Kobad Ghandy revisits years in jail
Ten years in jail could either cripple one’s mind and body, or remove its clutter and give one unique insights into life behind and outside the bars. Kobad Ghandy, the 74year old activist who spent a decade in seven jails of six states, experienced the latter. Londoneducated Ghandy, from a wealthy family in Mumbai, is a living relic of an era of intellectual churning and youth angst that swept India from the late 60s.
Several courts have acquitted him on charges of being a member of the banned CPI(Maoist). In 2016, a Delhi court acquitted him of terrorism charges but held him guilty of cheating and forgery for using fake identities. He was released in 2019, and lives with his sister in Mumbai still attending court hearings in several states and coping with multiple ailments.
In an interview over email about his recent book Fractured Freedom: A Prison Memoir, Ghandy spoke about his evolved views on socialism, his late wife and activist Anuradha’s critique of communism and caste, and his time in jails. Academic and fellow activist Anuradha died in a Mumbai hospital in 2008 of complications caused by falciparum malaria. Also suspected of being a Naxalite, she was wanted by police at the time of her death.
Q. Could you please explain the nature of your and Anuradha’s activism in the years preceding your arrest? Are there any misgivings you have with electoral democracy and what is your view on how these problems can be resolved?
Ghandy: In Maharashtra, Anu and I mostly lived and worked amongst Dalits. We also did a lot of trade union work amongst workers. In the 1970s when we were in Mumbai, we worked in the Dalit bastis and we were part of the Dalit Panther movement. Also, amongst the unorganised workers. After the Emergency we initiated the formation of the CPDR and the civil liberties movement in Maharashtra by the formation of the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR). In 1982, we shifted to Nagpur and after a couple of years settling in, moved to the biggest Dalit basti in Maharashtra, Indora. In Nagpur, while Anu taught sociology to postgraduate students in the university we also worked extensively amongst the working class and Dalits of Vidarbha. Anu became a mass leader much in demand to address public meetings all over the region.
Taking up the caste/Dalit question was not acceptable to the Marxist/Naxalite circles which saw it as a diversion from the ‘class’ struggle. Right from the time of the Panther movement in 1993, we wrote article after article that it is incumbent for Marxists and revolutionaries to take up the caste question which is a specificity of the Indian situation. But initially there was much resistance. We wrote internally within the group and also our articles were printed in English (like in Frontier) and Marathi (like Satyashodak Marxsvad). Finally, it was Anu’s magnus opus over 100page analysis which was printed posthumously in the book Scripting the Change which has given the most extensive analysis of the caste/Dalit issue from a Marxist/revolutionary point of view. The important points are: (a) no democratisation of the socioeconomic system is possible in India without the annihilation of the caste system, which is intrinsically undemocratic and hierarchical. (b) there are probably three reasons why the Marxists in India of all hues (including the Naxals) did not give sufficient attention to the caste/Dalit question though all maintain the stage of revolution in India is democratic: (i) the Indian Marxists have tended to be very dogmatic taking mechanically from the Soviet of Chinese experiences (ii) The leadership came mostly from the uppercastes, which in itself was not a problem as generally Marxist leaders anywhere are mostly from intellectual background; but the problem lay in that the subtle impact of their subconscious mind, programmed chiefly in childhood, were not able to change radically by the mere change in ideology. This obviously reflected in subtle forms of caste, patriarchal and other such feelings; and (iii) the practical problem; that the bulk of the cadres and masses under their influence would be from OBC or higher caste with their biases; so it would be convenient to brush the caste issue under the carpet while mobilising them on economic issues and for votes.
Q: Which was the worst prison you had to live in, and why? Is there any prison that you have fond memories of or which was better than the rest?
Ghandy: The worst prison was Tihar where in fact I spent the longest time as there the legal process too was the worst — the single case dragged on for nearly 7 years in a fasttrack court even though I had very fair judges and an excellent team of top lawyers!!! For details you could see in the book: in the living conditions and the regular transfers; the mulaqaat (visitation) system which was demeaning and tiring for any visitor and the transport system (to court and hospital) where I was de facto locked within a cage in the police van with three levels of gates all locked from the outside in spite of twenty AK47 wielding cops. All other jails had none of this. Though in Surat and Patiala, I was there for barely a month the best was Hyderabad and Visakhapatnam which were more like hostels where Naxalites are given the status of political prisoner.
(His book mentions a report of his failing health in this paper that led to his transfer from Tenughat SubDivisional Jail to Loknayak Jaiprakash Narayan Central Jail, Hazaribagh, where access to health care was easier.)
Q: Who were the most interesting people you met in prison? Did you and them have any impact on each other's political views? How did your worldview evolve during your incarceration?
Ghandy: The most interesting was (Parliament attack convict, executed in 2013) Afzal Guru as he was wellread and introduced me to subjects that I knew little about like Rumi, Islam etc. Also there was Sudheendra Kulkarni (a former aide to PM Vajpayee), but he was there very briefly. Besides these, there were the dons of North India in Tihar and Jharkhand jails who were interesting, the aides (Narayan) Ganju and (Popular Liberation Front of India guerrilla Bajiram) Mahto (who was killed in a gun battle with police in 2019) in Jharkhand (Hazaribagh) jail and some tribal inmates who gave me a picture of the state and its long history of tribal revolts; and there was the alleged tribal leader (Chadda Bhushanam of the CPI(Maoist)) in Visakhapatnam jail from that area who gave me a picture of the Odisha movement.
Q. The rise of Hindutva nationalism has also led to the unity of hitherto disparate political dispensations, like the alliances of Congress with communist parties including the CPIMLLiberation? As a Marxian economist how do you view this new found unity, and what advice would you have, if any, for revolutionary (ML) school of communism in India?
Ghandy: Whichever party is in power they are following the neoliberal agenda in their economic policies, basically dictated by the International Monetary Fund, World Economic Forum, and the US ‘thinktanks’. It is not a coincidence that the bulk of our financial advisors and think tanks are linked to US universities. As I mention in my book these polices are highly antinational and lead to a huge drain of the wealth of our country to the West. Over and above this, all top corporates, politicians, bureaucrats, etc. transfer both legally and illegally massive amount of wealth to tax havens abroad. (Vijay) Mallya, Nirav Modi, arms dealers in the list are only the tip of the iceberg. That is why only a genuine swadeshi policy (not a fake one) which prevents this massive drain (if calculated it may be more than in British times) there is no question of the development of our country. Add to that the loot of the crony capitalists of the Adani, Ambani types, real estate mafia, financial bloodsuckers, not to mention the gigantic NPAs of the banks - how can our country develop? Today it is not the question of the rich vs the poor but the question of a handful of top corporates/financial blood-suckers and their huge retinue of hangers-on (in politics, bureaucracy, police, etc) versus the rest of the Indian people. We need a Bajaj-type entrepreneurship not the crony capitalist types nor those surviving off fraud, govt. doles/gifts and foreign funds. On a one-acre farm a family of five can comfortably survive then why are the bulk of our peasants so deep in debt and starving and committing suicide?
Q. In your book, you have mentioned that, “The goalposts have to be changed from fighting inequality to happiness for all.” Can you explain this? Is this your rejection of the basic tenets of Marxism-Leninism?
Ghandy: I have clarified that giving the necessities of life is the starting point to happiness. But what I am maintaining is that it cannot be restricted to a mere economic demand and has to go beyond. In fact, what I mention is the essence of Marx’s utopia, which I have quoted. I have clearly shown in the book that capitalism have only brought horrors for the people (worse are to come) while a form of socialism is the only answer. If one seizes the wealth of the 3,300 billionaires of the world, for example, and also that of the illegal wealth in tax haven one can veritably build a paradise on earth rather witness the destruction of millions and wrecking of nature. The entire third section of the book is devoted to a vision of the future drawing lessons from my half century of activism. I ask the question as to why when I came to communism in the late -1960s half the world was moving in that direction and just in my life time when the situation is much worse no such alternative exists? To answer that question, I say that into the project for radical change we must incorporate threes aspects: happiness, freedom and democracy and a new value system based on the Anuradha model of simplicity and naturalness.
Q. In a recent interview you mentioned the diverse nature of Maoists you observed in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. Is armed struggle towards establishing a socialist society now a lost cause?
Ghandy: I don’t know enough to speak on the issue. But whatever is the form of struggle we find the communist on the back-burner everywhere. Not only in India but also worldwide. Also, we must remember that the successful armed revolutions took place during the world wars where violence had reached unprecedented levels between sections of the ruling classes. Why even the first communist revolution – the Paris Commune – took place amidst the Franco-Prussian war. So, we have to take all experiences including Cuba, Latin America and elsewhere as well as those of Russia and China. The fact is that the capitalist existing system is already resulting in horrors for the masses; an alternative is urgently needed. Just see what the head of the World Economic Forum, (Klaus) Schwab, has written in his latest books – it is a blue-print for a 1984 and worse. His Great Reset formulation protects the billionaires, says robots will take over production and people must survive on the mercy of the governments. It seems the concept of Universal Basic Income which governments are trying to push through is part of his Great Reset formula.
Q: How has life been on the outside? Any Rip Van Winkle like experiences that you would like to share? How emotionally difficult has it been for you to reconnect with your family, the Zoroastrian community, and Mumbai—which you had been distant from for several decades?
Ghandy: It has no doubt been difficult adjusting back but I have been surprised by the type of support I have been getting from the Parsi community as also my Doon School class mates. Actually, both Anu’s and my parents fully supported our activities and Anu’s brother’s family and my sister’s family have been supportive all through the incarceration and now even after release. With no home to turn to, it is my sister and her husband in whose house I stay in Mumbai and it was my sister-in-law who showed me the ropes to settle back into society helping with getting my documentation. I have been very fortunate. Also, some old friends have been very helpful in correcting and improving this book.
Q: It must have been difficult to de-class yourself when you returned from London to do activism in India. Was it also difficult to be accepted by the people you lived and worked amongst? Any advice to those who wish to de-class themselves for political reasons?
Ghandy: It is no doubt that de-classing and living in a basti was difficult and travelling by cycle and bus in the hot Nagpur heat was not easy to adjust to, but then both of us would have found that living an ordinary middle-class life and talking of revolution a bit hypocritical. By giving our full to the movement and the poor, I have been able to more easily draw the conclusions I have in the third section. If we had participated half-heartedly one could not have authoritatively made the same comments. Of course, there is no question of now returning to grass roots work as my health would not take it given my age, 74. And after all, in all professions one retires at a particular age. Besides, I feel I have more to give by conceptualising my lengthy experiences from which, maybe, future generations can gain. As far as acceptance from the people I think if one is sincere poor people accept you for what you are. It was not difficult. Lately I went back after 40 years to the slum from which I started in Worli, Mayanagar. Even after so long the youth of that time was so warm telling the journalists that it was I who awakened them. I am just thinking that I had then just returned from London, would have hardly known any Hindi, let alone Marathi, but their warmth was very touching. As far as what the young generation needs to learn, the entire third section of the book is geared to them, to partake in the project for change with the lessons I have outlined.