Jyoti Punwani

The activist, whose book has just been released, criticises Indian Marxists for being terribly dogmatic, and says it’s the system that has failed, not the ideology

When he was arrested in 2009, headlines screamed ‘top Maoist nabbed’. Today, he’s juggling time between interviews and podcasts, after his book recounting his journey from London to Indian jails (Fractured Freedom: A Prison Memoir) has become a bestseller. In an interview, he talks about these experiences, the setbacks suffered by communism, and the need for socialists to build a system of values beyond economic issues.

So, are you a Naxalite?

What is a Naxalite? It’s a vague term. There are many parties and groups who are called Naxalite. Some participate in elections, others work underground. Among the protesting farmers’ groups too, a few are reported to be affiliated to Marxist-Leninist groups.

I am for radical change and a socialist economic system. Capitalism has not given anything to the masses, while socialism all over the world has given enormous economic benefits to the people. But communist systems too have suffered setbacks; their weaknesses need to be rectified.

In your book you write that ‘universal happiness’ must be the goal of any movement for change. What happened to the goal of reducing inequality?

Of course, no one can be happy without the necessities of life. But to talk only about the economic aspect of change isn’t enough. After some time, power and ego start affecting people in the movement. But if you have a value system integrated into your goal, you can counter these influences. For example, I find people praising Anuradha [his late wife, Anuradha Ghandy] for her organisational capacities, not her personal qualities of straightforwardness, honesty, etc. which were equally if not more valuable for a social activist and, in fact, for any human being.

It’s true Freud came after Marx, but still I feel Marxists have ignored the importance of psychology. Just mechanically saying ‘social being determines consciousness’ doesn’t take into account the reality that people don’t change merely with a new ideology; their subconscious thinking inculcated in childhood continues to influence them. Socialism doesn’t automatically bring forth a ‘socialist person’. You have to struggle to become one.

Have you seen this lack of a value system affect those in the struggle?

Yes, and my book talks about it. With caste superiority coming ‘naturally’ to Indians, this is all the more important. I also saw it in Jharkhand’s jails. When the Naxalite inmates belonging to the Marxist Coordination Committee heard I was being brought there, they came running. The media had projected me as a top Maoist leader, and they thought that, like other Naxal leaders they knew, I’d have pots of money. When they saw I didn’t, they slunk away, refusing to help. It was a don who helped me get warm clothes in the Jharkhand winter! Some of these Naxalites were part of the jail mafia, and ran most of the lucrative wards.

Jharkhand has such a heroic history of resistance to the British, starting from the 18th century. What are the Naxalites doing to their tradition? They seem totally different from the Bastar tribals who, I heard from Anuradha, have transformed themselves through the movement to become self-confident and creative, especially the women.

I wonder how your comrades will react to this!

Indian Marxists are terribly dogmatic. They are just not willing to discuss new concepts, nor are they willing to acknowledge that communism has suffered a severe setback worldwide. It should make them think. Economic and social conditions today are so atrocious, yet there is no alternative — unlike when we were young, when communism was the rage.

Has communism failed or the people who implemented it?

The system has failed, not the ideology. History shows us that the socialist system is the most viable for the oppressed masses, while the existing system is destroying the lives not only of the poorest but now also of the middle classes. And the environment too. Only the 3,500-odd billionaires of the world are thriving.

But how we go about achieving it needs to be discussed. We can no longer keep saying, ‘Revolution is inevitable’. In Andhra/ Telangana’s jails I saw that despite 40 years of the revolutionary movement there, the younger generation knew nothing about it. But all that senior leftists say is: ‘Revolution has its ups and downs, but finally it will come,’ without any analysis.

Can we still say ‘the working class is the vanguard’? Where is the working class in India? Since the 90s, there’s only contract labour and sub-contracted labour. The workers are not on the factory floor, they are fractured. I was shocked to learn in Jharkhand that even the Railways contracts out the smallest job — say, cleaning train toilets — to 10 different contractors. An inmate told me he earned ₹10,000 from his job as a driver, but ₹30,000 from illegally selling diesel. So this worker is basically self-employed. Would such workers have a proletarian mentality?

Where is the relationship between the proletariat and the capitalist? The workers are highly oppressed, but they have been socially de-proletarianised.

Your observations on Islamists may also make you unpopular among your comrades. Identity politics is the in thing now.

I’ve written what I saw. Afzal Guru introduced me to the progressive concepts of Islam, but the Islamists only wanted to convert me, talking about jannat etc! Some of them even advocated bomb blasts in public places as the solution against injustice. Muslims who may die in such blasts would be collateral damage, they said. Identity politics leads to vote bank politics and makes it easier for Hindutva parties to get the sympathy of even ‘lower-caste’ Hindus, and to target Muslims and Dalits.

You’ve described the Nirbhaya rapist as a “vile sort.” Can you elaborate?

He would lie at the drop of a hat. I never saw anyone as manipulative and hypocritical as him, with his pujas on the one hand and his vicious outbursts against Nirbhaya’s mother on the other. Whenever he heard about her interviews, he’d say she deserved to be raped.

Physically you were not touched by the police. What restrained them?

I think they soon realised I couldn’t give them much information. They knew more than I did! Basically, they also knew that more than them, jail life would break me. Most people end up disillusioned in jail. I also did break, now and then. It’s not just the indignity of jail life, it’s the legal system too. You don’t know when you will be free or in what condition. Fortunately, I could keep myself sane through yoga and exercise, reading and writing, and Mainstream Weekly published my articles. My first phase in Tihar was very tough. I was very lucky that Afzal befriended me and cushioned the impact. He was jovial, educated; we could discuss so many things.

The writer is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist.

courtesy The Hindu