‘The battlefields are different now. Today it’s also a battle of minds and hearts. We have to fight it in intimate, personal spaces’: Harsh Mander

Intolerance Tracker interviews Harsh Mander, well known social worker and writer who works with survivors of mass violence and hunger, as well as homeless persons and streets children. He is the Director of the Centre for Equity Studies and a Special Commissioner to the Supreme Court of India in the Right to Food case. Harsh speaks about his understanding of tolerance and how it has evolved in South Asia particularly in India. He also speaks of how different stakeholders can take part in building inclusive societies.



Terms like ‘tolerance’ and ‘intolerance’ are hard to describe, or pin down to one definition. What, in your understanding, do these terms mean?

Harsh: I’m not particularly fond of the term ‘tolerance’, I think it sets too low a threshold for the terms on people with differences should live together. It seems to suggest just that we should put up with each other. We should be aspiring for something much higher. I think the decline in our aspirations for the ways we live with difference has happened over time. Just observe changes in Mahatma Gandhi’s thinking. If you look at the early days of the freedom struggle, the slogan was of ‘Hindu-Muslim unity’. Gandhiji would say that Hindus and Muslims are like my two eyes. To join the Indian National Congress, you had only to pay a chavanni, and sign a pledge saying you believed in Hindu-Muslim unity. Later on, you see he starts to lose heart about the possibility of real unity, so instead he talks about ‘communal harmony’ and not unity; or in other words, even if we are not one people, let us have goodwill towards each other. But towards the end of his life, when he witnessed a million people die in the horrific Partition riots, he toned down his appeal at what could be described ‘peaceful coexistence’; we are not united, we may not even have goodwill to each other, but at least let is learn to live side by side peacefully. This is closest I think to what we define as ‘tolerance’ today.

But sadly even this minimal idea of peaceful co-living is breaking down in India and indeed South Asia. One of the major consequences we see of communal violence in India, in the few decades, is that people of different religious communities stop living together after communal violence. We see this over and over again in our work in many sites of large communal massacres of religious minorities, mainly Muslims, like Bhagalpur, Gujarat or Muzaffarnagar. Minority groups tend to move out of mixed colonies where they may have lived for generations, to Muslim majority areas – ghettoes – where they feel safety in numbers. There is also an active majoritarian triumphalist expulsion – a kind of ethnic cleansing – that you see in areas where communal massacres have unfolded, in which Muslim minority residents are told that they are not welcome to return. In cities like Ahmedabad that have seen a series of bloody communal massacres over the decades, people actually use the word ‘border’ in common everyday parlance to describe the division between the Hindu and Muslim parts of the city.


Do you think this is a more recent phenomenon? Are we seeing more intolerance now than previously? 

Harsh: There are some landmark events – Partition, the Babri Masjid movement and demolition, the Shah Bano agitation, the Gujarat massacre, Muzaffarnagar riots, in which hostility between religious communities have tended to peak and relations break down to a lower ‘normal’ each time. In more recent times, the election of Mr Modi has had an enormous impact on majoritarian sentiment and minority insecurity. You see the triumphalism around his alternate vision of India, where minorities are tolerated on subordinate terms. One consequence of the massive and unprecedented levels of human rights activism after the Gujarat 2002 massacre, has been that large communal massacres have become politically costly. So now instead of large massacres, we see low intensity hate mobilisation. People are attacked for what they eat, or not welcome in mixed living arrangements. It has the same consequence, of minority groups feeling more insecure. Even this recent discussion on nationalism, it’s on another level altogether. Not only are minorities subordinate peoples, but persons who speak of another vision of unity or harmony are themselves cast as suspect in their love for the nation.


Are there alternative ideas out there about what living together, or tolerance, or harmony could mean in practice? From your work in violence-hit areas, does something strike you along these lines?

Harsh: I think I may be a bit romantic in this, but I’m convinced that ordinary Indians know and practice a kind of shared co-living which is on terms much higher than tolerance, based instead on genuine respect. I think that’s why the idea of a man being killed for allegedly eating beef caused outrage at a national level. The strongest evidence I’ve seen is in Gujarat, where the number of Hindus who killed Muslims were outnumbered many times over by those that had saved lives. In these difficult moments you recognise that despite the assaults, a spirit of shared co-living endures in our country. I’ve talked of riots being caused first by manufacturing hatred, like a chemical reaction, using ideas of false history, things like love jihad, etc. Some friends who say that I am romantic in my conviction that majority of Indians – Hindu and Muslim – are secular by instinct and practice. I don’t agree. But my current worry is that perhaps it’s true people are not inherently communal, but why are they so communalisable? I don’t have an answer for this. In Muzaffarnagar, for instance, the absurd notion of love jihad – that Muslim boys set out to trap Hindu girls into romance and marriage to expand Muslim populations – has settled into people’s consciousness, it’s irreversible. After what happened at JNU, the nationalism discourse has penetrated into people’s discourse in an unprecedented way. Even people who are usually secular are taking positions against the students. We do have an old civilisational history of tolerance too, even from Partition there are stories of an extraordinary number of people who saved lives, from both communities. This is something special, arguably unique to our civilisation, and we need to preserve it.


What should the state’s response be, to increasing intolerance? What about when it is complicit itself in acts of intolerance?

Harsh: What you see today in India, it is very much part of the ideology of the state. The current government is officially following RSS ideology, which very publicly states that India should be a Hindu nation. This is fundamentally in contradiction to the ideas of the freedom struggle, and the Constitution. You see a legitimisation of the ideologies of hatred and division, and much greater insecurity among minorities.


If we can’t turn to the state, is there something ordinary people can do, to foster more of an atmosphere of tolerance?

Harsh: I think each of us need to be intensely involved in this struggle to preserve the pluralism, humane, inclusive soul of India. It’s almost like we’re waging the same battles we waged during the freedom struggle. We’re being pushed out by voices that are in the minority, but sound dominant. The battlefields are different now. Today it’s also a battle of minds and hearts. We have to fight it in intimate, personal spaces. That the personal is political has become very profoundly true. We have to resist prejudice everywhere, in our homes, with family, friends, publicly, continuously. It’s important to demonstrate that the majority of people want to live together with goodwill, friendship, trust and peace.

(Interviewed by Saba Sharma)