India – one of the cradles of human civilization, an economic powerhouse with the fifth-biggest GDP among all countries, the largest and most diverse democracy in the world. Yet recently, the COVID-centred coverage of international media has reduced this enormously complex nation into an endless series of calamitous scenes of death and suffering wrought by the pandemic.
Harsh Mander is a renowned Indian writer and human rights activist who works with the most marginalised and vulnerable populations in that country, including survivors of mass violence, religious minorities, and homeless children. His organization, Karwan e Mohabbat (Caravan of Love), has been providing humanitarian relief to these groups under the current crisis.
I spoke to Mander about what has led to the catastrophic impact of the pandemic in his country, what it tells us about the broader and deeper identity of India as a nation and as a society, and what India’s experience can teach the rest of the world.
Yasukawa: India has been very much in the news recently, due to the catastrophic impact of the COVID pandemic. But before we go into that, I thought it would be useful to ask you to help us understand the recent context in India, politically socially and economically.
Mander: I do believe that, since our Constitution was adopted 71 years ago, this is probably the most difficult moment for the survival for our Republic. There were many pledges that we made to ourselves during our freedom struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi and in the Constitution itself — that India would be a humane, inclusive country respecting differences of religion, language, culture, offering equal citizenship to all, a just country.
And above all, and I think we talk about this the least, what is most threatened is the idea of fraternity.
The freedom struggle was not just against British colonialism, but also for the imagination of the country that we would build after they left. And this idea of equal citizenship for people of every diverse faith and culture, I think, is most crucial for India, but also for the world. Because I think increasingly, we’re living in a world where there’s a higher and higher chance that your neighbour will not look like you, will not worship like you, will not eat or dress like you. And how do we relate with each other when we have these differences? And I think that India could have tried to offer an answer.
The pandemic and what has happened has exposed all these fault lines very, very sharply. A lot of this has got terribly aggravated with the present leadership and the party in power. It’s ideological. The lodestar is an organisation called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS was constituted in 1925, and it had a very different imagination. It wanted the Hindu majority to have a country almost like Israel, that was the natural home of the Hindus. Muslims and Christians were seen as people who did not belong equally. They would be allowed in a sense by the Hindu majority to live here but with lesser rights as second class citizens.
Now, for the first time, all the top constitutional positions in India (President, Vice-President and Primer Minister) are held by people who’ve spent their entire adult lives as members of the RSS, with a project of quite open hostility and hatred against Muslims.
But I also need to acknowledge that the erosion of India’s secular identity goes back to much earlier governments that compromised this idea of equal citizenship in one way or the other. And I think it’s also a civilizational problem with our background of caste and our cultural comfort with inequality. What troubles me is not just the enormous inequalities but also how comfortable we in the middle class and the rich are with this inequality.
I also wanted to ask you about the India Exclusion Reports, published annually by the organisation you lead, the Centre for Equity Studies. Could you tell us about some of the main findings of the reports? Who are those excluded? What are the mechanisms of exclusion? Also, could you talk about how you see the concept of public good which forms the basis of your analysis?
We started off with an idea of public goods as you mentioned. We define it very differently from the way economists define it, much closer to political philosophy. We are looking at it as goods, services capabilities that are essential for any human being to live a life of dignity. So that is the starting point.
We are also talking about the duty of the state, and I think that’s really important in a democracy. We tend to explain a lot of the exclusions in the context of social exclusions, due to a background of caste. India has the oldest tradition of uninterrupted, diligently sanctioned inequality through caste and gender and also discrimination against religious minorities. We also have market exclusions. A lot of analysis stops there by saying people are excluded due to social and market forces.
But a central assumption in the India Exclusion Reports is that the duty of a democratic state is to address and correct social and market exclusions to ensure equitable access of all persons to a range of public goods.
And I think that’s the entry point for opening up an alternative imagination of the world. This has become very critical when we think of the world we will hopefully rebuild together after the pandemic passes.
We have said that justice is a public good. The right to dissent is a public good, as much as health and education, housing and clean water and sanitation and so on. And the groups that are consistently excluded from all of these are almost always the same – the so-called Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes, indigenous peoples, Muslims, women and persons with disabilities. Across almost every public good we find the same groups excluded. Therefore, the layering of exclusions in these groups is something that we need to pay attention to, and that’s what we’ve tried to do.
You have been very critical of neoliberalism as a generator of inequality.
There were three assumptions about neoliberalism when we embraced it in India about thirty years ago. One was that neoliberal reforms would create enormous amounts of wealth, and that assumption has been justified, although it’s been a very unequal creation of wealth. India probably has the third-largest population of billionaires. But at the same time. every third child in India is malnourished even today, and every third malnourished child in the world is Indian.
The second promise of neoliberalism was the creation of decent work opportunities for very large populations. And therefore, everybody would be well off. And so, what if the state doesn’t provide health and education? You will have money to buy it from the market through decent work opportunities.
That, I think, has been a spectacular failure in India. In a number of our Exclusion Reports, we have actually tracked how we have had almost jobless growth. India, even in its high noon of very high economic growth, had no net job creation. Formal, decent work opportunities have consistently declined through the years of neoliberalism.
The jobs that are created are now largely unprotected, informal, low paid work, and I think that that failure of neoliberalism has to be acknowledged and addressed.
The third justification for neoliberalism was that an empowered state in an economy leads to rent-seeking and corruption. And therefore, what neoliberalism would do by dismantling state regulations was to reduce corruption and rent seeking. But what we’ve seen instead is spectacular growth in what can only be described as crony capitalism.
And we’ve seen it in India in a terrifying way, even with regard to vaccines and medical oxygen and drugs. The state seems much more interested in protecting the private profits of the super-rich rather than the public good.
So, the COVID pandemic arrives in India, in this context of already very stark inequalities and exclusions. Could you tell us how the pandemic affected that context and how the existing exclusions have been manifested in the impact of the pandemic?
A dear friend and a very fine writer and intellectual from India, Arundhati Roy, said, ‘COVID-19, is a virus we all know. But it is also an X-ray. It’s an X-ray of society which reveals to us what we are.’ It’s very powerful to think of it in this way.
One of the things that the pandemic exposed is the Indian public health system. India spends one of the lowest proportions of GDP, just a little over 1%, on public health. The middle classes have, in a sense, almost seceded from public health and also public education, and feel that they can buy these services through health insurance and so on. Some of our private health services are comparable to the best in the world. So, we don’t care about what happens to the poor.
And now, when we’re going through this greatest health emergency of the century, what we see is that perhaps as many as 80% of India’s doctors actually work for the for-profit private sector. But when this crisis really hit us, it was the minority of doctors in public hospitals who were called upon to deal with the vast majority of cases, with a much smaller contribution by private healthcare service providers and at very high, very extortionate rates. And we keep saying we need beds, but where’s the health personnel to deal with the patients?
When I got COVID and I had to go to hospital, I chose to go into a public hospital. And I also chose to not go into a private room, but to go into a general ward. It was a decision which almost killed me. Conditions there were so appalling. And there’s no sign that we are correcting ourselves yet.
I thought that the government would at least increase allocations in the next budget to public health significantly, but they did not. I also believed that they would at least now acknowledge the need for some social security for labour, but what they did was to pass ordinances which removed even the labour protections that existed, for instance, the 8-hour day.
When the Prime Minister announced the lockdown in the beginning of the pandemic in India, he was saying to the nation, ‘I need you to do just a few things: Stay indoors. Work from home. Keep social distance. Wash your hands regularly.’ While he was speaking. I was saying, ‘He’s the Prime Minister of our country. How could he forget?’ Those nine out of ten workers in the informal sector, if they stay at home and if they don’t work, they’re not going to be able to eat the next day. How could he forget that we have homeless people in the hundreds of thousands in all our major cities? But even more than that, the large majority of populations in the cities live in shanties where social distance is impossible. If you’re 10 people living in one room in a slum tenement of 100 people using a community toilet, what social distance? And you can wash your hands regularly if you have running water, but they have to spend about a quarter or a third of their earnings to buy water, even in good times, let alone in times like this.
So, the lockdown was imposed with great cruelty, with a very small relief package. Suddenly, overnight, in an entire country, we shut down all demand and all supply. We went to the Supreme Court with a few colleagues demanding free rations and at least the equivalent of minimum wages should be paid to every household. Some of the country’s best economists calculated that it would have cost India just about 3% of GDP to do this, and it would have mitigated a great deal of the distress. Also this way you would have kept alive some demand in local markets, which would have kept the economy functioning. I’ve always believed that compassionate public policy is also sensible economic policy but their response demonstrated a failure of public compassion. The country went into a deep recession.
The Supreme Court did not give us any relief last year. This year I think the horror of what is unfolding is more visible, and that has stirred the Supreme Court. We’ve got one set of orders which is about distributing subsidised rations and free rations to a much larger segment of people, at least 80 million people. But it’s not enough, not nearly enough for a country of our size. But at least it reflects some acknowledgement of the suffering.
And of course, now we are going through the second phase and the horror of what we’re seeing on a daily basis… I did not imagine that we would see this in our lifetime. Every day we are losing friends, comrades, loved ones. A doctor who was leading the work with the homeless died because he couldn’t get a bed with oxygen for himself.
We’ve officially crossed 300,000 deaths. But every expert is saying that it’s an undercounting by at least five to 10 times. India made it to top headlines around the world in the second phase of the pandemic. That is largely because middle class people are also not able to find beds and are dying, gasping for oxygen outside hospitals. Then they’re not able to find a place to cremate or bury the dead, and that anguish has flowed and revealed itself to the world.
But what is happening to the poor, what is happening in rural India is a horror that is not even being captured. People are casting away their loved ones into the river, the bodies are rotting, and dogs and vultures are eating them. This is the 21st century. When we talk about equitable access to public goods, a life and a death of dignity are a fundamental part of that responsibility. And the state has failed. They’ve abandoned the poor.
So, I have a feeling that the X-ray that the pandemic has shown us has not stirred the conscience of the nation, and especially people of privilege, to demand a more egalitarian society.
The right to dissent is also being eroded globally. The latest report from Freedom House in the US points that out and highlights India as a country of particular concern.
We are seeing elected autocracy at its most exposed. All dissent is being crushed. I have had the police charge me with unbelievable crimes. Insurrection, for example, when I have only spoken about non-violence. And a number of young people who have peacefully protested against changes in the Citizenship Law which discriminated against India’s Muslims were locked up in jail with no chance of bail.
All dissent is being criminalised. For example, a journalist who came to report on the gang rape and murder of a teenage Dalit girl has been in prison for the past nine months in extremely cruel circumstances. They are saying that he was trying to instigate a caste war by reporting this story. There are many such examples, with some of our most respected intellectuals in prison, in COVID times, falling sick, not even being given elementary protections. So, I think that the protection of the right to dissent is very, very critical, especially the peaceful right to dissent.
India, with its wonderful tradition of non-violent resistance against the greatest colonial power in the world, should have space for using those same principles to dissent against the state. And I worry that the rest of the world is not paying attention. You know, we talk about Russia, we talk about Hungary, we talk about Turkey, but somehow India is falling off the radar in terms of the international outrage. It just happens that we have a huge market and economy. We are the global alternative to China. And I’m afraid that countries that claim to be democratic and to value democratic principles are turning a blind eye to the suppression, to the criminalization of dissent and the persecution of minorities, and the intense neglect of the poor that are playing out in our country.
You mentioned that even though the pandemic has highlighted these tremendous exclusions and injustices, you don’t think that this is leading to a change in outlook or in policies in India. That’s discouraging. You don’t think that this has raised awareness in some quarters to demand a change?
You have wonderful individual examples of care and solidarity and fraternity. We have people risking their lives helping people with funeral cremations, oxygen supply and a number of other services of care. That still gives me hope. But in terms of the state, the state has shown almost no remorse, let alone introspection. I’ve also written that it is the privileged middle classes and rich who have chosen these governments. We point a finger at the government, but these are elected governments supported enthusiastically by people of privilege. Because we felt we were being protected and advanced and we didn’t care what happened with the poor and I think that hasn’t changed fundamentally yet.
The ultimate lesson is about fraternity, even more than the other pillars of the Constitution — justice, liberty, equality. These are all critical, but fraternity, the idea that if there is suffering, pain, loss, injustice to any of my countrywomen and men and children, it is injustice and suffering that I will also share as my own. That is the ultimate idea of fraternity, that we are bound to end with each other. And to my mind, this is going to have to be a societal change before it can be a political change.
One of my speeches for which I’m being charged for hate mongering and an insurrection was that ultimately, the battle that we are fighting today is about what kind of country we will leave for our children. Every second Indian is below the age of 25. We are the youngest country in the world.
I was saying at a very large gathering of young people, that ultimately, you have to decide what kind of country you want to grow up in, and what country you want to leave to your children. Because our generation has clearly made a huge mess.
Do you want the humane and egalitarian and inclusive country that was promised in our freedom struggle and Constitution? Or do you want this hierarchical, fear-filled, unequal country that belongs to some but doesn’t belong to others?
That is a choice you will have to make. In the end, this is not really going to be resolved even in Parliament. It’s not going to be resolved in the courts, but will be resolved by us, the people of India who gave ourselves the Constitution, as we fight on the streets non-violently.
But most of all it’s going to be resolved in a fourth place, and that’s really critical. That fourth place is your heart and mind. Have we allowed the acceptance of hate and of the legitimacy of inequality to colonise our hearts? Or will we cast that away and believe in true fraternity and equality?
What I’m saying about India applies, I think in different ways to almost every country in the world. The people of all countries will have to decide how they deal with, I think three principal challenges — how they will deal with difference, how they’ll deal with inequality and something that I haven’t spoken about, how they deal with climate change.
I think for all these decisions, the more I think about them, if we reclaim the idea of fraternity, we will find solutions to each of these problems.
One of the objectives of FOGGS is to promote a better global governance system, including the United Nations, that can lead to a more inclusive, just and sustainable world. You once participated in a UN meeting where you spoke about the UN’s failure to address exclusion and discrimination in India, including very grievous human rights violations. I saw in my own career as well this reluctance to speak out against government failings or active injustice toward certain segments of the population. Do you see that as a failure of the existing global governance system? And how do you think global governance needs to be improved and corrected so that it can play an effective role in promoting fraternity, including combatting exclusion, especially in big and powerful countries like India that do have a lot of weight in international and global institutions like the UN?
I see the UN as a collective to be almost completely irrelevant in a country like India, in terms of the amount of assistance that they bring in, which is a fraction of the Union budget. In small, very poor countries, the UN probably has more weight with the government because it brings in significant amounts of resources.
I find in my interaction with UN officials in India that they are desperate to have a meeting with a junior Indian official and they think their task is done. And in order to get that little space, they will silence all voices of disagreement.
I talked about the collapse, virtually, of the Indian Republic, as a result of this crisis; the breaking down of most democratic principles. I would find it hard to find a single UN document, except some observations of UN rapporteurs, which actually says this loud and clear.
No matter how much the government may try to crush my voice and our work, I see that in times like these speaking the truth, as somebody has said, is sometimes the most revolutionary of all acts. And it is this truth-speaking that I think that UN needs to do.
We need to look at the UN as a reliable, independent global voice for the values that we are speaking about. I don’t know how idealistic that is, but I don’t see a role for the UN in the way that it is functioning. It is truly quite irrelevant in a large powerful country like India.
Despite the hubris and arrogance of our government, I do find that the only criticism that they are really sensitive to is international criticism, and the UN must retain its moral voice.
A difficult thing to say I remember was going to Holland to speak as the keynote speaker in this gathering, where I said that yes, there’s a great deal that’s wrong, with the injustice, the intolerance, etcetera, in my country. But so is it in Holland. What is the treatment of minorities? Muslim minorities, people of colour in European countries, in the United States, for instance. So, another problem with the UN agencies is how they use different standards for different countries.
What the United States does when it goes to war vis-à-vis what other countries are doing, or on Israel and Palestine, is there a clear UN voice?
So, I do believe that we need to aspire to a UN that is much more downsized, non-field interventionist, because it’s always marginal, and to create the space for field interventions there are a lot of compromises that you do with the government. There also needs to be clarity and fairness in the UN’s assessment, so that it applies the same moral standards to the United States and India and China and a small African country.
Both national and international jurisprudence need to reflect what the fundamental right to life means and what duties it entails. I have been talking for a long time about recognising a new social contract, which acknowledges a floor of human dignity below which no one will be allowed to fall. So, no child should be in a situation where her body and brain should not be able to form because she cannot get enough nutrition. No child should die because they can’t get a place in the hospital. No old person should have to work on her last day because she has no pension and social security, and so on. And we’ve calculated what we could call universal social rights as costing about 10% of the GDP in India. It is eminently possible. People might ask, where is the money going to come from. We need to tax the super-rich. It’s something that Thomas Piketty and a lot of other people are talking about: having a wealth tax, an inheritance tax.
I think that there should be nationally and globally a consensus on this floor of human dignity, along with the question of difference. In a lot of European countries there’s still a homogenising idea. If we look at France, for example, I must follow what is seen as French culture, and if somebody is shy about exposing her body while bathing in the sea and she wears a burka, that is considered outrageous. That has to change. I mean, my own wife would feel shy to wear a swimsuit, and she should not be duty-bound to change what she feels comfortable with. Rather, countries should accommodate and respect diverse ways of engaging with faith, with clothes, also with sexuality. The acceptance of diversity and this floor of human dignity – these are two things that I hope we are able to persuade people and governments about the world over in our lifetimes.
You spoke about how you grew up in a different India, where different kinds of values prevailed compared to those of the current young generation. Do you think that’s what has made you engage in the kind of struggle that you are engaged in? Or is there something else in your own upbringing that’s driven you to do what you do? What has made that difference?
This is often asked of me. My family was affected by partition. My parents actually lived in that part of India that is now in Pakistan, in Rawalpindi, and they were uprooted. There was huge cruelty and violence and suffering in my large extended family. And I’m truly grateful to my parents that they never raised us with a sense of hatred of Muslims because of what Muslim mobs did to us. I was born in a Sikh family.
You know, about a million people died in the Muslim violence, but the losses were almost equal among Muslims where Hindus and Sikhs were in the majority. But there is this partial remembering — you know, Muslims would talk with you about the atrocities that they suffered, but not those that they inflicted. And likewise with what Hindus did.
With the changes in the Citizenship Law, which discriminate against Muslims, we had the largest upsurge of non-violent protests in universities across the country. Huge numbers of non-Muslim young people stood up and some of the slogans were really beautiful. I remember one which said, ‘You divide, we multiply,’ and I think that those four words summarise how we have to resist.
This idea of a common future, an injustice to anyone of the people in my country and in the world is injustice to me, and I will fight it even if I actually am a beneficiary of this system, is something that we will have to work on very, very much.
There was a very fine Muslim leader of the Indian National Congress during the freedom struggle, Abdul Kalam Azad. Azad was completely opposed to the idea of a separate Muslim nation, saying India belongs equally to its Muslims. And at one point, he said that suppose the Angel Gabriel comes and says that you have a choice between freedom and Hindu-Muslim unity. What would you choose? And then he replies, ‘I would choose Hindu-Muslim unity because if freedom is delayed, the Indian people would suffer. But if the idea of Hindu-Muslim unity collapses then humankind will suffer, because we will demonstrate that it is not possible for people of difference to live with respect.’ I find that such a profound thought about our responsibility, as the Indian people. We are the most diverse country in the world, civilizationally. If we show that we cannot live together peacefully, then what example are we setting to the world?
The interview was conducted online on 26 May 2021 and has been edited for length and clarity. The actual video recording will soon be available for viewing on the FOGGS YouTube channel.
Harsh Mander is a human rights and peace worker, writer, columnist, researcher and teacher, who works with survivors of mass violence, hunger, homeless persons and street children in India. His books include: Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India; Partitions of the Heart: Unmaking the Idea of India; Fatal Accidents of Birth: Stories of Suffering, Oppression and Resistance. He recently organized a campaign of continuing journeys of solidarity and conscience to families affected by hate violence across India, called Karwan e Mohabbat or a Caravan of Love. As the Director of the Centre for Equity Studies, founded, convenes and edits the annual India Exclusion Report. Mander is also a member of the Advisory Board of the Human Rights Initiative of the Open Society Foundations and has served on numerous commissions and committees on issues related to human rights, democracy and the protection of the poor and marginalized, including as Special Commissioner to the Supreme Court on the right to food. He has worked formerly in the Indian Administrative Service in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh for almost two decades but retired from the civil services in 2002 in protest against the role of the state in the communal massacre in Gujarat.