Kobad Ghandy is a communist and anti-caste activist who spent a decade in various jails, in Delhi and Andhra Pradesh and elsewhere, as one of India’s most high-profile political prisoners. When he was first arrested in 2009, he was accused of being a “senior Maoist leader,” even as he now stands acquitted by the courts of those charges. Finally out of jail in late 2019, he began chronicling his life experiences, writing at length about what turned him to communism, his witnessing the inception of the Dalit Panthers and other people’s movements in Maharashtra with his late partner, Anuradha, and the physical conditions across Indian prisons. These culminated in the book Fractured Freedom: A Prison Memoir, which was released last month. In this interview, Sabah Gurmat, a law student and freelance journalist, spoke to Ghandy about his new book and various issues, including how activists from the Left approach caste, life in incarceration, activism after neoliberalism and what it means to be a socialist today.
Sabah Gurmat: In your book, while discussing the formation of Janashakti—an amalgamation of communist organisations that came together in the 1990s—you talk about how caste was “anathema” to most communists in those days and mention that you witnessed a resistance to support for the Dalit Panthers among communist circles and the Janashakti leaders. You wrote an article on this too, but say it disappeared—could you tell us a little more about the circumstances? Even today, communist parties often operate with a Brahminical leadership and overlook pressing caste-related issues. Do you see any change in their approach?
Kobad Ghandy: Whether it was the Janshakti group or some of the Marxist-Leninist fronts, it was more pragmatic than a theoretical position, I think, to ignore the question of caste. I knew the leaders of the Panthers, and also, I was working at the grassroots level because we were in Mayanagar in Worli, which is where the conflict took place with the Shiv Sena. So I would meet the leaders [of the Dalit Panthers] in Siddharth Vihar College hostel, where many of them were staying, and I would also be with the slum-dwellers in Mayanagar. I studied the issue and raised it with many communists. At that time actually, some even said, “There are Shiv Sena lumpens, Maratha lumpens and so these are Dalit lumpens,” or something like that, [implying that] they are not to be taken seriously as such. But I was anyway working at the grassroots level. And I was convinced that caste oppression was very much present. So, when I saw that we were not getting responses in the circles or groups of the ML that we were in touch with, I started writing, as did Anuradha. Jointly we wrote, in the Frontier publication: “Why caste is important to be taken up even from a Marxist point of view.” I think it was 1978 when this article appeared. Similarly, a lengthy article appeared in the Marathi publication Satyashodhak Marxwad.
At the time there was a lot of churning going on in Maharashtra. There was the Riddles in Hinduism controversy, the namantar movement [to rename Marathwada University after BR Ambedkar]. So even those Marxists could not turn a blind-eye to caste because there were really widened Dalit-led movements here. But, in the rest of the country, I don't know. Much of the leadership of the ML came from Andhra people, and I don't think back then there was that type of churning amongst Andhra people. The famous communist revolutionary poet, Gaddar, was Dalit, and most of the famous singers and cultural troupes were as well: Avahan Natya Manch, Vilas Ghogare, Sambhaji Bhagat, Kabir Kala Manch. They were all revolutionary singers and such talented performers [who] just captivated audiences in whatever language they performed. I think if you see at a pragmatic level, I hear these arguments now also, that some of these are highly talented people, also very poor, and lived amidst horrible conditions. So naturally I suppose they wanted to see a rise in their status, that they couldn't see within the communist movements. So they left, things like that happened.
On the one hand people on the Left were not taking casteism up on their agenda, on the other hand those who propelled identity politics among Dalits then kept on saying that the Left is all Brahminical, which only widened the gap been the Dalit and communist movements. But I’ve felt that there are three reasons why the Left then was not taking it up. One is that the Left in India has been highly dogmatic. They have not interpreted Marxism or Maoism or whatever it is to the local condition. They have just blindly borrowed from Russia from China, but they never had caste out there because it’s a phenomenon in India. So they've not been able to conceptualise this.