Introduced: Harsh Mander

December 2021

Harsh Mander is a human rights and peace activist, and director of the Centre for Equity Studies in India, a research center focused on social and economic justice. He was special commissioner to the Supreme Court of India in the Right to Food case (2005-2017), and a member of the National Advisory Council to the Prime Minister (2010-2012).

Harsh Mander

What are you working on as fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy?

I will be trying to understand how latter generations of the German people have dealt with the very painful history of the 1930s and World War II, the period of National Socialism, and the Holocaust. In many countries around the world, including my own country India, ever larger sections of people are being drawn to ideologies of militant hyper-nationalism and religious or racist supremacism led by hyper-masculinist authoritarian leaders. The world, as a result, has become increasingly dangerous for minorities of many kinds, as growing numbers of citizens are drawn to leaders who normalise, legitimise, and even valorise hatred and bigotry.

The experience of Germany, I believe, can offer important lessons to humankind everywhere. Although in some ways the German experience is singular, it underlines firstly that democracy is not just about the will of the majority. If it is only this, it can slip into majoritarianism, and if untrammelled then even fascism; democracy must equally always be about the defence of the rights of every minority. We learn next the dangers of official policies of hate, stigma, and extinguishing of rights of minorities. We learn that the greatest dangers are posed by the silent support to such policies of the majority communities, and therefore of the imperative of both social and political resistance to the right-wing populist politics that bait minorities and convince majorities that they are endangered by them. 

What are the most relevant issues in your field?

A very large range of questions are emerging as I am trying to understand the ways in which the German people came to terms as a society with the legacy of the Holocaust and the Nazi regime. These include understanding first the initial decades of resistance in Germany to remember and acknowledge this troubled legacy, and the culpability of significant sections of the population that supported or at least failed to resist these policies. I wish to understand how this turned around, and the role in this of civil society, trade unions, and political movements.

I am troubled by the gaps in solidarity between the victims targeted by the Holocaust (Jews, the Roma, disabled people, LGBTI people, communists, and so on), and what it would take to build a true movement of solidarity of all targeted communities together. I want to understand to what extent opposition to anti-Semitism led also to fighting Islamophobia, and if it has not, what will it take to understand that opposition to suffering imposed on one kind of minority must necessarily lead me, from a position of empathy and solidarity, to resistance to the same discrimination and hate against other minorities. I want to understand the different experiences of East and West Germany, and of Germany and Poland; why the Polish people have not generally accepted the same culpability for the crimes against Jews that happened on their soil, and the consequences for them of this popular denial.

I am greatly interested in the details of how school and popular education contributes to the process of building Germany into a society founded on the principles of fraternity. I’m going to examine citizen movements for remembrance, like the commemorative plaques or “stumbling stones” to recall people killed during the Holocaust. I feel an important milestone in the journey of rebuilding Germany into a society of fraternity has been the support in civil society to political decision to accept and welcome to one million Syrian immigrants, a rare example for the world community as Germany defied the anti-immigrant tide that swept through Europe. I want to understand also the fractures: the reasons for the rise of the far-right in German politics, how much does this contain direct or indirect endorsement of Germany’s Nazi history, the aspirations and discontents of ordinary supporters of the right-wing.

What insights for your work do you hope to gain?

I hope to learn from the German people how one can build a political and, more importantly, a societal movement that robustly upholds the principles of fraternity and solidarity, of a democracy that defends all minorities and upholds their rights to their own forms of language, worship, culture, and political opinion. While recognizing the singularity of the German experience, I wish to see the parallels and differences between Germany in the 1930s and India today: in the rise and mass support of the right-wing, and the politics of violent anti-minority sentiment, including open hate speech by leaders, contestations of citizenship of minorities, the criminalizing of inter-faith marriages, the attacks on the businesses and livelihoods of minorities, the rewriting of histories, the attacks on places and forms of worship by minorities, and the reconstruction of oppressed minorities into dangerous persecutors and interlopers. I wish to look for ways to deal with painful histories of violence and hate, to acknowledge bravely and honestly crimes from the past, to not accord blame to contemporary descendants of these communities but instead a sense of mindful responsibility, to not allow a recurrence of the politics of hate and division.

How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted the situation of the poor and disadvantaged?

As a second project, I will complete a book about the experience of India’s poor during the Covid-19 pandemic. I will trace the horrific events of India’s Covid-19 second wave, in which bodies literally piled up in city parks and street sidewalks for 24/7 cremations or were floated by impoverished families into rivers. People choked to death unable to find hospital beds and oxygen. I try to examine what brought the people of my country to this point of immense suffering, what thrust them into the greatest humanitarian crisis of my generation: of unbridled sickness, mass death, mass hunger, and joblessness. This will include studying the consequences of one of the most highly privatised health-care systems in the world, and of a workforce in which over 90 percent are informal workers without rights and security at work and social protection.

What makes Berlin and Germany relevant for your work?

Both Berlin and Germany are the natural centres for my quest. This is where many crimes originated in the 1930s and 1940s; this is where a wall divided different pathways to deal with their troubled pasts; and the place where the wall was pulled down. And Berlin today is a welcoming place of diversity, of young people from around the world, vibrant and hopeful about the futures that they will together bring in, to build a fairer, kinder future.

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