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Home > 2021 > Book Review: Kobad Gandhy’s Prison Memoir | Gabriele Dietrich

Mainstream, VOL LIX No 35, New Delhi, August 14, 2021

Book Review: Kobad Gandhy’s Prison Memoir | Gabriele Dietrich

Friday 13 August 2021, by Gabriele Dietrich


reviewed by Gabriele Dietrich


A Prison Memoir

Kobad Gandhy

Roli Books

(Address: Roli Books Pvt Ltd, M-75,
Greater Kailash II, Market,
New Delhi - 110048)


316 pages

ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 8194969166

ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-8194969167

Available in Hardcover and in Kindle editions

Available here

This is indeed a story of passion, commitment, and a search for justice and freedom. It is the narrative of the building up of engagement and empathy, which illuminates the search for justice and freedom, a search which has led the author into jail for a decade starting from September 2009, with an accumulation of cases, none of which has so far proven him guilty, while some are still pending. The underlying problem is that Gandhy wants Justice and Freedom not just for himself, but for the poor and oppressed in the first place, and he explains how this has led him into conflict with laws, which criminalise any serious attempt of social transformation.

It is the first part of the book, which gives the reader an understanding of how a person of a privileged background was transformed into a revolutionary, with a sincere desire to immerse himself into the life-world of Dalits, Adivasis, and unorganised workers, leaving his privileged moorings behind, though at the same time explaining his choices to his immediate family and to some of his former classmates at Doon School.

He was not alone in his search. The book is also an ode to his dearly beloved wife and comrade Anuradha Ghandy, nee Shanbag, who started off as a student activist at Elphinstone College and later worked at Nagpur University as a Lecturer in Sociology but became a leader interacting with movements of Dalits and Adivasis, which led to the resignation from her profession. She later worked full-time with Adivasi women in Bastar, learning Gondi and encouraging women’s leadership in popular movements for forest rights. This led to a severe infection with malaria falciparia, which combined with an underlying autoimmunity syndrome and systemic sclerosis, resulting in her sudden premature death at the age of fifty-four. She was deeply mourned and missed by the women she worked with and by a wider community of activists. When Anuradha unexpectedly died a sudden death in a hospital in Mumbai, renowned journalist Jyothi Punyani wrote with great appreciation for her commitment to the underprivileged in Times of India.

Not only that, there was an annual memorial lecture for her organised by friends in Mumbai close to EPW, in which distinguished speakers honoured her work and research, and released a posthumous book, edited by Shoma Sen and Anand Theltumbde, who are nowadays kept in jail as so-called “urban Naxals “ in the Bhima Koregaon case, while the evidence of what really happened in that place is systematically suppressed. The lectures were held by acclaimed activist intellectuals like Arundhati Roy, Dalit poet-activist Meena Kandasamy, Angela Davis, and luminaries like Samir Amin, Jan Myrdal, and former top Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai from Nepal, whose party was democratically elected to lead the Government of Nepal.

Kobad Ghandy emphasises that Anuradha was not only an acknowledged leader and intellectual, but a much loved straightforward, deeply committed personality free from ego problems, but instead full of encouragement and love, thus widely loved in return.

The author describes the whole history of his politicisation, which was not sung at his cradle, as he grew up in a very well to do family, studied at Doon school, did a degree in Chemistry from St. Xavier’s in Bombay, and was sent by his family to England to study for a career as a Chartered Accountant in a big company. He describes his politicisation as a response to the racism he encountered in the UK. Since this training happened from 1968 onwards, he encountered an atmosphere of leftist politicisation, while at the same time experiencing the inbuilt racism of British society. This led him to Leftist political circles, the activities of which brought him in collision with the police,- a situation quite normal in many European countries at the time. As he ventilated his anti-colonial feelings in front of the judge, he received a sentence of two months in Brixton prison.

But it is evident that his transformation started from his own experience of being discriminated by very “ordinary” expressions of racism, which were inherent in the colonial project and which lived on in British daily life and in the literature of the Raj, represented by authors like Rudyard Kipling, Malthus and Macaulay. As Ghandy also studied economic history, he knew that in the first century C.E. India accounted for 33% of the world’s GDP, while the UK, France and Germany together constituted a mere three percent of World GDP. Even in 1700, on the verge of British rule, India produced 25% of the world GDP, while Britain was just over two percent.”By the time the British left in 1947, India was reduced to barely three percent of world GDP, while a small country like Britain had increased to ten percent. This decline pertained not just to quantity. India had great skills not only in producing textiles, but was also the greatest ship building nation and had great commerce and trade by land and sea and was famous for metal works, iron steel, silver and gold, spectacular architecture, engineering and pieces of art. Trade by land and sea extended to all known civilised countries.

The author laments the destruction of the textile industry, shipbuilding, and wide-scale of manufacturing and trade. He also analyses the devastating effects of the tax system, giving graphic examples and refers to Paul Baran’s estimate that eighty percent of India’s GNP went to Britain each year, which led to Dadabai Naoroji’s famous drain theory, which lit the fire of the Freedom struggle.

India was also forced to provide soldiers for British wars and help to expand the Empire, including the recruitment of Indian soldiers in the two World Wars. Over one million of Indian soldiers participated in WW I, and over one lakh were killed. Apart from this, soldiers contracted the Spanish flu and imported it to India, where twelve million Indians died of it. In the second WW, while two million Indians participated in the British war effort 1.5 Lakhs of Indians lost their lives (p.11)

The summary of colonial atrocities is extensive and gruesome (pp6-12)and explains the anger, which Ghandy experienced in this period of study to understand racism. This drove him towards the rise of communism in the second half of the sixties, which readers of his own age will vividly recall, but which is clearly difficult to imagine today by the young generation.It was the time of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, in which the Little Red Book with Chairman Mao quotes spread like wildfire in students movements, and the Naxalbsri uprising came in this context.Western writers like Edgar Snow, William Hinton, Dr. Norman Bethune and others gave riveting accounts of social transformation in revolutionary China. So Leftist meetings during that time had a strong Maoist attendance, while Trotskyistes also were represented in a large contingent and and also were present in the British Labour party, which would have helped the critique of Stalinism. However, the author does not go into the ideological details and differences. His two worlds, the study of chartered accountancy with the business elite, and his “extracurricular activities” with working-class Leftists had no commonalities and remained unconnected.

Gandhy became a convinced Marxist, reading R.P. Dutt’s India Today, a history of the Freedom Struggle by the former General Secretary of the British Communist Party. After a brief time of interest in Gandhism, the author became inclined towards Maoism. He assimilated the culture of intolerance for other political options, which later created difficulties in his practical work.

Despite his leftist involvement, Kobad Ghandy stuck to his studies and passed his first examen in 1970, in the first attempt and with high marks. To enhance his meagre stipend, he worked in a department store on weekends. Apart from his regular studies, he also followed discussions and continued his studies of Marxism and Indian History. He started to write to his father about his new experiences and convictions, and despite their differences of inclination, elicited a certain amount of understanding for his choices in life. The first arrest in his life happened because of a street corner meeting in a working-class area, which was not tolerated because free speech is only accepted in Hyde Park. He serveed his prison sentence in Brixton for two months. After that, he sat for his second examen and then resigned from his firm and left the country, flying to Bombay.

The author takes great care to make his turn to a revolutionary cause understood. Apart from racism and colonial loot,he strived to understand why colonialism arose in the first place and why even after independence the economy could not recover, leave alone overcome the rift between poverty and wealth. The answer, of course lay in the nature of capitalism and imperialism, as understood in Marxist analysis. The author points out that during the 2008 financial crisis, many people were re-reading Marx. He demonstrates the rising inequality with the rampant rise of concentration of wealth in the hands of a few billionaires(p.18) In 2012, 388 billionaires, mostly in the US, owned as much as the bottom 50 % of the world population. The ratio, measured every two years, narrowed to 159, to 80, to eight billionaires, and in 2019 it was just five billionaires, who owned as much as the four billion poorest people worldwide. During the late sixties, it felt as if the revolution was unavoidable. But by 2009, being accused of being a Naxalite meant to be counted as being part of the single biggest threat to our country, as P.M. Manmohan Singh had characterised the Naxal danger. Being portrayed as one of the crucial leaders of the party amounted to disaster. But all this was only based on “confessional statements” in police custody, which had never be signed and could even be in a language the accused did not know. Ghandy says: ”No wonder I was acquitted everywhere of all Maoist charges, yet faced over ten years of incarceration. Such is the fate of all those sincerely working for the oppressed in the country.” (p.20) Despite having been released on 16th October 2019, he is still under the weight of ten pending cases’ many consciously being left so.

Writing in such a bleak situation connects the author with other revolutionaries like Che, Bhagat Singh and Subhas Chandra Bose.

He reflects on “the road not taken” and tries to recall his time at Doon school, which he can hardly remember and has taken help from some of his old school friends to recall. Interestingly, not only his own family, but also his old friends from Doon school rallied around to support him after his arrest, obviously because they respected his zeal to create a just society, free from exploitation and oppression. This acceptance by the family dated back to his return from the UK, when he had decided to choose another route.

At that time, he started social work in Maya Nagar, about one kilometer away from the family home at Worli seaface. He related to local youth, who organised against the local slum lord and for free water. They aimed at reeorganisation of space and proper drainage system. When Ghandy came back to the place after ten years in jails, he found a highrise building, in which one hundred eighty families had been resettled on 225 sqf. Each, a relative improvement. This was possible because of a consistently working slum dwellers committee, and the whole process took place from the early seventies up to 2020, while slums without consistent organisation remained in squalor.

Kobad Ghandy came across a venture called Alternative University in a classroom at Ruia College and joined PROYOM (Progressive Youth Movement) linked to the Janashakti Movement of the Naxalites, run by two professors, Devnathan and Vasanthi. College youth attended the classes, among them also Anuradha Shanbhag, who was then a student leader at Elphinstone College. Alternative University gave a Marxist approach to the subjects taught in the college curriculum. As the leaders were professors themselves, they were able to give a Marxist perspective to the subjects.

Jyoti Punvani, who was part of this group, wrote about her experiences in Times of India after Kobad Ghandy’s arrest in 2009. It appears quite clear that the forming of Marxist groups was a phenomenon all over the world in the late sixties.

The chapter on introduction to radical politics in Mumbai shows how the whole period of the seventies was defined by a whole series of liberation movements which changed the whole atmosphere of not only political life, but the whole social fabric. The Dalit Panthers movement, inspired by the Black Panthers Movement in the US, led to a blossoming of Dalit literature in the form of magazines and revolutionary writers, often in crude language, also became activists, launching marches and struggles, which led to clashes with the policr and the Shiv Sena. Struggle was raised on the cultural front with beef-eating festivals and posters of Dr. Ambedkar and The Shiv Sena raised a different identity politics against “Madrassis” (South Indians). As Mayanagar, the slum where Ghandy worked, was mostly inhabited by Mahars, the Dalit question became very central. Besides, the BDD Chawls in Worli became a hotspot of conflicts between Maratha police and chawls and Dalit youth (p.34). Sessions on political perspective had to go beyond the class analysis and had to accommodate Ambedkar, whose collected works were published by the government over many years. Ghandy found resistance from Marxist Janshakti forces when he started to publish on the need to integrate Ambedkar into the Leftist perspective.

This was at that time resisted by all Marxist forces across the board, including the Naxalites. At that time, the struggle had been crushed and liquidated in Andhra Pradesh and most leaders had been killed. One Ravi, who had escaped the carnage, earned a living by painting emptied eggshells. Several people worked in different fields, like unions, youth, students, slums. This group worked in different fields and worked on their political analysis of the situation and was i close contact with PROYOM members. The whole contact network developed from the tme before the Emergency, after Ghandy had returned from London.

As Kobad Ghandy had already acquired knowledge of Marxist thought in London, he helped students to acquire a basic knowledge of economics, politics and philosophy of Marx. Many found this difficult, but were inspired by Kobi’s zeal to serve the people and thus stuck on. The aim was to change the lives of those at the very bottom. The situation got aggravated by the Emergency 1973-74. The Emergency itself was declared in suppression of ongoing unrest and uprisings, like the mutiny of 20 000 PAC (Provincial Armed Constabulary) in Lucknow, who joined the student protesters they were sent to suppress. The revolt was later crushed and led to the arrest of 600 PAC constables and the death of thirteen soldiers and twenty-five policemen in armed clashes (p.39)

There were numerous strikes in 1973/74, like the jute industry (42 days); junior doctors (three months), lockouts by workers of LIC and Indian Airlines Corporation. Huge movements were taking place in Gujarat and Bihar, attacks on ration shops by students and working-class protesters.

By early February 1974, over a hundred people had been killed, while three thousand had been injured and eight thousand arrested. The Chief Minister of Gujarat had to resign. The huge railway strike from 8th May to 27th May took place, with 17 lakhs participation. Thousands were arrested and dismissed from their jobs. It was the largest recorded industrial action in the world. The biggest uprising was triggered in Bihar, by a students’ protest. It started with a protest against high fees and the cost of books and went on against inflation and unemployment. The killing of three and then five students triggered attacks on the residence of the former education minister Ramanda Singh. Posh hotels, warehouses, railway wagons with food were looted. The narrative goes over more than five pages up to the post Emergency times of the textile strike in 1982.

It is in this context that Ghandy places the narrative of his relationship with Anuradha Shanbag, who was a students leader in Elphinstone College from the early seventies. This was after the Bangla Desh war, and Naxalism had just come to Bombay, and Anuradha was majoring in Sociology and pasted handmade posters, enticing students to get engaged. She did not aspire for “positions”, either in her political or professional life. But she took on every task with great commitment. The chapter on Family Matters explains the different family backgrounds,- the Bombay Parsi family background and the communist parents of Anuradha from Coorg. It is striking that both families were fully supportive of the grassroots work with the underprivileged. When Kobad and Anuradha got married, they decided, in conformity with many leftist cadres of the time. Not to have children, in order to be able to dedicate their life fully to the cause. Though the Shanbags offered to look after children, this offer was not accepted, as the political work was given priority. They got married after the Emergency and also went on with work in the Committee for promotion of Democratic Rights (CPDR) in Maharashtra. They decided to move to Nagpur in 1982, to settle in the biggest Dalit basti, Indora, from where Anuradha had to reach the university, to follow her teaching profession, while also involved in grassroots work. The latter work gained the upper hand, and she had to resign from her job, as she had become a well-known public speaker.

Kobad shared in housework, wrote for print media and organised people in the country side. They primatily focused on work with Dalits and Anuradha did trade union work with construction workers, household workers and power loom workers. Later, she was also involved with coal mine workers in Chandrapur, while Kobad organised beedi workers in rural areas. Anuradha, while working with Dalits, also went deeply into Ambedkar’s writings and wrote about them. This is a rare persuit among leftist circles, who normally had a tendency to subsume caste under class analysis.

The concluding part of the first part of the book has the heading “The Dalit Struggles”, but it also comprises of involvement with Adivasis. It starts with the struggle for lifting the ban on publishing Ambedkar’s “Riddles of Hinduism”, the renaming of Marathwada University as Ambedkar University (from the early seventies up to 1994), the Ramnagar struggle against garlanding of Amdedkar’s statue with chapals [slippers] on 11th July 1997, during which ten people were killed in police firing, and twenty-six were seriously injured. Finally, there were the Khairlanji murders, in which a whole Dalit family, the Bhotmange, was mercilessly lynched by the upper castes in October 2006.
All these shocking incidents led to fact-finding missions and widespread protest, as well as burning of busses and clashes with the police, which left some people dead and many injured.

The Dalit uprisings had a wide resonance in Maharashtra and also spread in U.P. and Gujarat. However, the communist organisations were reluctant to involve. Both, Kobad and Anuradha Ghandy made special efforts to write a Marxist analysis of these struggles and published these articles in Frontier from Calcutta and in Marathi in Satyashodakah Marxvad, brought out from Dhule by Sharad Patel since the late sixties. The most important article Anuradha wrote and published in the collection Scripting the Change, had nearly hundred pages and still needs to be absorbed by academicians as well as Marxist and Dalit activists. It traces the rise and consolidation of caste as well as the anti-caste movements, in the Bhakti tradition as well as the anti-caste movements, in the Bhakti tradition and the secular movements of Phule, Ambedkar, Periyar.It dismantles the notion that caste is only part of the “superstructure”. It has an agenda for the annihilation of caste. There is an agenda against caste notions even after the revolution. This important insight has not been absorbed by many Marxists.

The second part of the book deals with “A Decade Long Journey through Indian Jails”, especially Tihar. It gives insight into human relationships, strengths and weaknesses, political insights, and alliances, and finally raises the question of the relevance of a Leftist position working towards radical transformation. Interestingly, the book is quite devoid of leftist conceptualisations, but continuously reflects on the sources of compassion, solidarity, and hope, the fostering of “good values”.

The longest period of imprisonment was spent in Tihar (six and a half years) and shorter periods in Patiala (Punjab) and Hazaribagh (Jharkhand), Hyderabad, and Vishak (Telangana), and Surat (Gujarat). As the arrest took place in Delhi in September 2oo9, Gandhy was incarcerated in Tihar, but was sent to the other jails in connection with different cases. The accusation was that he supposedly was a member of the banned CPI-ML. Not only that, he was assumed to be a major leader. He became an undertrial in seven jails in five states across the country.

The main problem arose from the fact that the basic concept, a leftover from colonial times, stems from the fact that true to the maximes of the colonial state, jails are a means to make inmates miserable, even if they have not been found guilty. The jail itself is the punishment for alleged crimes, which people may or may not have committed. While progressive jurists like Justice Krishna Iyer have taken great pains to remind the judicial system of the principle of assuming innocence unless proven guilty, the practice is clearly the opposite. While undertrials are technically under the jurisdiction of the judge, in practice, they are entirely in the clutches of the prison authorities, which can use their every request or need in order to put them down. We have seen this recently in the fake case foisted on political activists in the context of the incidents in Bhima Koregaon in January 2018 and the journey of Father Stan Swamy through the Mumbai prison system, which ended in his death. This was truly a powerful illustration of how the system works, though other jails are classified as “better” compared with Tihar. Under laws like the UAPA and Sedition, being a dissenter itself is a crime.

Despite these very adverse conditions, Ghandy was able to get a table and a chair in his cell and was able to use the library, though he was denied participation in Indira Gandhi Open University (IGNOU) courses, because he was classified as “Naxalite”, but he focussed on reading and writing. There were many restrictions and corrupt practices. There was a constant tightening of the rules in Tihar, but never relaxation of any rule. Of course, to get around the rules, more corruption was developing and thus, the corrupted staff was prospering. This was aggravated in High-Security Ward (HSW). But big criminals could call their lawyers every day and receive visits. The restrictions were continuously aggravated for ordinary prisoners.HRW prisoners faced more restrictions and were shifted routinely from one ward to another every three months. “In other words, such transfer amounted to continuous punishment for every HRW prisoner, as a result, those who did wrong were no longer afraid, as anyhow the transfer would happen for all HRW inmates. In effect, this system, therefore, encouraged wrongdoing”(p116)

All these transfers were all the more difficult, because of advanced age and fragile health. But the underlying problem was the continuous process of taking away whatever meagre rights there were for the prisoners.Reading this, one wonders how there can be no mechanisms to control this arbitrariness. Countries with prison systems aiming at rehabilitation (like Norway, for example), have a very high rate of rehabilitation, while places like Tihar not only are based on vengefulness and humiliation, but the clear aim is to also to subjugate political dissent. At the same time, criminals find ways of running their life outside by bribing the staff.

In this situation, political prisoners have to find ways of preserving their sanity by trying to relate to the bits of nature they have access to and strengthening each other’s resilience. The example of Afsal Guru with his white thermos bottle brewing and sharing tea and explaining the tenets of Islam, is a moving example, showing the absurdity of the death penalty in stark relief.

The stints in jails of Hyderabad, Patiala and Visakh, Jharkhand and Surat, were more bearable than Tihar, but obviously, all of these institutions need a revamp of their systems. Interactions with “Naxalite” prisoners indicate some political discussions, but also expose some political malpractices on the ground, which would have hampered the growth of any movement. The most reliable support structure in jail is clearly the family of the prisoners and very dedicated legal aid, which Ghandy thankfully enjoyed and for which he is deeply grateful. The summary of cases in Appendix II reveals in detail the absurd functioning of the criminal justice system and of the police, , causing much suffering while being unable to prove guilt.

The final reflections of the book are based on Ghandy’s earlier writings in Mainstream on economic issues, democracy and freedom and on genuine nationalism and problems of corruption. His main emphasis is on the value system lived by his wife Anuradha, whom he sees as an exemplary social activist throughout, based on her naturalness, compassion, commitment, and honesty. There is a strong affirmation of the need to dislodge capitalism and assertion of the relevance of trying to build an alternative of democratic socialism, preferably by dedicated social work. There is no reliance on political parties in this process. Marxist or Maoist ideology and conceptualisations are absent, which makes the narrative very readable. There is an emphasis on “good values” in ancient popular literature (like Panchatantra). The voluntary choice among Naxalites not to have children appears a bit inconsistent with this, because clearly, the total transformation cannot be achieved in one single generation.

In the accelerating ecological crisis, it will be imperative to create a viable alternative economic, political and social system with great speed. While these writings based on the years of jail and dedicated social work on the ground are brave and inspiring, a lot of thinking and action needs to go into building the future in broad alliances of people’s movements which are dedicated to overcome capitalism and build a liveable future, not only free from caste, class, and patriarchy but also an ecological, democratic, participatory economic and political system, which allows people to imbibe and live the “naturalness”, which Anuradha incarnated and practiced. Freedom from greed, fear, and jealousy are indeed precious qualities, which are badly needed.

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