Harsh Mander on His Stance on the Riots of 2002 And the Hostility That Followed

13 April, 2015

In 2002, Harsh Mander, a former officer with the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) who had served as a district collector in six tribal districts across the country, visited Gujarat in the aftermath of the Godhra riots. Dismayed by the unprecedented violence he witnessed and the role that the bureaucracy and state government had played in allowing the communal clashes to fester, Mander decided to resign after twenty-two years of service. Drawing on his experience, in this excerpt from his book, Looking Away, Mander chronicles how he became increasingly aware of the widening rift between different social classes as a result of the discrimination he faced for his decision. 

There is not a great deal which daunts me but, more than almost anything else, the one thing which still drives me to anxiety is the prospect of spending an evening with people of my social class—with the extended family, associates of my parents and parents-inlaw, friends from boarding school, and former colleagues from the civil service. Because of my decision to leave the Indian Administrative Service after the carnage of 2002 in Gujarat, and my articulated, public positions on secularism and the rights of minorities and the poor, I find that my presence in these gatherings almost invariably spurs discussions around both Muslims and the poor, and the tenor of these conversations is rarely friendly. I try to respond in measured ways; I tell myself that I should be willing to listen and engage, but I find the arguments so rooted in prejudice that reasonable debate becomes impossible. I sometimes find myself unreasonably angry and defensive.

These social schisms went so deep and were so dramatic that, autobiographically, my life falls into two phases, one before and one after 2002. After my public denouncement of the communal carnage of 2002, I lost close to three quarters of my friends and associates of my life before 2002—childhood friends from school and college and from the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and some members of the extended family who knew me from my boyhood. So many of them simply cancelled me out of their lives; presumably, they were aggrieved by my public life-choice of joining the ‘wrong’ side. The personal became political, but in an inverse way from that advocated by feminists. So many segments of India’s middle class felt so implacably hostile to the Muslim ‘enemy within’ that defectors to the ‘other’ side were no longer tolerable even as friends who are beyond politics, if such a thing is possible. Of course, the vacuum in my life after 2002 was filled by a magnificent new set of friends and comrades, and my loneliness has healed in part and with time. But the result of the general elections of 2014 has spurred a revival of all the old schisms, this time with an even greater sense of triumphalism. Sometimes I would appeal in these unsociable social gatherings, especially to elders in the extended family—many of who lived throughthe trauma of Partition and the 1984 anti-Sikh carnage—that they, better than anyone else, should understand what it means to bemembers of a demonized minority only because of one’s ‘different’ faith. But they were not convinced; I had sided with the enemy. In 2005, I shifted to Ahmedabad for nearly a year to work more closely with survivors of the carnage because I saw that their conditions and their access to justice had not altered despite all efforts. This became one of the loneliest phases of my life, because bigotry was flaunted even more openly in the middle classes in that claustrophobically fractured and bigoted city. I survived emotionally because of the affectionate comradeship of my colleagues, the aman pathiks and nyaya pathiks, or peace and justice workers, who were mostly working-class survivors of the carnage, or caring workingclass women and men from the Gujarati Hindu communities who chose to stand in solidarity with the survivors.

I realized that the other face of the coin of prejudice, in places where it becomes the common currency of social transactions between dominant and minority communities, is fear. There may or may not be open violence, but pervasive discrimination becomes a way of life, as does an invisible dread. In my record of the carnage, Fear and Forgiveness: The Aftermath of Massacre, I have described that however cruel and brutal the violence which unfolded over those terrible weeks and months in 2002 was—local survivors call it the toofan, or storm—what has been immeasurably more terrifying for me is what followed in the years later. Through sustained social and economic boycott, and geographical and social segregation, the Muslim community has been ‘tamed’ into adjusting to new social relations; to get used to fear and social subordination every day; and forced to settle for second-class citizenship. It was a kind of Dalitization of the Muslims. An unspoken message seemed to have been sent out: ‘We will permit you to live here, but your settlements must be separate, the services in your habitats meagre, and we do not want to hear the sound of the azaan or witness signs of your religious or cultural assertion.’ The ordinary markers of identity of Muslims in mixed public places have been erased. In Ahmedabad, I can easily identify any autorickshaw I am travelling in as belonging to a Muslim because it will not carry any of the religious markers which are so ubiquitous in rickshaws anywhere in the country.

I recall a story which filmmaker Saeed Mirza relates about Bombay in 1984. His mother was in hospital when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. The killing resulted in violent reprisals against the Sikh community. Returning from the hospital even as the city was tense, Saeed hailed a taxi and sat in the front seat. He noticed that markers of religion had been recently uprooted from the dashboard. He looked at the taxi driver whose hair was cropped, and asked him if he was Sikh. The old man shook his head vehemently. But Saeed looked more closely at his forehead, and it clearly showedthe tell-tale, inverted ‘V’ of lighter skin; proof that until recently, the man wore a turban. ‘I am a friend,’ Saeed said to him gently. ‘Don’t be afraid of me.’The old man began to weep. He spoke of how frightened he was. ‘What kind of country is this,’ he sobbed, ‘where I am afraid to be myself?’

An extract from Harsh Mander's Looking Away. Reproduced with the permission of Speaking Tiger Books. 

Harsh Mander is a writer, human-rights worker and columnist.