Friday, February 26, 2010

Harsh Mander at the DDK Festival of Ideas

Oheraldo Goa's complete online news edition :: Half-the-children-of-India-go-hungry-Harsh-Mander
Half the children of India go hungry: Harsh Mander

Once Mandar had asked a Dalit woman in MP what their major problem was, she said, ‘how to teach our children to sleep on an empty stomach.’ It not only reflected the pathetic state of affairs of this country, it also shows that these communities have virtually no hope that their plight would ever change. It is indeed shocking that there are people in this country who look for undigested seeds of grain in cow dung so that they could give some relief to pangs of hunger.

Harsh Mandar who resigned from IAS in 2002 after the Gujarat riots, who has headed district governments in tribal areas, delivered a sobering lecture on Thursday at DD Kosambi Festival of Ideas, being held in Kala Academy Panjim, on abysmal plight of a large mass of the people of the country who do not even get a square meal. Mandar pointed out that half the children of this country go hungry.

We have all heard of Gujarat riots and mostly the horror stories of brutal massacres. Mandar, narrated a tale of an ordinary Brahmin family that protected and fed over a 100 Muslim for ten days and held off the mob with the help of other villager. The head of the family, a devout Brahmin when asked by Mandar why he did this, he replied that he could not bear that his villagers should be treated this way even if they were Muslims. When asked if they were not afraid, his wife replied “if you do the right thing how can you fear.”

For Mandar thirty years ago we believed that we could create a just and kinder world today we have lost that conviction. For him three major demolitions have transformed our world radically: the fall of the Berlin wall which signaled end of communist experiment and hope of a just and humane world which according to him are not even desirable goals today. Second, the demolition of Babari Masjid which was cheered by leaders who were to later lead the nation and with it according to Mandar, was pulled down the solemn promise that we had made to ourselves and each other in the constitution. Third demolition was fall of World Trade Centre, 911 that lead to globalization of war on terror set into motion increasing militarization of the world, legitimised hatred and sharpened differences.
What are we doing with our poor? According to Madar we are trying hard to pretend that do not exist we are increasingly removing them from our conscience and consciousness. In 1960 popular cinema made movies about a farmer struggling to protect is land or about the homeless. People who made such cinema have disappeared.

According to Mandar our middle classes have become increasingly indifferent to injustice, hunger and suffering and uncritically accept the stories of hate, while referring to targeting of the Muslims in the country. According to him the poor are much less influenced by prejudice.

Mandar said that one of the goals of education was to create equality of opportunity but this has not happened and education has only reinforced inequality. Rational and liberal thought was supposed to make us better human beings, but, according to Mandar, those in our elite technical institution show greater prejudice. And to make matters worse we talk about ‘merit’ when we want to keep out the underprivileged.

Mandar feels that above all there is enormous need to restore compassion into our public life and into our governance. For Mandar communalism is a real threat and he praised Goa as a place where diversity co-exists in harmony, but cautioned that communal organisations were systematically injecting hatred into our communities and Goa is in grave danger of losing its communal harmony. He referred to vigilante groups in Karnataka that make sure that there in no mingling of Hindus and Muslims and use violent means to prevent it.

According to Mandar, “Battle against communalism is battle of hearts and minds.”

Mandar wants every temple, church and gurudwara to become a place where the homeless can find shelter and the hungry, food. He praised the Sikh tradition of langar – community kitchen where the lowly and the lofty sat side by side to share a free meal. According to him this practice is now changing as the poor people are being increasingly denied entry.

In Mandars experience, homeless children who were picked up from the railway station managed to reform fast and showed remarkable intelligence and motivation that often in two years they picked up which other student learned in ten years, and in some cases even topped the class as they valued education.

In the end it is the poor who help the poor - as Mandar noticed in the peak of winter at Jama Masjid in Delhi where nearly ten thousand take shelter, entrepreneurs hire out quilts, but he was surprised to see that each and everyone had a quilt and he found that all the homeless had pooled in money to ensure that everyone had something to cover with in the biting cold. Among the poor and the deprived he sees the hope of new India.

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