Researching lives on the edge: Why Harsh Mander believes the tax notice to his think tank is unfair

The former bureaucrat and his colleagues say the Centre for Equity Studies has always been critical of the government, no matter which party is in power.

Ever since he took up the cause of the victims of the 2002 Gujarat riots, social activist Harsh Mander realised he had become a target of Hindutva supporters. He was heckled at seminars, even those held abroad, and received hate mail routinely. Now the former Indian Administrative Service officer fears the think tank he co-founded in 2000 has become a target too. The Centre for Equity Studies conducts research about Indians on the margins, and runs projects for the urban homeless and communal violence survivors.

On September 19, the Centre for Equity Studies in Delhi received a notice stating that income tax authorities would conduct a “full scrutiny” of its returns. The next day, a second notice arrived announcing a “retrospective review” of an order clearing its returns for the previous year.

This happened five days after Rakesh Sinha of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, said during a television debate,Let there be a probe of the activities of Harsh Mander’s NGO.”

It could have been a coincidence, Mander conceded. But he also said he feared the notices were payback for his “political and ethical position” against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was chief minister of Gujarat during the 2002 riots – which were triggered by the deaths of 58 Hindu pilgrims in a train fire and left over 1,000 people dead, mostly Muslims. Mander alleged that his personal position and the activities of the think tank have been conflated by a government eager to punish any form of dissent.

The provocation for the tax notices, Mander claimed, was his Karwan-e-Mohabbat (caravan of love), a civil society initiative he undertook earlier this month with 40 other activists. The cross-country journey, which started on September 4, took the group to places that have witnessed mob lynchings, most of them blamed on cow protection vigilantes. The activists met with the families of the victims to understand their trauma and offer them reassurance.

Political rivals, civil society activists and other commentators have accused Modi’s BJP government of turning a blind eye to these incidents, which have reportedly risen sharply during its three-year rule.

The Karwan-e-Mohabbat started Assam, where Mander and his group met the mothers of two teenagers who were beaten to death allegedly on suspicion of being cattle thieves. When the group reached Behror, Rajasthan, on September 15, Right-wing outfits stopped them when they tried to pay tribute to Pehlu Khan, who was accused of smuggling cattle and lynched in April.

“It is unpopular to talk about love and solidarity,” said Mander. “I was not surprised it caused distress.”

‘A sober organisation’

The Karwan-e-Mohabbat was organised by the Aman Biradari, the activist arm of the Centre for Equity Studies. The Aman Biradari helped train paralegals to work with the victims of the 2002 Gujarat riots. In 2004, it joined lawyer Indira Jaisingh to reopen over 250 closed cases.

But the main work of the Centre is done by the research arm, which has had far-reaching impact. “The entire discourse on food in the country” has been influenced by the organisation, said Biraj Patnaik, a former colleague of Mander’s and the current South Asia director of Amnesty International, a human rights-focussed non-profit.

Mander and NC Saxena, another co-founder of the Centre, served as Supreme Court commissioners to monitor the implementation of all orders related to the Right to Food and subsequently the National Food Security Act, the legislation aimed at providing subsidised grain to two-thirds of India’s population. The Centre’s office housed the secretariat for the researchers assisting them.

The Centre for Equity Studies has been closely associated with the implementation of the right to food legislation, which aims to provide subsidised foodgrains to two-thirds of India’s population. (Credit: Krishnendu Halder / Reuters)
The Centre for Equity Studies has been closely associated with the implementation of the right to food legislation, which aims to provide subsidised foodgrains to two-thirds of India’s population. (Credit: Krishnendu Halder / Reuters)

Since 2013, the think tank has been publishing an annual India Exclusion Report, which studies the difficulties faced by vulnerable communities such as Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims and the disabled in accessing “public goods” such as pensions, agricultural land and legal justice.

Mander called the Centre for Equity Studies “a sober organisation” dedicated to “research around the lives of the vulnerable” and analysing “public policy from their perspective”. It runs 100 urban recovery shelters for the sick, and has been working with the Aman Biradari since 2005 to rehabilitate street children.

Patnaik said, “It helped conceptualise the model for urban shelters across the country and also developed a model for rehabilitating street children.”

However, Mander said that since each project trains a critical gaze on governance, the think tank has not been popular with any regime. In 2010, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance appointed him to the National Advisory Council chaired by party president Sonia Gandhi, but his time there was short. During his two-year stint with the Council, he was part of groups recommending policies on food security, land acquisition, communal violence, street vendors, manual scavenging and child labour. The think tank also undertook research in these fields. “But I was critical throughout as the government either did not move at all or passed watered down versions of policies,” he said.

Target of Right-wing groups

Mander said he has been a “special target” of Right-wing groups for several years. In 2002, while still with the Indian Administrative Service, he visited Gujarat in the aftermath of the riots and wrote a piece alleging the “active connivance” of the state in the violence. He left the civil services within days of returning from Gujarat. That article, and his subsequent interventions in riot-related court cases, placed him in the crosshairs of the Hindu Right.

“I have been called a ‘Congressi’ [Congress supporter] and accused of being a part of a large anti-national web for signing a petition against capital punishment for [2001 Parliament attack convict] Afzal Guru and [2008 Mumbai terror attack convict] Ajmal Kasab,” Mander said. “Modi himself has mentioned me twice in his speeches, accusing me of being a Maoist, which is ridiculous because I am opposed to all violence.”

He added, “In the early days [of the Centre for Equity Studies], an intern used to come to office an hour early just to delete the hate mail before I could read them.”

The Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence (Access to Justice and Reparations) Bill, 2011, that Mander helped draft as a member of the National Advisory Council was also criticised by the BJP as being anti-Hindu.

“I have faced these people for 15 years, I have seen the cohesiveness in their group,” he said, explaining why he believed the tax notices to the Centre for Equity Studies was a form of harassment, despite assurances from income tax officials that they were routine. “Whether I spoke at a village in Bihar or at Berkeley [California], Hindutva groups’ representatives were present.”

The Centre for Equity Studies has also been involved with Mander’s campaign against communal violence. In 2014, it published a report on the state’s alleged role in four riots – the 1983 massacre of 2,000 Muslims in Assam’s Nellie village, the 1984 riots targeting Sikhs in Delhi after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the 1989 Hindu-Muslim clashes in Bhagalpur that were preceded by rumours of the mass killing of Hindu students, and the 2002 Gurajat violence. It is currently assembling a “people’s archive” on the subject, gathering relevant documents and oral testimonies of survivors.

“We have had 35 episodes of communal violence that had judicial commissions investigating,” Mander said. “We are accessing the investigation and action taken reports and those of civil society investigations.”

Harsh Mander sits on dharna in Behror, Rajasthan, after he is stopped from walking to the spot where Pehlu Khan was lynched. (Credit: Karwan e Mohabbat / Twitter)
Harsh Mander sits on dharna in Behror, Rajasthan, after he is stopped from walking to the spot where Pehlu Khan was lynched. (Credit: Karwan e Mohabbat / Twitter)

Funds crunch

As the Centre for Equity Studies prepares to deal with the tax notices, Mander and Patnaik said the organisation has been facing trouble on another front: funding their activities, which has always been tight.

“Funding for progressive causes has seen a huge downturn,” said Patnaik. “There is a self-censorship by donor institutions which is unprecedented. Organisations which had supported the Centre or a decade withdrew support abruptly after 2014.”

He added, “Organisations that receive donations from abroad are automatically put under scrutiny.”

The BJP government has been accused of cracking down on organisations receiving foreign funds under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010, and cancelling their licences and registrations if they are seen to be critical of its policies and actions.

But this is not to suggest that it was all smooth sailing for the Centre for Equity Studies even before the change in government. Patnaik pointed out that it took the think tank three years to secure a registration from the Home Ministry to receive foreign funding under the Congress-led government. It was once turned down on the charge that it was “involved in political action” based on an annual report which said it was undertaking political education of youth to promote peace and communal harmony.

However, today, along with the squeeze on funds, the think tank’s role in framing policy has also shrunk, with the BJP government “ignoring civil society” altogether, the activists said. “It would have been good if the government had taken the India Exclusion Reports seriously but they did not,” said board member Dipa Sinha.

Mander is not only any government committees now. However, he was invited by the National Human Rights Commission this month to be a special monitor for communal violence and minority rights.

After the tax notices, articles on old controversies involving the Centre for Equity Studies have also surfaced. These include reports of an employee at one of its rehabilitation centres for street children being the wife of a wanted Maoist. Her identity was reportedly discovered after she had left the facility. Another report pertained to a sexual harassment case in one of the shelters run by the organisation.

On Sunday, Mander held a meeting with the Centre’s 100-odd employees and half a dozen board members. He said “everyone was anxious”. He added, “I told them I was sorry for putting them at risk and that I will take care of their future if anything happens.”

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