The talk about the arrest of Kobad Ghandy and the debate in the media, the retelling of old stories, the birth and growth of the Naxalite movement remind me of the stories that my mom used to tell me. It was more than just stories. She was showing me something that no text book would ever speak about. She was in Calcutta University during the peak of the crackdown on the Naxalites in the 70’s. She wasn’t one herself but had friends who were sympathisers and activists. The confusion, danger, madness that prevailed then was truly exciting at least from the point of view of someone who was listening to her in the 90’s. Some people even people blamed Gandhi for actively involving students in politics. Had they not been involved during the freedom struggle, they wouldn’t think of protesting in the 70’s, they said.
My first lesson in survival under duress of any kind (to run away) came not from any book or even the media (the media cannot be trusted, remember?) but from her. I have grown up the stories of police raids (sudden, unwelcome), illegal newspapers (must be burned), bomb explosions (regular), blood-spattered shirts (which had to be washed before the police turned up), Mao-Tse Tung pamphlets (banned, must never been seen with it), police investigations (brutal), detectives in mufti (handsome, not to be trusted), University politics (appear as a sympathiser but never join in) and near escapes. I got to know of “the system”, the student protest and the clash between them. But I also got to know that many people who were neither. They didn’t care if the system failed them. The system was attacking their kids. People who had faithfully served the system now had to protect their children from it. It was a confusing time. Many people send their kids away to different parts of India even the world to escape being picked up by the police. I admired that people had courage to stand up to the injustice. But also was scared for people who had to live through this uncertain time. There was a certain purity of purpose but everyday events smacked of corruption anyway. You could for instance bribe your way into seeing a friend in prison who was “allegedly” picked up for questioning. But you could not free him or her. Some of the kids of the richest people were wanted for their involvement. It was best to be like Switzerland, neutral.
A healthy society should always have the space for protest without fear of retribution. It’s when this space is vacuumed out, that the problem starts, the protest starts. On the other hand, can one be idealistic, have the same purity of purpose without being violent? If idealism and protest go hand in hand, is idealism dead or has it morphed into something we don’t recognise anymore? Or is this question even relevant in today’s context, where conformity is the new cool?
1. The incisive article in Tehelka on the debate surrounding Kobad Ghandy.
2. The personal article in the Hoot on Kobad Ghandy.
3. The nostalgic article in the Times of India on the 70’s rebels.