in their favour and to struggle
against injustice, marginalisation and deprivation.
On a more personal level, I have been
attempting to amplify poor peoples voices, first
through my book Unheard Voices (Penguin
Books 2001) and later through my column in Frontline
Magazine. Through my other writings I try to engage
with state and non-state actors in the current discussions
and search for pro-people policy alternatives on issues
such as anti-poor laws and policies, good governance,
custodialisation, bonded labour, displacement and migration.
Where do you draw your inspirations
from in working on such emotionally taxing projects?
I am only one among very many who work
in our own way to defend our vision of a kinder, fairer
world. I derive emotional strength most of all from
the extraordinary humanism of ordinary people, innumerable
unsung everyday acts of compassion and courage by poor
women and men, girls and boys. I am inspired by people
who engage in struggles, often unknown, to make the
world better for other people. I am nourished by the
love and trust of my friends and family, my literature,
cinema, theatre, and music and my writings.
Interview on the Gujarat Riot
tolerating injustice you are supporting it' : Harsh
Harsh Mander is an IAS officer of the 1980 batch who
recently shot into fame when he resigned from the services
after expressing his disgust with the Gujarat carnage.
But since going public about what he felt then, Mander,
currently working for a NGO, ActionAid, India, has avoided
media glare. Mander told Deccan Chronicle that what
has happened in Gujarat is a trend that has developed
over the last 20 years and could erupt anywhere given
the facilitating environment. Excerpts of the interview
Having been part of the
bureaucracy not so long ago, can you comment on how
the Gujarat bureaucracy and police conducted themselves
during the arnage?
The Bureaucracy and the
Police have very clearly defined
roles, partly in law, partly in practice. But the underlying
principle in all these is that the State must use minimum
necessary force to control public disorder. But for
communal or sectarian violence, the principle has been
turned on its head. Instead of minimum force, maximum
possible force, mustered in the shortest amount of time
needs to be applied. Because every minute's delay leads
to the targeting of largely innocent people. Equally
important is that the poison of sectarian hatred
spreads very fast both across space and time. For
instance in this case too it did attempt to spread to
other states like Rajasthan or Maharashtra. There is
also this danger of it travelling across time because
the poison of hatred is something we could carry with
us for generations. Therefore it is the utmost duty
of all the State authorities to do all that they can
to control sectarian violence within the minimum possible
time. What happened was totally contrary. I think
1984 was the turning point when this principle was reversed
and the riots that followed in 1989 and 1992 demonstrated
further decline in standards set for the bureaucracy.
But this carnage showed complete abdication of responsibility
by the bureaucracy. When any citizen engages in sectarian
violence, it is a very serious crime. But when the
authority whose raison d'etre is to protect innocent
lives, commits a crime, then that becomes a crime of
a completely different order. Besides the less dramatic
but equally serious failure has been the total lack
of involvement of State authority in the process of
relief and rehabilitation which is unprecedented.
Would you say the bureaucrats
were in complicity or were they mere mute spectators?
There is a very thin line
between fear as a reason and fear as an alibi - that
you did not perform because you were really frightened
or you did not perform because actually some part of
you believed in it. But I would say that there is so
little justification to say that you were frightened.
Having served the bureaucracy for nearly two decades
I know you are given so much legal protection and statutory
protection, that if you stand up, all they can do to
you is transfer you out.
But in the face of reports
that two ministers sat in the Police Control room on
the first day of the carnage, that armed mobs were seen
emerging from the houses of some other ministers, could
a police constable or even an SP resist such pressures?
I wouldn't say that about
a constable, though there are some who have stood up
even in this situation. But certainly the leadership
of the Police and the civil services had the legal authority
and moral duty. If you say that it is natural for one
to be frightened of fighting on the front, I would say
please choose a different profession , don't be a soldier.
What about reports that
a lot of Gujarat bureaucrats are either going on leave
or seeking postings outside the State?
I don't belong to the Gujarat
cadre so I would not have inside knowledge of it. I
can only comment as a distant observer. And I find it
sad that officers want to leave. I can understand the
pressures are difficult to deal with. But once again
I would like to reiterate that this is the real test
for which you are given all the power. We can't partake
of the advantages of the posts and abandon them when
things get hot. Though I can understand the feeling
of alienation and isolation of honest officers, they
must also act collectively with mutual support and stand
up to it. If they give in so meekly even on questions
of holding their meetings they don't have anyone to
blame for that.
Is it some silent complicity
or fear that is the cause?
Maybe I am an optimist. But
I feel that a large majority of people feel it is enough
to be passively good in your own private sphere. 'I
am not bigoted, I don't practice casteism. I am not
communal in my personal life. I pay my taxes. I stop
at the red light. That's enough. But it isn't enough.
The whole point I am making is that tolerating injustice
around you is actually taking sides with that injustice.
Before you there were
others like G R Khairnar, Arun Bhatia who opted out
or attempted to opt out. Why do people like you have
to opt out?
I think that apart from the
people you have described, the real heroes in the services
are those who have done really remarkable work, stood
up for justice, stood up against corruption but kept
a low profile. Even in the darkness of Gujarat you have
had some very fine young officers specially in the Police
who have stood up courageously and acted. For instance
Baroda rural SP, Kesho, and Bhavnagar SP, Rahul Sharma.
So there is space to stand up and be counted. I served
more than 21 years. I don't think that even for a day
I did anything my conscience told me not to do. Over
the years unfortunately there has developed some value
to some postings and less value to the others. You might
be getting the same salary, have the same official level
but people want to be in influential positions. They
don't want to let go of that.
You are working with ActionAid
on the Aman Samudaya project to provide relief to the
victims in Gujarat. You have spoken that the chasm between
the victims and the rest of the population in Ahmedabad
has grown so wide that the plight of these people does
not seem to affect the day-to-day functioning in the
I think events in Gujarat
are actually holding up a mirror to us as a society
and as a polity and as human beings. And it has shown
that we have such a capacity to indulge in such brutality.
Sadly despite ample evidence of this now, there is almost
no remorse in the society.
Instead you have the Lawyers
Association saying they would not plead for Muslim clients,
businessmen saying they will not trade with Muslims
and all kinds of outrageous things. The word that you
keep hearing everyday in Ahmedabad is 'boarda' (border),
this divide. They keep talking of this border within
the city itself and it seems to have fairly wide support
in the middle class and even the working classes.
Trade unions, NGOs and most
of the leading players did not either try to stop the
carnage or even help in terms of relief. I must say
these are really, really worrying trends and what I
would like to say very strongly is that I am not sure
this is not peculiar to Gujarat alone. I think something
has happened to our society over the last 10, 15, 20
years which could happen elsewhere also if a certain
facilitating environment is created. In India the large
majority still remains humane, tolerant, secular, but
And the minority of various
religions believing in the ideology of hatred are the
ones who are active and organised and they are carrying
the day and unless we recognise this and wake up, our
society is going to be so fundamentally transformed
that there will be no going back.