Harsh Mander, social activist and former bureaucrat, started the Karwan-e-Mohabbat last September to reach out to victims of hate crimes. In an interview with Pragya Singh, he says if India doesn’t have leaders like Mahatma Gandhi we will have to find courage to foster love and fraternity ourselves. Edited excerpts.
Why does the Karwan-e-Mohabbat exist? What does it aim to do?
The Karwan was a call to solidarity and atonement against the mounting sense of fear among minorities and our lack of response to it. Muslims in particular are experiencing a high degree of fear and marginalisation. Muslim mothers are telling sons not to say ‘salam aleikum’, grow a beard or get into a fight, such is their insecurity. Hate speech is being normalised, as is prejudice against Dalits and there are attacks in tribal areas against Christians. I felt that we have to reach out to our brothers and sisters to tell them that they are not alone, that we care and seek forgiveness, for we are collectively responsible but unable to prevent this.
In Kathua, a young Muslim girl has been raped and murdered and criminal proceedings are mired in the language of hatred. What explains this?
I hope the Kathua case is a turning point. It’s distressing that it required something like this horror before we outraged. Overall, the silence of the majority needs to be questioned.
What explains the silence?
First, people are frightened to speak; and there never has been this kind of fear of speaking out in dissent. Secondly, people don’t care: ‘I am not Muslim or Dalit so how does it affect me?’ The most frightening reason is that people share these sentiments of hate, so they have actually outsourced to the mob the work of acting out their hate.
The degree of hatred is unprecedented. Why is this so?
“The majority is silent also because many share sentiments of hate, and have outsourced to the mob the work of acting out their hatred.”
I had never thought a day would come when I would compare us unfavourably with, say, the American people. Yet, Trump came to power and within a week passed an order against people from seven Muslim countries. Within hours, people gathered in airports, put up posters saying everybody is welcome, that ‘we are all Muslim’ and so on. Young lawyers set up legal aid centres, ordinary people visited Muslim neighbours in support; actors, professionals, spoke out. I don’t see us collectively expressing this kind of sustained outrage and opposition.
Could the outrage of a few have prevented the crime in Kathua?
Hate is not a problem only of the victim. We are all affected, more so those who watch but don’t act. Take Afrazul’s killing in Rajsamand. The Karwan went to the killer’s (Shambhulal Regar’s) house to understand what motivated him. He turned out to be a young man who had a small business which collapsed after demonetisation. Thereafter, he sat at home and watched hate videos, getting primed (for the crime). He wanted to kill some people only because they were Muslim. Even this little girl in Kathua—her only crime was that she was Muslim. I was struck by how in Rajsamand nobody responded to Afrazul’s killing. The Karwan called a public meeting with the Hindu community, asked people if they at least worried about a boy of 14 (a Hindu) who calmly filmed a man being hacked and set on fire. So the hatred is enormous.
And how did people answer that pointed question?
There was a slight stirring, but overall I have found in our journeys—we have been to ten states now—a kind of absence of any conscience or compassion in the majority community. The kind of outrage I would expect of humans has dried up. Earlier, people would reach out after riots. Today, the poison that has been injected into the veins of our society is toxic, heady and addictive. Hum log ek tarah ke nashe mein hain—we are intoxicated with hate. It is a crisis of huge proportions that we are not acknowledging.
Have we become a society that is in some ways sick?
Yes. More than sick, the metaphor is ‘intoxicated’. We are on a heroin high of hate. Illness or intoxication, both can be resolved if we recognise them. To find our capacities to love again is our biggest battle.
Right now, who is afraid of whom—Hindus of Muslims or Muslims of Hindus?
I am convinced that this is not a battle of Hindus and Muslims. The battle is between the minority—those who use religion for divisive hatred—and the majority, who respect all faiths. But as time passes I keep worrying if we are still the majority or becoming a minority. We have to remain the majority or we lose everything.
And one manifestation of hate is the kind of violence perpetrated on the girl in Kathua?
“Along with police, there is pressure on victims from within the community. Muslims say fight for justice will bring more persecution.”
In lynching after lynching, the hatred is extreme. Even in Asansol, the imam’s 16-year-old boy was not just killed but his body was returned with nails pulled out, eyes gouged, with multiple stab wounds and partly burned. In Nagaon, people said that two young boys were cow thieves and the mob lynched them. Again, the bodies were returned with ears cut off, mutilated. In Bengal, three lynched boys’ genitals had been crushed. Kathua is an illustration of what kind of hate this is. We are outraged by the ministers and lawyers, but it is not the first instance. In Akhlaque’s case, a central minister draped one of the alleged killers in the national flag.
Who is responsible for spreading hate? Are we re-enacting pre-existing animosities or is this something new?
We are seeing a hate fostered, generated and legitimised from the highest levels. India Spend, in a survey of cow-related violence after 2010, found that 97 per cent of attacks had happened after Mr (Narendra) Modi came to power and 86 per cent of them are against Muslims, eight per cent against Dalits. With leaders like Trump, Modi and others, their politics and personalities represent hugely divided societies but they also reflect, legitimise and amplify prejudice and hatred in their politics, public utterances and in their selective silences. These leaders didn’t create that hatred but they have legitimised it and given us the freedom to act it out. It means that deep in our souls we were carrying this hatred and these leaders have dug a deep tube-well that allows it to spout out. Communal organisations like the RSS and its associates have created this hatred over generations and we have not fought back as a society.
Why is it important to fight this?
If we go on like this, future generations will ask what happened to us as a people, why we remained silent. My German friend told me that her 12-year-old has a school project to find Jews killed in his area and do a report. We have also been through Partition, in which a million people died. Have we dealt with what hatred did up to that time? We have not. Hatred has been allowed to fester. The so-called secular political parties are culpable too. The Congress is selectively silent on this mounting hate. Parties which claim to be sympathetic to Muslims, the Samajwadi Party, the Trinamool Congress, believe that appeasing clerics and giving Hajj support to imams is supporting the community. It is not. Media is extremely culpable too. They are part of this collective silence and the legitimising of hatred without resistance. Our education system, which is preparing us for the market but not worrying about us as human beings, is also responsible.
What role are the administrators of justice playing?
The police, prosecution and judiciary at lower levels are acting in unison to withhold justice. It is a very effective, systematic process. The Karwan has visited over 100 families and we find victims being criminalised in almost every cow vigilante case. Pehlu Khan’s sons are running around seeking anticipatory bail, while the Alwar SP said they are cow smugglers. These are very loose words. The law requires you to get a permit when transporting an animal for slaughter. It is undisputed that Pehlu was carrying milk-giving cows, with calves, which you would be crazy to slaughter—not that any cow smuggler deserves to be lynched. The police act like lynch mobs in many encounter cases.
Once a victim is cut off from justice, what happens then?
After lynchings, Muslims are not even reaching out to the police now. They say sabar kar lenge—we will endure. This is the one big difference between attacks on Muslims and on Dalits. The Dalit is fighting back and that gives us so much hope. There is anger, assertion, you hear ‘Jai Bhim’, see mass conversion to Buddhism; they fight their cases. They still believe this is their country and they have the right to fight back. To Muslims what is being communicated is that you are here under sufferance and are second-class citizens so cannot make claims for justice. Hence, ‘sabar karna zaroori hai’.
Recently, in Jharkhand, a lynching case was brought to speedy trial but when the accused came to court hundreds of supporters shouted slogans in his favour. Is justice worthwhile if it polarises people?
This is the dilemma for victims; this idea that we give up our claims for justice so that we can live together in peace is a false dichotomy. Domestic violence victims are often told this too, but we are not looking just for peace but for a just, authentic peace. Peace without justice is surrender.
Yet, how do you look upon cases where polarisation grows after victims seek justice?
In Jharkhand, the victim’s family, despite fear, was not intimidated and we had the enormous fortune of a fair-minded judge and got the first conviction in a lynching case. Despite a really gruesome crime, Mariam, the victim’s widow, said she wanted justice, not capital punishment. You also hear the imam in Asansol and Ankit Saxena’s father—these are people who represent an India which is still humane.
Why do Muslims fear seeking justice?
“The difference between attacks on Muslims and Dalits is that the Dalit is fighting back, giving us hope. They believe in the right to fight back.”
Along with what the police are doing, there is pressure on victims from within their community. One victim told us that the Muslim sarpanch of her village asked her to get her sons to rescind their testimonies for the sake of bhaichara, brotherhood. She said, ‘I don’t want bhaichara, I want insaaf—justice.’ Muslims tell us that if they fight for justice they will only be persecuted more. We are seeing this in the Kathua case—the family pursues justice and there is intimidation by lawyers, the local community. I believe that as a society we can only live with justice and and rebuilding relationships on the basis of equality. Mahatma Gandhi had said that if a cat attacks a mouse and at that moment the mouse says ‘I forgive you’, that is not forgiveness, the mouse had no choice. In Mariam’s case, I think she has found spaces for forgiveness after justice and that is where we can begin.
Are you more hopeful or despairing seven months after starting the Karwan-e-Mohabbat?
The degree of horror and violence, the absence of remorse, the celebration of hate, the videotaping of attacks remind me of lynchings of Black Americans. Those, too, had become sites of public entertainment. The victims’ famlies do not understand why this is happening. Somehow, Kathua has woken up people, but we are passing through a very critical moment in our history.
After the Ankit Saxena case, there is an accusation against activists that you are soft on violence perpetrated by the Muslims.
People ask me this all the time and this is part of the reason why parties like the Congress are silent. Who else are you going to stand with if not the victims, and why be defensive about it? Gandhiji was told he is ‘Muslim-parast’ and he responded, yes I am, and when I go to Pakstan I will be Hindu-parast. In Ankit Saxena’s case, when the BJP chief tried to drive a communal rift, Yashpal Saxena, the father, resisted. The imam in Asansol showed exactly the same instinct, saying it would be a greater tragedy if a single Hindu is attacked. Yashpal likens the imam to his brother. In all the despair these people help us believe there is hope.
Is the Karwan effective in your view?
The Karwan is entirely crowd-funded. Mostly, Hindus contribute. It has touched many people but it has meant a huge amount to Muslims. Writers, photographers, film-makers, through telling and retelling their stories, have broken at least some of the collective silences. At first people used to say that these are a few stray incidents which vested interests are blowing up. Now, they recognise that this is a pattern across India, that hundreds of cases go unreported. The Kathua girl is being mourned by thousands as if she was our own daughter. This is the kind of fraternity we have to foster. I will continue to do this as long as I don’t feel that as a society we are not fighting back.
What are the solutions for hatred?
Love has become probably the most revolutionary idea of our times. This idea that we can foster love in the climate of hate has become the most important battle.
Will eventually something like South Africa’s truth and reconciliation be necessary in India?
Through truth and reconciliation, South Africa’s society tried to come to terms with its histories of violence, something we have not done. We should have had a truth and reconciliation after Partition, after 1984 and a range of other episodes—Gujarat, Kandhamal, the collective atrocities against Dalits. We haven’t dealt as a society with the injustices we have perpetrated. We have to recognise that it is not something happening out there, that we are culpable with our silent endorsements, our lack of resistance. We have to enter into our souls and discover how much hatred there is in each of us. We encounter levels of prejudice we never dreamed existed among family, friends, colleagues and cannot afford to push it back under the carpet.
Who will have this dialogue?
In 1948, a million people had died in Hindu-Muslim riots, a country had been carved out on the basis of religion, amidst bloodshed, lakhs of angry refugees had landed in Delhi. They had occupied the Connaught Place mosque, converted dargahs into temples and were throwing Muslims out of their homes. In the middle of this Mahatma Gandhi said that this country belongs equally to all. His last battle was to restore mosques and dargahs to Muslims. It is that courage we will have to find and if we are not going to have leaders like him, then we have to do it ourselves. We have nowhere else to look.