Harsh Mander: An Icon of Courage and Hope 

Reports started appearing in all newspapers about Gujarat carnage from the very first day. But the carnage acquired a new perspective with an article that appeared in the Times of India 2o March. The piece written by a serving IAS officer was shockingly frank and unimaginable. It caused many people to cry. It was about the unprecedented killings of Muslims that were woefully brutal, about loot and rapine and unimaginably cruel treatment meted out to women of all ages by Sangh criminals.

Harsh Mander, who took his heart out while writing, has since resigned from his post. He was among the first people outside the state to visit and see the gravity of the situation and how the ethnic cleansing was carried out. He frequently visited Ahmadabad in March in connection with his assignment with ActionAid India, an NGO. In his TOI article, he wrote, ‘In Ahmadabad, most people I met-social workers, journalists, survivors, agree that what Gujarat witnessed was not a riot but a terrorist attack followed by a systematic, planned massacre, a pogrom, everyone spoke of pillage and plunder, being organized like a military operation against an external armed enemy’. 

Mander was probably the first person who recounted how whole Muslim localities were electrocuted, how mosques and shrines were damaged beyond recognition and how meticulously the Sangh criminals did all this without incurring any damage to themselves. He wrote, ‘This was not a spontaneous upsurge of mass anger. It was a carefully planned pogrom. The trucks carried quantities of gas cylinders. Rich Muslim homes and business establishments were first systematically looted, stripped down of all their valuables, then cooking gas was released from cylinders into the buildings for several minutes. A trained group member then lit the flame, efficiently engulfing the building. In some cases, acetylene gas, used for welding steel, was employed to explode large concrete buildings. Mosques and dargahs were razed and were replaced by statues of Hanuman and saffron flags.’

People were shattered after going through this account which came from no less than a serving IAS officer of no less stature than the deputy director of IAS Academy, Mussoorie. 

Harsh Mander resigned after visiting satan’s own country when he saw the collaboration of bureaucrats and senior police officers during the carnage that continues unabated even today. Mander compares the Gujarat pogrom to the situation in Nazi Germany and says that what happened in Gujarat is the culmination of the conspiracy of silence. 

Harsh Mander has been in the service for around 20 years and has served in various capacities, including district collector and managing director of SC/ST Finance Corporation. He says, ‘As one who has served in the IAS for over two decades, I feel great shame at the abdication of duty by my peers in the civil and police administration. The law did not require them to await orders from their political supervisors. The law instead requires them to act independently, fearlessly, impartially, decisively with courage and compassion.’ He says, ‘having been the collector in six districts of Madhya Pradesh and being experienced in controlling riots, I have one thing to say: even one officer, if he commits, can control riots within a few hours.’ 

His peers have always described Harsh Mander as frank, fearless and committed. And Harsh Mander’s resignation was hardly a surprise to them. About his resignation, Mander says, ‘I have always believed that you should do whatever you feel is right. I don’t think one needs to be a hero to speak the truth or point out injustice. If this is the case, then these are the times when we have to ask the question: why does one need to be daring to speak the truth? In Gujarat it is not just the civil services but the entire civil society that has broken down.’ 

Suresh Mohammed a serving IPS officer who was trained under Mander in IAS Academy, says, ‘his impeccable integrity, remarkable humility and simplicity, indomitable courage when it came to defending the oppressed and weaker sections of the society and missionary zeal in rendering service to the needy will ever remain etched in my mind.’

NC Saxena, former director of IAS Academy in Mussoorie and secretary in the Planning Commission, says, ‘He would risk his job for his principles. The decision to resign is personal but a big loss to the service. He was the right role model for all future IAS officers, as he led by example. I would have loved to have seen more Harsh Manders in the academy.’

Harsh’s colleagues at ActionAid India all praise him. ‘His contribution is in bringing the plight of the marginalized back into the government’s policy agenda’, says Ravi Pratap Singh, a senior officer in ActionAid India. Mander has always tried to improve the lot of the oppressed and the weak. He joined social movements right after he joined the service in 1980. He has always been very popular wherever he has been posted. In 1984 Harsh was posted as Additional Collector of Indore, where the collector was Ajit Jogi, now chief minister of Chattisgarh. It was the time when anti-Sikh riots broke out. Harsh spent most of his time with affected people and was so stressed that he went sleepless for three nights. Later during his posting in Khargone as district magistrate, he effectively controlled the riots. It was his handling there that inspired Shashi Tharoor’s novel Riot.

(This article first appeared in The Milli Gazette.

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I write because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, said George Orwell. As a writer, I never kowtow to the whims and dictates of the sacred godmen or godwomen, the political bigots and hypocrites, dealers of laymen, the dishonest and self-serving intellectuals, traders of religions, the betrayers of ‘other’ Indians who eke out a living by their sweat, who are living in fear for being lynched for this and that.

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