A conversation with Kobad Ghandy

In 2009 while waiting at a Delhi bus stop Kobad Ghandy was abducted by a black ops team. They interrogated him for three days accusing him of being a leading member of a banned Maoist party. When news of his disappearance reached the media his abductors handed him over to the Special Cell police. For the next 10 years Kobad was moved from jail to jail, seven in total, across five states in India. Each time it was the same charge of being a member of the Maoist party. The charges were not proven and since his release in Oct 2019 he has written a book, Fractured Freedom, about his time in prison. This should be available in New Zealand later in the year. 

Daphna Whitmore spoke with Kobad Ghandy in Mumbai under lockdown on 18 May 2021.

I hear Mumbai has just been hit by a ferocious cyclone, so I wanted to ask about that first.

They come every year but this is the worst I have seen. The cyclone is now moving along the coast and is due to hit Gujarat where it is expected to be really terrible.

India doesn’t do problems on a small scale. Now you are in the midst of a second wave of Covid, can you tell us what you are seeing?

People are dying by the thousands. In the urban areas it is middle class people in high rise buildings dying which wasn’t the case before. Friends are telling of people they know who have died. In the first wave the cases were mostly in the urban slums. But it is in the rural areas, particularly of UP and Bijar that people have been dying like fleas… often hundreds to a village with bodies being thrown into the Ganges

Lockdown in Mumbai is terrible though. The police are on the streets roaming around harassing the poor, it’s very elitist how they do it. It’s virtually putting everyone under house arrest. 

Can we talk a bit about the charges against you that saw you spend ten years in prisons around the country?

Well, I’m a radical communist and I do believe in socialism, but I’m not a member of the Maoist party.

Under Section 20 of the Unlawful Activities Act mere party membership attracts a life term. Earlier that was 14 years, now it is 20. Earlier it was purely a judicial procedure, now a board chaired by the state Chief Minister decides who and when a lifer is to be released.

After 20 years it will go before a board for review. They are supposed to meet every three months but in some places they meet just once a year. Even the basics of due process are sorely lacking. High powered criminals with connections have less difficulty getting released. I was acquitted in all five states except in the Delhi case on one minor charge.

Okay, so back to the situation in India, what is happening to the millions of people in the informal economy?

There’s not a word about them in the mainstream media. They suffered badly In the first lockdown in 2020. The Prime Minister gave people just four hours to get home. But they stopped all the trains and buses. Last year’s draconian lockdown, left more than 100 million Indians jobless. But even the middle classes were badly hit. According to the Pew Research Centre of the 99 million people from middle class background 32 million were pushed into poverty by last years lockdown.

Everywhere people were trekking home on foot as though it was the exodus. The people were travelling without food and dying in the streets before they could reach home. This time, during the second wave, people have managed to go back to their villages but they probably carry the virus with them and now they’re dying like fleas in the rural areas. 

There were reports of huge gatherings, religious and political, prior to the latest outbreak. Why was that allowed?

There was the complete carelessness of the government allowing the Kumbh Mela festival in April to go ahead. The Hindus believe the Ganges river is holy and taking a dip in it will cleanse them of their sins and bring salvation. It is held once every 12 years and hundreds of thousands of people gathered every gathering.  An ex-Chief Minister of the state where the Kumbh Mela took place was saying mad things like “even the virus has the right to live”! Now the rivers are full of bodies because people don’t have money to cremate them.

How is the health system coping? We are hearing reports of the hospitals being overwhelmed.

The underlying problem is that India has the most privatised health system in the world. The problem is that in India we spend just over one percent of the GDP on health care, the lowest in the world. I think the comparative figure for your country is about 10 percent and for Germany it is 11 percent. We hear reports that even in the major cities thousands are dying for mere lack of oxygen. Can you imagine even this minimum necessity is not available. You cannot imagine to level of callousness of the governments at both the Centre and the States. 

India in the 1990s was one of the first countries to adopt neoliberal policies. A Congress Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, then finance Minister, was the architect of the neoliberal policies. He is very close to the IMF and World Bank, and he was once employed there.

India is a docile country. Historically we have bended before any foreign power and we continue to do so today. While it has a huge population it does not have such a big market because there’s no purchasing power. There’s also a big black economy, which is an important factor for creating even the limited market. But this focuses on the luxury sector and high end entertainment sector.

The education system too has been allowed to degenerate. The government’s school system has become absolutely rotten compared to what it was even 20 years ago. Privatisation has been going on for years, but in the last five to ten years the BJP government have privatised it to a huge extent, even primary schools. The government schools just don’t function and there’s a lack of teachers so people – even rural people who don’t have money – have to send their children to some private school.

India claims to be the world’s largest democracy but how developed are democratic customs there?

Since independence the laws in India, the Penal Code, the legal system, the jail system, everything is exactly as it was during the colonial rule, which was totally undemocratic. And that was not touched by subsequent governments in India. 

So basically, at that level, there is no democracy. At the other level, at the level of civil society, you have a feudal mindset.. The feudal mindset from the very family structure is still strong, and, with Hindutva, now it’s increased with the BJP’s Hindutva (aggressive nationalism and religious bigotry) people’s feudal thinking gets only deeper and warped. This is particularly reflected in the caste mindset with its hierarchies, divisiveness and oppressive institutions.

Whether the family and civil society, or the political structures from after the British were ousted, they continue. Even so, there’ll be shades of democratic rule depending on which party is in power.

Whatever little there was of independence between the legislature, the executive, and the wider judiciary even that is being eaten away. So you get all  right wing people being appointed in the courts, educational institutions, and things like that. 

So what about democracy at the individual state level? India has nearly 30 different states, how are these federated to the centre?

India is a vast country but there’s little federalism. Even if you look at the US statestructure, it is very federal, the separate laws in separate states. For instance, there’s capital punishment in some states, there’s no capital punishment other some places drugs are legal, some places not legal. I mean, there’s virtually various laws. So too in the UK which is such a small country, but Wales, Scotland, Ireland have some independence in the British overall structure. In India we have 26 official languages, and every state is like a European country. Here, we have Marathi as our main language, the neighbouring state hasKannada , another has Gujarati, then Hindi and the various shades of Hindi in the Hindi belt. And south, of course, has different languages. Each of the larger states have 30 million to 50 million people; UP has 200 million.  

The Constitution has been amended about 120 times and each time whatever little federal structure existed, has been reduced and reduced and reduced and reduced. So much so, that  we have a finance commission which basically allocates the funds between the center and the state. Earlier, besides sales tax, the state governments had no fiscal powers. The main corporate tax – income tax – all that is centralised and a percentage was to be given to the states. Now, the latest decisions, introducing GST, basically take away state tax to the Centre, and the last remaining fiscal power of the state has been taken away. All the states accepted that and now they’re crying because they’re not getting the funds they need unless they’re BJP states.In a diverse country like India with state governments of continental size and with separate languages federalism is a very important aspect of the democratic framework. But that too barely exists.

The problem of democracy even within civil society the people themselves don’t have a democratic thought process.

How the family operates is totally undemocratic. Here it is feudal and patriarchal basically and people just see themselves as a caste identity. And they don’t really therefore bother about any other castes and forget the lower castes that are looked down upon; not to mention the Dalits (so-called untouchables) who are daily lynched and raped by upper castes in rural areas. There is also no national spirit as it gets restricted to a caste spirit that’s why we always fought amongst ourselves and any foreign ruler could dominate anytime.

And what about economic development? Does that not chip away at the caste system?

That’s another thing that the communists did say would happen but we find that it has not happened; on the contrary the capitalists and state has used the caste system to their favour: the more menial jobs are given to the lower castes at depressed wage rates. Also it is used to divide the workers and break union activity. Besides the base and superstructure are not so mechanically linked. My late wife, Anuradha did a pathbreaking study of the caste question from a Marxist perspective. This was published posthumously in the book ‘Scripting the Change’, which is a compilation of articles she wrote. The focus is on caste and women’s issues.

What about the union movement, which was once strong in India. Is it still a force?

It is completely defunct, as far as I can see, he says. Contracting out has become the main trend. In the seventies through to the nineties there was big factory production, mining production, that type of stuff. They were well unionised. Now all that mining activity is contracted out to subcontractors and there are no strong unions. And the only unions that exist are in the public sector. To some extent, the public sector has also been contracted out. But they are sort of an elite amongst the workers because you can’t get permanent jobs except in government today. So there’s a huge demand for that waiting list to get in there; this further weakens their bargaining power.

What are the main political currents and parties?

The problem with India today is that there’s no real opposition to the BJP, the so-called Hindu Right, at a national level. The Congress is practically defunct and useless. Congress was the main party earlier but now they are losing election after election. Their political stance, in fact, laid the seeds for what is happening now. It was they who started this Hindutva wave in the ’80s. They’re wishy washy in everything, so people just don’t see them as an alternative. 

What is happening with the farmers’ protests during the lockdowns? What is the key issue for the farmers?

They’re continuing their rallies and have settled permanently on the borders of Delhi. The government passed three laws without any debate because they have a broad majority in the parliament. These laws are a part of the aggressive privatisation policies dictated by World Bank, IMF and the West. The farmers want the laws repealed and the government has agreed to withdraw the laws for eighteen months. But the farmers know that’s a trick to just get them off the streets. They refused that they said repeal entirely or nothing. 

The bulk of the media also ignores them consciously, media is, totally bought up, it’s really very sad, tragic. Though the farmers’ movement has crossed 6 months the bulk of the media says not a word on it. There continue to be hundreds of thousands on the streets and they indeed have been exceedingly creative in adopting novel forms of struggle. What is also interesting they have been able to maintain the unity of 36 different farmers’ organisations, many led by various factions of the M-L. Another novel feature is that they have also been able to involve dalit agricultural labour, muslim farmers and also traders, all of whom are threatened by the big corporate takeover. They have also not stuck to just targeting the government but have clearly said that the main culprits in this are the giant corporates and agri-business. They have particularly called for the boycott of Ambani and Adani goods, the two biggest billionaires by far – ranked 13th and 14th in the world billionaire list – who are making huge inroads into agriculture. 

Funnily enough, few farmers  seem to get Covid, though hundreds of thousands of them have come together for the last six months. 

Neoliberalism has sped up under Covid. The entire budget that was presented this year was exceedingly in the neoliberal framework by basically privatising everything and scrapping labour laws, scrapping farm laws, land laws, and handing over the land to the big corporates. So farmers have rightly said that this is basically policies to help the the two big business houses today Adani and Ambani. They’re coming into a big way in land and agri-business. So also the foreigners are purchasing a lot of land and pushing GMOs. These farm laws are nothing but a part of the overall policies of the central government to open out everything to the foreign investors and their big business allies in India. That is why in spite of gaining a bad image the government is reluctant to repeal those laws.

Right from the time of Nehru agriculture has been neglected, though India is still basically an agrarian country. So, India, though having five major rivers, the best land, and a lot of, everything has been destroyed the ecology, the rivers, the soil, everything. Barely 15 percent of India’s land is irrigated by government schemes  after 75 years of independence.

People were forced to rely on wells, now most of the ground water is dried up. Places are being turned to deserts. There’s just no policy at all from the beginning. Since about 2000 thousands of farmers have been committing suicide every year – earlier it was in the cotton belt after the introduction of Bt Cotton seeds, now the epidemic of suicides have spread to most crops. The suicides are because of the mounting debt of the farmer with the banks and moneylenders breathing down their necks. But no government has done anything to alleviate the suffering of the farmers. 

Do you see any way that would change in the foreseeable future?

Not in the foreseeable future. The Left movement is on the retreat in India – both parliamentary and non-parliamentary. Partly that is due to the opportunism of the CPM leadership. All the left need to unite on one platform basically against the neo-liberal policies which sells out our country to the west. In addition, caste is a big problem and the communists never took up that issue properly. They said it’s a class issue. They saw it as basically agricultural labourers versus landlords. The leadership of most of the communists were upper class but that’s not the only reason. There was also caste feelings amongst the cadres. Unless the caste system is broken – I don’t mean just legally – but in the mind also, there’s no question of democratisation of the country. The country cannot be democratised as long as this caste structure exists. And the caste thinking exists in people’s minds, it is in the religion and is terribly pernicious. 

The country needs a democratic awakening led by a broad platform of most of the shades of the left with a concrete programme, in the interests of labour, farmers and middle-classes, which comprise 99 percent of the country, against the handful of big corporate houses (crony capitalists) and their international backers. At present no such platform exists and do not seem to be even on the agenda. But, the ongoing farmers movement, brings some hope in that direction.