Kobad Ghandy, the Indian Maoist leader who has been arrested, worked in Chattisgarh state, a main centre of rebel activity. Suvojit Bagchi of BBC Bengali met him last year. The following are excerpts from his interview:
Has the Maoists’ emphasis on educating the poor contributed to their rise in Chattisgarh?
We are trying to give basic education through mobile schools. We are teaching children basic sciences, mathematics and indigenous languages. Teams involved in the process are specialising in designing courses for the people who are backward, so that they can learn faster.
We are taking extra care to improve health facilities, as well. We have told the tribals to boil drinking water. It has reduced diseases and death by 50%. Even independent NGOs have said so. Child mortality decreased because we have managed to empower women to an extent.
The level of under-development in these areas is worse than, as some indicators suggest, sub-Saharan Africa.
Are you saying you are not killing but helping people to live?
Yes. But we are defined by the prime minister as the deadliest virus… (laughs)
Why do you think so?
We have a clear-cut definition of development. We think the society is in a semi-feudal, semi-colonial state and there is a need to democratise it.
The first step is to distribute land to the tiller. So our fight is against land grab and exploitation of the poor, especially focusing on rural India.
Is that why you have managed to consolidate so strongly in Chattisgarh?
One important reason why we have managed to consolidate is because we talk about dignity of work.
For example, villagers here collect tobacco leaves to make local cigarettes. This industry runs into billions of dollars. But the daily wage of these tribals was less than 10 rupees a day before we came to Chattisgarh.
That is far less than the daily wage defined by even the government of India. We have forced these contractors to increase this daily wage – we have managed to push it up by three to four times. That is one reason why people like us.
But you have armed wings, don’t you?
I can’t tell you much about that. Because I don’t deal with that and don’t even know their members.
You are talking about development. Will you be open to the government extending development to these areas?
Why not? We have not opposed developmental works here. For example, we did not oppose the building of some schools. But if they build schools to convert those to army barracks – which India always did in various places – we will oppose.
So you will do politics on basis of guns?
Guns is a non-issue. Some villages of Uttar Pradesh or Bihar have got more guns than the entire Maoist force in the country.
What the government or some section fears is our ideology and the society we seek to build up. So we are projected as criminals.
Do you think it is possible to hold on to your bastions in face of a state-led offensive against you?
It’s a difficult battle. But with capitalism and the government colliding with each other – with American economy going into recession and increase of exploitation – we do hope to consolidate.
Will you ever participate in mainstream politics?
No. Because we believe a democracy which respects people, cannot be established in this country.
Kobad Ghandy – An Introduction
A Khoja-Parsi by birth, Kobad Ghandy completed his schooling in India’s elite Doon school and St Xavier’s College in Bombay. He went to London to pursue studies in chartered accountancy.
His friend PA Sebastian told the BBC that it was in England that Mr Ghandy first became involved in political activities.
After returning to Bombay, he was active during Mrs Gandhi’s emergency (from 1975-1977), when democracy was suspended.
Mr Ghandy set up the leading rights group, the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR), along with activist friends like Mr Sebastian and reformer Asghar Ali Engineer.
Mr Engineer remembers how they used to meet at the convocation hall of Bombay University once a week at six pm after office hours.
“He was a thorough gentleman and was very strong in his convictions even then. He regarded the ruling Congress party as a clever bourgeois and capitalist party.”
Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s Mr Ghandy’s support of communism seemed to increase.
He married activist-academic Anuradha Shanbag and decided to move to Nagpur with her – dedicating themselves entirely to the cause of tribal rights, women’s issues and campaigns on behalf of lower caste people and women.
Anuradha, also a staunch activist, lecturer and member of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) died in April last year after a bout of cerebral malaria.
Her brother, the well-known theatre personality Sunil Shanbag, remembers how the couple made the difficult decision to leave Mumbai as “they felt they were needed more in those areas”.
“The atmosphere of those days was different. There was a great sense of liberation and all of us were swept in. The CPDR used to book tickets in bulk for our plays and there would [always] be a discussion [afterwards]. There was a bridging at this time between art and politics and Anuradha and Kobad were not narrow-minded ideologues. They were very non-judgmental.”
Mr Shanbag said: “His father Adi Ghandy worked in a pharmaceutical company and they lived in an old sprawling flat in Worli. His father was in fact extremely supportive of the cause. He too led a simple life inspired by his son. Kobad had complete support from his family.”
Susan Abraham, another long time friend of the couple, said: “He was committed to the revolution and revolutionary ideals. He came from an upper class background but led a Spartan life. He was tuned with his surroundings. When you see so much inequality, you want so much to change things.
“In the days after the emergency everyone was influenced by activism,” she said, explaining the apparent difference between Mr Ghandy’s background and the life he chose to live.
Activist and writer Jyoti Punwani says it was far from obvious that he had had an elite schooling or foreign education.
“We could not have guessed he was from all these places. His behaviour was very normal and he even laughed about his time spent at the Doon school. They had a huge house but never showed off money. He was leftist and committed to changing the system. He did all his work by himself and did not keep a servant.”
While his jhola (cotton shoulder bag), his self-discipline and his commitment come up often in his friends’ memories, they also mention how he loved mixing with people from all walks of life.
“Kobad and Anuradha gave up their lives to work with the poor but never said anything about it. He was always enthusiastic and he liked to mix with people. He could interact with people from every class and make friends and joke about many things. He is the most unlikely revolutionary, he liked to have fun – he was an ideologue but not an intellectual,” Ms Punwani reminisces.
A police official who has investigated several cases in areas of Maharashtra state where Maoist rebels are active said that Mr Ghandy was also known by the names Kamal and Azad.
“He is a strong ideologue. He has organised demonstrations and written articles and other publicity material,” he said.
“He is a senior in their ranks. Cases are registered against him in Nagpur and Chandrapur. However, charges against him are not of a serious nature,” he said.
Mr Ghandy has been remanded in custody and it is not clear if he will be transferred out of Delhi.
Activists who campaign for the release of political prisoners have started rallying to demand that he is given his legal rights.
Mr Shanbag says some sections of the media may have got it wrong about Mr Ghandy.
“Kobad cannot be called a blood-thirsty terrorist as some in the media are calling him. Somebody has to get real.”