It is a balmy afternoon in Mumbai. Shivaji Park, lime green in the early evening light, lies largely deserted. The iconic statue of Shivaji on his horse looms large as Kobad Ghandy—branded a “big fish”by the government—sits on a bench discussing failed communist revolutions, radical change and surviving jail. Excerpts from an interview:
Q| In some ways, the life you chose was a break from everything you knew.
A| It was.
Q| Was it a determined effort?
A| There was a lot of idealism in those days among the youth. There was a lot of change taking place throughout the world. It is a fact that we broke away. It was a bit difficult. But, on the other hand, I was living a simple life in London, too (before turning to activism). It is not that my parents were that type of rich. My father was employed with Glaxo and had a comfortable salary. Earlier, [I studied at] Doon School, then it was London. There was a lot of churning in that period.
I got a lot of support from my parents, so I could do this. I could stay with them in the house at that time. Then, we (him and wife) moved to Nagpur. It is not that we were on the streets. My wife (Anuradha) also had a lecturer’s job. It was tough because we lived in a slum.
Q| You talk of idealism. You could have worked for development without moving into a slum.
A| When one was unwell, those things did fleet across [one’s mind]. But we were clear on the question of declassing ourselves. Unless you integrate with the people, you cannot really lead them [towards] radical change. We felt that it would have been a little hypocritical [for us to be] living in an ivory tower.
Q| Did it ever feel like a sacrifice?
A| We did not feel it was a sacrifice. We felt it was a necessity. Something that was natural.
Q| You were an introvert growing up. Was there a stirring back then, were you aware of differences?
A| I was an introvert and was not socially aware. The London experience was not only [about] one incident (he saw white youngsters pushing around an Indian man). It was a certain observation of racism. As soon as I went out there, I saw how it affected other people. Subtly in myself, too. Before that, I did not have any inkling of communism or socialism or society or India’s freedom struggle. I also suppose, [being] out there on my own gave me an element of freedom. You remember the late 1960s and 1970s, there were vibrant movements around the world. Once I started looking around, there was a lot to see. There was the Vietnam War, there was a cultural revolution in China that sought to counter the negative values that come with power. Naxalbari [uprising] had just happened. Its literature was available there (London), too. Whatever knowledge you wanted, you got; there were no restrictions.
Q| You have been defined as a Maoist leader. You have been called a Naxal. How do you define yourself?
A| I consider myself a radical seeking to change society. I take [on] many issues, like [the welfare of] dalits. I follow [B.R.] Ambedkar, Subhas Chandra Bose, Bhagat Singh and also Mao [Zedong] and [Vladimir] Lenin and others. Basically, though, I use the Marxist approach to understand and change society. The media has made up the Maoist angle. I have been acquitted on the Maoist charge in four states.
I do believe that the capitalist economy gives no answer to the people, while the socialist economies have actually pulled millions out of poverty in the Soviet Union, China and Cuba. Basically, the world and India need a socialist economy, though the form can change. I am basically an economist, and as a Marxist, I see social factors from the [point of] economic necessities. I feel a change in the economy is essential for real progress in our country, and that can only [happen] through radical political action. Whether it is electoral or not, that depends on the situation.
Q| What do you mean by radical change?
A| I mean a non-capitalist form of economy. Basically, a socialist economy. Now socialist is such a vague term; from [US senator] Bernie Sanders to [UK MP] Jeremy Corbyn, [they] all claim to be socialists. But that type of socialist basically maintains the capitalist system [albeit with] more expenditure allocated to health and education, while maintaining the handful of top corporates that control the bulk of the wealth. While it is more positive in the existing scenario, it is not a long-term solution.
Q| You talk about being a revolutionary. How is being a radical different?
A| Basically, it is the same thing. It is [to bring about] a change in the economy. How it is done, depends on the situation.
Q| How so?
A| The methods of activism, the electoral system, so many other things. It depends on the conditions that exist. Two major revolutions took place during the world wars, when the ruling classes were at war with each other. Even the Paris Commune, the first socialist revolution, occurred during the Franco-Prussian war.
In peace time, different methods need to be adopted. But I have never seen in any left literature that radical change in those countries was linked with war. It is only now while I was doing my research that I conceptualised that point. So, radical or revolutionary, whatever one calls it, must change the economic system, which will then also be reflected in social and political changes.
Q| Are you saying that change needs violence?
A| One has to consider the forms [of change] that need to be adopted in a non-war situation. I am clearer on the type of socioeconomic system India and the world need; it should be far more humane than what exists today. Violence exists in society. History is rife with violence. Today, too, millions are killed in wars and because of sickness and man-made poverty. Everything is violent. I think that is a non-issue. They keep trying to put that question in our mouths when the existing system is itself so violent. First, they should answer whether they want to rule peacefully or not. Will the rulers allow peaceful, democratic change to take place?
Q| You have talked about democracy not resulting in change on the ground.
A| I have never said that. You are putting words into my mouth. Venezuela, Greece and other such places were examples of democratic change, but the US does [its best] to destabilise such governments. The US has its armed forces in 150 countries. Why?
Q| Can democracy bring about social change?
A| I think if a country is truly democratic, it can. As even if I stand for socialism and I am elected, there should be no coup. If I say that divesting of the wealth of an Ambani, Adani and a handful of big business houses should be allowed, as that alone would clear the path to a more humane society, what is wrong? In the present context, state wealth that belongs to the people is being divested to big corporates.
But it should be truly democratic in the sense of the term; that is, in the interest of the majority of our people, and [for] protecting our environment.
Q| You have talked about the failure of communism. Why do you think the red revolution, as it was, failed? Do you think it failed?
A| When I came to communism in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, half the world was communist. We felt it was a matter of time before revolution would take place worldwide. [But] I now see no communist movement. People’s condition is ten times worse than it was in the 1970s. Today, there is no hope before the people. None of the communist societies has been able to stabilise. Even China is communist only in name. There are billionaires [there]. But as far as the economy goes, they have been able to give their people better living conditions and their economy is matching that of the US.
Q| It is draconian?
A| Well, yes. Not that many of the so-called democracies are any less draconian. I feel that there have to be three aspects incorporated into any project of social change, if it is to be long-lasting and more humane. I have tried to emphasise these in my book. I feel that in any movement, for anyone trying for radical change, the leadership and people should have a value system; I have outlined the value system in my book and other articles. [They should be] like my wife—honest, straightforward and not greedy for power. In the left circles, it is more about power than money. In other systems, it is both money and power that corrupt.
The second point: The target of the movement should be happiness. It [would] reflect in your organisational work and relationships with everyone, especially the people and close activists. Quite naturally, the basic necessities of life would be the starting point for anyone to be happy.
The third aspect—there should be democracy and freedom among the people, which is often not there.
Q| Within the communist party also?
A| In our circles also. I have given the example in my book of the structure, democratic centralism etc, which is in name democratic but in practice centralism. These three aspects have to be inbuilt in the movement. Especially in India, where the caste system gives a person superiority by [nature of] birth. We cannot do away with money and power, but we have to try to control their negative effects.
Q| In the book, you say we have to introspect why people chose the market rather than real freedom. Do you believe that is the real issue?
A| I feel that is the real question. I want to develop it further by studying psychology and how to bring about internal change within people and activists. Now, Marxists have become a bit mechanical in understanding change, internally. One reads Marxism, Mao etc, and takes it for granted that this will automatically result in changes in our emotions and values. Psychology tells us that our sub-conscious mind, which determines our emotions, is built in our early childhood. More particularly, in the first seven years of our lives. It does not automatically change with a change in our ideology.
So, things like caste and patriarchy, for example, are so deeply embedded in our psychology that even if you become a Marxist, it may still reside within us. Unless the conscious mind makes an effort to eradicate it. I have seen that they subtly exist in our consciousness, though it may not be overt. It also reflects in all other value systems because we live in a bourgeoisie sort of atmosphere, where [there is] selfishness and [people] push others down and promote themselves. We tend to do it even in the communist movement, in the Marxist circles that we are in.
Q| You have talked about the caste system. You say communism does not take into account caste.
A| Not communism, but Indian communists. They have tended to interpret it mechanically. Marxism is not a religious text, but a philosophy that has to be creatively interpreted for the country it is being practised in. Because of this dogmatic approach, I feel that they have been resistant to taking up the caste issue.
One can understand this in the Hindi belt, which has not seen any social reform movement. But even in a place like Maharashtra, which has had the Bhakti movement and also those of [Jyotirao] Phule and Ambedkar, they say ‘what caste?’In Bihar, for example, where both the CPI and the MCC (Maoist Communist Centre) had a strong base at one time, the CPI was mostly [present] among the Bhumihars (landowners), while the more radical MCC was [present] among the poorest, what they called Harijans. They seem to have taken up this issue (caste), but say it is all a class struggle… this is an example of mechanical interpretation. Maybe because of the caste biases in the leadership.
Q| Are you still associated with the movement?
A| I am an observer and also a social activist. I seek to work among the poor, mostly dalits, but try and observe all progressive movements. Whether communists, dalits, the ecology, [I] take the positive and critique the negative.
Q| There seems to be a certain disillusionment. Was this something you battled throughout?
A| I would not say it is disillusionment. At times, I may have been irritated and dissatisfied. But on reflection, I see it all as a part of my experience.
I do not critique people or organisations or parties. I see it philosophically, as to what needs to be rectified. It has been a rich life and I tried my best to remove people’s suffering. These are all experiences.
Change can be only a socialist change, associated with a socialist model, to get justice for the maximum. Through this book I seek to bring out what [aspects] have to be incorporated in any model of change. Without this half century of experience, it would not have been possible to conceptualise this.
Q| You talk about the communists’ failure to recognise caste. Did you reflect on this while in jail?
A| When we were outside, though I felt that something was wrong, we really did not have time to reflect. Also, to reflect in a positive, creative way, you have to have peace of mind. Even in jail they would not allow that. I was fortunate in the first three years. But after that, they started shifting [me] from one jail to another every two or three months. I could do no thinking, let alone writing. It was just a struggle to live and to fight the authorities. Tihar is quite inhuman. One got the impression that one would never get out. In that tension, you cannot reflect properly. After a while, I really took an effort to do that. I used to keep my body together—I started doing yoga and exercising. I started some writing. I was fortunate to get someone like Sumit Chakravarti (editor of Mainstream) to take all those articles. If you just think something and just write it and no one reads it, then that does not give you satisfaction. You do not get that same confidence.
Then, in the coming years, the 2G people came, [former BJP adviser] Sudheendra Kulkarni came; I could converse with them. [Kashmiri separatist] Azfal Guru was there. He was sort of an intellectual. You could get some new ideas—Rumi, Iqbal and all. All that was a vibrant kind of atmosphere to sit and reflect in. There were no other leftists in the jail. There were only Islamists and Khalistanis, who I was quite put off with as they were exceedingly rigid and narrow.
I was also fortunate to get literature from the Tihar library. I was not allowed to go there, but there was a young boy [outside] the high-risk ward, whom I do not know how I became friendly with; he would bring me the literature books.
Q| There is a certain romantic image of revolution, of a Naxal. What does it mean to be a revolutionary? What is everyday existence like?
A| Everyday existence does not sound very romantic. It is hard living among the people and the poor.
Q| What does it mean to go underground?
A| I was in Nagpur for most of the time till 1999, 2000. Then, Anu went to Bastar and came back. So, most of our lives, we were quite open. It is a misconception that we went underground.
Q| You went to Bastar.
A| Everyone said that we worked in a village. We never worked in a village. Anu was there for two years for experience. Everyone knows we were living in a dalit basti in Indora, Nagpur. It is the image that has been created by the media. It was no doubt a hard life, especially for us, who came from a somewhat privileged background. You have to push yourself. I think Anu adjusted more easily.
People say ‘Do you regret it? You have not got the fruits’. I do not agree as the fruits are to be seen in the very life itself and in the service to the masses. Otherwise, I would have been in a corporate job and made money. I do not think that would have satisfied me. What was the alternative? She would have been a good academic [and] some creative activity [would have been] possible. But I had no such abilities or possibilities.
Q| What did that life entail?
A| It means frugal living. Travelling in ordinary buses, second or third class trains, [bearing] the heat in Nagpur, living in a small, congested basti. [There were also] no phones in those days.
Q| You have been described as a lover of good food.
A| I like good food. I like Parsi food. Actually, we never indulged. Only when we went to her house, or my father’s place when he was still alive. He died in 1996. Sometimes we would make good food. Otherwise, it was dal, rice/roti and subzi.
Q| An article quoted you as saying that you need to ‘wring the neck of the chicken’. Otherwise, what would you do when the revolution came? Comment.
A| That was all romantic stuff.
Q| Did you wring the neck then?
A| No, I do not even like seeing anyone cutting a chicken. I do not think I could do that. But I do like eating it.
Q| You write that your sister helped you but she was not a communist. They might have been supportive, but may not have agreed with you.
A| I think they understand. My sister has allowed me to stay with her. Our parents were supportive, politically and ideologically. But she has her own views and life. Yet, she is supportive. Many people have been. I noticed when I came out, a large section of the Parsi community has been supporting me. But none of them are politically oriented. It is only that they respect that I have given up a good life and worked for the people. I notice that even the decent police people and senior officers I met had the same view. No one in Delhi, but in other places I noticed that. They may not agree with it, but they respect that, in this day and age, someone can give up all the [comforts] of life and work for the people.
Q| There is understanding, but not acceptance.
A| [There] may not be acceptance for the ideology, but [there is] certainly acceptance of the work among the poor.
Q| I wanted to talk to you about Anu. She is the reason you wrote the book. When did you meet her? What was she like?
A| Not the only reason. I wanted to put down my experiences so that future generations can be more effective in this sort of work. That is the purpose really. From Anu, I drew the aspect of the value system.
I met her as soon as I came back from London. In 1972, she was a student leader at Elphinstone College. [Over time] she became more and more radicalised. Top theatre artistes, [Vijay] Tendulkar types, used to be close to us and supported us. It was a different era. Worldwide, there were radical movements... some armed, some unarmed. We all felt things would change fast.
She had a lot of good human qualities. The problem is that, in left circles, these are not given much importance. [Neither] in ordinary society. Your abilities are. You might be a terrible person, but if you are able to get results, you would get promoted. She had those qualities, too, but also an excellent value system. It came naturally to her. Of course, the main reason she was given leadership was her organisational and intellectual capacity.
Q| When she died, you say it was the worst day of your life.
A| She had come back from Jharkhand. She had a mahila [women’s] class there. I had told her not to go. She had systemic sclerosis. Her fingers were immobile. She had arthritis anyway. Her mother had it. It was hereditary.
Her sense of responsibility was so great that she went. I was in Delhi when she came back. She was unwell. She did a test, which was negative. I have had bad experiences with these labs. We took her to a hospital, but it was too late. We had hardly reached the hospital that she went into a coma. It really shocked me because she was relatively alright before that. That was another thing about her. She never showed that she was unwell. She never came out of the coma. That was really the worst. I thought we would just go to the hospital and come back. They put her on a ventilator, apparently. It went on through the day and the night.
Q| You were not there?
A| I was at the hospital, [but] they did not allow interaction. I would not have liked to have been there. I stayed away too. Anu’s mother died recently. I think that was the first time I came close to a dead body. I cannot deal with it.
Q| Grief hits you in different ways. Do you think you were ever the same after that?
A| I do not think it has been the same after that. I am also thinking that, with her health condition, she could not have stayed without being arrested. Maybe things would have been very bad for her at an older age. [It is] better [to] look at things positively, so you do not feel so bad. With systemic sclerosis, it is very bad. She would have been a wreck probably. Her fingers were already bad. She was not able to grip anything.
Q| What is the future? Do you think the government has managed to stamp out the red revolution?
A| The government has not managed to do it. [The movement] has declined, though. The red revolution has not advanced. Many people, [including] high-level officers, came to me when I was in jail. I said that in some areas like Bastar, they (Maoists) are doing good work. In Jharkhand, I found out while I was in jail, they are like the mafia. I told them (officers) that they should hold talks. Let there be peace. Let there be some sort of understanding that they can carry on their developmental work if it is positive.
You are not defeating them; it is a dead end. You can have agreements with the Nagas, who want a separate country, but you are not willing to have peace with someone who just has a different model of development. You want your mining to take over the whole ecology and destroy everything. They want the villagers, forests and ecology to develop. That is Gandhian, in fact. So, why do you not have discussions?
Q| Have you ever wanted to go back?
A| Where? To this work? No, no. At this age, I am not in a physical or mental condition for grassroots work. I would rather, with whatever life I have left, write down my experiences so that future generations can be more fruitful in this work for change.
Q| You write about Communist Party of India general secretary D. Raja inquiring about your health when you were in jail. I feel that there was a rift between you and the party. This is my impression. Is that accurate?
A| I do not know. I have always had my own thinking. And I have been cut off for so many years.
Q| Were you a member of the Communist Party of India?
A| I was not. Raja helped in his personal capacity. There are so many Marxist formations. They all work in their own ways.
Q| So you gave up your membership? When was this?
A| Most of the left parties are not banned. Some are, and mere membership [to them] invites a life sentence. In all my cases, I was accused of being a member of a banned party, [but] I was acquitted in case after case in four states. However, the media kept reporting contrary to what the courts decided. The trouble is that most of the media seems to report the government/police viewpoint and does not seem to have faith in the courts. Besides, the party which I was accused of being a member of was put on the banned list just three months prior to my arrest.
Q| So the next chapter of your life will be about writing.
A| Yes, on the economy, too. I feel the world’s economy is headed for a frightful situation. A sort of 1930s Great Depression-like scenario. This book did not require much study. I have lost that reading habit. That sharp reading. I do read and make notes, but it is slow. If I do it at that pace, I will not be able to produce anything before my death. I have to improve and learn to use new technologies to facilitate this.
Q| What are your days like after your release?
A| Covid came and we were locked down six months after [my] release. After the release, I really had no place to go. I have been fortunate that my sister has kept me. I live with her and my brother-in-law. In the first three or four months, I had to go to court every month; I had to attend to a case in Jharkhand. I also had to spend a lot of time getting my Aadhaar and numerous other documents. I had been cut off from society for so long that I did not know how to go about these things.... I had to get a licence and get back to legal documentation. When I was just beginning to think of writing this book, Covid happened.