Kids Corner


Looking Away:
India's Violent Indifference





LOOKING AWAY: INEQUALITY, PREJUDICE AND INDIFFERENCE IN NEW INDIA, by Harsh Mander. Speaking Tiger, India, 2015. English, Kindle Edition, pp 432 (1461 KB). ASIN: B00VJ2TZ4U




This feeble blemished light, this dawn mangled by night, this is not the morning we had all so longed for ...  [Faiz Ahmed Faiz]

In the two decades since the early 1990s, when India confirmed its allegiance to the Free Market, more of its citizens have become marginalized than ever before, and society has become more sharply riven than ever.

In 'Looking Away', Harsh Mander ranges wide to record and analyse the many different fault lines which crisscross Indian society today.

There is increasing prosperity among the middle classes, but also a corresponding intolerance for the less fortunate. Poverty and homelessness are also on the rise-both in urban and rural settings- but not only has the state abandoned its responsibility to provide for those afflicted, the middle class, too, now avoids even the basic impulses of sharing.

And with the sharp Rightward turn in politics, minority communities are under serious threat - their very status as citizens in question - as a belligerent, monolithic idea of the nation takes the place of an inclusive, tolerant one.

However, as Harsh Mander points out, what most stains society today is the erosion in the imperative for sympathy, both at the state and individual levels, a crumbling that is principally at the base of the vast inequities which afflict India.

Exhaustive in its scope, impassioned in its arguments, and rigorous in its scholarship, 'Looking Away' is a sobering checklist of all the things we must collectively get right if India is to become the country that was promised, in equal measure, to all its citizens.

with Swati Daftuar


Harsh Mander talks about his new book, and the need for compassion in society that has all but forgotten those who need it the most.

Only a few chapters into Harsh Mander’s new book, ‘Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice And Indifference In New India’, I feel uncomfortable. The spotlight seems too bright on my calm, cushioned life, and I squirm and consider shutting the book, so that I can forget about the hundreds of tragedies it contains.

And that’s when I understand what Mander means by looking away. How he addresses this very habit most of us, safely ensconced in our middle class havens, have perfected. The pervasive inequality, injustice and crushing poverty that surrounds us is uncomfortable to confront, and so, we turn away, letting it go on. We legitimise it, and in doing so, create more and more of it.

In “Looking Away…”, Mander grabs us firmly by the shoulder and turns us around, so we can stare at what we’ve been trying to ignore.

*   *   *   *   *

QUESTION (Swati Daftuar):  You mention in the beginning of the book that when you were growing up, money was a privilege, and not an entitlement...

ANSWER (Harsh Mander):  Yes, the sense of entitlement has grown, all over the world really. India today presents a very dramatic manifestation of a churning that’s taking place all over the world.

The old idea of caste, that where you are born represents where you need to stand, shows in the attitude that people have to the poor and the education their children deserve. Caste and class manifests itself things like our attitude to child labour. The current government is again saying that it’s okay if children work, but would we, the middle class, send our children to work? Then there is the British idea of class system, and how it attaches wealth with qualities like culture and sophistication, and those who are poor are without these qualities. The fact that a good family is supposed to be a wealthy, well placed family. Good family doesn’t mean a family of good morals and values. Today, as Michael Sandel puts it very well when he says that we have moved from a market economy to a market society.

Q:   And our prejudices have also increased...

A:   Yes, I am worried about how prejudice has got legitimised. The type of conversations we have in the middle class today are openly bigoted, prejudiced, with no historical and empirical basis, that again is very different than how I remember it. If you had your prejudices, you hid them. Today, it’s the person who tries to contest these prejudice who has to be apologetic and defensive. Secular is a bad word. Both indifference to the poor and this kind of prejudice are legitimised today.

Q:   You specifically concentrate on the indifference of the middle class in India. Why?

A:   I argue in this book that we, who call ourselves the middle class, are actually the top 10 per cent in the country. We should, really, be called the elite. If we had to look at India’s middle class, it would be people earning, say, a hundred rupees a day. But the middle class as it’s called, has, as Arundhati Roy puts very dramatically, seceded to a bubble of their own. We have built this world around us, one of malls and bungalows and clubs, and the only poor people we come in contact with are the ones who work for us. We have stopped sharing spaces with poor people.

Q:   How much does the globalisation of the world affect our own aspirations? Haven’t they got globalised as well?

A:   The lifestyles of the middle class in India match the best in the world, and we also have domestic help, which many people in other countries don’t. But we are a very small portion of society. That is why we need to block off others and just enjoy our lives. Much has got globalised today, including drawing room conversation about Muslims. I am amazed at how whether I’m sitting in Copenhagen or New York or here, I hear the same conversations with the same bigotry. I think we need to reclaim some of the very precious ideas we had as a civilisation.

Q:   Ideas like?

A:   In the last part of my book I talk about the need to reclaim one of those ideas, of what I call public compassion. I quote Noam Chomsky, who says that the idea of social protection is basically the idea that we should take care of each other. But today this idea has somehow become a dangerous subversive one that must be crushed at all times. And therefore somebody like me, saying things that I am, in an earlier generation I would be humanistic, now I am some kind of left wing radical threat.

Q:   Your career’s watershed moment came in 2002, after the Gujarat Massacre. Today, the conversation around the riots has changed, and there is even some rationalising that has crept in.

A:   That’s where the moral prism you view the world through comes into play. I often hear that since it was Muslims who set fire to the Sabarmati Express, it was understandable that hundreds, all innocent Muslims, were killed. Sikh bodyguards assassinated Indira Gandhi and so it was justified to carry out a pogrom against innocent Sikhs, and murder thousands of them across the country. I often argue that this kind of rationalisation means it is okay to hold an entire community responsible for a historical or current act by an individual of that community. Then the Dalits should be completely justified in killing all upper class Hindu men. Or no man should be alive because women should be justified in attacking all men, based on our violence against them.

Along with this, there has been a need to reinvent Narendra Modi.

This is not new, it happened even with Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He too was member of the RSS, and at times he had said things which seemed problematic, and he was reinvented into a great statesman. Then L. K. Advani came along, and he was the most fierce example of Hindutva. But we have willingly allowed him to be reinvented as this very soft spoken, modern, statesmanlike politician. Modi’s reinvention has been even harder. The kind of statements that people make about Muslims are no different from what Modi had been saying for years, up until months before the campaign — hum paanch humaare pachees, and when he was asked to set up relief camps for the Muslims, he said I don’t want to set up baby making factories. We have allowed this reinvention and large number of media has validated it.

With this comes the rationalising of the 2002 Massacre. Firstly some people say that it wasn’t that major, and that some people with vested interests have exaggerated what happened. And the other part of the argument is that the court has given a clean chit. The clean chit, I have written in the book, at best says that there is no evidence that Mr. Modi actually allowed the riot to go on. But no riot can go on beyond a few hours without a State’s consent. After that, if it goes on for days and weeks, it shows a very high culpability of the leadership. But for investment invested people, as well as the western countries benefitting from the Indian market, there has been a need for this reinvention.

Q:   You speak of the need for moral and social responsibility and public compassion to tackle the gross injustice and inequality, and the State can’t be the only vehicle of change. In fact, hasn’t the role of the State changed considerably over time, becoming, almost, hostile to its most needy?

A:   At some point in the book I say that up till now we had looked at the State to change things but I recognise now that a just and caring State can only exist in a just and caring society. And until we believe that no child should be hungry, that my child and my domestic help’s child deserve the same education, we are going to exist in this unequal state.

When I joined the IAS (Indian Administrative Service) in 1980, there was no doubt that at least in theory, the Government’s primary duty was to the poor, the minorities.

The actual practice may have differed but then it was seen as a deviation. Today the idea of the good State has been to help the good big business. There is an opinion that the State should not be investing in the poor. It should encourage the big businesses and that will ultimately trickle down.

[Harsh Mander, formerly in the Indian Administrative Service (“IA”), is a writer  and activist in India. His earlier books include ‘Unheard Voices: Stories of Forgotten Lives’, ‘The Ripped Chest: Public Policy and the Poor in India’, ‘Fear and Forgiveness: The Aftermath of Massacre’, ‘Fractured Freedom: Chronicles from India’s Margins’, ‘Untouchability in Rural India’ (co-authored), and ‘Ash in the Belly: India’s Unfinished Battle against Hunger’.]

[Courtesy: The Hindu, Amazon. Edited for]
April 23, 2015


Conversation about this article

1: Hardev Singh Thethy (Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada), April 23, 2015, 7:15 PM.

True, but unpalatable. I wonder if they will ban this book in India.

2: AJ Singh (San Francisco, California, USA), April 23, 2015, 8:14 PM.

Harsh has been one of the very few voices whose moral compass continues to point "True North" - the clarity of thought in this interview is a welcome break from the manufactured issues that one keeps reading about in India these days. Looking forward to reading his book.

3: Kaala Singh (Punjab), April 29, 2015, 2:12 AM.

One wonders, what have these guys achieved in the last 67 years of "independence" and by carrying out countless massacres of hapless minorities and destroying their places of worship -- are they any better when 80% of them are struggling for even the very basic needs of life? If they think that religious fanaticism and murdering minorities is a solution to their problems, they are living in a fool's paradise. As pointed out by the author, looking at their thought process vis-a-vis the mass-murder of Sikhs just because two of them executed a corrupt politician is reflective of their low standards and pygmy minds. Now, would anybody still blame the Sikhs for not wanting to be part of them?

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India's Violent Indifference"

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