Ex-civil servants decry vilification of Harsh Mander for speech during anti-CAA protests

The continued harassment and vilification of students and activists opposing controversial the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) by the Delhi police is evidently out in the open. At the end of 2019, nationwide protests against the CAA and NRC took place, with most outrage coming from the capital, New Delhi, where Shaheen Bagh became an inspiration for others to lead a civil disobedience movement against the contentious Act and the NRC that was to follow. When the protests rolled into the New Year, several leaders from the ruling party and the media had already vilified the minorities and degraded their fight, calling them to be traitors.

In February 2020, what can only be called orchestrated violence against the minorities, took place in the capital, with the police allegedly complicit in the attacks. However, these attacks which were clearly provoked after leaders owing allegiance to the ruling dispensation incited public sentiment through hate speech, were instead connected to a speech made by a civil activist and leader of Karwan-e-Mohabbat, Harsh Mander outside the Jamia Millia Islamia University (JMI), accusing him of denigrating the Supreme Court of India and inciting violence. In light of this, a case was filed against him with the Solicitor General of India, Tushar Mehta, presenting clipped versions of his speech to the Supreme Court.

In light of this, on March 22, 2020, 95 retired civil servants belonging to the Constitutional Conduct Group had penned an open letter, “In Defence of Harsh Mander” regarding the mis-characterisation of his speech.

In their letter, the former civil servants stated that they didn’t subscribe to any particular political ideology, but rather focused upon issues that had a bearing on the Constitution of India. Writing about Mander’s speech, they said, “We feel that had the full video been presented, it would have clearly brought out the falsehood of the allegations that he had incited violence in any manner or been contemptuous of the SC. It is apparent that the video-recording submitted by the SG and the police was an edited version comprising selectively chosen excerpts from the recording, which had been clipped in places so as to convey the impression that Harsh Mander had both instigated violence and committed contempt of the SC. We strongly feel that the speech has to be read in context, in sequence and in full to appreciate its message. When the speech is so read, it becomes apparent that Harsh Mander meant that the fight would ultimately be decided in people’s hearts and not in any other forum.”

Citing the parts of the speech left out by the Delhi Police, the members of the Constitutional Conduct Group added, “By what stretch of the imagination can such words be construed as being inciteful of violence when they refer to Mahatma Gandhi, father of the nation, who left us a priceless legacy of non-violence, truth-telling and compassion? By what inversion of meaning, by what distortion of facts and by what supreme disregard for the plain truth do the Solicitor General of India and the Deputy Commissioner of Police seek to mislead the Supreme Court of India? In our considered and collective opinion, there is a good case for filing a suit for defamation against both worthy gentlemen but that is a decision for the person defamed to take.”

The Constitutional Conduct Group states that while there is continued mis-characterisation of the speech delivered by Harsh Mander who is a believer of the law, political leaders who publicly used hate speech to incite violence roam free with impunity.

Delhi police presents clipped versions of Mander’s speech

In the chargesheet filed by the Delhi Police about the ‘Chronology of Events Leading to Riots in North-East Delhi’ and relating to the death of Ankit Sharma, an officer with the Intelligence Bureau, it was stated, “The below mentioned leaders/activist have visited the Protest Site of Jamia University and delivered hate speeches to provoke the general public to show their strength. Mr.Sharjeel Imam (JNU Student), who visited the site and provoked the protestor on 14/12/19 to block all the metro cities in north India until CAA/NRC is rolled back by the Government and after that riots incidents broke out in area of NFC and Jamia Nagar, Mr. Harsh Mander, who visited the site on 16/12/19 and instigated the protestors to not have faith in the Supreme Court and to fight their battle on road to get justice. He, however, used a façade of peach in a part of his speech and Sh. Chandrashekhar Azad (Leader of Bheem Army), who visited the site on 22/12/19, who instigated the protestors to remain on road, until CAA/NRC/NPR is rolled back by the Government, are some of the speakers giving hate speeches.”

The parts of the video presented by the Delhi Police selectively portrays the speech of Mander.This clip, used in the chargesheet, is also abruptly stopped midway and neither Mander’s words before or after this were shown to the Supreme Court.

Just before the part of the speech which was made viral by the police for allegedly inciting violence, Mander had specifically said, “Anyone who asks you these questions and claims to take away your rights is being challenged by a flood across this country to [protect the Constitution of the country and to protect the soul of the Constitution, which is love and fraternity. To protect it, we have come out on the streets and will remain here. This fight cannot be won in the parliament because our political parties, who declare themselves secular, do not have the moral strength to take up the fight…” and after he had spoken about being out on the streets, he had made an even more important statement where he said, “We are all out on the streets. However, there is one more space, bigger than the streets, where this decision can be taken. What is this space where the solution to this fight can be found? It’s in our hearts – in my heart and your heart. If they want to reply to us with hatred and we respond likewise with hatred, hatred will deepen. If there is someone spreading darkness in the country and we say that we will spread more darkness to fight, then of course that darkness will deepen. If there’s darkness, it can be countered only by lighting a lamp, and there is a large storm, in that we will light our lamps. That’s how darkness can be defeated. This is why we have only one answer to their hatred, and that answer is love. They will cause violence, they will incite us to violence, but we will never commit violence. Please do understand that it is their ploy to incite you to violence. If we respond with violence, we will create 2% violence and they will respond with 100% violence. We have learnt from Gandhi what violence and injustice can do. The answer to injustice, is to fight with non-violence (ahimsa)…”

Mander’s entire speech may be seen below.

The speech shows that Mander was not instigating violence, but instead advocating for non-violence even in the face of instigation. A petition filed by Harsh Mander on February 26, seeking registration of FIRs against BJP leaders Kapil Mishra, Parvesh Verma and Anurag Thakur for giving hate speeches and inciting violence in Northeast Delhi was also deferred saying that the petition would only be heard after the court had finished dealing with the contents of the speech made by Mander.

Senior advocate Colin Gonsalves, who was seeking to submit the entire transcript of the speech before the court, was also shunted out and the intervention application was not admitted by CJI Bobde who said, “We will not allow you to intervene.”

The complete letter of the Constitutional Conduct Group may be read below.

First published in Sabrang India.