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I thought I'd be bumped off in a fake encounter: Kobad Gandhy
New Delhi, March 23 - It was 4 p.m. on the afternoon of September 17, 2009, when a SUV stopped at a bus stop below Bhikaji Cama Place in Delhi and half a dozen toughs pounced on him. They pushed him on the ground , dragged the then 62-year-old into the car, and sped away.
Social activist Kobad Gandhy was in fact abducted by the Andhra Pradesh IB and kept in illegal detention for three days (the IB does not have the power to arrest) at a safe house in the capital before being produced before the Special Cell of Delhi Police on September 20 after the news of his 'disappearance' reached the media.
While being in the SUV, the officers were in constant touch with their bosses on the phone and spoke in Telugu, and all he could understand was the word 'airport'. "Now, the AP Intelligence Bureau was known to fly people in helicopters to jungles in their state and bump them off. I assumed it was the end. But having faced worse with the sudden death of Anuradha (his wife) this fear was cushioned," Ghandy told IANS.
Charged with being a member of a banned outfit (CPI -Maoist) and furthering its activities under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA, a charge which ultimately didn't hold in the court, Ghandy was finally released after 10 years in different prisons as a undertrial. In his latest book, 'Fractured Freedom': A Prison memoir published by Lotus Roli, the activist not only looks back at the time spent in prison but also the ideology he has believed in for more than half a century.
An Indian communist activist and ideologue, Gandhy, hailing from a wealthy Parsi family became involved in revolutionary politics whilst a student in England in the 1970s. Attending the prestigious Doon School and later St. Xavier's College, Mumbai, he was the founding member of the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights. Going on to 'declassing' to live in a dalit slum in Nagpur along with his wife Anuradha and leading a frugal existence.
Talking about how he maintained his sanity in a place in Tihar, Gandhy remembers that the period between the 2014 -16 was a nightmare when he would be transferred from one jail to another within Tihar every three months. "This was until I went on a hunger strike and the then DG stopped it. But even after that on the pretext of cell repairs, I was shifted from my cell and put with three lumpens including that vile Nirbhaya killer. For no real reason I was roughed up physically by the jail staff and then punished by the superintendent for not 'obeying'. Worse was the uncertainty of the legal process where, for example in Delhi, a fast track court took nearly seven years with excellent judges and a top lawyer. Also I was prevented from simultaneously going to other courts in the other states with 18 cases put on me mostly in places I had never even heard about. Of course it seems the other courts, except Jharkhand were more efficient. And then after release in December 2017 I was re-arrested within three days. Seeing the legal system it was enough to break anyone -- even the most hardened person."
In fact during the entire incarceration he never thought of writing a book considering he was unsure of ever being released, "and if released at all whether I would be in a condition to write and not a cripple". "It was only in Surat jail on the last lap of my jail journey when it looked that I may finally be released and the police and jail staff were so cooperative that I thought of a jail diary and began making notes in the one month that I was there."
While the media has painted a very different picture of Ghandy, he would call himself a radical seeking a socialist transformation of the economy built on genuine swadeshi and an end to the system of crony capitalism and the neo-liberal economy. "The methods of change depend on the conditions prevailing. We have seen that the armed form has so far been successful only during the two world wars where the rulers were themselves involved in violent conflict with each other. But also we have seen how peaceful change attempts in many countries, like Chile, Indonesia, and numerous others, have been brutally crushed by the US, French, British and their local henchmen. So the issue has to be studied more and we have to observe our local and the international conditions. In fact it is the history of capitalism that has been the most violent ever, yet they talk the most of peace."
Despite the horrible conditions in Tihar, he did meet some interesting characters there, for example the dons from different states. "Well, I found them to be very interesting. They had a sort of Robin Hood type respect for naxals. People like Barjesh Singh and his right hand Tribhuvan Singh were probably the biggest dons of the country. I found Brajesh somewhat reserved but very disciplined. Sunil Rathi of the Meerut area and Titu Sharma of Jharkhand were more jovial and socially knowledgeable. The Haryana dons were more localised in their own jaat environment and the conflicts within."
Ghandy, who would have his morning tea with Afzal Guru in Tihar says the latter brought him in touch with many issues which I knew nothing about earlier, not to mention Kashmir and the progressive aspects of Islam and how the fundamentalists distort it. "Guru was a fan of Rumi and considered himself a Sufi. He had all the six volumes of Rumi in Urdu and had studied them thoroughly. He was well read and led a very disciplined life, he also introduced me to the writings of Iqbal."
Talking about the huge number of undertrials in Indian jails, which he feels is the most pernicious aspect of the Indian legal system, Ghandy says unlike India, in most other countries, one is sent to jail only after conviction. "And even though undertrials have not even been sentenced, inside the jails they enjoy an inferior status compared to the convicts. In fact in the jails the bigger the crime and conviction the higher the status. This was the worst aspect of the jail system. No one should be sent to jail unless proven guilty. But in India our jails are packed primarily with undertrials. I noticed in Jharkhand the courts would not give bail for even petty crimes and civil wrongs. Of course it am told this varies considerably from state to state where in some states bail is the norm and jail the exception."
For someone who has spent the last 50 years believing in the socialist way of life, he does feel sad that in his own lifetime, he has seen the fall of communism. However, Ghandy maintains that rather than getting disillusioned, he is trying to seek the causes of the setback worldwide and in India, and how future generations can build better and a more stable alternative. "The entire third section of the book is focussed in that direction and I am hoping to draw responses so that it can be fine-tuned in future books. Basically I maintain the capitalist system has no answers for the mass of the people while socialism all over has helped to lift the masses from acute poverty. But then they reverted or failed. This has to be studied and how to deal with the question of money and power which tends to corrupt one and all."
Adding that Indian and communists around the world need to introspect, the author believes that they are not willing to give a thought and conceptualise the reasons for the short-comings. "I have heard some say: 'What is there to review, there are always ups and downs, revolution is inevitable'. Others just go on with their routine of what they have been doing afraid to even think beyond their nose. Many who have had negative experiences find the fault in the individuals and turn bitter but not able to generalise. I may be totally wrong in my assessment but the question needs to be addressed as to why communism has faced a setback worldwide and why it is merely marking time in India ? going one step forward, two steps backward. Only if such thinking is there can we debate constructively and build better in the future."
Ask him if he still plans to work at the grassroots level, and the activist smiles that everyone retires after a particular age and so should communists as age and health conditions hit them too. "But power prevents this. Frankly, at 74, I neither have the health nor the stamina for grassroots work of any type. I plan, if I can gather the resources to survive, to do further research into the subjects touched upon in this book and produce more books. Health and conditions permitting. Even retiring is not that easy when one does not have the resources to do so."
Remembering his wife Anuradha Ghandy who died of causes related to Falciparum malaria, he says it were attributes like simplicity, straightforwardness, honesty, committment, discipline, hard work, intelligence and lack of arrogance that made her special. "The fact that she is not aroundis a great loss for me ? a warm companion and a comrade with such excellent qualities. Our joint efforts would have been equal to that of ten."
While he talks about the fact that happiness for all should be the aim, Ghandy clarifies that he is not referring to it in some esoteric way but as a key aspect in social relations. "One should not restrict the project for change merely to an economic issue ? though that may be the starting point i.e. a reasonable living condition of the masses. But the Utopia that Marx refers to and I have quoted is very much linked to happiness, freedom and well-being all linked to a new set of values."
Ask him how he looks back at his life now, and Ghandy smiled, "A very rich life with varied experiences, both positive and negative. And I feel I acted to serve the oppressed of our country to the best of my ability. Now the important thing is to draw extensive lessons."
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