Fighting to change reality Posted by Indian Vanguard on October 5, 2009
The media hype around Kobad Ghandy, the top Naxalite arrested in Delhi, revolves around one factor alone: his affluent background and the anomaly that someone like him could be a leader of the CPI(Maoist), a party dubbed by the government as the biggest terrorist threat to the country. But the apparent contradiction makes perfect sense to those who know Kobad well and the many who were influenced by him. Indeed, at the time Kobad Ghandy was attracting youngsters to Marxism, ie, the early ’70s, it was not at all uncommon to find people from his background in Left circles. The Vietnam War was on, the Paris student revolt a source of inspiration, the Bangladesh war had been fought and won, Charu Mazumdar, the founder of the Naxalite movement, had just died in custody.Famine had struck Gujarat, where the students’ Navnirman Andolan had dethroned the corrupt Congress government of Chimanbhai Patel. In Bihar, Jaiprakash Narayan’s anti-corruption movement had attracted hundreds of educated youth, many of them from middle-class ‘upper-caste’ families, who decided to drop their caste names. This was also when the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha was formed by Shibu Soren and A K Roy — rebels fighting to transform the lives of the poorest Adivasis.
In Maharashtra, then witnessing a terrible famine, the Dalit Panthers had burst on the scene, shaking the Marathi literary world, and with it, conventional attitudes towards Dalits even in politics. Experimental theatre was flowering; Vijay Tendulkar was shocking viewers with his path-breaking plays. Adil Jussawala’s New Writing In India held up a mirror to the ferment going on all over the country. Then came the Great Railway Strike led by George Fernandes, and Emergency, followed by the Janata Party government. Human rights became a household term, and in Mumbai, Kobad, along with Bohra reformist Asghar Ali Engineer, Krishnaraj, editor of the Economic and Political Weekly, and wife Anuradha, set up the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights. Vijay Tendulkar later became its president. The cream of Mumbai’s intellectuals spoke in its programmes; Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri signed its petitions.Young people were at the centre of this ferment; so was the media. Investigative journalists were uncovering not just scams, but also the medieval exploitation in villages. This was also the theme of many new wave films that had captured the imagination of the young.
This was the backdrop against which Kobad and other Marxist intellectuals in Mumbai began attracting young people, who felt they needed to do something apart from leading privileged lives. Many of them joined the Progressive Youth Movement (PROYOM); its magazine Lalkaar, had on its editorial board, names such as poet Adil Jussawala and Oxford University Press head Navroz Mody.Kobad was an ideologue, well-read in the classics of Marxism. Along with professors J P Dixit and Oza of St Xavier’s College, he brought out a magazine called People’s Power which could be digested only by Marxist scholars. But despite his intellectual capabilities, his love for reading and writing, Kobad is no ‘intellectual’. He is the very antithesis of the stereotype. Always ready for a laugh, sometimes comical in a low-brow kind of way; genuinely interested in knowing you as a person, and unassuming to a fault. He embodies Mao’s ‘comrade’, the antithesis of the ‘intellectual’ who looks down on the unlettered masses.
In the study circles he conducted, Kobad would speak repeatedly of the need to ‘serve the people’.For him, that was no empty phrase. That was the reason he inspired so many. Some of those who attended the study circles often felt lost, unable to understand the economics that lay at the heart of Marxist theory. But they didn’t give up for a variety of reasons, all of which had to do with the kind of person Kobad is. At the end of the session, you could shake your head in defeat, and he would neither pass judgment, nor force you to persist. But persist you did, because you knew if you wanted to change things, in whatever little way, these were the people you could do it with.Many of them were very well-off, but neither ashamed of their wealth, nor revelling in it. Most of their time was spent doing what they believed in — changing the lives of those at the very bottom.
They weren’t social workers who visited slums while servants looked after their homes. From sweeping to washing up, these wealthy 20-somethings did it all themselves.Not everyone of course, could — or even wanted to — live like this. ‘Toughening up’ for the revolution (that it would come about seemed a certainty) took up a lot of time then — the long hikes up the hills outside Mumbai; the study camps in spartan surroundings, where we had to sleep on a mat, and wash up after eating. But Kobad knew few of us would take the plunge that he and his wife Anuradha Shanbag had already decided on. Yet, they created the space for us to do what we enjoyed the most, be it in PROYOM or CPDR. For them, revolution wasn’t only class war, in which few wanted to participate, sacrificing our comfortable lives, facing police bullets. If you wanted to change the unequal system, you could make your two-bit contribution wherever you worked, and Kobad would make it seem important.
Those formative years left most of us with some basic premises that have stayed with us: the state was exploitative; the police oppressive; elections rarely changed the lives of the majority of people for whom democracy meant little — these, have been substantiated again and again. Anuradha and Kobad were committed to changing that reality. Anuradha was a brilliant academic, but equally passionate about theatre and films, a trained dancer. She could as easily talk to George Fernandes as to theatre director Satyadev Dubey or Dalit writer Namdeo Dhasal. Both also loved children; Kobad specially would clown around with them. They gave up Mumbai to work with contract workers and miners, live among the Dalits, set up women’s organisations, go to jail, and finally work in Bastar, learning the tribals’ language, eating their food. Kobad had always had amoebic dysentery; Anu developed systemic sclerosis.
When the Naxalite movement began, also led by youngsters who left privileged homes, the newspapers portrayed them as mindless anarchists. This view was challenged by the mainstream media in the ’70s and ’80s; now, the wheel has come full circle. Today, the continuous, systematic deprivation faced by the tribals with whom the Ghandys worked, doesn’t make news. What makes headlines is the violent resistance to such deprivation by the Maoists, news mostly fed to the media by the police, who are one side of this conflict. Then along comes a Kobad Ghandy. To a media obsessed with politicians, terrorism and celebrities, he is a freak.About the author:Jyoti Punwani is a Mumbai-based journalist and political commentator. Express