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'Gujarat was a wake up call'

Harsh Mander quit the Gujarat administration unable to bear the callousness with which it handled the annihilation of a minority community. Now part of Action Aid, he talks of how the communal poison has entered the soul of ordinary Indians and converted them into perpetrators of brutality.

HARSH MANDER, the well-known activist-administrator, was on deputation in Gujarat from the Chattisgarh Government at the height of the communal carnage in the State. He quit the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) "stung by the indifference of the Gujarat Government to the calculated attacks against the Muslim community". What he could have done from within the Government, Mr. Mander believed, he could do better outside it.

In keeping with this thinking, he has now set up Amaan Samudaya to provide assistance and build confidence in those who took a severe beating at the hands of the right-wing Hindu groups. Not forgetting those from the majority community who suffered in the riots, Mr. Mander has also built an informal team of Hindu and Muslim youths to forge bonds of harmony among the communities. Humanity, for him, is religion. Perhaps, it is for this reason that he refused to view the carnage in Gujarat as a clash between two religious communities, but as one "that eroded everything that was human."

Mr. Mander, who was in the IAS for 20 years, is presently coordinating a network of 34 NGOs involved in humanitarian work, and is working for Action Aid India as the Country Director. One may recall here that during the Gujarat earthquake, Harsh was active beyond the call of duty in places such as Bhuj. The National Human Rights Commission, in fact, has acknowledged his services in the field of human rights.

Harsh, who was in the City recently to receive the M.A. Thomas National Human Rights Award, shared his thoughts on the current socio-political situation in the country in an exclusive interview.

Excerpts:

The Gujarat carnage is not the first instance of State complicity in attacks against certain communities. One can recall the shock of 1984 in Delhi too.

Many major riots in the past have shown evidence of the complicity of State authorities. The most dramatic one was the one in Delhi, in 1984. In other parts of the country too, State authorities have let riots happen. I have handled riot situations myself. I can say with complete confidence that that no riot can go beyond a few hours without active support of the State. While one agrees that this has happened in the past, Gujarat is an extreme example of active planning, and brutality. An unprecedented aspect this time is also the subversion of relief and rehabilitation. So, complicity of the State is coupled with failures in rehabilitation. The State first refuses to set up camps, and when it does, it either does not provide basic amenities or forcefully shuts them down. This is silent annihilation.

Is the middle-class, generally, guilty of a certain silence this time too?

In fact, it was precisely the conspiracy of silence that made me speak out. Many among the mainstream political class and social leaders, who we hoped would speak out, have remained silent. And all of us who have remained silent must share the responsibility for the violence. Also, the carnage did not happen suddenly. A whole process has occurred over the last 10 to 15 years in which a large majority of the people have legitimised ideologies of hatred.

Political leaders and activists also do not seem to have put in adequate efforts at the trouble spots to restore peace, particularly when there is so much talk about promoting communal harmony?

Having witnessed the carnage in Ahmedabad very closely, I am struck by how little, as I said earlier, our present-day politicians and activists have been able to reach out. But the despair is halted by ordinary people. For instance, the auto-rickshaw drivers of Andhra Pradesh - Hindus and Muslims - lived in the relief camps and worked for three weeks. They were perhaps the most loved of all volunteers. Many women remarked that they could talk to them as if they were "our sons and brothers". And they would not want them to go back! Call it healing by ordinary people.

But why has the political class in general failed to persuade Hindus and Muslims to be protectors of each other?

With all the failures, we must also acknowledge the positive things that have happened. About 30 independent civil society reports on the Gujarat carnage have come out in the last five months. We are trying to put them together and publish them. Most of the reports have been prepared by non-Muslims, and I think this reflects a national outrage.

We have had young journalists in the national media speaking out and resisting all kinds of pressures. If we are still holding together as a country, it is because Hindus and Muslims are each other's protectors.

In all these failures, we do not seem to recall Gandhi who courageously toured the villages of Noakhali in Bengal in the days preceding Independence to put an end to the communal violence there. Is there something we can take from Gandhi?

I think that is what we would have to do. There is no other solution to communal carnages than what you describe as a Gandhian solution.

Gandhi was an intensely religious person. I would describe much of what is happening now in the name of Hinduism and Islam as pseudo-religious. It is not real religion. We have to bring together religious, humanistic, and socialistic values to put an end to communal hatred.

The failures also seem to point to a crisis in leadership. After Ambedkar, Gandhi, Nehru, and JP, there are not many one can speak of in the same breath.

That is a very hard question to answer. It was striking to read about children of a particular school who were responding to reports about Muslims changing their names and travelling under Hindu names in trains. Some people went to this school in Ahmedabad, and asked the children what they felt about the incident. All, except one child, said they must be prosecuted for giving false names. So, this is not even about bigotry. It is about the breakdown of ordinary human compassion.

This is not shocking because there has not been a single national movement in our country in the last 15 years.

Can you say something about your role in reducing tensions in Gujarat.

There are many people who reach out, and I am only one of them. The question is about civil society, which has virtually collapsed. A majority of local organisations in Gujarat one would have expected to take a lead in building peace have remained silent. This has lead to despair. But fortunately, I have also seen hundreds of volunteers coming into Gujarat. It is almost like ordinary people wanting to show they care, something like doing prayaschith for others. We made an appeal to youth volunteers, whom we call Amaan Patriks, to help out. We are happy to find young people from the camps volunteering to work for peace.

You did resign on moral grounds. Many say this is to occupy the moral high ground.

Yes, I did resign on moral grounds. I think if anyone uses such a huge human tragedy and injustice to forward a personal agenda, it is being extremely cynical. I hope that is not true.

Isn't it time to stop the blame-game and work towards peace?

Yes. Gujarat was a wake-up call. It was a defining moment in the collective history of our country.

What happened in Gujarat was not peculiar, it could happen anywhere in the country. I am talking of the how the communal poison enters the soul of every ordinary Indian and converts them into perpetrators of such brutality.

All of us must take responsibility for this frightening scenario. All of us must shoulder the responsibility to change this situation in the rest of our lives.

NINA BENJAMIN

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