Unless a political platform takes a stand on neoliberalisation, you can’t expect change: Kobad Ghandy on socialism and caste

Courtesy Kobad Ghandy
10 April, 2021

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.

The second aspect is that, all over the world, most Left movements have been started by students who, because of the nature of this education system here, are overwhelmingly upper-caste. It is not simply a question that they happen to be Brahmin leaders. Because the thing is, they are bound to be from dominant castes when our education system has unfairly benefited upper castes. If you transform the education system, that would change everything. The real problem is that these leaders were not able to reform their thinking thoroughly and root out their biases ingrained in their thinking.

I have tried to delve into the realm of psychology lately. Many of our ideas are ingrained from childhood in our minds, which Freud called the “subconscious mind,” and these are programmed in the mind very deeply in the first five to ten years of our lives. So, whatever is programmed then, by our family environment and other environments that is whoever you interact with, that gets deeply embedded in your subconscious. The trouble with Marxists is that they have read that the social being determines consciousness. This doesn't take into effect the impact that is there of childhood on our subconscious. It results in caste and patriarchy being strongly represented in our circles. In subtle ways, not overtly. On the one hand this psychological subconsciousness is deeply ingrained and on the other our social environment is also very feudal. So, a mere change in ideology does not automatically change our thinking and emotions. I remember reading Sujatha Gidla’s book [Ants Among Elephants] and that bit on Comrade Satyamurthy is very interesting—how the Reddy caste behaved. They were accommodative of the Scheduled Castes otherwise, but would not invite them to their house. So they would be “liberal” in that way, but not beyond that. The same goes for patriarchy—“liberal” in some way but not beyond that. Now, if you go to the Hindi Belt, states such as Uttar Pradesh have not even had the social-reform movements that Maharashtra had. You will not even see that “liberal” type of thinking on issues of casteism and patriarchy. It is more brazenly Brahminical.

Finally, the third reason is the “pragmatism” of the leadership. Factually speaking, most [communist cadre] are OBC, only a minority will be Dalits. So they would have stronger caste sentiments. At the working-class level, many are only in your movements because of economic demands. Look at the farmers’ unions, with Jats and Gujjar castes dominating, and in the working-class trade-union movement, all of them have more OBCs. And if you start telling movements that “You must give up your caste feelings, you must do this, you must do that,” they might run away from even the economic demands of the farmers’ movement or the trade unions. So mostly, the leadership thinks “Jaane do yaar abhi ke liye, economic cheez abhi uthana baad mein sochenge caste ka [Let it go, we can get to thinking about caste after the economic issues are resolved]. That's a real practical problem which is truly difficult to resolve. And then they stick to the economic demands, because that is a headache to try and change the mindsets, and change caste feelings and patriarchy, no? If someone beats his wife, you'll stay quiet, and say, “Woh toh union leader, uske toh bachhe hai, usko jaane do. Aisa hota hi rehta hai samaaj mein.” [He’s a union leader, he has children, let him be. This kind of thing happens in society.] So that's what happens, and these issues get swept under the carpet. 

From our side, we have to realise that our weakness is that we have never taken up the problem of caste seriously. We have to correct ourselves and understand that, in India, no democratisation—and every Marxist talks about the democratic revolution, right from parliamentary Marxists to the extreme Maoists—in this country is possible without the annihilation of caste! It is by birth hierarchical, by birth oppressive, by birth divisive. Hindu-Muslim is one division, but caste is divisive to the extent of breaking India up into a thousand, or actually five thousand, factions! And so it is an important aspect of any democratic change inside the country that the caste system as a whole be abolished. Abolished doesn’t mean in law, it's in our mind, it's in our behaviour, it's in our consciousness.

SG: Even today media reports continue to refer to you as a Naxalite/Maoist, and you speak about the vilification in your book—for instance, that many accused you of being a politburo member of the CPI (Maoist) even when it was unproven. Where do you actually define yourself politically? Do you see parallels with the Indian media’s coverage of political prisoners, under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, for instance, today?

KG: I see a total parallel, I think it's just a media trial that they've done. As far as defining myself, I am for socialism. Capitalism has no answers. In fact, it has destroyed not only people's lives but the environment also. And if you see historically, no system has come with their hands dipped in as much blood as the capitalists, whether it was the wiping out of entire indigenous populations of the Americas and Oceania. In India, according to even the latest books and all the figures, millions of people were killed by the British in famines, wars and such. So the capitalists, whose ideology also facilitated colonialism, have nothing but violence, and [have] grown on that. Today, the development in the West is only because of colonialism. 

Especially in the neoliberal period post [the] 1990s, people’s lives have been destroyed, the environment is being destroyed, every aspect of society is being destroyed, even people's humanity has been destroyed. Their extreme consumerism has created people who have been so isolated, full of alienation. Only the billionaires and their hangers-on have flourished and continue to flourish even in COVID times.

Now, the question is that when we came to communism in the 1960s and 1970s, virtually half the world was socialist, yet today, just in my lifetime, I see nothing. What was said to be communist China now actually has the highest number of billionaires. Relatively and even geopolitically, I would support China against the United States. But that's probably a very pragmatic point of view, not from any ideological point of view, and because all our rulers continue to be terribly slavish towards the West. So yes, politically I am for socialism and radical change because now, with only a handful of billionaires owning most of the world’s wealth, the system is more unsustainable than ever before. But the paths to this socialism can be questioned and debated.

SG: On the subject of “trial by media,” you’ve also written about developing a friendship with your fellow Tihar inmate Afzal Guru. Much has been said about the impunity and injustice around his hanging. You write that, “while Maqbool Bhat’s writings have been published, though banned, Afzal’s extensively detailed diary has not seen the light of day; probably burnt by now,” and mentioned in a letter to a friend soon after Guru’s execution that everything felt destabilised after his hanging. Could you elaborate a little?

KG: See, we had an inkling two days earlier that something’s happening. Because we were in the front row, there were two blocks. There's a B-block behind and an A-block in front—we were initially in A-block—then there's the garden and in a corner of the ground there was the “phaansi kothi, which was always locked. No one had been hanged there since 1989. Suddenly, on 7 February 2013, we're told that the whole place has to be whitewashed, we have to overnight move to B-block. So we moved. 

So then what happened, the next day, Friday, there's a mulaqat [meeting with family members] and those who went out saw a lot of work going on in the phansi kothi at that time. We were told by the staff that this is because some international team was coming. We got very suspicious that there was going to be a hanging. So rumours began to be spread that [Devinder Pal Singh] Bhullar was going to be hanged. Bhullar at that time was already in a psychiatric hospital. But Afzal that time said, “No, if there's going to be a hanging, it'll be me.” And that night, I really felt like asking him for his notes. But then how can you ask? We are not sure he is to be hanged and didn't want to cause anxiety to a person. But the next morning they came up and took him away at around six o'clock. And, I've spoken about in these interviews lately, most of the staff and people were in tears. But yes, Afzal Guru used to write a detailed diary. And if I had that, definitely there would have been a lot of things people would be talking about!

As to Maqbool Bhat's writings, I don't know. I only heard from Afzal that he was hanged and buried there in '84. And apparently, Pakistan also bans his writings. Afzal told me that the Kashmir movement in earlier stages, till the late 1980s, at the time when Maqbool Bhat was hanged, it was the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front led by Yasin Malik that was the strongest, and they were for independence. They were secular, not for Pakistan. And Afzal told me that a large number of the intellectuals linked to the JKLF were assassinated by the Pakistanis in Kashmir at that time in the 1980s. And it was only afterwards—I don't know when exactly—that it metamorphosed into militant Islamist groups linked to the Pakistanis, including the one that Afzal was apparently accused of being a part of. I knew that he was writing a daily diary. But we never saw that diary.

Nothing was given to us, no diary, nothing at all. I had asked at least for the white thermos, as a memento, in which he used to make tea. But they refused to give it. I don't know what was so harmful about it.

SG: The 1970s have been evoked as a period of change, characterised by group-led movements, such as Naxalbari, the Dalit Panthers to trade-union movements. Over time, we have witnessed severe crackdowns on such movements and the watering down of even trade unions and labour laws today. What do you think is the way forward in this political economy with unprecedented privatisation and crony capitalism today?

KG: The whole problem is that none of the political parties today are completely opposing this. The CPI and CPI(M) do oppose neoliberalisation, but in vaguer terms. And the situation isn’t like it was in our times earlier, when you used to say ‘The rich versus the poor.” It’s no longer that simple. Now it’s just a handful of corporate owners against all the rest of the people. In fact, that’s why I now say even the Bajaj model is better than the deeply crony-capitalist Adani-Ambani model!

To make economic change, you need a political party, it won’t happen on its own. That’s why I keep saying we need an opposition which takes a clear stand against neoliberalisation. Even as far as the farmers’ movement that is happening now, earlier it was the Congress that was pushing such types of laws. [The former agriculture minister] Sharad Pawar has been one of the architects of pushing such laws. Now they are supporting the farmers; of course that is well and good. But you can’t count on such things. Neoliberal policies today have become more aggressive than ever, and they can aggressively do it because they do it under the banner of nationalism. In fact, I wrote an article on this when I was in jail, titled “Will the real nationalist please stand up?’” These crony-capitalists are, in fact, the most “anti-national” elements. They put their money abroad, they are looting our country. What the British colonialists did yesterday, these crony capitalists are doing today. They are the tools of the neocolonialists. So the whole question is, unless a political platform arises today which takes a stand on neoliberalisation, you can’t expect a change.

SG: Something most striking to me while reading your work, as well as Anuradha Ghandy’s writings in Scripting The Change, is the sincere attempts at “declassing the self,” trying to erase class markers and working amongst masses. In today’s online-heavy age of awareness, while rhetoric surrounding issues of privilege and social justice is ubiquitous, actual praxis finds fewer takers, with online activism coming to the fore instead. Why do you feel this is happening?

KG: See, the thing is that there was a lot of idealism amongst all of us back then in our practice, and all of us went to places amongst the poor and lived simply, but a lot, I know, just could not sustain. It was just some of us who carried on. Anu and I did so by moving to Indora and staying out there for over a decade. Back then, for example, there was a norm that had developed that if both husband [and] wife are activists, then we don't have children. We ended up following that, as, if you have a child, they require attention. Or you give the child to your parents or grandparents. So that is just one aspect of the sacrifice we had to do.

Online activism and things like that are convenient, but you don't really reach the poorest of the poor through that. Who is there on the online media? You're appealing to a section of a middle class, maybe even a small sub-section of the poor. But you can never truly involve yourself actively amongst them. Declassing is not merely physical changes, it is about reaching out and working amongst actual masses. Look, why can I write and say things with so much confidence, like I have been saying things about identity politics [in this interview] which will not go down well with a certain section of Leftists? It's because we have spent many decades and lived amongst the people! Which the others simply haven't. Most who will talk about that will not have lived our lives nor gone to jails. But now, as someone who has experienced that, I can speak with a lot of confidence even if my associates are not willing to accept what I'm saying.

I think especially post the 1990s with neoliberalism, we have become so alienated from each other. That type of idealism I don’t see, though I do see discontent with society. Also, though Anu and I gave up our own property and everything, we were fortunate to have a family who wasn’t opposed to our views politically and supported us in every possible way, so that is important. 

SG: You wrote rather emphatically about global wealth inequality and the post-COVID crisis among Indian migrant workers. Have you considered going back to political work amidst all these events? What's the next phase of your life looking like?

KG: Actually, I feel that even the communists should retire at a particular age, they shouldn't go on until their eighties and so on. You lose the faculties that are there when you're younger. But now, I'm 74, I'll be 75 soon. And the thing is that I have more to contribute by writing now. There's no question of going back to the grassroots at this age, I don't have the stamina, I don't have that health, it requires a lot of effort. And there's also no atmosphere for my work. If there was a big (political) atmosphere, and a circle and all that, I don't know. I also feel that I have more to contribute by writing my experience, particularly the half a century of experience.

Also, I feel there are currently two types of intellectuals. One is the type [who] don’t want to question anything; the other who negate any radical change and are disillusioned. I feel we cannot throw out the baby with the bathwater; true, there have been severe setbacks in communism, but capitalism has got ever more rotten and vile. The answer is to continue on that path but find its flaws and correct that. Capitalism is itself flawed. There is no space to reform it and make it more humane.

The trouble is a lot of the Left are deeply divided and continue dividing further. The question is, why? When we are coming for a much bigger cause, we should be able to unite! If even the ordinary liberals can unite for something, why are we who talk about desiring revolutionary change unable to unite? I believe the reason for this is in our approach to life and people, and that is why in my book I talk about happiness, freedom and value systems as central to any project of change. I'm sure that people will say this is a point of debate. So I say, come and let us debate this thing.

The other type of person is one who becomes totally pessimistic. So either of these two extremes exist—the blind loyalists and the pessimists—nothing in between. And I have always been sort of in-between these two types. Also, most people who come out of jail after four or five years either turn totally silent or become negative or disillusioned. I feel that socialism is the correct answer. The paths to this can be debated, because we've seen how many methods have not been successful. So that's why I want to write and focus on these questions now in this juncture of my life, conceptualising my half century of experience and activism. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.