Reading list Friday Review

Hope in the heart of darkness

Harsh Mander. Photo: K. Murali Kumar  

The picture on the cover of the book, of haggard, defeated looking feet; with a toe missing, makes me uncomfortable. I look away just in time to read that Harsh Mander has almost prophetically, described this very reaction of mine in the title of his book, ‘Looking Away, Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India.’ Guilty at my attempt at self preservation, I then muster the courage to read his book and find that instead of bringing about a sense of hopelessness, Mander’s book is actually a place of solace amidst all the unveiling. Using stark details and sharp arguments, the narrative, of course, indicts members of the large and influential middle class of apathy towards grim realities that their fellow citizens are straddling with. But, it is not without hope. Mander divides his book into three main categories: Many Exiles of India’s Poor, The Legitimization of Prejudice and The Imperative for Public Compassion. In each section, Mander, along with crafting incisive arguments about the need for food security, the politics of the poverty line, banning child labour, the plight of homeless children and what the country is like for the Muslims in India, breathes hope by saying that all is not lost — if only we learn to care for each other. Compassion is Mander’s beacon of hope. “I didn’t think compassion would ever be a radical word. It has become a dangerous word today, but has never been more important,” he said, at the launch of the book at Indian Institute for Human Settlements in Bangalore.

Speaking on the sidelines of the launch, Mander highlighted the need for such a book, how he perceives the current Government, the decline of a credible Left alternative and the need for a second freedom struggle. Excerpts:

What compelled this book?

I think every country in the world is grappling with how to deal with inequality and diversity. India has done terribly in the sphere of equality so far. Traditionally, compared to most cultures in the world, we had some of the best examples of people of different belief systems, cultures and ways of thinking living together with mutual respect. I think both of these are deeply threatened in the politics of today. It is not merely the facts of inequality and prejudice against minorities that worry me. But, the feeling among the very large and influential middle class that this inequality is not only inevitable but legitimate. The middle class feels that people of privilege are entitled to it and the people who are suffering from want and disposition are responsible for where they are. This sense of entitlement is something recent that I have seen in the new middle class. It was unthinkable in the days of my growing up. Why is it that we have lost any sense of outrage?

I also think that we are not having the most important conversations with young people today. As I write in my book, we’ve exiled the poor from our conscience and our consciousness. We’ve erased them from our films, television and newspapers. Also, in the very manner in which we are raising young people, we have created bubbles of life where our children do not go beyond multiplexes, cars and air-conditioned schools. They almost never encounter the poor in any capacity except those who are there to serve families. For all of these reasons, I think this book was necessary.

In the book, you call the present Modi Government as hyper masculine and the alternative as being a feminine one…

The idea of caring as being central to politics and to social engagements is the reverse of the kind of politics that Mr. Modi represents. What I call hyper-masculinity, apart from the ‘chchappan chaati’ which he flaunts, is his extremely decisive and surgically ruthless pursuance of what he believes should be done.

And, you link his tenure as Prime Minister to the diminishing scope for equality and a thriving diversity…

I think he has been consistent with his belief that markets need to be promoted and all encumbrances such as environmental concerns, labour protection, land acquisition, justice — all of these need to be set aside. Then, his government has reduced social spending substantially. Gujarat had very low social spending on health and education and unbelievable subsidies to the Tatas, Adanis and so on. Again, we see transference of that model in the budget. There has been no outrage when there is a 40 per cent or 60 per cent cut in social spending.

Moreover, this majoritarian climate of violence and intolerance against minorities — it is very disingenuous to say that it is something that the Prime Minister does not want. What he doesn’t want doesn’t happen. But, it is consistent with his discourse. And even if I give him a very large benefit of doubt, the lesson to be learnt is that you cannot uncork a genie in a bottle of hatred and then say I’ll only use it to get elected and then put the cork back. Once uncorked, it is not going to be in anyone’s control. That’s the big danger.

A lot of what he has promised, especially jobs for young people has not materialised. India adds one million people to the work force every month. And it is that aspirational class that voted for him.

You have worked both in the Government as part of the administrative services as well as in the National Advisory Council. How would you describe the experience of engaging so deeply in matters of policy?

In my experience of working in both the Government and the Council, what came up very strongly is the hostility within substantial levels of the Government, especially at the senior levels, towards policies governing the poor. There was a joke about the existence of an IAS-ML comprising vociferous advocates of the poor. Today, advocacies of the poor are considered illegitimate. It is believed that the poor are dinosaur-age things that are holding the country back.

Did you ever worry about generalising about the middle class at large in your book?

That is a very legitimate observation and criticism. As it is with every generalisation, there are very large exceptions as well. I should have said the majority of the middle class when I say the middle class. That correction is absolutely necessary.

It is curious that the present predicament of alternative parties such as the Left parties or the socialists do not merit a discussion in your book.

I find it extremely tragic that a credible Left alternative- both the Marxist and the socialist streams has diminished. I believe it is still not too late.

On the other hand, most sections of the socialists became very comfortable aligning themselves with communal politics. I cannot think of a bigger betrayal to the legacy of Gandhi to which they trace themselves to.

I have always said that what is ethically right is also politically sound. Let them stop compromising and they will return to relevance. This is a chapter that should have been written. (laughs)

What about civil society movements-turned-political parties such as the Aam Aadmi Party?

I think AAP’s contribution to politics is sterling and irreversible,I hope. They demonstrated that without money or a famous surname, you can be successful electorally. This encouraged those of us hesitant to enter politics.

The problem is with their contribution to governance. People kept saying that the party is post-ideological- that it is neither for markets, nor for welfare; neither for secularism, nor for communalism. Now, there is no such thing. What you claim to be post-ideological is actually an opportunism and a sham. Amartya Sen, said that AAP has to decide who the ‘aam admi’ is. Is it the person that wants cheap water and electricity or the one had that no water and electricity? That is also the contradiction that their governance has shown.

A running theme of the book is the need for simultaneously both outrage and compassion. How would you value the role of writers and arts institutions in bringing about sensitivity?

Their role is central to change more than ever before in independent India. Forgive the cliché, but what is really called for is a second freedom struggle because we have a very fractured, unequal and threatened freedom. The battlefield for this struggle is really in the hearts and minds of people.

Compassion is considered a courageous word today. In my youth, talking about compassion was considered soft and not radical.

Noam Chomsky says that the idea of social protection is the idea that we must take care of each other. But we live in times where this idea is considered extremely dangerous and subversive and needs to be crushed at all costs. That summarises in another way why this book is so important for us.

If I need a one line summary of this book, it is that we need to take care of each other. Art, culture, poetry, and films have a huge role to play in this. There are no people in the world who are as close to their cinema as we are. We learn how to love, weep, dress, make our hair from our films. Many people feel that our cinema is very unrealistic and perhaps it is true. But our cinema reflects our consciousness- which is why the exile of the poor from our cinema is extremely tragic because it reflects and reinforces a particular consciousness. Therefore reclaiming in our art and cinema etc, some of those values of IPTA is something that I long for. For now, let’s at least revive some of those songs and films and get young people to engage with them.

Reading list

Harsh Mander was formerly a member of the Indian Administrative Service. He was also appointed a member of the National Advisory Council in 2010. He is the founder of campaigns such as 'Dil Se' and 'Hausla'. This is his seventh book. His previous works include: ‘Unheard Voices: Stories of Forgotten Lives’,‘The Ripped Chest: Public Policy and the Poor in India’,‘Fear and Forgiveness: The Aftermath of Massacre’, ‘Fractured Freedom: Chronicles from India’s Margins’, ‘Untouchability in Rural India’ (co-authored) and ‘Ash in the Belly: India’s Unfinished Battle against Hunger.’

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2022 7:15:01 PM |

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