Solidarity Episode 13July 29, 2021

13. Defending Rights in India Amid Covid and Repression

Hosted by Akwe Amosu
Produced by Peter Coccoma

We devote the whole episode to a conversation with Indian social justice campaigner, Harsh Mander, a renowned activist on the rights of the poor, the marginalized and those suffering from identity-based hatred. He has worked in a host of campaigns including access to health services and food security, and against homelessness and child labour, and he has taken a passionate stand against xenophobia and discrimination. In 2019, Mander fought to prevent passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act, introduced by the Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi and widely perceived to be discriminatory against Muslims. But the law passed in December of that year despite large protests, and a new blow followed just weeks later when the pandemic surged and the Modi administration ordered a sudden and violent lockdown

Harsh Mander talks with host Akwe Amosu and her colleague Chris Stone, principal moderator of the Symposium on Strength and Solidarity for Human Rights, about the impact of both Covid 19 and political repression on human rights in India.   

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Hey, I’m Akwe Amosu and this is Strength and Solidarity. 


Welcome to our podcast about the ideas driving – and disrupting – human rights movements around the world.   


Just one topic today – a dive into the impact of Covid 19 on rights and freedoms in India.


We’re devoting the whole of this episode to a conversation with an Indian social justice campaigner to get some insight into human rights activism amid the pandemic, and under the government of Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist party, the BJP. Harsh Mander is a renowned activist – on behalf of the poor, the marginalized and those discriminated against on the basis of their identity. He was a civil servant for nearly twenty years but left the India Administrative Service in 2002 in protest at what he believed was state involvement in a communal massacre. Since then, he has worked in a host of campaigns- on rights for people with disabilities, for the right to information, but especially – on the rights and needs of poor people, demanding access to health services and food security, and challenging homelessness, child labour and hateful violence. His petitions to the Supreme Court have at times had major impact – resulting, for example in the decriminalisation of begging.   In truth, the ways in which Harsh Mander pursues social justice are too numerous to recount here. But perhaps most relevant for our discussion, is his stand against xenophobia and hatred. He was, for example, a prominent voice against Modi’s Citizenship Amendment Act, widely perceived to be discriminatory against Muslims. That law passed in December 2019 in the teeth of major protests and a new blow followed just weeks later, when the pandemic took hold. Anyone who saw news footage of India’s sudden lockdown will recall its chaotic and brutal nature. I’ve been wondering how this tough period has impacted the struggle for rights in India. So I asked Harsh Mander to share his reflections on that. And I invited my colleague Chris Stone, principal moderator of our Symposium on Strength and Solidarity for Human Rights, a regular visitor to the podcast, to join us. 


AA: welcome Harsh. Thank you 


HM: Pleasure to be here, Akwe. 


AA: And Chris, welcome. 


CS: Thanks. It’s great to be back with you. 


AA: So Chris, I’ll come back to you in a few minutes. I want to start out just by asking Harsh to talk about what he believes happened when India locked down for the pandemic. This was going to be a very critical moment for poor people in India. Harsh, what did you see happen? 


HM: Akwe, you know,  a friend and a very well-known writer, Arundati Roy, spoke about COVID. She said, COVID-19 is a virus, but it’s also an x-ray, it’s an x-ray which, you know, exposes what kind of society we’ve built, who we are. We knew about India’s inequality. We knew about an uncaring state. We knew about targeting of certain communities, but all of it very dramatically got exposed. Let me start with the prime minister one night announced a total lockdown of the entire country with about four hours notice. While he was speaking on television, he said the usual things, stay at home, work from home, keep social distance, wash your hands, which for middle-class people is perfectly sane and, acceptable advice. But while he was speaking, I was saying – he’s the prime minister of this country. Has he forgotten? How could he forget that nine out of 10 workers in India continue to be in the informal sector? And if they don’t work tomorrow, they won’t have food tomorrow. How did you forget that there are significant populations, especially in cities, who either have no homes or live in a one room shanty, 10 people – how are they keep going to keep any kind of social distance? Has he forgotten that, you know, large segments of people have no social security, that when you’re asking people to wash their hands regularly they don’t have running water?  And so in a sense, from the very start, the protections that were being offered excluded the large mass of the poor, even in design. I work with homeless people, and, you know, I said whatever happens, I’m going to be on the streets and so the second day I was on the streets with some of my young colleagues and we were trying to organize food for people. And the devastation was immediate, you know, there was an explosion of hunger. I work on hunger and I’d never seen that scale of hunger being produced overnight by an uncaring state. Uh, and that has got only worse, with time.  


AA: To what extent did this intervention have any of the desired effect of limiting the spread of COVID? 


HM: You know, one of the things that people on the streets started saying almost from the first day that we went out is that, “we don’t know whether we will die of COVID, but we’ll certainly die of hunger before that.” There was a huge fear about the virus and people said, “you know, if we don’t have work,” –  large numbers of workers are migrants –  “then let us go back to our homes,” but trains were stopped overnight, buses stopped overnight and people were stranded where they were without food. The landlords evicted them and they’d become homeless. Within a few days, people realized that they had been abandoned completely both by the state and by their employers and so they decided to go back home. So they were the caregivers so far, they were the ones who send out remittances; suddenly they became dependent on people back in the village. Because there were no trains, there were no buses, police were sort of blocking them at every turn. They had to, you know, go out like fugitives and millions, literally millions of people went out into the streets. There’s some estimates that the number was something like 30 million, which makes it probably the largest distressed movement of human populations in human history. That’s the kind of suffering that that was unleashed so unthinkingly. I took a petition to the Supreme Court saying that the very minimum that you need to do is to provide food and, you know, we in the middle class are getting our salaries – give the equivalent of minimum wages to every family. And we calculated that wouldn’t cost more than about 3% of the GDP but the Supreme Court refused to give any orders on this and the government of course refused to do this. And so we’ve created a humanitarian crisis of unbelievable scale. India has gone into a massive recession, uh, the largest by far that we’ve seen since we got our freedom. Everything that was wrong in our society got exposed dramatically during this pandemic. While I was going out, I felt I needed to document what was happening and I’ve called it a crime against humanity 


AA: Chris, this situation that Harsh is describing is so extreme. He really paints a terrifying picture. Do you recall your own reflections watching the crisis in India unfold?  


CS: Well, people were dying of hunger were people dying from the virus and people were dying from the enforcement of the lockdown. Harsh, the piece that I remember being riveted by, when I was watching the news reports from across India in those first days that you describe, was the abusive policing that was accompanied by, as you say, the almost thoughtless instructions to the population, leaving people bereft of any direction. And we saw people not just being injured, but dying in South Africa, in Nigeria and in India, from the enforcement.  Particularly in India and other countries where the police are among the poor. The frontline police officers were themselves dying, they were themselves exposed to COVID, the numbers of frontline police themselves who died of the disease over the first year was extraordinary, like any frontline workers, but they were also the cause of so much suffering, not so much because they were ordered to beat people up, but because there was no preparation, the commanders, the force had no discipline. And the response was just this forceful sort of herding and beating of people into compliance – with what? It wasn’t clear…So it was three things, it was hunger, it was the disease, and it was law enforcement. 


HM: You’re absolutely right, Chris, the cruelty, the way people were beaten! We had actually migrants who had to hide from the police but when they caught them, they sprayed them with disinfectant, you know, as if they were vermin in themselves. The kind of humiliation to which they were subject is something that will remain with us. I must say, though – you know, I worked within the civil service – the junior police person is both the enforcer of the cruelty, but also he or she often identifies closely with the very people who are being attacked. One thing they did was that, although we didn’t have curfew passes, they saw our vans full of food and they would just let us pass. And sometimes when we’d have conversations, they’d say: “What is the government doing to poor people? Why is it sort of treating them so badly?” So I think that that is also true.  


CS: The excuse of the governments, the excuse everywhere was, well, this is no one was expecting this kind of pandemic – that’s why everything seems so chaotic. But as the months went by, we learned the world’s governments were completely preparing for a global pandemic. They just were, thoughtless! 


HM: Yeah, Chris, you know, I think around the world, most governments converted what was a health emergency into a law and order emergency. And these are very different things. For instance, even when they opened up, they imposed a night curfew. Now night curfews make sense when you’re dealing with a riot. How do they make sense when you’re dealing with a virus? Do they have some special scientific sort of research that said viruses suddenly become active in the dark? You know, it was just mindless. But I think even more profoundly, uh, what these last year and a half have revealed, at least in my country, is how some lives have to be protected and many lives don’t matter, they’re entirely dispensable. They were not, as I was saying, they were not even in the design of the protections. They were excluded from the protections and yet they had to bear the highest costs of those measures. They suffered the most, and they were protected the least.  


AA: I’m reminded of your line that you saw “the near complete estrangement of people of privilege from the working poor” and that there was a ”brazen class bias” in the policy. I’m wondering whether you saw in those people who were the victims of these policies, any kind of a political response, or kind of a shift in their political understanding or their political view of what the government was doing to them? 


HM: You know, this is one of the abiding mysteries of my country and what has unfolded these past months, but also before this – that you could not have treated people worse in many ways than what our government did to do to them. I mean the world didn’t notice so much, but the Indian government used the lockdown very quickly, to lock up and criminalize. Just before it, there was a massive countrywide revolt, in fact, the largest peaceful revolt that we’ve seen since independence, against discriminatory, citizenship laws.    The citizenship law actually for the first time brought into law, that Muslims will not have the rights to citizenship that Hindus would have. It was the thin edge of the wedge in a sense, and they thought they would get away with it. I feared they would get away with it. I, in fact, in the spirit of civil disobedience, I said that if the government goes ahead with this. I will register myself as Muslim and demand that I should be excluded also from citizenship. But I thought I’d be completely alone and suddenly the country burst out into the largest protests that we’ve seen, since independence, very much around the very values of the freedom struggle, where non-Muslims came out in large numbers, protesting peacefully, but very determinedly against the discrimination of Muslims.  

And, uh, those of us who were part of it have been charged with crimes, many of them have been locked up. My name appears in a number of charge sheets claiming that I was planning an insurrection. So, the government did use this opportunity to lock up people who they saw as dissenters. Akwe, you talked about the Indian middle class. I’ve long observed the class to which I belong, and I, I wrote a book called Looking Away, Inequality, Prejudice, and Indifference in New India, and it’s not the inequality that troubles me, it’s the indifference, how little we care. And, that became, you know, very, very strikingly evident for the large mass of the middle class who somehow was content with, with the illusion that they were being protected.  


AA: It’s perhaps not a surprise to hear that people with privilege, are both frightened of poor people and also want to avoid them. But one of my abiding images of that pandemic period in India was the farmers protests and, what looked like a huge uprising, a demand that people be heard by the government. Is that an isolated instance, or do you see signs like that, of people thinking about themselves as having a political demand? 


HM: No, Akwe, I think that I see the stirrings, I mean, the farmers movement. I did see, and I do see a stirring of the recognition of the need for solidarity, for acting on solidarity, uh, that marked the actions of a smaller number, but a very significant – so while I talked about people in the middle class who didn’t care, what was wonderful to see, because I was on the streets for the first months, till I got COVID myself and went downhill, I was struck by also the acts of kindness and courage by ordinary people. I mean, starting with my own young colleagues – a large number of them said that they would be with me on the streets. And I remember asking one of them, uh aren’t you frightened of COVID? And he said, “I am, but much greater than my fear is their hunger, so I had to be on the streets.” And many of them left their homes because they didn’t want to infect their families. They used to sleep in the office.  And they were not alone, I mean, I found [inaudible], unknown middle class people coming with the cars, stacked with food when the migrants were walking. I mean, I would stand in the sun and watch car after car, after car drive up quietly, distribute food and water, and move on. I saw very poor people helping each other. So, so, was it a political act?  I think it has the beginnings of a political act which recognizes that we must stand together.  And during the second wave, I mean, there were beautiful examples of people who, uh, you know, there was this guy who, who almost died outside a hospital because he couldn’t get oxygen. Uh, and he was sort of choking, his wife somehow got an oxygen cylinder and he survived. And for, for weeks afterwards, he was called the Oxygen Man;  he would, he was a poor, ordinary person, he would leave at five in the morning on his scooter and he would start organizing oxygen from anywhere for anyone who needs it, he saved about 900 lives. So I think that there’s, there’s that story, which is very, very crucial to remember. Uh, we had the protests just before this against the citizenship law and there again, we saw what I call the beginnings of a new grammar of protest and resistance. I spoke in a lot of these protest rallies that happened all across the country.  And I would say that you cannot fight hate with, with hate, that’ll only deepen hate, and can we find a new politics of resistance which is founded on, on love, on fraternity, on solidarity.  You know, a lot of people thought that was much too idealistic, but people on the ground understood it. I mean I – the mood in many of these Muslim women, working class women were at the forefront of the protests and one needed to just go there and see how they were conducting themselves. There were slogans by somebody who is a union minister of the government. He gave a slogan, for instance, which literally translates that ‘these traitors against the country – shoot them down!’  And the women protesters decided that, we will give them a reply. And their slogan translates as, “Oh you lovely, beautiful people, we will only shower flowers on each of you.” And I think there was a great significance in that. And then the farmer’s struggles, was again, not just acts of courage, but when you went there, there was just so much love and caring. You know, at every step, people had gathered, they were offering food. They were, there was some group of graduates who said, you know, we will wash your clothes because people had come from the villages in thousands. And we will, look after the old people, we will clean your shoes. There were doctors who’d set up, you know, the mood was a carnival of solidarity, while they were protesting. And I think these were very significant. This is where the beginning of a new politics, as I see it, is occurring. 


CS:   Your account, essentially of two paths, that there were some people, if they were close enough to somebody to see them, reacted with empathy and solidarity, maybe even this sort of politics of love and support. And there were others, perhaps because of their fear or because of their own situation, found themselves withdrawing, becoming more distant and disinterested in the plight of others, that there was almost this sorting effect that the pandemic had, evoking both of these reactions. And I wonder if that follows into the political movements?  All over the world we saw different kinds of mass movements – Black lives matter, the solidarity with women victims of sexual assault and public violence in the UK, the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria – these protests that weren’t themselves about the pandemic, but you got the feeling in each one that the way they were playing out, couldn’t be separated from those two emotions you just described so powerfully – the disinterest at one level. and at the same time, the empathy and solidarity and a newly popular language of allyship as part of solidarity. Um, is that what you were seeing in India? Or have I got that wrong? 


HM: No, no, you’re absolutely right. The interesting thing of course, is that this journey, you know, this new form of protest, and I’m saying new, actually in inverted commas because it draws very, very strongly from our freedom struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi. It was precisely the same values, that you need great courage of resistance, but you wish no harm to the people you’re fighting. And it is precisely those same values that were reclaimed 70 years after his assassination by the young generation. But this just preceded the pandemic and the lockdown. In fact, there were a hundred days of glorious protest. Uh, but it was similar because, this was a law which very clearly discriminated against India’s Muslims. And the government had calculated that only Muslims will protest and we’ll crush them. And nothing had prepared them for the way that the Hindu community and other communities came out. And they found their own ways of expressing this solidarity. So you had, uh, Christian weddings where they wore skull caps, etcetera. I mean, there were many ways that they just wanted to show that we stand together.  That whole movement was crushed, by the force that they got, the power that they got in the pandemic. But I think that spirit is alive and gives me great hope because I, I do see a new generation learning a new way to resist, which is not founded on hate. 


AA: And that’s what I wanted to just jump in and ask you about, Harsh – is the extent to which you see this as a generational shift. I think it is possible to overdo and overstate this point about a new generation bringing a new politics, but at the same time, it’s a very prevalent picture of young people rejecting an old set of paradigms and attitudes and saying they want to rebuild in a different way. So is that true of the environment you’re in? 


HM: Maybe I’m more optimistic than I should be, my friends tell me that my politics is based on almost naive optimism. But that optimism I found well-founded.  India is actually, you know, one of the oldest and the youngest countries in the world today, Every second Indian is below the age of 25. We have the largest population of young people anywhere in the world. And I do believe that that has to be, that has to be a sign of hope. Uh, the country that we got after our freedom struggle was imagined by those who fought for our freedom as a country that would be humane, inclusive, and egalitarian. And we made a huge mess of that. And people who are now in power in India are not just elected autocrats, but they also believe in an India which is founded on inequality, where  Muslims, for instance, uh, Muslims, Christians, Dalits,  will have to live only as second class citizens. And the fact that people who were not discriminated felt that pain and stood up – the posters that students put up all over the country, you know, “you divide we multiply” was one of them.  I often think that our generation, the India that I grew up in – I was born shortly after independence – there was much more idealism. I never heard bigotry, uh, you know, in my family, although we were uprooted from Pakistan and, you know, Muslim violence there had destroyed my family, but my parents, my extended family never expressed bigotry. My parents were extremely supportive of the stand that I take now against discriminated Muslims. I didn’t hear bigotry in school and so on. But my grandchild who’s three years old, you know, from the moment he is making sense of his world, he hears bigotry all around, in his extended family, in school, on social media. Bigotry has become legitimized, valorised in many ways. And even the pandemic, you know, the government managed to persuade large segments of people that Muslims are somehow responsible for the virus and, they suffered a huge amount of hate and discrimination, as carriers of the virus. And they called it Corona Jihad. So in the middle of all of this, I think that young people are recognizing that they have to build afresh. And that’s probably our greatest source of hope. 


CS: Well, it’s not where I thought, you know, as we started the conversation and we were talking about indifference of government, it was hard to imagine we were going to be seeing this as a moment of hope. But I will confess, I share that. I’m very suspicious, as you are Akwe, I think, of feeling that, you know, there’s a new generation, it’s all different now. It’s a new politics. I put my hope in my own generation when we were in our teenage years and in every generation since, and, yet I’m struck at how little progress we’ve made by many measures. But there is something hopeful going on, I think Harsh is right. And from the stories he has told us in his writing, and even today, that you can come out of that with a hope in this generation, I think is, is a sign of something really shifting. Um, so I hold onto that. 


HM: But, Akwe you know, just to put that, you know, in some kind of context, the years that this just proceeded –  this phase of protests where Hindus and Muslims came out in large numbers together – was a very, very dark phase.  It was symbolized by an epidemic of hate of a kind that we started seeing lynching, cases of lynching, in many parts of the country. And they were very much like the African American lynchings. You know, they were intended to instill fear in the hearts of the community and supremacy in another, mostly targeting India’s Muslims. And they were performative –  the African-American lynchings were performative in that you had large crowds gathering and watching the lynching.   Here the performative character actually was taken over by the video camera. Every case of lynching was videotaped very gleefully by the perpetrators who would, you know, film themselves, uh, beating to death a Muslim man and would proudly post these on social media and they were widely consumed.  That was one time when, you know, Chris, I was beginning to lose hope. And for me to lose hope was rather spectacular. But I, I was despondent because I just did not see outrage!  And therefore at some point, I made a call for what I call, Karwan e Mohabbat- Caravan of Love. I wrote in one of my columns that, let us just – I want to start a journey, to the home of every person who has been lynched and not as a human rights worker, not as a fact-finder, journalist. Simply as somebody who would go, if in your own family somebody, was killed in this way.  And we decided to, to start moving and I planned it for one month, a whole group of people volunteered and we set out. And it moved us so much that we continued, uh, you know, we made 30 journeys to far corners of the country. Firstly, we wanted to say, “you’re not alone. There are people who care.”  The second thing that we’d say is that we seek forgiveness for what we have become as a people. And thirdly, that, we stand with you in solidarity and we’ll continue to do so as you rebuild your life and fight for justice and we will tell your story,  we will not allow it to be silenced. And it really had a dramatic impact.   It did help break the silence around lynchings across the country. And we talked about this new language, new mode of resistance, but the levels of hatred that I saw, the cruelty. I mean families would tell us, you know, “I wish they just shot him to death. I wish they just stabbed him.” I mean, why did they have to be so cruel? You know they gouged out his eyes, they smashed his genitals, very much, again, like the African-American lynchings. And it was that pain that they spoke about, how the police stood by and encouraged the mobs.  I was slipping into despair.  And then, my people proved me so wrong when they came out onto the streets in the protest against the citizenship law, and I think we haven’t looked back since then. 


AA: That’s a powerful illustration of the importance of literally human-to-human, one-to-one solidarity as a starting place for everything else that needs to follow in terms of people becoming mobilized and active on the bigger issues. It sounds in a way as though it starts with this very, individual commitment and, uh, that as you say, gives hope. 


HM: I wish the American people would, would do a caravan of love. I mean, I so often thought that we read about, uh, a young kid who’s been shot down by the police in one corner. I mean, suppose a set of people went back to those families and and demonstrated that they cared and would continue to care.  I think it would be a resistance of a new kind. 


CS: It’s a hopeful idea, your point that you saw the protests on the citizenship law, then the protests on the citizenship law itself were repressed and shut down through the government’s exploitation of the pandemic, but that love, that connection, that practice,  that political and personal insight, presumably continues, that you can’t shut that down. Right? 


HM Absolutely. And people say that the movement was, was a failure in the end. I said, no, it’s succeeded in the way they fought. And, uh, in the way they were crushed, that’s their success. 


AA: Okay. Well, let us see it as another step along the road, and, um, stay in solidarity as people find new energy to fight new battles. Thank you so much, Chris. 


CS: Thank you, Akwe. Thank you, Harsh.  


AA:  And thank you. Harsh. 


HM: Thank you. Akwe. Thank you, Chris. 


Social justice and rights campaigner, Harsh Mander spoke to us from New Delhi. His most recent book tells the story of the lockdown: it’s called Locking down the poor, the pandemic and India’s moral Centre. And if you would like to know more about the extraordinary Caravan of Love, Harsh mentioned, he was a co-author on an earlier book that tells that story: it’s called Reconciliation: Karwan e Mohabbat’s Journey of Solidarity through a Wounded India.  You can find a transcript of our conversation on our website, as well as suggestions for further reading. Strength and Solidarity dot org. 


That’s it for episode 13 – no Coda this time – it will be back next episode. Thanks for listening!  Your recommendations are the best way for us to reach new listeners so if you like what you hear, please do tell other people about Strength and Solidarity.  Also – feedback is welcome! Send us an email – the address is  Thanks as always to Peter Coccoma our producer, I’m Akwe Amosu – join us again next time.