Kobad Ghandy: The prison years

Kobad Ghandy | Updated on March 16, 2021

Dark days: On his first night in jail, Ghandy recounts being so shaken that he could neither eat nor sleep   -  PTI/ROLI BOOKS

On his first day in Tihar, Ghandy found Afzal Guru standing at the gate of the cell to greet him

When I entered the ward for the first time, it was past 7 p.m., so all the inmates were already locked up in their respective cells. As I was being taken to Block A, I was greeted by a warm smile from none other than Afzal Guru who, standing at the gate of his cell, said he was expecting I would be brought to this ward in Tihar after reading about my case splashed all over the newspapers.

He immediately offered any help as I was taken away by the guards to Cell No. 4, which already housed three inmates, including Delhi’s top don, the dreaded Kishan Pehalwan. They offered bedding and shared their dinner which they had not yet consumed. Of course, I was so shaken by the events that hunger and sleep both seemed distant. My first night in jail, with four of us cramped in a cell, was difficult to pass. The others in the cell were mostly criminals and we had nothing much to communicate with each other.

Fractured Freedom: A Prison Memoir / Kobad Ghandy / Roli Books / Non-fiction / ₹595


Although each cell is meant to hold a single inmate, due to overcrowding, three inmates are often housed in a cell together — either one or three are allowed, never two. Once locked away you have no interaction with others in the ward. Only when the cell gates open can one interact with others in the ward. Besides Afzal, there were many interesting persons like the Khalistanis, another don, and some Islamists. Between 6 a.m. and 12 noon, when we were again locked in our cells for three hours, we were free to mix with the others in that block of the ward, including Afzal. There were no further restrictions on any inmate, at least then. Although Afzal did say that in his first few years of incarceration he was never allowed out of the cell.

Next morning, I was shifted to the last cell in the block of eight cells where my two fellow inmates were two Khalistanis (actually one was a smuggler of guns and drugs from across the border with Khalistani leanings). Even before being shifted to this cell, as soon as the gates opened, Afzal was there inviting me for tea in his cell; a routine that continued for over three years, till his hanging in February 2013. He had a knack of converting basically hot water into an excellent cup of tea. He had a half-litre white thermos flask (which I asked for as a memento after his hanging, but nothing was given) in which he filled the hot ‘tea’ that came from the jail kitchen, to which he added milk powder and a few tea bags purchased from the canteen. We would have it with the two slices of bread (made in the jail bakery) provided by the jail.

It was over these cups of tea and evening walks in the ground adjoining the phansi kothi that he introduced me to the Kashmir situation, Islam and its progressive aspects (directly opposed to what the fundamentalists propounded), and, most importantly, Sufi thinking, in which he strongly believed. As this was my first experience in an Indian jail, he was reassuring, helpful and mildly sympathetic to the cause of the oppressed people in India, unlike the Islamists, who saw no difference between the communist or other parties. For them, as long as a person was not a Sunni Muslim, he was either a potential convert or an enemy.


Kashmiris and Afzal

Over a cup of tea: During their time in prison, Afzal Guru would talk to Ghandy about life in Kashmir, Islam, Iqbal and Sufism   -  COURTESY: ROLI BOOKS


I noticed that while a lot of those from Pakistan (mostly from the Punjabi areas) were influenced by the Islamic fundamentalist philosophy, those from Kashmir were purely against the Indian State’s oppression in Kashmir and were against violence that entailed bombings in civilian areas and targets, which to this date seems rare in Kashmir. From what I could gather, most don’t have any ideology as such but feel stifled by the presence of Indian forces in Kashmir.

It seemed many were not favourable to Kashmir joining Pakistan and wanted an independent Kashmir. In fact, Afzal told me that in the early stages of the movement, when the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) demand for an independent Kashmir was at its peak in the 1980s, Pakistan used its network to kill many intellectuals advocating Kashmiri independence. In fact, he said, the writings of Maqbool Bhat, the first Kashmiri to be hanged in Tihar and a JKLF member, are banned not only in India but also in Pakistan. Afzal was the same — he distrusted Pakistan as much as he did India. He felt that Pakistan was using Kashmiris as cannon-fodder in their geo-political games with India. Ironically, I did not hear of any extreme fundamentalists being hanged.

Afzal, though had strong faith in Islam — he did his namaz five times a day, observed a strict Ramzan, had a strong belief in the afterlife (Jannat), opposed idol worship and dargahs, had a mistrust of Shias — was not a fundamentalist. He was a Sufi and had done a detailed study of the six volumes of Rumi in Urdu. He showed a keen interest in socialism and would often quote Iqbal who he said once wrote: communism + God = Islam.

At our daily morning chai sessions, he would give much information about life in Kashmir, Islam, Iqbal and Sufism. Afzal was well read, having studied people like Noam Chomsky and other anti-imperialists. He was the only person in jail fluent in English so we would talk in English or Hindi (he could speak but not read the latter). He would outline the background of Islam in Kashmir saying that most were recent converts and most of the leaders with names like Geelani, Sayeed, Guru, etc. were all Brahmin converts. And in their homes, many still followed some of their earlier rituals. He would picture the beauty of Kashmir and say that such a heaven had virtually been converted into a hell and an open prison with troops at every step. It was Afzal who also introduced me to the writings and history of the Muslim Brotherhood, who, it seems, always followed legal forms of struggle though many of their top intellectuals were hanged, right from the time of Nasser.

Excerpted with permission from ‘Fractured Freedom: A Prison Memoir by Kobad Ghandy’, published by Roli Books

Kobad Ghandy is a Marxist thinker and activist who spent a decade in prison

Published on March 16, 2021

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