“I see human rights work today as a resistance to injustice.”

Two men holding up a certificate.
The inaugural recipient is the Indian human rights scholar and practitioner Dr. Harsh Mander. FAU’s Vice President Research, Prof. Dr. Georg Schett, presented the award and praised Dr. Mander’s exceptional efforts against hate crimes, his work with street children and other socially excluded people. (Image: FAU/Kurt Fuchs)

Interview with FAU Human Rights Laureate Dr. Harsh Mander

Germany has a new human rights award, presented by FAU. The FAU Human Rights Award honours internationally distinguished individuals who are committed to human rights research, teaching and practice. The inaugural recipient is the Indian human rights scholar and practitioner Dr. Harsh Mander.

In this interview, Dr. Mander talks about his work.

Dear Dr. Harsh Mander, congratulations on receiving the first FAU Human Rights Award. Can you please introduce yourself briefly?

Thank you so much. This is always an opening question that makes me a little nervous! Because I try to do probably too many things, and explaining these briefly always is a challenge. But let me try.

What ties the seemingly disparate parts of my work together is that all strands of my work are united by the aspiration to help secure a life of dignity and justice for people who suffer the greatest injustice. Among these are religious, caste and gender minorities who are survivors of hate violence and discrimination; people forced to live with hunger; homeless people and street children; highly stigmatised persons such as people with leprosy; informal unfree labour; and so on. We often speak of these people as “socially excluded”; the people my life’s work has been dedicated to can best be described as “socially expelled”.

My work spans at one end direct engagement with these communities; and at the other end of the spectrum intervening with law and policy, including policy and law design and advocacy; intervening in courts; writing; research; and teaching.

The FAU Award honours human rights scholar-activists. How exactly does your scholarship inform your activism – or vice versa?

My writing and research are, and have always been an indispensable complement to my human rights work. For instance, I write detailed narratives of people I work with, so that they can never be reduced to human rights “victims” to be helped or “causes” to be upheld. We meet them instead in their full and comprehensive humanity. I have also tried to develop an epistemology of empathy – a way of thinking via the heart – that I have found essential, because I am convinced that the pathways to human rights work, to solidarity and indeed resistance, must be paved with empathy.

What are the cornerstones of your work for human rights?

Amartya Sen, in his book The Idea of Justice observes that there is no human society anywhere in the globe and in any period of history that is not characterised by some forms of injustice. But what is equally true, he notes, is that there is no human society anywhere in the globe and in any period of history that is not characterised also by resistance to injustice. I see human rights work today as an inheritor of this universal proud human tradition of resistance to injustice.

Sen goes on to ask – what is it in human nature that makes resistance to injustice universal? And his answer is three things. The first is the quality of empathy, of feeling the pain of another as one’s own. The second is the capacity to reason: the capacity – after experiencing the pain of injustice to oneself or to another – to ask why, and what must be done to end this injustice? And the third human quality is the universal love for freedom.

It is these three human qualities – empathy, reason and the love of freedom – that inform the cornerstones of my human rights work. All work for human rights must be located in empathy, in what I call “egalitarian compassion”, in fraternity, in solidarity. In what I call “radical love”, love founded in great courage. In the ideas that a good society is one in which we take care of each other; and a good state is one in which the state regards its primary duty to secure equitable access to every person – starting always with the most oppressed and dispossessed – of all the goods, services and capabilities that are necessary to live a life of dignity.

Mahatma Gandhi left behind a slogan – Last Person First; he offered what he called a “talisman” for when we are confused about the best public action. He said, bring to your mind and heart the most vulnerable person you know, and ask if what you are setting out to do will improve her life and enhance her freedom; and when you ask this question, all your confusions will vanish.

Can you describe the struggles you need to overcome in your daily work?

The first set of challenges in our work has always been to struggle to be true and consistent in all we do to our values. This is never easy. This calls upon us to always, at every step, to introspect critically not just about how much we have accomplished, but even more importantly about whether we have accomplished these in ways that are true to our values. Have we been truthful? Have we been fair and just? Have we genuinely respected each person – our co-workers, and the people whose human rights have been violated (and what is most difficult of all, the perpetrators) – as people of equal dignity and worth? And have we been kind?

Let me illustrate with one example. My colleagues and I worked for over a decade trying to secure legal justice for a few hundred survivors of a brutal communal massacre in 2002, mainly targeting Muslim minorities, in the Indian state of Gujarat. We collectively resolved that even more important than winning the criminal cases against the powerful perpetrators of the massacre was to do this with truth and justice. We pledged therefore that we would never testify an untruth, and never pay a bribe, even if this meant risking losing the case in court. In the end, we lost many of the cases in court, but my colleagues and the victim survivors were still upbeat, because they believed that they had upheld truth and justice.

There is a struggle of another kind when the state turns authoritarian and malign. This has been what we have had to endure in India in recent years. I have been charged with a fantastical range of crimes ranging from hate-mongering, insurrection and money-laundering, which could allow the state to keep me behind bars for the rest of my life. Most organisations that I helped build and run over the past 20-25 years are all closed or threatened with early closure.

What are the next steps for you and your team?

In times as dark as this, I believe that my highest public duty is to not allow the silencing of my voice of conscience, whatever the consequences. So, contrary to the advice of many lawyers and dear friends, I insist that I will continue to speak out against injustice and hate, whatever the consequences, as long as my life endures. What is unfolding in India today is nothing short of a battle to defend true freedom and democracy. Roosevelt spoke of 4 freedoms – freedom of opinion and conscience; freedom of worship; freedom from want; and freedom of fear. Looking at my country today (and indeed many parts of the world) we are reminded of how human rights crumble when freedoms are fractured. We also must remain mindful that democracy is much more than election by universal suffrage. Democracy is not just the will of the majority, but the protection of every freedom and right (beginning with the right to equal citizenship) of every minority. Democracy is the robust and sturdy defence of the right to peacefully dissent and resist. The support I seek from people is to fight to uphold and defend freedom, democracy and human rights of the most oppressed among us. To build a society of love and caring. Indeed, to be kind.

Short biography

Ein Mann mit Brille steht an einer Steinsäule und schaut in die Kamera. Er trägt Jacket und grün kariertes Hemd.
Dr. Harsh Mander (Bild: privat)

Dr. Harsh Mander is an Indian human rights scholar and activist who works with survivors of mass violence, hunger, homeless persons and street children. He joined the Indian Administrative Service in 1980, served at high levels of the Service in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, and took early retirement in 2002 in protest against the state’s role in the communal massacre in Gujarat. Dr. Mander later served as Special Commissioner to the Supreme Court of India in the Right to Food case and as member of the National Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, working mainly on social policy and legislation. He has also been engaged in many civil society campaigns, such as the Right to Information movement. Dr. Mander is a prolific writer and holds a PhD from Vrije University in Amsterdam.