Updated: March 29, 2021 7:01:11 am
Some time in 1968, a young man landed in London from Mumbai. Nothing about the man or his trajectory thus far had been remarkable. Kobad Ghandy, graduate of Doon School and Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College, son of a senior pharma executive, scion of a family that owned a bungalow in Panchgani, was in London to study chartered accountancy.
Until one day, he decided to give it all up and come back to India to join the “movement”.
It’s this unusual arc that spans Fractured Freedom, Ghandy’s just released memoir (Roli Books). It tracks his singular journey: from privilege in Mumbai and London of the 1970s, the New Left at its peak, Tariq Ali’s rallies against the Vietnam War, to his life and work in some of the poorest slums of Maharashtra with wife Anuradha, until his arrest in September 2009 on charges of being a Politburo member of the banned CPI(Maoist).
Accused of plotting to carry out terror attacks, Ghandy spent a decade in jails across the country and was released on bail from Surat jail in October 2019. Ten cases are pending against him and the Delhi Police has challenged his acquittal in a UAPA case.
Speaking to The Indian Express from Mumbai, where he has been living with his younger sister Mahrouk’s family since his release, Ghandy, 74, says the idea of a memoir was to “provide a background to the larger question of why Communism has received a setback in India and worldwide”. And to introduce the concepts of “happiness, freedom and value systems” as key to any future project for “radical change”.
For Ghandy, the discovery of what he could do in India came from the book India Today by R P Dutt, a former general secretary of the British Communist Party. This history of the Indian freedom struggle “confirmed my Marxist orientation”, he writes. “I then joined one of the Maoist circles in London.”
In May 1972, Ghandy came back to India and over the following decades, worked with his wife Anuradha to organise slum dwellers, beedi and factory workers. For 12 years, they lived in Indora, Maharashtra’s biggest Dalit basti,” a dreaded place that middle-class people were scared to go to… after dark…”
Around this time, the Dalit Panther movement was picking up and Anuradha and Ghandy, who held classes on Ambedkar and Marxism for the slum youth, confronted the question of caste and class.
Though the idea was anathema to Communist parties, which believed economic progress would eventually render caste irrelevant, the couple persisted.
“Even now, the Left doesn’t fully accept caste as part of the class struggle. Can we have any form of democratisation in India with the hierarchy, divisions, and oppression of caste?” Ghandy asks, talking about how the Left’s dogmatic approach to most issues has made them less accepting of others and, in turn, less relevant.
“The Left needs to see what’s wrong with the movement that produces these trends, so that in the future they can do a better job. But I don’t see that happening immediately,” he says.
A moving section in the book is his relationship with wife and fellow traveller Anuradha, who died at age 54 of malaria, days after she returned from the forests of Jharkhand.
It was in 1972, soon after Ghandy returned from London, that he had met her — a daughter of CPI activists, a student leader at Mumbai’s Elphinstone College, and later a lecturer of sociology at Mumbai’s Wilson College — at a session of the Progressive Youth Movement. Between the meetings and study circles and the late hours spent pasting radical posters in the textile mill areas of Lower Parel, love blossomed.
Ghandy credits Anuradha — “in whom I saw all that was good in society” — with being more “knowledgeable” and “perceptive” of the two. “In the organisation, while I attracted much animosity from those with whom I differed, not Anu… She accepted people as they were, I didn’t,” he writes.
Much later, in Tihar, where he spent seven years among friendly dons, fixers and bladebaaz (groups of blade-wielding rogue inmates), one of his earliest acquaintances was Afzal Guru.
Over cups of the improvised chai that Guru made and long evening walks in the ground adjoining the “phansi kothi”, where Afzal was eventually hanged in 2013, the two talked Kashmir, Islam, and Sufism, to which Guru subscribed.
Now, after over four decades of activism and another spent in seven jails across five states, as Ghandy reflects on what has been a “fulfilling life”, does he ever look back at those years with regret?
“It’s been an experience — both positive and negative. Because I was distanced from the movement for the time I was in jail, I was able to reflect on where we went wrong and what we should do. It was a hard life, no doubt, but a fruitful one.”
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