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Home > 2021 > Excerpts from Fractured Freedom: A Prison Memoir | Kobad Ghandy

Mainstream, VOL LIX No 19, New Delhi, April 24, 2021

Excerpts from Fractured Freedom: A Prison Memoir | Kobad Ghandy

Friday 23 April 2021

Book cover - Fractured Freedom: A Prison Memoir | Kobad Ghandy

Publisher: Roli Books (Roli Books Pvt Ltd, M-75, Greater Kailash II, Market, New Delhi - 110048) | First edition (16 March 2021) | Language: English | Hardcover: 316 pages | ISBN-10: 8194969166 | ISBN-13: 978-8194969167 | Available here



This book is dedicated to my late wife Anuradha, fondly called Anu, in whom I saw all that was good in society. Her commitment to truth and justice and her idealism could dispel the darkness of a benighted world. anu’s courage of conviction, simplicity, straightforwardness, her intelligence and honesty, made her the ideal social activist.

Section I

It was April 1972 and the third and final day of my court hearing at a London courthouse. i was finally asked by the honourable judge if I had anything to say in my defence:

Your honour, we were holding a corner meeting a year back, in this working-class locality, against racism. As i was speaking, we were suddenly attacked by white racist skinheads. the Bobbies (police) present, instead of restraining them, arrested three of us. i, being the only non-white amongst the three, was segregated by the police and soundly thrashed in the lock-up amidst racist abuse. Your honour, the British rulers (I have nothing against the ordinary British people) robbed and looted our country for over two centuries as a result of which millions of my countrymen perished. except for a handful of collaborators, we were treated like dogs. A rich country that contributed 25 per cent of the world’s yearly income before the entry of the British, was reduced to penury — a mere 3 percent at the time the British left. Your honour, the colonial era is long since over but imperial colonial attitudes continue in the form of racism. But, in this post-colonial age, we will no longer tolerate this false sense of superiority. We will stand erect as self-respecting citizens, proud of our Indian origins. Your honour, we have been wrongly framed. the real culprits are the British rulers who whip up such crude hatred to perpetuate their neo-colonial order and ideas. it is they who should be put on trial. that is all I have to say.’

Barely had I sat down when the judge, whose face had long- since turned red with anger, shouted, ‘Lock this man up, he is dangerous! I will pronounce the verdict tomorrow.’ I was led off to Brixton prison.

Of course, their racist project, I discovered, through my studies, was intrinsically linked to the devastation they wrecked on what was then the richest country in the world.......... After realizing the wealth India earlier possessed, I was shocked on reading the level of the devastation the British wrecked on our country in their two centuries of rule.

It was after getting to know all these facts that I could understand the root cause for the racism we faced and its interconnection with the destruction of my country and its people. With this knowledge my anger towards the British rulers increased manifold and was the main reason to change my orientation from doing a CA and joining some big corporate to serving the oppressed of our country.

The existing international system is becoming more and more unjust and also unsustainable, requiring a major alternative as after the 2008 economic crisis, in 2010, just 388 billionaires — The existing international system is becoming more and more unjust and also unsustainable, requiring a major alternative. to take just one example, the growing level of inequality worldwide: after the 2008 economic crisis, in 2010, just 388 billionaires — the majority in the US — had as much wealth as the bottom 50 per cent of the world population. majority in the US — had as much wealth as the bottom 50 per cent of the world population....... by 2016 it was further down to 8 billionaires and in 2019 it was just 5 billionaires. my impression, it was the Dalit Panther movement, a section of which had connections with the left, which, albeit faded out soon, and its leaders co-opted, changed the face of the Dalit movement in India, putting the Dalit/ caste question firmly on the political/social agenda, which no one could then ignore, including the communists/Naxalites.

Anu was, in fact, the epitome of truth. Pretences, hypocrisy, deceit, cunning, manipulativeness were totally inconceivable to her. she would frankly speak what she thought, believed, felt. there was no question of putting on an act, playing games etc. that was why she was normally at ease and put others at ease. she was an extremely principled person. it is in an unjust system or environment that truth and Principles are the first to be sacrificed at the altar of power.

Anu, with her straightforwardness and frankness, was an example of how one can move towards freedom. Most of us bind ourselves in thousands of complexities, always playing to the gallery, never being ourselves, covering up our flaws, etc. — in short, we live life deeply alienated from ourselves. rather than being free, we become prisoners of our situation. such a person will only fuel an atmosphere of lack of freedom in any organization or surrounding. Anu, on the other hand, had the least complexities, and her innate naturalness resulted in a relaxed atmosphere for those around her (people need not be on guard), where everyone could be themselves. Anu generally brought a fresh breeze of freedom wherever she went.

Anu’s naturalness remained with her till the very end. her every emotion, feeling, desire was reflected like a mirror. When hurt she would easily cry, when angry her face would get flushed, and, of course, when cheerful and happy her eyes would dance around like a bird.

Through the two decades of our stay in Nagpur, Maharashtra was shaken into awareness by four major Dalit movements (after the Dalit Panthers of 1973—74); indora, where we began living, was a major centre of these movements. there was first the movement, in the mid-1970s before we went to Nagpur, for the removal of the ban by the then Maharashtra government on Ambedkar’s book, Riddles in Hinduism, which I had categorized then as India’s Voltaire-type analysis of Hindu religion. As a result of this movement, the ban was finally lifted........ then there was the massive movement for the re-naming of Marathwada university as Ambedkar university...... the other movement to shake Maharashtra was the ramabai Nagar killings. On 11 July 1997, a statue of Ambedkar in front of ramabai Ambedkar Nagar — a predominantly Dalit urban colony in the city of Mumbai — was found to have had a garland of sandals placed around its neck, in an act widely seen as a desecration.... Finally, there was the horrifying incident of Khairlanji village in Bhandara district where an entire Dalit family was brutally lynched by upper castes.

it continues to confound me as to why Indian communists are unable to recognize the importance of caste abolition to the democratization of Indian society, particularly as many of their earlier leaders were from Maharashtra, which has a strong social reform tradition. After all, the caste system permeates every aspect of the peoples’ lives; besides which, it is highly oppressive against untouchables; let alone racism, it is probably worse than slavery.

Yet the communists have negated this key issue. the reasons could be many: from a mechanical interpretation of Marxism to the Indian conditions, as also of the base-superstructure theory, to the remnants of traditional thinking among upper-caste Marxist leaders.

Whatever the reason, the Dalit issue and caste eradication in a country like India is an important, if not key aspect for the democratization of society — at both macro and micro levels.


Anu used to say those two years in Bastar were the richest in her life...... During this period, intermittent attacks of malaria, the terrible dry heat of summer, coupled with famine conditions took a toll on her health, and she lost 10 kg by the time she came back. she never made a show of her own suffering, always bearing the pain with dignity, without complaining or letting others know.

In big things and small, according to Anu, the organization would give opportunities for women to develop their individual personalities.

Section II     Jail Journey

Here I was, an undertrial, no sentence had been handed down to me, but I faced daily humiliation, worse than that of convicts, who were at least given responsibilities and could move around the jail relatively freely. here, one did not have any rights and we were all at the mercy of the staff, who could act as per their whims and fancy.

Of course, in jails, we are de facto stripped of our citizen’s rights, as even undertrials have no right to vote. One is denied the right to participate in any election without even having been proved guilty. it is another point that even if proven guilty, no one has the right to strip us of this right. Of course, the big mafia can get elected from within the jail, but the ordinary citizen — undertrial and convict — is disenfranchised. this issue is never raised by any of the parties and it is not written in any jail manual, as far as I know. in addition, conjugal rights are also not allowed for undertrials; a basic instinctive need is denied, adding to the many frustrations and humiliations in jails.

In Tihar/Delhi I would be driven in a van which had three gates, each locked from the outside, and finally deposited in a suffocating cage just behind the driver’s seat, and locked from the outside. the dons in the high-risk ward said, in summer, they never sat inside the cage, but when I requested likewise on health grounds (in peak summer I would feel faint while traveling, which was evident even to the judge, who commented on my health a number of times) they would not allow me to sit outside. These high levels of ‘security’ continued even after the Delhi court granted me interim bail on health grounds.

Afzal, though had a strong faith in Islam — he did his namaz five times a day, observed a strict Ramzan, had a strong belief in the afterlife (Jannat), opposed idol worship and dargahs, had a mistrust of Shias — was not a fundamentalist. he was a Sufi and had done a detailed study of the six volumes of Rumi in Urdu. he showed a keen interest in socialism and would often quote Iqbal who he said once wrote: communism + God = Islam.

Maqbool Bhat was hanged on 11 February 1984, while Afzal was hanged hastily on 9 February 2013 — both are buried side-by-side inside Tihar, in the ground we once walked around. While Bhat’s writings have been published, though banned, Afzal’s extensively detailed diary has not seen the light of day; probably burnt by now. in fact, none of his belongings were given to us, though we asked for them.

Several Bollywood films have been inspired by the Chambal Valley dacoits and the dons of Dhanbad, most recently the film Sonchiriya. Most of them romanticize
the lives of these ‘rebels’ which are, no doubt, quite colourful. I met quite a few of the major dons of North India in Tihar and Jharkhand jails and got an insight into their lives and the conditions that drove them in this direction. Fortunately, I was able to see them from close quarters. What I could gather was that they were part of, and also victims of, the prevailing feudal ethos in the Hindi belt where feudal authority, backed by arms, reigns supreme. Most were victims of this power equation, and then they themselves acquired feudal authority of their own, based on their gangs and fire-power.

Section III         Reflections And Relevance

On this question of relevance, the issue arose as to the question whether the communist project was relevant to solve the ills of society. it has been clear from the start that the existing system is untenable and getting more and more unjust; more and more inhuman; more and more unequal; more and more destructive of everything; with the political class becoming increasingly uncouth, vile, uncivilized and fascistic worldwide. the horrors likely for the people in the coming days are unimaginable. there is no doubt a need for an urgent change; but no alternative is visible on the horizon. Also, the hope communism gave to the world in the twentieth century no longer exists, with the main socialist states reverting back and major socialist/communist movements around the world in limbo.

I felt that no doubt the seeds (of the communist project) have to be maintained, but one has to ensure that the flowers don’t wilt and fruits don’t turn sour. For that, the seeds probably need to be nurtured with much greater care than they were in the past. Primarily, the saplings, I concluded, should be nursed:

Firstly, in an environment of freedom.

Secondly, it should be built with a new set of values, as, say, epitomized by the Anuradha-model.

Thirdly, it should have as its goal universal happiness.

I outlined that ‘freedom’ should be intrinsically interwoven with ‘good values’ and the goal of ‘happiness’. that in any project for basic change, together with the economic agenda, all three must co-exist with universal happiness being the goal. Questions of freedom and good values need to be a part of it, which I felt was best reflected in Anu. Freedom started from within herself — her naturalness and straightforwardness; it was reflected in her relations with others in respecting dissenting views, while being firm on her own; it was further seen in her intolerance of any form of injustice; it was seen in her attitude toward social institutions; and most importantly, though a leader, it was reflected in her simplicity and lack of ego.

Marx picturised the future utopia thus:

Communism is the return of man himself as a social, i.e. really human being, a complete and conscious return which assimilates all the wealth of previous development.

Communism, as a fully developed naturalism, is humanism, and, as a fully developed humanism, is naturalism. it is the DeFiNitiVe resolution of the antagonism between man and nature, and between man and man. it is the true solution of the conflict between existence and essence, between objectification and self-affirmation, between freedom and necessity, between individual and species. it is the solution of the riddle of history and knows itself to be this solution.

Questions of Happiness

to start with, the goalposts have to be changed from fighting inequality to happiness for all. in this, no doubt, a decent standard of living would have to be a starting point (but should not be an end in itself), as a hungry person cannot be happy.

then again, only if happiness is the goal, all evils like ego, domination, servility, manipulations, etc that arise in the course of organisational work and social interaction can be countered. if the organisation seeking radical change keeps ‘happiness’ as their central goal, it will get reflected in day-to-day associations, in leaders’ attitude to cadres, in approach to the masses, women, Dalits, everywhere; bringing with it a fresh breeze of freedom, democracy, and the good values.

Freedom and Democracy

Any form of domination and the restriction of freedom usurps others’ happiness and is a cause for much agony. in addition, unless it is linked to the values of love, truth and honesty, straightforwardness and compassion, happiness will remain an abstract term.
Freedom itself comes from countering individualism/ ego and allowing the individuality of each person to flower, countering alienation, resulting in social interaction with ease of mind and none of the negativity, generally associated with all relationships today, in both organisational and personal matters.

Much of the reason for this is that as the starting point for freedom is the individual, if he/she themselves are imprisoned within the knots of alienation, they cannot be free. this results in biases and subjectivity. under such circumstances, quite naturally, there is no question of promoting freedom amongst others. there can be no social, political or economic freedom if the individuals are themselves bound in chains. Greater freedom to the individual must reflect an increasing freedom in the social/political/economic domain. And greater freedom in the latter must create a conducive atmosphere for the flowering of the individuality of the person.

in addition, much of these knots of alienation from oneself get reflected in the contradiction between our subconscious thoughts, feelings, emotions, desires and our conscious behaviour..........

Factor of a New Set of Values

Finally, real freedom as also happiness must necessarily be linked to the innate goodness in man. the factor of goodness is essential as one’s individual freedom should not act to curtail or deprive others/another’s freedom.

Rumi says:

Love transformed me from a Swaggering

Slave, ass-driver and a lowly thief Into a generous, selfless being, A king, a lord, and chief.

it ends with:

Move silently on the chessboard, Your powers by Him prescribed; Destined to be happy and blissful Once your vanity and ego have Died.

Subversion by Money and Power

As already mentioned, happiness, freedom/democracy and good values continue to be subverted by money and power. And yet, money is necessary for a decent existence, at least for the present; while power is necessary not only to counter the oppressors but also to prevent anarchy. While money and power are a necessity, they are also subversive. how is this riddle to be solved?


it is clear that the present capitalist system as a whole does not provide the answers whether for humans or our environment. it is totally destructive, getting more so with each passing day. today it is the pandemic forcing isolation as never before seen in history, tomorrow it could be dreadful wars. things are bound to go from bad to worse as the system has never really been able to recover from the 2008 economic crisis and today, we are seeing levels of contraction never witnessed before.

Today, utopia seems further away for the poor in India and elsewhere. it is a dystopic world in which, at the moment, even the relatively comfortable middle class seem to find themselves.

And yet, while Apocalypse seems to be drawing near, I refuse to believe that the end is near. the seeds of goodness and hope lie embedded in humankind. someday they will blossom into flowers. experiences of the past, a history of commitment cannot be totally erased. Future generations may still work towards, create and live in that utopia whether dreamt by Thomas More or Marx or by millions of women and men whose names we’ll never know, who have lived and died in the shadows of history but who will not have lived and died in vain.

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