The Prosecution & Persecution Of Harsh Mander: A Case Study of India's Accelerating Democratic Decline

08 May 2024 34 min read  Share

After a decade of relentless criticism of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the most powerful man in the country, Narendra Modi, peace activist and former Indian official Harsh Mander faces investigation by two union government agencies and a litany of allegations that have tarred his reputation and upended his humanitarian work. Bruised by a seemingly unending probe and an assault on his integrity, the 69-year-old has quietly soldiered on. In the first of a two-part story, we explain how his prosecution reflects the decline recorded by global freedom surveys in India's democracy and its rule of law.

Harsh Mander, a peace worker, faces multiple cases and probes by federal agencies/ HARSH MANDER

Delhi: Two government raids had done little to change the sanguine character of the open and sunlit space where Harsh Mander’s NGOs, the Centre for Equity Studies and the Aman Biradari Trust, have been ensconced for many years in south Delhi. 

When we met on a cool and crisp morning in March 2024, the 69-year-old peace worker, bespectacled and soft-spoken, talked for a long time amid the quiet calm of the courtyard and gentle gusts of wind. There were moments when he hid his sorrow and trepidation behind a matter-of-fact smile and shrugged. 

As he leaned forward to share his breakfast of cut papaya, Mander said most of his employees had left since the government started accusing him of grave financial crimes, summoned him and them for questioning, and stopped the foreign funding that sustained the research they did to advocate policies for the poor and marginalised. 

Domestic donors, too, had deserted him, and he had scrambled to arrange for other NGOs to step in and keep the humanitarian work going. 

The one good thing that had happened to Mander was not getting kicked out of the serene office space in a leafy corner of the city. His landlord, whose grandfather was a soldier in Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army, was unmoved by the litany of allegations that had succeeded in tarring and feathering Mander’s reputation, even though after months of investigation, the state did not have a case to take to court. 

A relentless critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his government, and the Hindu nationalist vision of India, Mander was one of many detractors targeted by the police and federal agencies since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014. 

However, Mander said he could not help feeling that there were still officers who were not indifferent to his past as a civil servant, two decades of social service and that people believed him to be a favourite for the Nobel Peace Prize for many years. 

The first thing Mander said about the raids by union government agencies on his home was that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) officers were far more courteous than those of the Enforcement Directorate (ED). 

The CBI officers followed procedure when they showed up at his doorstep on 2 February, inviting him to search them to rule out the possibility of planting evidence during the raid. They completed the search in a few hours and left, taking the ED's “seizure memo”—the list of things the ED seized in the raid two and a half years earlier. 

“It is like a dark comedy at times,” said Mander. “My daughter jokes that the next agency that comes raiding will take the CBI's seizure memo.” 

Suroor Mander called her father “Mr Mander” while discussing his legal cases.

Telling the story of an employee who was summoned for interrogation and shown dozens of videos of protests against a controversial citizenship law, Suroor Mander said, “They kept pointing to a bald man and saying isn’t that Harsh Mander. He replied, ‘not every bald person is Harsh Mander’”.

As father and daughter looked at each other, Suroor Mander said, “We have lived these black comedy moments.”

Prosecution & Persecution 

As the BJP and Modi seek a third five-year term, the last two terms have been marked by a steep decline in civil liberties and press freedom, widespread Islamophobia, prosecution of critics under harsh counterterror and financial crimes laws, and deep antipathy for civil society organisations like think tanks and NGOs. 

The BJP is running an explicit anti-Muslim campaign, with the prime minister giving his most Islamophobic speech yet. It was only after pressure from the public and opposition did the country’s election watchdog issue a warning that the speech violated the rules for contesting elections. 

The delay underlined long-standing concerns about the waning autonomy of independent institutions and whether the Election Commission could deliver a free and fair election.

When India started falling in international surveys on civil liberties, the Modi government dismissed unfavourable studies as inaccurate and a result of propaganda.

In March 2024, V Dem, which has ranked India as an “electoral autocracy” since 2018, said India, among the worst offenders for censoring the media and Internet shutdowns, had “declined significantly on democracy”. In May 2024, Reporters Without Borders said the Indian media was in an “unofficial state of emergency” due to Modi’s closeness to families controlling the media. Even though India’s rank had improved from 161 to 159 due to poorer performances by other countries, the group said “its new position is still unworthy of a democracy”. 

Mander has been one of the loudest voices opposing Hindu majoritarianism and anti-Muslim hate while running a campaign to help victims of hate crimes and communal violence with monetary assistance and legal aid. 

His persistent criticism of Modi since the Gujarat riots in 2002, when the prime minister was chief minister of the state, has made him particularly  annoying to the most powerful man in the country.

The first raid by a child rights body occurred in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic when Mander was very critical of the government lockdown that left millions of poor people stranded across the country. In the next three years and seven months, Mander was accused of mismanaging homeless shelters for children, misappropriation of funds, money laundering and breaking the rules for receiving foreign funds.

Mander has denied these allegations and moved the Delhi High Court for quashing these FIRs. No chargesheet has been filed yet. We will look more closely at how Mander has responded in a second piece. 

The four cases registered against him, raids by two federal agencies, repeated summons for questioning, and more than 50 government demand notices for documents are yet another example of how law enforcement has been weaponised with the process becoming the punishment. 

Over the past 10 years, lawyers and academics have been accused of being part of a banned Maoist outfit and are being prosecuted for committing terrorist acts. An 84-year-old Jesuit priest with Parkinson's, Stan Swamy, one of 16 accused in the Bhima-Koregaon case, who was denied bail as his health deteriorated, suffered a heart attack and died of Covid-19 complications. 

The mostly Muslim students and activists who opposed a controversial citizenship law were accused of planning the Delhi riots, and some remain behind bars. Political activist Umar Khalid has been locked up for three years and seven months without trial or bail despite the inconsistencies, conjectures and fabrications in the police case. 

A social activist in Allahabad, Javed Mohammad, was arrested in eight police cases in addition to a preventive detention order and fought for 21 months to get bail in all the different cases. Kashmiri journalist Fahad Shah, who faced four cases and a preventive detention order, also fought for 21 months to get out. Fact checker Mohammad Zubair was booked in eight cases and spent nearly a month in jail. A Kerala-based journalist, Siddique Kappan, fought for 28 months to get bail in two cases. 

When many of these cases finally reached the stage of bail, judges granted it on the ground that no case was made out after a preliminary examination of the evidence. 

Laws have also been trained against civil society organisations. The Modi government has accused NGOs and think tanks of violating the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), 2010, the FCRA, and cut off foreign funding for close to 17,000 of them.

In 30 April 2024 piece about declining academic freedom in India, Yamini Aiyar, who recently resigned as the president of the Delhi-based Centre for Policy and Research, a leading think tank that lost its FCRA in September 2022, wrote that tax laws were being used against civil society organisations. Research organisations faced penalties, including the loss of their tax-exempt status, which is required to access charitable donations. 

Aiyar wrote that the six organisations, including hers, which lost FCRA licences and tax-exempt status in September 2022, were “mired in legal minutiae and struggling to fund their work.” 

‘Conscience Keeps Knocking’

When the ED officers raided Mander’s home and office on 16 September 2021, it was a few hours after he had left for Germany on a six-month-long fellowship at the Robert Bosch Academy. They upturned the place, he said, and left at dawn the next day. 

Mander said he was “really freaked out” when he landed in Berlin, and his phone started blowing up with messages about the raid. His wife, daughter, and employees had faced the brunt, and he was “devastated” that he was not with them. 

To this day, Mander doesn't know whether the ED intentionally carried out the raid after he left the country because their intelligence was poor or he was spared by sympathetic officers who did not want to see him arrested. 

Over the next few months, friends and family told him not to return to India. Much to their dismay, he returned believing it was the right thing to do.

Mander said he had to document and oppose in whatever way he could the deterioration in human rights in the country. He would never be at peace anywhere else, he said, and he was concerned how his decisions affected the people close to him.

“I have always believed that the work for justice must be tempered with compassion as much as love and compassion must be informed by justice,” said Mander. “My humanitarian work and the work for resistance and struggle go hand in hand.”

“If I go abroad during this period, my body would be alive, but my soul would be crushed. I think my wife and daughter have accepted that I must stay because that is what my heart and conscience tell me to do,” he said. “But the anxiety of what will happen to my family, where they will live, how they will survive, and what will happen to my colleagues is always there.”

Some have called him a “bleeding heart liberal,” a class wholly irrelevant in a country that has seemed besotted with Modi and the muscular majoritarianism of the Hindu right over the past decade. Others, like Rajmohan Gandhi, a historian, academic, and Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, said he was a “conscience keeper” of the nation.  

“I’m very grateful for Harsh Mander,” said Gandhi. “He is a remarkably brave and compassionate man. It is because of people like him that your conscience keeps knocking.” 

“To be a Gandhian today is obedience to one’s conscience,” said Gandhi. “That is where Harsh Mander is a quintessential Gandhian. He is urging all Indians to be true to their conscience.”  

The Officer 

Mander served the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) for 22 years, during which he was transferred 17 times, more often than not, he said, because he could not carry out orders that did not sit well with his conscience. 

After the riots in Gujarat in 2002, Mander said the bureaucracy and the police were complicit in the targeted violence against Muslims in the state, which was then under Modi, the chief minister. When he wrote the piece, Cry, My Beloved Country, his wife and parents told him that things would never be the same again. 

“My heart is sickened, my soul wearied, my shoulders aching with the burdens of guilt and shame,” he wrote at the time. 

After quitting the civil service in protest, the former bureaucrat suddenly became famous.

Mander took up humanitarian projects, setting up shelters for homeless children and sick people with nowhere else to go. He advocated laws and policies for the disadvantaged, working with state and union governments and moving the courts to advance human rights and social justice. He was a special commissioner to the Supreme Court in the right-to-food case. He wrote books and won awards.

When Hindu mobs started lynching Muslims after the BJP came to power, often in the name of protecting the cow, Mander launched Karwan e Mohabbat, a campaign for love, justice and solidarity, where he and his team travelled to meet victims of hate crimes, document and share their stories. They offered legal aid to those fighting cases. 

Long after many others dropped off or moved on, Mander persisted, raising an alarm last year about how dangerous things were getting for Muslims in Uttarakhand, the state’s failure to end the ethnic violence in Manipur, and the toll of the communal violence stirred up in Haryana

“I think Muslims have entered the zone where they don’t have the right to have rights. You can call for their genocide, you can bulldoze their homes, you can say anything and do anything—the worst kind of hate speeches—and they have to live with it,” said Mander. 

When riots ravaged northeast Delhi in February 2020, affecting Muslims disproportionately, and the police remained unresponsive, Mander set up a citizen control room with young volunteers to field distress calls. 

It was Mander’s daughter, Suroor Mander, who alerted a judge of the Delhi High Court, Justice S Muralidhar, to the growing number of people with bullet injuries at a small clinic in a Muslim neighbourhood, surrounded by a Hindu mob. After a midnight hearing at his house, Muralidhar ordered the police to ensure the safe passage of ambulances and emergency treatment for riot victims. 

Within days of the riots, the police moved in on the protest sites against the controversial citizenship law, shutting them down for good just as the pandemic hit. The Modi government was shaken by how popular the movement against the Citizenship Amendment Act(CAA), 2019 had become in two months. In the lockdown that followed, the Delhi police said the protests were a front for planning the riots and started arresting students and activists involved in the movement. 

Of the 53 people killed in the Delhi riots—three quarters were Muslim. Of the 20 people accused in the Delhi riots conspiracy case, 18 were Muslim. 

Mander’s name and a photo of a meeting with other anti-CAA activists appeared several times in the 18,000-page chargesheet, but he was not named as an accused. 

‘Civil Disobedience’

Mander was one of the harshest critics of the CAA that offered citizenship to people of all faiths escaping persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, except Muslims. 

The spectre of a nationwide rollout of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), an exercise to show documentary proof of citizenship, made Indian Muslims fear that the CAA would be used to detain them and strip their rights. Then, home minister Amit Shah said he would throw undocumented Muslims into the Bay of Bengal. 

Calling it “civil disobedience”—Mahatma Gandhi’s strategy of a non-violent struggle against unjust British laws—Mander said that he would defy the government by registering as a Muslim, refusing to give his documents for the NRC, and asking for the same punishment as any undocumented Muslim. 

When students of Jamia Millia Islamia University were arrested after the anti-CAA protests in Delhi escalated on 13 December 2019, Mander went and stood outside the police station until they were released. 

On 16 December, the day after the police entered the university campus and beat students in the library, Mander delivered a speech in which he said the fight against the CAA could not be won in the Supreme Court or Parliament but in the hearts of young people who should occupy the streets to safeguard the Constitution. 

When Mander moved the Supreme Court against BJP leaders who made inciting remarks before the riots, the solicitor general of India, Tushar Mehta, said Mander’s speech was “derogatory and instigating”. The chief justice at the time, SA Bobde, said the court would first consider Mander’s remarks about the Supreme Court.

Mander filed the full text of his speech as a response. 

An Indian Express editorial on 6 March 2020 said Mander’s speech was an exhortation of love and nonviolence to battle a discriminatory law and it was a “travesty” for the court to put an activist in the dock instead of hearing his petition.

Bobde was not the first chief justice that Mander defied.

In 2019, when he filed a petition for the release of the hundreds of people deemed “foreigners” held in detention centres in Assam, Mander said oral remarks made by the chief justice at the time, Ranjan Gogoi, made him doubt whether he could get a fair hearing and asked the judge to recuse himself.

Being a Gandhian today means “listening to your conscience,” said Mander.

“If I have to summarise my entire political philosophy, it would be that we have to take care of each other,” said Mander. “However, we live in times where love and morality are considered extremely dangerous and subversive ideas that must be crushed at all costs.” 

The Price 

The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), the Delhi police, the Economic Offences Wing (EOW) of the Delhi police, the ED and CBI have levelled a slew of allegations: child sexual abuse by older boys in a homeless shelter he helped set up, using children in a protest, money laundering, misappropriating funds, and violation of the FCRA. 

The Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR) refuted the NCPCR point by point, saying the shelters were in good condition, the children were well looked after, and there was no cover-up of sexual abuse, which the boys' shelter reported to the police in 2012, 2013 and 2016. There was no illegality in attending protests.

The NCPCR chairperson, Priyank Kanoongo, had already gone on television and made the allegations against Mander without giving him the report of the NCPCR findings or a chance to respond. 

NCPCR then moved the Delhi police and the home ministry to investigate Mander for financial crimes. 

Mander has challenged the cases in the Delhi High Court, asking the court to quash the FIRs, arguing that the allegations of misappropriation of funds and violation of the FCRA were without foundation. 

Investigators misread accounts and wrongly alleged discrepancies in the number of beneficiaries in the children’s shelters and the funds budgeted to the Delhi and union governments, said Mander. 

“They have looked into every transaction, every piece of property. They have gone through everything over and over again and not found anything,” said Mander. “The process is what is killing.” 

“Child abuse and getting money for personal benefits are stories that stick. They destroy a person’s credibility in the public eye?” he said. “You constantly tell yourself that none of this should silence you, lessen your energy, or resolve for public work.”

Suroor Mander called it “precipitative legislation”.

“When you start conflating things, you complicate things,” she said. “This is conflation.” 

Jatin Sharma is the Centre of Equity Studies director/ BETWA SHARMA

Jatin Sharma, the director of CES, whom multiple agencies have summoned for questioning, said that at least three investigating officers (IO) had changed in the case registered by the EOW in February 2021. 

“Every time the IO is changed, the same set of questions will be sent, the same set of documents will be asked for,” said Sharma. “Then, the ED will ask for the same information in different formats because they don’t have a clear vision of what they are looking for. They cast a very wide net, hoping to catch something.”

 “At some point, a sense of pointlessness creeps in. Providing the same information ten times is demotivating and depressing. I want to be able to work,” he said. 

Sharma, 36, was pursuing his PhD in the “philosophy of perception” at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Delhi when he volunteered to help the families devastated by the riots in February 2020. 

He ended up living in northeast Delhi for a year and a half. When the raids and interrogations started, and senior staffers started leaving Mander, he found himself at the helm. 

“From 2020, I know what they stand for, what kind of integrity,” he said. “I had no qualms.” 

Sharma recalled the blatant communal tone of some of the interrogations he was summoned for.

“They said, ‘How come you are only supporting Muslims? You are an upper-caste Brahmin. Why are you doing anti-Hindu work? They really say horrible things about Muslims,” said Sharma. “Whatever politely you can counter, you counter. Beyond a point, you can’t just sit there and listen.” 

Mander recalled that some officers were courteous while others were rude. One asked him why there were so many Muslim children in the shelters. 

“It is a very humiliating and diminishing process where they keep drilling. A lot of it is just innuendo. There is incivility and sarcasm; ‘you were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, but where have you kept all the money?’ That sort of thing.”


Mander’s family came from Rawalpindi, Pakistan. He wasn't scared of many things, but he was always nervous about running into members of his extended family at weddings since most of them were offended by his stand on minorities, in part because they had to flee during the Partition. 

“I’m scared of somebody walking up and saying very loudly, ‘Harsh, we are ashamed of you,” said Mander. “My response is because of everything we have suffered, who would know better than us what it is to be targeted with hate and discrimination because of your identity.” 

Born to Sikh parents, Mander was very close to his 95-year-old father, speaking with him every day. He died of a stroke while Mander was sick with Covid-19, suffering memory loss and extensive brain damage after deciding to go to a public ward instead of using his connections to get a private bed. They had not spoken in days when he heard of his father’s passing. 

With his lung capacity greatly reduced after Covid and having undergone emergency heart surgery in Germany, Mander’s colleagues said his physical health had deteriorated. 

“He is now ageing and working with stents in his heart, but his resolve is phenomenal,” said Sharma. “The thing that unsettles him is whether his peers are active in this fight against the targeting of Muslims, minorities and Hindutva. He realises more and more people are reluctant to speak.”

The many headlines about his alleged crimes widened the chasm with his extended family. Many friends and long-time colleagues kept their distance. Many places declined to publish him, and even fewer invited him to speak. 

Mander admitted to being deeply traumatised by the question mark stamped on his integrity and life’s work.

“I agonise imagining people must think I did this,” said Mander. “I do feel wounded that I can be accused of crimes of this gravity, and people talk of me as a dangerous man. I try not to, but I do. The distancing by people I regard close wounds me over and over.”

“It is not just the legal process but the destruction of the things you have built. After all that, the idea—‘kuchch toh hoga’—is out there,” he said. “It is very wounding.”

A few people have unequivocally stood by Mander: the former police commissioner of Mumbai, Julio Riberio, who donated cash from the Nani Palkhivala award he received in January 2023 to Mander’s NGO, veteran Congress Party leader Digvijay Singh, Supreme Court advocate Prashant Bhushan, and Congress member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor are among them.

“When one is targeted, one desperately needs the unconditionality of trust and solidarity. The public articulations of solidarity have been very precious to me,” said Mander. “Unconditional faith comes from people who have either reached the pinnacle of their fields or are working-class people.”

“It is just too painful for me to say, ‘Actually, I’m innocent. Please believe me.’ I tell myself I must hold my head high through it all,” he said. “I must not just survive this, but I must not allow it to crush my conscience.” 

Mustafa came to the recovery shelter in Yamuna Pushta after a car rammed into people sleeping under a bridge in Delhi, injuring him and killing his wife./ BETWA SHARMA 

The Losses

Forty-four-year-old Mustafa’s life was upended when a drunk driver rammed into the sleeping poor under the Nizamuddin bridge in Delhi two years ago, killing his wife and injuring him badly. 

With no means to afford treatment and two children who could offer no help, Mustafa said that he survived because of the care he received at the recovery shelter run by the Aman Biradari Trust near the Yamuna River. 

“When I could not walk, they used to take me to the hospital,” he said. “I have nowhere else to go.”

The shelter is free for the city's most vulnerable and marginalised people. It has beds for the sick, injured, TB, and HIV patients. Doctors visit them. They get nutritious food. The staff take patients to and from their appointments at government hospitals, raise funds for critical surgeries, and watch out for them. 

After donors distanced themselves from Mander and salaries could no longer be paid on time, they had to drastically scale back work at the recovery shelter. There were fewer doctor visits. They had to give up on nurses, physiotherapists, mental health counsellors, and a drama therapist. 

A mobile clinic with a doctor, nurse, pharmacist and councillor could no longer be dispatched to the poorest parts of the city. 

“When a government agency targets you, the message that goes out is that you are persona non grata, and the funders withdraw from you,” said Sharma, who tries to keep the shelters running when he is not dealing with federal agencies. 

“The standard of care went down, but even the minimum care is good enough, so the shelter occupancy has not reduced,” said Sharma.  

Running the shelters, monthly medical assistance of Rs 2,000 for people injured in the Delhi riots in February 2020, a monthly pension of Rs 2,000 for women widowed in the riots, and legal support for Muslim families fighting hate crime cases in court were some of the things that Aman Biradari did. 

Shazia Parveen and her husband in northeast Delhi./ BETWA SHARMA

When her husband was shot in the riots and then accused of rioting and arrested, causing him to lose his mental balance and deteriorate physically, Shazia Parveen, 35, stepped up to take care of him and run the household. 

Parveen said the Rs 2,000 she received from Aman Biradari was a small amount, but it helped. The real support, however, came from Aman Biradari people who still worked in the riot-hit neighbourhoods. 

Describing what she saw when she went for a prison visit—her husband coming towards her in a wheelchair with a dripping urine bag—Parveen said it was Mander’s people who helped her navigate the maze of hospitals and found a good doctor.

While her husband stared vacantly at a wall, Parveen said, “We would not have been able to do anything without them. I know they will pick up if I call.”

A recovery shelter for homeless people in Yaumna Pushta, Delhi./ BETWA SHARMA

Keeping It Together 

Anticipating the fallout of the raids and allegations, Mander was immediately preoccupied with keeping the programmes going. He worked very hard to transfer the management of the recovery shelters for the sick and injured in four cities to other organisations and set up crowdfunding to support the hate crime victims. 

“Most of my time has been spent distancing myself from my work so others can take over. I can’t tell you how difficult it has been to manoeuvre each of these,” said Mander. “It happened almost miraculously.” 

Mander spoke wistfully about the work he was leaving behind, especially the schools for homeless children he worked with state governments to set up across the country. It was a novel idea to open public schools for homeless children, given that they were vacant for almost 16 hours a day. 

“It is the only model in the world where you use public schools to educate homeless children,” said Mander. “Walking away from these has been very painful.” 

Aman Biradari workers in northeast Delhi./ BETWA SHARMA

The People 

A skeletal staff remains with Mander, including Taranum, a 30-year-old Muslim woman, and Dilshad, a 25-year-old Muslim man, who for the past four years have worked with the riot-hit families in Delhi. 

Navigating seamlessly the myriad corners and narrow bylanes of the riot-hit neighbourhoods, Tarunam and Dilshad said they didn’t want to leave because they wouldn’t be able to find a more considerate person to work with, and there were so few workplaces where Muslims felt safe. 

Islamophobia was everywhere.

“I have a lot of emotional support here. I can speak with Harsh sir about many things. I don’t want to leave,” said Dilshad.

When I met them this month, Tarunam and Dilshad had not been paid for three months, but they spoke effusively of Mander and the work they did while taking me to see an elderly Muslim woman who was left to fend for herself after the riots. 

Samina’s house was looted, and the two shops that her husband and son ran were burnt down. Her son was accused of murder and rioting and remains in jail. Her heartbroken husband died of a heart attack a few months after their son was arrested. 

Now, living alone with her youngest son, who spends most days running to and from the court, 65-year-old Samina relies on the goodwill and generosity of her relatives, the monthly pension of Rs 2,500 she gets from the Delhi government and the one from Aman Biradari.  

Samina said that two thousand rupees wasn’t a large amount and didn’t always arrive on time, but it helped. Like Parveen, Samina said what mattered to her most was that there were people she could phone and ask for help.

“You know that if you are going through a bad time and call, someone will be there to pick up the phone,” she said. “They hear you and always try to help. This means a lot.” 

As she spoke those words sitting in the house she had put back together, Taranum, Dilshad and their supervisor, Mehnaz, 36, assured her they would always be a phone call away.

Aman Biradari workers with Delhi riots survivor Samina in northeast Delhi./ BETWA SHARMA 

Tarunam, who took care of her mother, left a well-paying job as a security guard at the India Habitat Centre to work with the riot survivors because she wanted to do something meaningful with her life. 

Like other Muslim men and women in the northeast neighbourhood, Tarunam did not feel safe travelling long distances from work. Many young people prefer working in a shop for half the salary if they can be close to home and save money on travel. Their parents also preferred it. 

But more than anything else, working at Aman Biradari gave her a sense of belonging.

“When I go to the office, I feel like I belong. I feel safe. You don’t feel the kind of division you feel everywhere else,” she said.

Tarunam then shared her encounters with a bus conductor who said Muslims were treacherous and a bunch of men who shouted Jai Shri Ram when they saw that she was Muslim. 

“Many Muslims are now scared to go out. For women, it is an even bigger issue,” she said. “But when I go to the office, it doesn’t feel like I’ve left the home.”

Dilshad lasted three days at the call centre where he worked in 2020, leaving after he overheard people in senior management saying that people like him (Muslims) would bring non-vegetarian food and spoil the culture of the place. 

Even though he had to take care of his elderly parents and was 25,000 in debt since his salary was delayed, Dilshad would rather live with uncertainty than endure bigotry again. 

“It really troubles me a lot,” he said. “It  stays with me for a long time.” 

Their supervisor, Mehnaz, said the last few months have been difficult. Her husband, a businessman, was keeping the house running, but they had to borrow money from her sister. Having worked with Mander for ten years, it was difficult for her to move to a place where she did not have quality work and her expertise was not valued. 

“It has been a long journey. There is a very deep bond,” she said. “I hope things get ok. That is the hope.”

When we spoke with her at the end of April, Mehnaz said her salary had come. 

Old Enemies 

Mander’s beef with Modi goes back to when he was chief minister of Gujarat, and more than 1,000 people were killed in the rioting in 2002. The official death toll was 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus, but the number of dead is widely believed to be higher. 

Mander, who was on a sabbatical from the civil service and volunteering with a human rights NGO in Gujarat at the time, had dealt with communal riots during his postings in Madhya Pradesh. Still, he had never heard anything like the terrifying accounts of the Muslim women in the displacement camps. 

“I have never known a riot which has used the sexual subjugation of women so widely as an instrument of violence in the recent mass barbarity in Gujarat,” he wrote in March 2002. 

Even as the courts and committees have cleared Modi of any wrongdoing, Mander always held him responsible for the violence. He was also critical of Modi’s deputy, Amit Shah, now home minister, who was an accused in the murder case of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, a Muslim man allegedly killed in a fake encounter by the Gujarat police in 2005. 

Six months after the BJP came to power, Judge M.B. Gosavi discharged Shah in December 2014, saying he was implicated for political reasons. In June 2016, Mander filed a petition against Shah’s discharge in the Supreme Court, which was rejected on the grounds that he was not an aggrieved person.

It is not uncommon for political leaders to attack their critics and opponents when governments change, but Mander said this government was “vindictive in the extreme.”

Mander said the other reason the government came after him was more recent: Karwan e Mohabbat, the campaign of love, justice, and solidarity he started in 2017. 

“It is Gujarat, it is Sohrabuddin, but it is also Karwan e Mohabbat that has really rattled them,” said Mander. “The discourse about love and morality totally unnerves them.” 

The IAS 

When Mander was born in Shillong in 1955, it was the capital of undivided Assam. His father worked in the Indian Frontier Administrative Service, which Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru created the year before. When the Dalai Lama fled Tibet and came to India in 1959, he stayed with them. 

One of Mander’s earliest memories is playing with the spiritual leader who had a “lifelong friendship” with his father and remains friends with him. 

Mander described his upbringing as “privileged”, attending Mayo College in Ajmer, Rajasthan and studying economics at St Stephen’s College, where he was friends with parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor, historian Ramachandra Guha, and journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta. There were other classmates who today support Modi and the right-wing ideology, but Mander remembers it as a time of camaraderie and decency.   

“It was a time I remember with much fondness. It was a different time. There was a deep sense of idealism. Everyone was convinced that a better world was possible, and we would be part of making it happen,” he said.

Much to the dismay of his parents, Mander quit the master’s program at the Delhi School of Economics just as the anti-emergency movement was starting and travelled for four years in the country. At the end of his travels, he decided to sit for the civil service examination and joined the IAS, choosing Madhya Pradesh as his cadre. 

“The IAS were lovely years,” said Mander. 

“I realised that you have extraordinary power in the district,” he said. “You must be very conscious that power is neither earned nor deserved but given to you in trust. You are first a servant of the poorest persons, then a servant of the Constitution, and then of the elected government.”

Mander was posted in Indore, which saw a lot of violence after Indira Gandhi was assassinated in November 1984 by two Sikh bodyguards for ordering the military to enter the Golden Temple, where Sikh separatists were hiding. Hindu mobs started killing Sikhs, with the Congress government doing little to stop them.

When a senior officer did not respond to the situation developing in Indore, Mander stepped in, phoning the major general posted in the Mau Cantonment and asking him to send the army. 

“That is when I realised that if a riot goes on for more than a few hours, it is only because the state wants it to,” he said. That was a defining moment in my life.”

Five years later, in September 1989, when the BJP was whipping up a communal frenzy over the birthplace of Lord Ram and the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Mander was posted as the district magistrate in Khargone. 

In his book Unheard Voices, Mander wrote about how he and the superintendent of police reached every spot from where trouble was reported, stomped out every attempt to start a riot, patrolled the city night after night, catching a few hours of sleep before heading out again, and appealed to the best in people.

Mander recalled acting with “firmness, fairness and kindness” and that it was the “finest moment” of his time in the IAS. 

But when it came to holding accountable Hindu men with political connections, his best efforts were blunted by immense political pressure to do as little as possible, reinforcing how fleeting and conditional civil servant power was. 

“In the IAS, you have extraordinary power to correct wrongs and injustices. That is what I miss,” said Mander. “When the Delhi riots happened, I ached to be in authority.”

“But you can do the right thing and find yourself transferred in the morning. The ephemeral nature of that power makes it much harder to bring about change from the inside. Every battle we fought from the outside was much harder but had more lasting value.”

When he returned to Khargone after close to 30 years to mobilise support against the CAA, Mander said he was mobbed, and young people who were not even born in 1989 wanted to see him because of what their parents told them.

“I couldn’t walk on the street,” he said. “A humane officer in times like this really means something to people.” 

‘This Was It’

It was 7:30 am when the CBI arrived at his home on 2 February 2024. The weather was still cold, and Mander lazily woke up when he heard his wife, Dimple, shout. Thinking she had fallen, Mander leapt out of bed. 

What she had said was, “The CBI is here.”

Mander thought, “This was it”. They had come to arrest him. 

Mander recalled that the thing his father feared the most was his arrest. 

“He would read the newspaper and say, ‘Harsh, I can handle everything, but if they put you in prison, I won’t be able to take it,’” said Mander. “But every time it seems certain they will pick me up, there is a pullback from pushing me over the edge.”

“You rehearse what is going to happen in your mind. The worry is much more about the consequences for your family, colleagues, and friends. But there is also a sense of calmness. Let it happen,” he said. “It will be one further test of your character and convictions.”

After handing over their phones for the duration of the search, Mander recalled there was little else to do except offer tea to the officials. His wife, Dimple, who he said was “sterner” than him, did not look happy, especially after a woman officer followed her into the kitchen. 

Mander said the officers went through the rooms and cupboards and read through his “to-do” diaries. 

His family and staff were better prepared this second time around. Back in the office, they asked officials for a search warrant and the hash values of the electronic devices they were seizing. 

The raid continued when Mander left for Bengaluru to attend a meeting. 

“I realise that if I’m away in prison, there will be some public reaction,” he said. “People will sign a letter and then get on with their lives, so it is between me and my closest friends and family and me and my conscience.”

(Betwa Sharma is the managing editor of Article 14.)

Read the second part in this two part series: How A False Child Rights Body Report, Rejected By Experts, Govt, Led To Harsh Mander's Legal Persecution

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