Kobad Ghandy: I cracked very often but I managed to get out
The activist, who was accused of being a member of the banned CPI(Maoist) and arrested in 2009, speaks of his new book chronicling the decade he spent in Indian jails
In September 2009, Kobad Ghandy, a 62-year-old activist based in Nagpur, Maharashtra, was waiting at a bus stop in Delhi. Suddenly, an SUV pulled up, half a dozen men got out, pushed him into the car and drove away.
It was an arrest, not an abduction. It kicked off Ghandy’s decade-long incarceration in jails across India. He was accused of being a member of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) and charged under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (Uapa). Media reports described him as a “top Maoist ideologue” and a “prize catch” amid the country’s struggle against Naxalism, which then prime minister Manmohan Singh had described as the “biggest threat to internal security” in India.
Today, Ghandy is out on bail after spending 10 years in prison. Of the 18 cases against him, the courts found him guilty of assuming a fake identity and forging documents. The Uapa charge didn’t hold up: A Delhi court found the police evidence against him insufficient. Some of the best-known lawyers, including Prashant Bhushan and Fali Nariman, represented him in courts across the country, often pro bono. “And yet, if a person like me got 10 years, and I still have (verdict in) 10 cases pending, you can imagine what it is for other people,” Ghandy says over a Zoom call from his Mumbai residence.
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Fractured Freedom: A Prison Memoir is Ghandy’s account of the circumstances of his arrest and the Kafkaesque operations of India’s jails and the judiciary. Ghandy, who spent time in seven jails across six states, writes that at Delhi’s Tihar jail, there would be daily searches, with jail guards instructed to toss up all the prisoners’ belongings. At Surat Jail in Gujarat, phones use was severely restricted; prisoners were allowed only one 50p postcard a month to write letters home. In Jharkhand, jails were so under-resourced, "nearly every aspect of the jail system was being run by prisoners themselves". At times, writes Ghandy, it seemed like the system was "designed to crush you".
“At many points it did (break me too),” he says. “But I had read about Bhagat Singh and (Subhas Chandra) Bose, who had stayed in jail. I treated it all as an experience, things to learn from. I cracked very often but I managed to get out.” But his days of grass-roots activism are over. “Most people who go to the jail don’t come out the same,” he says. “Either they come out criminals or if they are socially intended, they say they will never go back to jail.”
Edited excerpts from an interview:
Of the 10 years in jail, you spent the most in Tihar. The system there, you said, “is designed to crush you”. Why?
The Indian legal system is a relic of the British. [Courts] often don’t give bail, so the jails are full of under-trial prisoners. In (Tihar), the under-trials are underdogs and the convicts are the boss. The people who aren’t proven guilty are victims of the jail systems far more than the convicts, who have the facility of roaming around. If you are not giving bail, (you should) give some additional facilities (to the under-trials than the convicts). But there’s none.
Was there no scope for you to talk about the issues you faced?
None. The jails are so constricted, even to get to meet the superintendent, you need permission. Then...they may grant it or not, depending on how corrupt they are.... During my time, I wrote letters to the human rights commission; when the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was elected, I wrote to them. But there was no response.
Why is there such apathy to the structural problems in Indian prisons?
The thinking is, if you are in jail, you should suffer. I found that the jails and the legal system in Hyderabad and the south were much better. Delhi was frightful. Jharkhand was very disorganised. It was totally run by criminals. For example, jails have doubled in Jharkhand in the last 20 years but the staff has increased only by 200.
Is there no effort at rehabilitation?
There were no rehab facilities as such. Tihar had a library and IGNOU (Indira Gandhi National Open University) courses. But the bulk of the people aren’t educated, so they are not interested. There are supposed to be education facilities but there aren’t.... Instead, every jail has a factory. The convicts are put to work in the factory for a nominal payment. It’s a profit-making business. There’s no reform.
Was there ever any torture and sexual abuse?
There’s more of the corruption than sexual abuse. They say (sexual abuse) is there but not as overt. And torture isn’t in the jail. It’s mostly in police custody. But the legal process itself is a torture. It breaks you. That’s why most people don’t come out the same. Either they come out criminals or if they are socially intended, they say never go back to jail.
The UAPA charges against you were dropped; you have been found guilty only for impersonation. Why do you think you were arrested, with multiple state agencies pursuing you?
If you see all the cases, these were mostly (based) on confession statements to the police. It’s not admissible in the court but cases were put up across the country. The whole thing was coordinated by the Andhra IB, which had arrested me... Their perception was, I was linked to the Naxalite movement. I may have at one point been sympathetic but we have worked openly in Maharashtra amongst the Dalit community. There’s no question of (joining the Naxalites).
You were called the “top Maoist ideologue” at the time of your arrest.
The police were picking up people from all over the country.... These people, like (then home minister) P. Chidambaram, want credit.... If they said a top leader was arrested, it’s a big credit for Chidambaram. It would go down well with the prime minister. The police also, they exaggerate. They always want to give themselves credit, awards. The system doesn’t want people to work for the people in a sincere way.
Your case has a few parallels with those arrested in the Bhima-Koregaon case. What do you make of it?
It’s getting worse and worse. Between 2007-09, there was a real threat. Now I don’t know if they really feel the threat or they are cooking up these type of Bhima-Koregaon cases. It’s going on all over—Kerala and Tamil Nadu too. Probably, the economy is demanding that. People are thrown out of jobs, (the) self-employed are affected, there’s no sign of economic recovery. The latest budget is all about selling everything.
Why do you think there has been a crackdown, though?
I think because (the government) realises that their policies are going to polarise the country in such a big way, it will lead to an outburst. There’s no party that can capitalise on it. We see the farmers are in huge numbers but they are leaderless, partywise. But they have been able to sustain (their protests) because they know it’s a do-or-die situation. They have seen the agrarian policies since 30-40 years, which is pro-corporates. I think the crackdowns are purely foreseeing how things will be in the future, when things can get more polarised, (leading to) more upsurges. Because the middle class is also hit badly today, not just labour and agriculture.
At the time of your arrest, you were called a “Naxalite”. The left-wing activists arrested recently are called “urban Naxals”. What do you think of that term: Is there really a class of people in urban areas who have the social currency to provide intellectual and financial heft to left-wing extremists?
The source of funds of those in the forests is more than any intellectual can get in the urban areas. The (Naxalites) get crores from the bidi contractors or bamboo mills as “taxes”, which the police call extortion. It’s more than what a middle-class person in Mumbai or Delhi can give financially. As for the intellectual aspect, have most of them written anything of any significance? I don’t see it. Basically, they were pro-poor, standing for the poor, that’s why they are framed. I don’t think there’s any such thing as “urban Naxals”.
How has jail changed you?
Tihar, besides being the more difficult jail, was educative. It had Islamists, Khalistanis, and all such stuff. In the earlier years, when I wasn’t shifted around, I got a lot of time to reflect on a lot of things I have written about in the book—the weakness of the left movement, for instance.
Would you want to go out in the field and work again?
I am 74. I don’t have any stamina nor the inclination for grass-roots work. But we have done a lot, have a lot of experience. I have written a lot about the economy and will continue to do so.