Prison Diary
Book Review
*Fractured Freedom: A Prison Memoir

by Kobad Ghandy
Hardcover, Rolli Books Pvt. Ltd.,
M-75, Greater Kailash II Market
New Delhi-110048
Ph. +91(011) 40682000
pp 293 plus ix - xiv, Rs 595.00

‘Fractured Freedom’

Sankar Ray

Reading Kobad Ghandy’s prison memoir ‘Fractured Freedom’* slaps an imperative to one, accustomed to listen to or sing Rabindra Sangeet (songs of Rabindra-nath Tagore) amidst loneliness and pathos. Kobad Ghandy and his talented fiancé-turned better half Anuradha Shanbag (Anu) who died very prematurely plunged among ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ at Indora, the largest Dalit basti in Maharashtra. Indora was treated as ‘a dreaded place that the middle class people were scared to go after dark due to an impression that it was a nest of crime’ (p 68). KG mentioned this cynically (some people) ‘were shocked to find that we were living there.’ KG was born into a privileged Parsee family. That was a phase of the revolutionary couple—ahead of his protracted incarceration in at least half a dozen of jails for a little more than a decade. Prison reminiscences and excruciating agonies stretch up to 145 pages of 253 page book excluding appendices. An eye-opening ‘Summary of Cases and the Criminal Justice System mocking at the democratic order, dreamt by Babasaheb Amdedkar, Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Husrat Mohani and the like, in the appendix section is excellent. The rest is mostly a narrative of KG’s battle of learning from the Dalits and with the Dalits.

The passionate, committed and searching text surpasses many highly readable fictions and plays—a breathtaking narrative of real life , a portrait of an angry man who rebelled and fought for the lowest and most suppressed strata of socio-cultural hierarchy and penned by one who studied at Bombay’s St Mary’s School in his parents’ car, used to go for swimming lessons at the elite Willingdon Club, an all-rounder at the Doon school; B.Sc. honours in chemistry from the St Xavier’s College, Mumbai; an articled clerk and an aspiring CA in the UK and at the end who refused to cower before white racists and embraced imprisonment in the UK, gradually gravitated towards Marxism, there from to Maoism and identified to the cause of Dalits that dumped him to a decade of imprisonment until 2019.

It somewhat takes after Nelson Mandela’s ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, an autobiography written during imprisonment. The profound difference is that while the South African crusader against Apartheid belonged to the dispossessed by occupational forces of the cruelest colonialism, Kobad was born privileged but completely identified himself with the Dalits alike the deprived black. Mandella’s words essentially reflects the plight of Dalits including the Adivasis, dispossessed by force of British colonialism. Wrote Mandella, “I was not born with a hunger to be free. I was born free — free in every way that I could know. Free to run in the fields near my mother’s hut, free to swim in the clear stream that ran through my village, free to roast mealies under the stars and ride the broad backs of slow-moving bulls. As long as I obeyed my father and abided by the customs of my tribe, I was not troubled by the laws of man or God. It was only when I began to learn that my boyhood freedom was an illusion, when I discovered as a young man that my freedom had already been taken from me, that I began to hunger for it. At first, as a student, I wanted freedom only for myself, the transitory freedoms of being able to stay out at night, read what I pleased and go where I chose.”

Kobad intrepidly took up cudgels against casteism in the UK where he went to study chartered accountancy but instead dedicated himself for the cause of victims of casteism. Three years after he arrived in London, he was arrested in 1971 at Brixton for what Kobad termed as ‘a mere street corner speech’ against casteist discrimination and denial of freedom to breath and speak. Actually, the author began studying ‘both Marxism and Indian history side by side chartered accountancy. ‘I increasingly felt that following CA profession was incompatible with my new Marxist belief. The former entailed joining some corporate job, while the latter meant working with the poor. The inherent conflict in these potential pursuits found its way to the detailed letters to my father. He was understanding, but worried about my future. In my letters (now unfortunately lost), we exchanged ideas and debates on communism, the meaning of life and the future of society. He made the usual arguments against communism being autocratic, that in theory it may be good but in practice it was not viable; human nature does not change and people are basically selfish and greedy, there is no democracy and all news is propaganda, that power corrupts whatever the system etc. On my part I tried to show that much of these ills existed in the capitalist society under the façade of democracy that capitalist system had proved itself unviable for the wretched of the earth. I also introduced him to the writings on Norman Bethune and the work of people like Edgar Snow, William hINTON and others on the Chinese revolution, which showed that people do change if given a chance’.(p 15). Born in an upper class Parsee family, KG’s success in changing the mindset of his father, then finance director at Glaxo, a multinational corporation, is very briefly put in by Kobad . He expressed a feel of guilt for “having wasted the limited money, earned by his father, for exit from studying CA ( despite a good result in the intermediate stage of CA) and ‘damaging’ his father’s goodwill of the auditing firm”. But the father’s inward sympathising towards the son’s identification with the Dalits and anti-casteism began with the oppressive conduct of London police.’My father… was horrified at the bahaviour of the London police and seemed to support my decision’ (ibid). KG’s prison life began in London where he was jailed for three months.

Back in India, the author (later hand in hand with Anu) identified wholly with the Dalits. Kobad and Anu began staying at a slum in Nagpur too in 1984. Kobad and Anuradha had spent several decades working as activists mainly with Dalits in Maharashtra, immersing themselves in struggles linked to the Dalit Panthers Movement. Cycling and walking for hours under scorching heat of Vidarbha, they used to live a simple life. Anuradha taught sociology at the Nagpur University but simultaneously carried on her work with oppressed women. Kobad was involved in organising rickshaw workers and bidi workers in and around Nagpur. They participated in activities of radical cultural groups—Lok Shahirs—such as Vilas Ghoghre and Sambhaj. Anuradha was thrown out of the university for her socio-political work, proving the vindictive structure of upper class power. They returned to Mumbai, but Anuradha chose to travel to Bastar to work with Adivasi women, battling sclerosis, and malaria that ended her life prematurely. She, hand in hand with Kobad, led a life of unflinching commitment to battle for equality, justice and empowerment of the dispossessed people. Long quotes of published articles by eminent journalist and civil rights functionary Jyoti Punwani, interspersed in this memoir have heightened the quality of the book and among them is her impressions of Anuradha, her batch mate. Kobad mentioned how Anuradha helped him dedicate to his work and benefited his thinking. There is no exaggeration.

Shunned by the elite and major political parties, “The Dalit Panthers movement gathered momentum and came of its own. Inspired by the Black Panthers movement in the US for civil rights against racism, writer-poets J V Pawar and Namdeo Dhasal declared to form Dalit Panthers, and immediately called for a boycott of the 25th Independence Day revelry calling it a ‘Black Independence Day’. Simultaneously, with the Little Magazine movement, Dalit literature began to blossom, speaking a new, angry language(p 32).” Thus, there was a sparkle of internationalism in the movement whose main strength was its indigenousness. The awakening among the Dalits, leading to a protest rally on 10 January 1974 that led to the first martyrdom of Bhagwat Jadhav. It caused a violent repercussion and repression by police in collaboration with Shiv Sainiks. The Dalit Panthers movement ‘was basically a cultural revolt against that aspect’ (ibid, p 33).

KG noted an openly anti-Dalit mindset of “Janashakti circles, one of the many factions of Maoists with which I was associated. At that time, the caste question was considered by all varieties of Marxists as anathema, diversion from class question, which was the bedrock of Marxist belief. The Janashakti leaders condescendingly termed the Dalit panthers as Dalit lumpens claiming they were a mirror image of the Maratha lumpens of the Shiv Sena. The resistance to taking up the issue and supporting the Dalit Panthers as Dalit lumpens was so great that finally to make a more convincing point, I wrote an article stating how taking up the caste question in the Indian context did not go against the tenets of Marxism, to no avail. This original article, for inner circulation amongst the group, found no takers, and only the counter view-point put up by the leadership was discussed. The article too seemed to disappear, and not having a copy, there the issue ended.” (pp 35-36).

Were the seeds of aggravated atrocities sown after the Mandal vs Kamandal conflict was generated and spread? The author hasn’t focused on such a hypothesis. But this is a query from the reviewer. The first conspicuously sanguinary incident of repression in at least the post-Independent India was massacre of an entire Dalit family at Khairlanjii village of Bhandara district on 29 September 2006–‘50-60 upper caste villagers massacred the Bhotmange family–Surekha the mother (45) and her children, Sudhir (21), Roshan (19) and Priyanka (17). Surekha’s husband, only survivor, and died of heart attack in 2017. The brutality with which it was done was unbelievable. The mother and the daughter were paraded naked in the village and gang-raped to death, the genitals of the boys were crushed with stones and the corpses callously thrown into canals. For a month the incident was ignored by the mainstream media and it was only on 1 November 2006, when a fact-finding mission set up by the progressives and Dalit organizations published the gory details that the truth emerged.’. (p 77-78). The probe, conducted by the Committee for Protection of Rights exposed the police that ‘attacked Dalit bastis, thrashing young and the old, abusing them in filthiest terms. School and college-going boys were tortured in custody’ (ibid). There were violent reactions from desperate Dalits who torched three trains, inflicted damages to over a hundred buses and clashed with police at several places of Maharashtra. More people were killed. The reason for Khairlanjii massacre was ‘a certain amount of economic independence and cultural awakening’ attained by Bhotmanges and ‘assertive mother’ whose children ‘were more educated than others in the village’ (including upper caste wards), KG explains while noting that there was ‘little impact’ in the adjacent Gond district where Naxals used to dominate. (p 79). But several upsurges of Dalits were followed.

KG should write the lost essay afresh suggesting Marxian endorsement of Dalit struggle snapping fingers at the official Marxist parties such as the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Communist Party of India and various strains of Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). These official parties face identity crisis alike Leninist (mostly Comintern-backed) parties the world over, if not crisis of existence as there is new enthusiasm the world over to read Marx’s magnum opus, ‘Capital: Critique of Political Economy’ following the devastating ‘sub-prime crisis’ of 2008 that no school of capitalist economics could explain. In the long queues before book shops for buying copies are opponents of theories set out by Marx in three volumes of the path-breaking work. Here are two portions from Chapter II: ‘Proletarians and Communists’ which go against ignoring or looking down upon the caste question in India of similar contexts.

One, “The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.” Two,” But whatever form they may have taken, one fact is common to all past ages, viz., the exploitation of one part of society by the other. No wonder, then, that the social consciousness of past ages, despite all the multiplicity and variety it displays, moves within certain common forms, or general ideas, which cannot completely vanish except with the total disappearance of class antagonisms.”

KG expressed disappointment at the extremely delayed importance to Dalits among the Indian communists, that also after the ‘Dalit awakening’ but half-heartedly, if not disingenuously, as yet. Opposed to these socio-economically challenged strata in the past, the author observes, communists “appeared to reduce their (‘Dalit awakening’) importance in the social and revolutionary project by not bringing it to the front of the agenda, partly to pander to the caste sentiments amongst other Hindu-background cadres and even the public in general, many from the upper and other forward cadres as also OBCs who have anti-Dalit sentiments. But, in the long run, such appeasement can only help perpetuate the caste system; a major factor in India’s backwardness and divisiveness.” (p 81)

To be candid, KG’s personal evaluation was gravitation towards Marx and the Marxian than Mao Zedong very much in contrast to Charu Mazumdar whose ‘Eight Documents’, still a bible to numerous Naxalites – which does not mention or quote Marx at all. Referring to pressure of civil liberty organisations in securing release of most Naxalites who switched over to legal functioning, namely People’s War Group, led by Kondapalli Seetharamaiah and noted poet Satyamurti, KG made no bones of his differences with CM. Those who opposed ‘some of Charu Mazumdar’s (original architect of the Naxalite movememt) extreme views’ were reasonable to KG. ‘…need for mass organizations appealed to revolutionaries like me.’ (p 42).

KG bantered the police (media too) implicitly saying ‘I have been accused of being a top leader’ of CPI (Maoist). He was never a member of CPI (Maoist) while the media kept describing him as its polit bureau member.

The 145-page text exposes the Indian state that has been continuously bedeviling the democratic polity and institutions. In ten years of prison life, he stayed in seven jails, mostly in Tihar that has 10 jails. Arguably, India’s most nightmarish jail, KG found reflexes of Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’s prison writings, specially Kamiti jail where the repressive system ‘is a weapon in the hands of a ruling minority’ where jailed persons are ‘menaced by truncheons, nailed boots, tear gas and death-whistling bullets’ (quoted from Ngugi’s Wrestling With the Devil, pp-121-22, in KG’s memoir). The severely intimidating feature of Tihar Jail is strewn in KG’s narrative. Take one – as penned by him. Kept in a high-risk ward, meant for armed terrorists and hard criminals, KG states, ‘Sleep had to take place with the bright lights on and the switches outside the cell. If by any chance we tried to cover the bulb, the warder, while on the night rounds, would yell at us and we would meekly obey, otherwise punishment will follow….As far as I can remember, according to the UN, this is a torture (to prevent sleep), as darkness induces the hormone melatonin which induces sleep while light triggers the hormone cortisol which keeps you awake.’ (p 109). His health deteriorated due to denial of minimum medical and sanitary facilities. Knowing full well that KG suffers from high blood pressure, heart ailments, spondylitis, irritable bowel syndrome etc and history of slip disk, he was deprived of a Western-style commode. (p 139). In Jharkhand, undertrial prisoners are not taken to court and instead trial procedures are done through video-conferencing.

About the nurturing of falsehood by the police, just one example is enough. The Andhra Police submitted a confession by KG in Telugu, a language completely unknown to KG. He quotes the DG of Police, Vijay Kr Singh ( ‘Is it Police’, published in 2014): ‘Policemen are great status quoists. Naturally it would be so as we kill all initiative, discourage all change-mongers, and put great value on figures and statistics which can be fudged.’(p 262).

One of the most educative portion of the book is the very first chapter where KG exposed the British colonialism, packed with historical data. ‘In 1901’, to quote a single datum, William Digby, calculated the economic drain from India in the 19th Century at £ 4,187.922,732( in today’s term it would be £419 billion). But this was not all’ (p 10) – a small portion only. Well, a so-called Leftist historian whose father was an ICS described the British rule in India as one of ‘benevolent despot’ at an international conference in Indology in Moscow in the mid-1970s.

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Vol. 54, No. 14-17, Oct 3 - 30, 2021