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India's unlikely Maoist revolutionary

23 September 09 13:18 GMT

Kobad Ghandy, a top Maoist leader in India, came from an upper class background before he become one of the country's most wanted rebels. He was arrested in the capital, Delhi, on Monday. The BBC's Prachi Pinglay has this profile.

Kobad Ghandy is an "unlikely revolutionary" - a foreign educated urbanite, he is reputed to like joking and socialising.

But not for him the life of a middle class city professional. Instead he has remained committed to the Maoist cause with "discipline and perseverance" for over 30 years - with over a decade spent underground in various tribal areas, his friends say.

Maoist-linked violence across central and eastern India has killed at least 6,000 people over the past 20 years. The rebels say they represent the rights of landless farmhands and tribal communities.

Mr Ghandy is wanted in various cases, accused of being a member of a banned group, organising demonstrations and writing publicity material for the Communist Party of India (Maoist).

He first became active in socio-political activities in Mumbai (then called Bombay) during the tenure of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

While his initial years are fairly well documented, very little is known about him in later years.

He spoke to the BBC in 2008, describing Indian society as "semi-feudal, semi-colonial" and saying it needed to be "democratised".

Political activities

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."

'Inequality'

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."

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