Kobad Ghandy’s book, Fractured Freedoms, published by Roli Books, recollects his life as a young communist activist and turns into a detailed account of what it is like to be an under-trial in India. It is an exposition on life in India that only an under-trial can witness. His ultimate conclusion is that the goalpost needs to shift from fighting inequality to bringing happiness. A review by UMANG PODDAR.
OBAD Ghandy’s story is what movies are made of. Chakravyuh, Raavan, and Red Alert seem to have characters from his story! An uber-privileged person who studied at Doon School alongside Sanjay Gandhi, Kamal Nath, and Naveen Patnaik, he then went to the United Kingdom to complete his Chartered Accountancy. Ghandy had a cushy job waiting for him, like everyone in his family. Yet he abandoned life’s attendant comforts to join the communist movement and “declass” himself. He left his flat in South Bombay [now Mumbai] and started living in a slum with his wife, Anuradha Ghandy (nee Shanbag), a mass leader and member of the CPI(ML) and CPI (Maoist), a banned outfit.
“Fractured Freedoms” by Kobad Ghandy is a look into what happens when a person is caught in the rigmarole of a legal battle after being charged with threatening “national security”. On all undertrials in India, there hangs “the Gavel of Damocles”, tormenting them throughout their prison stay. “The process is the punishment” rings in your ears constantly while reading the author’s account of his roughly ten years spent in six jails across seven states of the country, only to be let off after being convicted of a minor offence under section 420 of the IPC.
The book can be divided into three parts: Ghandy’s personal life, his experiences growing up and what led him to choose this kind of life he led; his time spent in multiple jails across India; and his take on why the communist movement failed in India and his vision for an equal society.
Ghandy’s book comes at a very important time for multiple reasons. Currently, many activists, writers, and intellectuals are imprisoned on what seems to be flimsy evidence.
In lots of instances, even the chargesheet has not been filed long after incarceration. The book has a lot of parallels with the life and circumstances of some of these imprisoned people.
‘Fractured Freedoms’ is a look into what happens when a person is caught in the rigmarole of a legal battle over threatening ‘national security’. ‘The process is the punishment’ rings in your ears constantly while reading the author’s account of his roughly ten years spent in six jails across seven states of the country, only to be let off after being convicted of a minor offence under section 420 of the IPC.
The book is also relevant in the context of the Novel Coronavirus pandemic, which has widened income inequality and raised questions about the sustainability of the current system. As Ghandy writes, “…when the neo-liberal economic policies have hit the masses the worst, and they needed socialist policies the most!”
His start with activism
In a Gandhian fashion, Ghandy’s flirtation with activism started on foreign soil. Witnessing systemic racism when he was in the United Kingdom had a big impact on him. He notes, “it was only the communists…who were opposing racism in the UK”. He joined the anti-racism movement there, even going to jail.
He acknowledges that many espouse socialist tendencies in their youth, but as they grow older they move away from the ideology. However, for him and Anuradha, it was the only way of life. He quotes Oscar Wilde on this, “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”
After returning to India he did not take up a corporate job. His family was surprisingly supportive of his choice. He got involved in the ‘Alternative University’ at Ruia College where subjects were being taught with a Marxist approach. He would also see the implementation of his teachings; such as slum dwellers collectivising to demand pucca homes. During this work, he met Anuradha, who was a student leader at the time. She later became a professor but was asked to leave because of her political work.
One of their main concerns was the neglect of casteism by the Marxist parties. Anuradha has written extensively on the issue. To do more impactful work, the couple shifted to Nagpur, as it was the epicentre of Dalit struggles. Surendra Gadling, one of the accused in the Bhima Koregaon case, was motivated by Anuradha to take up caste as an issue.
Other than physical comfort, Kobad and Anuradha gave up a lot of other “worldly pleasures” such as having a family, raising children, etc. “In those days…it was a norm if a young couple got married and both were active revolutionaries the male member would have a vasectomy in order to avoid children which would require additional attention and distract from one’s activities. Anu and I, having decided to dedicate all our time to the poor, followed this norm after marriage.”
This book is also a part love story. Starting from the dedication page to the end of the book, Anuradha is the one common thread. He writes that when he was arrested one of his first thoughts was that this was no big deal compared to the pain of her death.
Life in Jails
Kobad Ghandy was picked up by Andhra Pradesh Police when he was in Delhi in 2009. For two days, he was kept in custody but no official action was taken. When people started looking for him, he was brought before a magistrate. The police asked him to tell the magistrate that he was arrested the day before, and not three days ago. This began his life in prison, taking him to serve time in Tihar Jail in Delhi and prisons in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, Jharkhand, Punjab, and Surat Jail in Gujarat. He takes us through all aspects of a jail stay, like police, medical systems, and the characters he met there.
A perusal of the recent interviews of Munawar Faruqui or Nalin Yadav would reveal one thing they have in common: how much the jail system taught them about other human beings. Yet they spent only a few months behind bars. Ghandy’s book takes the reader through life inside prisons in painstaking detail: how different people are treated differently, and how you learn about the country and its people things that you never would have outside the walls of a prison. For example, he was surprised to find out, from a guard, that there is a village in Madurai where no wedding takes place without a photo of Subhas Bose.
Jails are known to discriminate against people based on their status. While on the one hand, you have “Sahara Shree” Subrata Roy, who paid Rs. 1.23 crore to get access to special facilities to run his office from Tihar, and live with every possible comfort, on the other hand, you have a Stan Swamy who could get an ordinary sipper only after fighting for a month.
Ghandy writes that while some can even contest an election successfully from inside a prison, the undertrial is completely disenfranchised. Prisons also show the regional characteristics of the country. A prison is a microcosm that represents the state of the rule of law, the condition of a people, and much more.
“Living conditions differed drastically from jail to jail; those of the South, where I spent about two years appeared more humane,” he says. “After witnessing the law-based structures of jails in Andhra Pradesh/Telangana, Jharkhand seemed to resemble a Congo-type country, where no rules applied,” Ghandy writes.
“One thing that struck me about the North was that attitudes and culture are far more feudal than the South and even Maharashtra,” he writes. However, no place is as bad as Tihar, a jail that is “structured to crush you”, he writes. Mulaqaat, a system where prisoners and under-trials can schedule a meeting with those outside the prison system, is difficult to arrange for those lodged in Tihar. One needs the jail superintendent’s permission even to get a pen and paper. Access to documents is not free, which often leads to incomplete legal representation. On top of this, Tihar is a vegetarian prison.
While in Tihar, Ghandy interacted with the prisoner Afzal Guru. The sheer number of interviews and articles on this issue indicate that people have been talking about his hanging, perhaps as an effort to calm the collective conscience. In his book, Black Warrant, Sunil Gupta, a former law officer at Tihar, also writes that after the death of Guru, for the first time, he went home and spoke to his wife about the nature of his job, and broke down.
Fallibility of the System
It is easy to say that the criminal justice system is flawed, or fraught with loopholes. Reading a book like this puts things in perspective because of its sheer detailing. For example, the prosecution’s case against Ghandy was often contingent on a “confession statement” purportedly signed by him. However, Ghandy says he never signed any such statement.
No place is as bad as Tihar, a jail that is ‘structured to crush you. Mulaqaat is difficult to arrange for those lodged in Tihar. One needs the jail superintendent’s permission even to get a pen and paper. Access to documents is not free, which often leads to incomplete legal representation. On top of this, Tihar is a vegetarian prison.
“When I demanded that my lawyers be produced as the court had mandated so, they immediately disappeared. Next day in the court a ‘confession’ statement was produced in Telugu (a language I do not know)…I immediately denied in the court having made any statement and also put it in the court records,” he says.
“Generally, in the charge sheets made out, there is a clause ‘and others’ to which they [police] can add any name. They claimed that in the ‘confession’ before Delhi Special Cell during the period of police custody in 2009 I had confessed to being part of this action. Surprising, as neither had I signed that statement, nor did it stand in the main case in Delhi which was primarily based on this statement, where I was acquitted of all Maoist charges.”
“The FIR in the Surat case was filed nearly five months after I had already been in Tihar. How could I commit a crime while being in jail, I could not understand? The absurdity of the case became more apparent given that I had never been to Gujarat in my life,” he writes.
Section 268 of CrPC
One striking feature in the book is the saga of arrests, which came one after the other. Usually, people think that when a person is coming out of jail, they are out of the web of the police at least for a while. Yet, “with all court procedures being over, we began leaving the court premises when, in filmy style, our car was intercepted by another car and a person in civil dress jumped out and said he was from Jharkhand police and that they had a warrant for my arrest.”
Ghandy says a prison is a microcosm that represents the state of the rule of law, the condition of a people, and much more. ‘Living conditions differed drastically from jail to jail; those of the South, where I spent about two years appeared more humane…After witnessing the law-based structures of jails in Andhra Pradesh/Telangana, Jharkhand seemed to resemble a Congo-type country, where no rules applied.
For petty criminals, such warrants can be made to disappear from jails, although for a price, as Gupta writes in Black Warrant. However, for high-profile prisoners like Ghandy, this was not possible. Section 268 of the CrPC is one tool that empowers state governments to confine a prisoner to a particular prison in matters of “public interest”, among others. This hampers investigation where a person faces cases in multiple states, resulting in long delays.
“I complained to the NHRC [National Human Rights Commission] about this stage-managed reason to clamp 268 on me, thereby denying my basic right to a speedy trial, but there was no response,” he writes.
Thoughts on Present Situation
The book offers insights into a person who has spent his life thinking about issues such as income inequality, colonialism, imperialism, and racism. Looking back, he recollects his attraction to left politics: “First was the issue of racism and the history of the colonial loot of our country that destroyed one of the wealthiest nations in the world and devastated a rich civilization.”
“The second was to seek the cause for such an occurrence—the reasons why colonialism arose—and the search for the lack of growth in the two decades since independence—both answers to which I found in Marxism, historical materialism and the very nature of capitalism/ imperialism.”
Yet he does not turn a blind eye to the current day problems. He says, “Unfortunately, we communists use ideology as a dividing line between good and bad, not the nature of the person.”
Having had the time to think about his life, he also develops arguments about what must be done so that people are equal and free. A lot of it revolves around the quest for personal happiness and freedom, which must be inculcated in people from a very young age. The goalpost needs to change from fighting inequality to bringing happiness.
“As I have said repeatedly throughout the book, it is not the individuals who are to blame but the system,” he writes. In all interactions “…activities, relationships and organisations, the three aspects of happiness, freedom and good values need to be interwoven.” Inner feelings have to be in tune with outward reactions. “Only if happiness is the goal, all evils like ego, domination, servility, manipulations, etc. that arise in the course of organisational work and social interaction can be countered.” This happiness first needs to be individual and then social.
People need to be trained for the quest for happiness right from childhood. “Often, the main reason for our lack of freedom is the gap between our new consciousness/ideology and the programming we received in childhood which is deeply embedded in our subconscious and reflected in our emotions,” he feels.
However, these ideas seem difficult to implement and the author does not offer a cohesive structure for its implementation. One might have to look at his future works for his thoughts to be fully developed.
With all court procedures being over, we began leaving the court premises when, in filmy style, our car was intercepted by another car and a person in civil dress jumped out and said he was from Jharkhand police and that they had a warrant for my arrest.
“Fractured Freedom” is essential reading.
Even those who disagree with the author’s political and economic views would agree with the quest for freedom. One of the best features of the book is that Ghandy tells his story without adopting an air of superiority, without expressing any disgust towards those who have not chosen a life like his. A person who has given up their life for a cause, I would think, has every right to demand more of people.
Yet, acknowledging that every life is different, Ghandy says, “No doubt one can act in varied ways and it need not be revolutionary. After all, drops fill the ocean of dissent.”
(Umang Poddar is a lawyer and an editor at Lawctopus. The views expressed are personal.)