Kobad Ghandy’s notes from prison
I don’t usually think about jail, but there are times I’m curious. Kobad Ghandy’s just-published book provides a fascinating insight. Called Fractured Freedom: A Prison Memoir, it’s the story of the 10 years its author, allegedly a politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), spent in jails in Delhi, Hyderabad, Patiala, Visakhapatnam, Hazaribagh and Surat.
Of Tihar, he writes, “Throughout my stay … I was in a cell with a CCTV camera, being watched day and night”. There was even one “perched just above the toilet”. It made him feel like an animal in a zoo. But the prisoners were thoughtful and kind. When his shoes wore out, Sunil Rathi, a murder convict, gave him a new Adidas pair. Sometimes jail superintendents could be equally considerate. One permitted Ghandy and Devinderpal Singh Bhullar, a Khalistani sentenced to death, to plant tulsi, guava and dhania in the courtyard and provided a hose for watering the plants.
However, Ghandy has no illusions about the jail’s capacity to reform. He comments cynically: “Most (inmates) have one aim. To commit a bigger crime on their release and make pots of money. That is the common refrain.”
What I found particularly interesting is Ghandy’s description of his fellow prisoners. He met many we know of. In 2015, he shared a cell with a Delhi 2012 gang rape case convict, Vinay Sharma. He calls him “a vile sort”. Om Prakash Chautala “would call his lawyer every day so he could continue his political activities from within the jail.” When he got caught, lawyer-visits for everyone were restricted to one a week. A third was Chhota Rajan. He had “the whole high risk ward to himself, with VIP facilities … for his own protection no one was allowed to meet him”. This made Rajan “a veritable state guest”.
However, Ghandy’s account of Afzal Guru, who he knew well and liked, reveals a side we’re unaware of. We think of Guru as a conspirator sentenced to death for the 2001 attack on Parliament. Ghandy reveals the man behind the convict.
Guru “had a knack of converting basically hot water into an excellent cup of tea”. He was also well-informed, if not scholarly. “He introduced me to the Kashmir situation, Islam and its progressive aspects,” Ghandy writes, “and, most importantly, Sufi thinking, in which he strongly believed”. And who could have guessed Guru was romantic? “Once when he had access to someone’s mobile I remember him singing ghazals on the phone to his wife, which continued for nearly an hour.”
Without emotion and certainly bare of rhetorical flourish, Ghandy recounts the morning of Saturday, February 9, 2013, the day Guru was hanged. “The staff was apparently in tears on seeing his courage while going to the gallows. They said while he was walking towards the phansi koti from his cell — barely a three-minute walk — he wished all the staff lined up and asked the officers to take good care of them.” Ghandy adds: “The staff quite respected him as he was not fanatical, was highly disciplined, lived simply and was of a jovial temperament”.
Of course, there’s more to this book than an account of prison life. Towards the end, Ghandy reflects on communism. It seems the scales have fallen and doubt or, at least, questions have taken their place. Of the ambition to build “a democratic and just society”, he says, “one may not have advanced even a step further”. Of his countrymen, he asks, “Why did the masses so easily choose a free market over real freedom, as also freedom from want?” Actually, what struck me is the word “masses”. Its use by a communist is surprising.
Finally, Ghandy laments: “So where did we or, for that matter the communists throughout the world, go wrong?” There isn’t a clear answer but there is a hint. “The goalposts have to be changed from fighting inequality to happiness for all”. That sounds more philosophical than political. Did prison transform his Naxal journey into a quest for spiritual fulfilment?
Karan Thapar is author of Devil’s Advocate: The Untold StoryThe views expressed are personal