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The relaxed radical

india Updated: Sep 25, 2009 02:36 IST
Sumana Ramanan
Sumana Ramanan
Hindustan Times
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Of all his virtues, his tolerance for difference stood out.

So say friends of 62-year-old Kobad Ghandy, whom the Delhi police arrested on Sunday for his alleged Maoist activities. Now in judicial custody, he is suspected to be suffering from a serious health condition.

“He was deeply democratic,” said Shoma Sen, 51, who teaches English literature at Nagpur University and worked closely with Ghandy and his wife Anuradha on civil liberties issues.

“He never made me feel inferior because I did not join the movement. I had a daughter, and he respected my limitations and the fact that I was doing my bit in the field of women’s rights and civil liberties.”

Said a friend in Mumbai who wanted to be identified merely as a classmate of Anuradha’s in Elphinstone college: “Our lives went in different directions, but that never came between us. They never tried to convert me.”

Born into a well-off Parsi family that lived in Worli, Ghandy was politicised in England, where he was studying to become a chartered accountant after getting an undergraduate degree from St Xavier’s College in the late 1960s.

He returned to Mumbai in the mid-1970s and helped found the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights. Deeply angered by the large-scale dispossession of the rural poor, he became a left activist.

Shoma Sen got to know him in Mumbai when both of them, along with the radical Andhra poet Varavara Rao, went to Nagpur in 1979 to investigate the death of Peddi Shankar, a suspected Naxalite whom the police had shot in the back.

In 1982, the couple moved to Nagpur. Anuradha began teaching sociology at the university while Ghandy threw himself in to the trade union movement.

He also worked with the Nasthik Manch, a rationalist organisation, and wrote for publications such as the Nagpur Times and Frontier, published out of West Bengal.

He would entertain his family and friends with various tricks that rationalists use to demonstrate the scientific roots of apparently mystical phenomena. “He retained a child-like enthusiasm for life,” said Sunil Shanbag, Anuradha’s brother, 52, a Mumbai-based theatre director.

In the late 1980s, the couple gradually started going underground, after which friends and family saw them increasingly rarely. He was deeply egalitarian, they say, helping with all household chores without the slightest fuss. “Theirs was truly a marriage in which gender did not play a role,” said Anu’s college friend.

Friends remember Ghandy as a warm and cheerful man with a lively sense of humour. The recent photographs are the first glimpse many of them have had of him for years. “What’s missing, though, is that twinkle in his eye,” said the friend.