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Lunch with BS: Harsh Mander

The social activist and academic, tells Kanika Datta how, despite 17 transfers in 22 years, his years as a bureaucrat shaped his conviction that it is possible for the government to act for the poor o

Kanika Datta 

Depending on which shade of nationalism his critics fall under Harsh Mander is either anti-nationalist, a bleeding heart liberal, “a tool in the hands of Christian evangelists” or just plain delusional. These are the polite remarks. More vituperation attaches itself to almost anything the former bureaucrat, academic and social activist writes or says, not to exclude invective-laden phone calls and attempted “entries” on his wiki page. Yet Mander remains serenely unmoved, neither moderating his views nor deigning to respond to the online invective.

And so it is with Looking Away his latest book that doggedly argues that our prime minister, with his pro-business approach, is the wrong choice for India. Mander’s books are all like that, presenting inconvenient truths that infuriate a certain kind of aspirational Indian.

We are at SodaBottleOpenerWala, A D Singh’s Parsi food restaurant in Khan Market with its carefully curated eccentric authenticity, a poor choice mainly because Mander’s speech is piano and I strain to hear over the din of fellow diners who take literally the request on the menu: “Please Be Loud”.

We order a shared starter in Aloo Aunty’s Vegetable Cutlets, Mutton Berry Pulao and Sali Chicken for him, Mutton Dhansak for me. Mander is best known as the IAS officer who resigned after the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat – signing out with the dramatically titled “Cry, My Beloved Country”, an expose of the riots as a state-sponsored pogrom. Later, as member of the National Advisory Council (NAC), he drafted the National Food Security law (though he’s unhappy with the final Act) and public policy legislation.

I am surprised to discover that his 22 years in the Indian Administrative Service honed his convictions rather than making him a cynic. Not that the IAS was his first career choice, though his father worked in the Frontier Administrative Service that Nehru created in 1956 (the anthropologist Verrier Elwin was associated with it). His father’s frequent postings meant that Mander had a nomadic education in boarding schools like Mount Hermon in Darjeeling and Mayo College, Ajmer. Graduation from St Stephen’s proved one defining moment: “everybody there was some kind of leftist, there was a great deal of idealism about justice and compassion”.

Where comrades like Shashi Tharoor and Nikhil Seth went on to careers in the United Nations, idealism made Mander restless. A year in Delhi School of Economics’ sociology course left him dissatisfied – “too formalised and old fashioned, you know, Levi-Strauss and all that” – so despite topping his first year he decided to travel and make his own discovery of India. The food is served all at once, and Mander considerately serves me, the host, a satisfyingly fat and spicy cutlet. Parental consternation was ignored – “at that stage I wanted to be foolish and follow my heart – I still think it’s important to be foolish when you’re young”.

That spirit took him to Tilonia, Rajasthan, where Bunker Roy had set up what is now known as Barefoot College. “People have forgotten him but Bunker was a charismatic person for our generation, especially for middle class people who wanted to do something different” After some months, Mander decided “I needed to get out of the protection of my social class.” With the Emergency looming, he joined the Gandhi Peace Foundation, then the base for Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement and recalls staying in some “fine rural Gandhian ashrams in different parts of the country”.

The experience gave him an idea of governance at the district level. So, when a family tragedy prompted him to agree to give the IAS a try to make his parents happy, he wasn’t averse to the idea —“but I was sure I would join on my own terms and metaphorically carry my resignation letter in my pocket.” Part of the 1980 batch, he selected for his state Madhya Pradesh (then undivided) for its predominantly tribal population.

Wasn’t district service challenging? “Oh yes,” he says with cheerful matter-of-factness, “I got 22 transfers in 17 years. My daughter changed 11 schools till class eight, so you can imagine….” I am aghast, surely this is another Ashok Khemka right here, but Mander says he loved it. “The bureaucracy is a strange profession in which the early years are the best because you are in the middle of nowhere and have a great deal of autonomy. You are the one who actually implements programmes for the poor. So I know it is possible for the government to act on the side of the poor.”

We argue mildly over sharing half each of the remaining cutlet as I ask whether these transfers were routine or…? Not a single one. “In one district there was this former ruler who had 2,200 acres of land. I knew I had to distribute it because that is what the law said but I knew the moment I did it I would be transferred. In another district, it was case of huge gaps in famine relief work. Then when I went back to my first district as Collector, I refused to use force against the Narmada Dam protestors. In another case it was about arresting people who led communal riots. But these were such worthy battles to fight – and there was always the challenge of getting something done before they transferred me!”

His first test was during the 1984 communal riots after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. He was Additional Collector of Indore, home to a wealthy Sikh population. “The District Magistrate and the Superintendent of Police had given instructions that unless they personally ordered force, none was to be used; then they disappeared. And in two hours I saw things that I hoped never to see again but have seen too often.

“Then I thought hard about what I had learnt in Mussoorie [the civil service academy]. Luckily I wasn’t sleeping in those classes and I remembered that the senior-most magistrate on the spot is authorised to call in the army – the law doesn’t require you to ask anybody. So I rang the general at Mhow and he asked whether I was prepared to put it in writing, I said sure, and shoot-at-sight orders and curfew were imposed. From start to finish it took six hours because one greenhorn officer just took a decision. When you think of a place with Delhi in 1984 or Ahmedabad in 2002 where it went on for weeks, I find it hard to come to terms with the enormity of those crimes.”

Naturally he was transferred forthwith – after all, Arjun Singh was chief minister then – but, as he points out, he still had a job. The experience helped him when he was Collector in Khargone during the Babri Masjid-related riots, after which he wrote a piece on the victims that college-mate Tharoor made the basis for his novel Riot. But it was the carnage he witnessed in Gujarat 18 years later that made him realise that “there are many battles you can fight within government but when the Constitution itself is challenged then you have to fight the battles outside”.

The Dhansak turns out to be a disappointment this time, the gravy so hot as to drown out the subtlety of the spices in the dish. But Mander hospitably heaps pulao and chicken on my plate so I can enjoy the meal again. Gujarat was his “life-changing moment”. Then deputed to the NGO ActionAid, visits to the refugee camps prompted the impassioned sermon “Cry…” and the resignation. Later he relocated to Ahmedabad for a time to help the victims fight for justice. Did it help? “I might not be able to win most of the cases,” he muses, “But I believe the fact that we made people accountable means that we won’t see riots on the scale of Gujarat – it becomes too messy.” Instead, “they accomplish the same ends with ‘low-intensity incidents’ such as Muzaffarnagar or Kokrajhar where the number of victims are less than 100 so they don’t make global headlines.” A book on these lines is in the works.

We pause to order Toblerone Mousse for dessert. It arrives in two “cutting glasses” , the small glasses that are used for Mumbai’s famous “cutting chai” (or shared tea) as the conversation ranges over his NAC stint. Why was his term not renewed? He laughs and says nothing was formally explained but he assumes it was because he pushed too hard on several issues, including food security.

Wasn’t the expense of food security a valid concern? “Only if you think the pot of resources that you have is fixed,” he reasons. “India has one of the world’s lowest tax-to-GDP ratios so our point is, raise more taxes. Then you have Rs 5.5 lakh crore as revenues foregone for the corporate sector, the middle class get three times more subsidy than the poor but we protest only when subsidies are given for the poor.

“Then people say the poor will stop working because they have a little more rice in their stomachs because they don’t have dreams like us – that’s constructing the poor in a certain kind of way. As for the argument about corruption – it’s legitimate but, consider, there is corruption in defence deals or in coal mining but do we stop buying arms or mining coal?”

He had interests such as introducing the radical concept of “culpable inaction” when public officials fail to act during communal violence. “The current law enables you to act but does not require you to act. ‘Culpable inaction’ carries a punishment of up to five years imprisonment for officers who allow slaughter to continue unchecked,” he says but adds that it didn’t get much traction.

These days, his energies are channelled into his work as Director at the Centre for Equity Studies, a think tank that focuses on public policy for the poor – and for which partial funding from a Danish church organisation earned him the opprobrium of “evangelism”. No surprise, CES is among the NGOs that are unpopular with the regime. Mander says he reliably learnt that the government has formally written to some agencies that supported CES not to do so further. That is why he accepts no foreign funding for Aman Biradari, his NGO for helping victims of communal riots and the homeless.

Though the restaurant’s friendly staff demonstrates no hurry for us to leave, I realise we’ve been talking for almost two hours. So I reluctantly request the bill and pay a modest amount for a meal with one of the most exquisitely courteous activists I have met.

(A shorter version appears in the print edition of July 11, 2015)

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First Published: Fri, July 10 2015. 21:39 IST