Interview with Harsh Mander

‘Across political spectrum, a conspiracy of silence’

Print edition : July 03, 2020

Harsh Mander. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Security personnel pacifying residents of Bhagirathi Vihar in North East Delhi who had gathered after a rumour of possible violence on February 28. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

An interview with the social activist Harsh Mander.

SCORES of social activists, authors, actors, retired police officers and bureaucrats issued a joint statement in New Delhi recently expressing solidarity with the noted activist-author Harsh Mander who has been named in the charge sheet filed in connection with the violence in Delhi in February. Harsh Mander had been instrumental in providing aid to those impacted in the communal violence, and had earlier lent his support to the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that hit various parts of the country between December 2019 and February 2020. During the lockdown, he was busy helping stranded migrant labourers.

Condemning the Delhi Police’s attempt to “concoct a chronology” and create a false narrative about the Delhi riots in the charge sheet filed by them on the basis of FIR no. 65/20202 of February 26, the statement noted that “in the wake of the Delhi violence, Harsh Mander had filed a petition before the honourable Supreme Court related to registering of FIRs against political leaders whose inflammatory speeches triggered the violence resulting in over 50 deaths”. The reference was to BJP leaders Union Minister Anurag Thakur and former Delhi legislator Kapil Mishra, who had allegedly made incendiary speeches leading to mob violence.

The statement said the Solicitor General of India “derailed” the petition and “gave a twist to the episode by arguing that Mander had been contemptuous of the honourable court, and incited violence in a speech he gave at the Jamia Millia Islamia on December 16, 2019”. “That speech, in fact, spoke of love and constitutional rights. The charge sheet now filed by the Delhi Police continues this false narrative,” the statement said.

Harsh Mander is reported to have said: “If someone is attempting to bring darkness to the country and we also do the same in order to fight, then darkness will only become more severe. If there is darkness, then the only way that can be fought is to be lighting a lamp…. They will resort to violence, they will instigate us to indulge in violence but we will never carry out violence. It is their plan to instigate you towards violence so that when we commit 2 per cent violence, they respond with 100 per cent.”

The statement of solidarity was signed by former Planning Commission member Abhijit Sen, Prof Aditya Mukherjee, Annie Raja, Aruna Roy, Chaman Lal, Ehtesham Hashmi, Farah Naqvi, Ramachandra Guha, Indira Jaising, K. Satchidnanandan, Ram Puniyani, Shabana Azmi and Naseeruddin Shah, among others. Mander spoke to Frontline soon after.

Excerpts from the interview:

In the North East Delhi violence case, the police have allegedly adopted a unidirectional probe as observed by a sessions court judge at the Patiala House hearing on May 27. How do you look at the whole affair? Is it an attempt to quell dissent or an attempt to browbeat the minorities?

It is quite clearly both. I think the public protest that we saw against the CAA-NRC-NPR, people coming together from different walks of life, it was the largest public protest seen in the country since Independence. I think the government was too rattled by it. On the one hand, there is the targeting of people of Muslim identity, and the victims of the riots, on the other, they are also trying to signal that whosoever speaks out against the government in this regard, even non-Muslims, will be targeted, and targeted seriously. Even I have been targeted for that reason.

I am surprised because I spoke to you on that day, and your team was going to help the riot victims in Chaman Park. But they say you were instigating violence and peddling hate. How do you respond?

Its base lies in the petition I had filed against Kapil Mishra and Anurag Thakur for their alleged hate speech. It came up before Justice S. Muralidhar [in the Delhi High Court]. Then he was transferred [to Punjab and Haryana High Court]. After that, something strange happened. In the same case it was stated that I had planned a Shaheen Bagh-type sit-in to embarrass India in front of a foreign leader. It is really bizarre. Even assuming that it was true, at best the judge should have said, ‘Go and file an FIR’. But the judge admitted the case, now the case has become against Mishra, Thakur and Mander. Two days before the petition came up, they had started a campaign on social media where a portion of the speech I gave in Jamia [Millia Islamia] on December 16 was edited and released. Without being prompted, the Supreme Court said: ‘Why should we listen to Harsh Mander when he has no respect for the court.’ This was unprompted. That played out. Now there is this charge which links the same case, and somehow links the December 16 incident with the violence that took place two months later. It is bizarre. It is apparent that there is an attempt to demonise me and discourage all activists, particularly young Muslim activists.

When you talk of young Muslims activists, I know they have arrested Khalid Saifi, but the focus has largely been on articulate young Muslim women like Ishrat Jahan, Gulfisha, Safoora Zargar. Maybe because it goes against the stereotype of branding Muslim women as those helpless victims of instant triple talaq.

Absolutely. Also, women in general who speak out. It goes against their idea of womanhood. They are uncomfortable with free, independent women with a voice.

At times, I think they are trying to follow the Emergency model, do away with all rights available to people. The Emergency took away the rights formally, what we have now is informal but as lethal. In one aspect, it is worse. The Emergency was not a communal affair. What you see now is targeting of people, targeting of dissent. What is important now is the role of the courts in the whole affair.

It is alleged that the government is uncomfortable with anybody who upholds the Constitution of India.

Yes, absolutely. And they are unapologetic about their actions.

However, even as we blame the government, what about the opposition? How different has been the role of an Arvind Kejriwal from an Amit Shah? The Rashtriya Janata Dal has been quiet over the arrest of its youth leader Meeran Haider in Delhi.

And don’t forget the Congress, too, and all the Kashmir parties. Across the political spectrum, there is the conspiracy of silence. I often tend to compare it with the Gujarat violence of 2002. There were very dark moments then, but then when I look at 2002 now, we had a very active Supreme Court where I could go, when the National Human Rights Commission, the women’s commission were all on high alert, and we had an active and independent media.

It was a time when large sections of civil society were active. Now nothing is there. All the institutions seem to have collapsed.

Is there a ray of hope?

It is a time when it is a little hard to have faith in the righteousness of the institutions. But one has to fight on. After all, it is a fight to uphold the Constitution.

But the lockdown has punctured the Hindutva umbrella. There have been instances in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra when the migrants and the haves have resorted to violence.

Many people have talked about this. But I ask, why have we not seen public anger after so much suffering? Nowhere in the world have we seen such suffering. Yet people are quiet. I think people have no expectations of the state.

They reconcile to the state’s negligence. It is very hard to understand this mindset.

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