Profiles of Maoist Leaders

Regular Rebels

Anuradha and Kobad Ghandy

Anuradha and Kobad Ghandy were among the several educated youth who, in the ’70s, gave up a life of comfort to live with the poor. Only, the couple never went back to their old lives. Their names have now resurfaced after Ghandy, 63, politburo member of the banned CPI(Maoist), was arrested in Delhi last week. Charged for spreading the organisation’s influence in urban areas, he has been sent to 14 days’ judicial custody by a Delhi court.

Ghandy was born in 1947 to Nargis and Adi Ghandy, a rich Parsi couple. Adi was a top executive in a pharmaceutical company and an ice cream magnate. Ghandy had a comfortable childhood—from his Worli Sea Face bungalow to his education at Doon School, Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College and chartered accountancy in London.

It was 1970, and Ghandy was 23, already influenced by the idea of a revolution by the poor. Leaving his charted accountancy course midway, he returned to Bombay with a thirst to understand the Indian society’s idea of justice. P.A. Sebastian, Ghandy’s associate in the late 1970s, says, “London was one of the centres of the global protests against the Vietnam War. Kobad read mainstream literature and journalism and disagreed with it.”

Upon returning, Ghandy turned his discontent—fuelled by the human rights violations of the Emergency—into a cause, participated in sporadic civil liberties movements and established the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR) in 1978. Activist Asghar Ali Engineer, friend of the couple and member of CPDR, recalls the meetings outside Rajabhai Tower of the then Bombay University campus: “We discussed issues ranging from the Albanian revolution to local human rights violations. Even though Kobad was a man of few words, he had a way with them.” Ghandy wrote for economic journals and newspapers under a pseudonym, Arvind. Activist Jyoti Punwani, who then edited CPDR’s magazine Adhikar Raksha, says he wrote about the economic exploitation of the poor.

It was while working in a slum cluster near his house that he met Anuradha, who was then pursuing her MPhil in sociology from Mumbai’s Elphinstone College and worked with poor Communities. Anuradha was the daughter of Kumud, a Central government official, and Ganesh Shanbagh, a sessions court lawyer who represented the communists arrested in the Telangana struggle. Ganesh had run away from home to join Subhash Chandra Bose’s army as a boy and later returned. His daughter, though, would never return to a mainstream life.

Anuradha had gone to one of the best schools in Bombay, worn beautiful saris, even styled her hair. “She was so fashionable, she wanted the best of things, the best life,” says Kumud, 84, who lives alone after the death of her husband and now works for an NGO in Mumbai. “I think it was during her masters in sociology that she came face to face with real people and real pain. I saw her becoming political in her first year at Elphinstone,” Kumud says.

Their home was a gathering place where she and her friends would discuss new ideas. It was here that Kumud first saw Ghandy, tall, lean and soft-spoken. “He asked me to teach him Marathi. I taught him for a few days,” Kumud says. “A few months later, he fell on his knees in front of my husband and said, ‘I want to marry your daughter’. Ghandy and Anu were married in November 1977 in a small ceremony in Mahabaleshwar, where the Ghandys had a hotel business and grew strawberries for ice creams.

The couple first set up home in Colaba before moving to Nagpur and Vidarbha in the early 1980s, where they worked extensively for the rights of contractual labourers and peasants. When Kumud visited, they were living in a single room in a slum. “She looked frail, was dressed differently and lived in poverty,” Kumud says. When she gave her daughter vegetables and fruits, Anuradha smiled. “Anybody who needs them will cook and eat them, that is the way it is here,” Kumud remembers her daughter’s answer. “They slept under trees and tables and ate little. She was happy.”

After Ghandy and Anuradha went underground in the late-’80s, Kumud never saw them together. Ritu Diwan, a close friend of Ghandy, recalls the couple being called ‘phatakdis’ by friends. “They were so dynamic and thoughtful and they were always doing something. So we called them phatakdis, small fire crackers that make little noise but shine bright.”

Anuradha took up a job as a part-time lecturer at Nagpur University, commuting on an Avon bicycle till Kobad bought a TVS moped. She wrote and translated Naxal material and educated women. She secretly visited her mother and went to her brother Sunil’s plays. “My heart ached to see her getting weaker. I would apply oil in her hair,” says Kumud. Sunil erased almost all pictures of his sister and Ghandy after they went underground.

“Ghandy never once used a mobile phone. His aides were trained to such perfection that they were the best couriers of information,” says a senior official, who spent a decade trying to track Ghandy. He adds that Ghandy had sympathisers at government offices and had eight separate identity documents issued in Maharashtra. When a divisional commander surrendered and the police took him in for questioning, he did not know Ghandy by his name, the official adds. “After much prodding, he talked about a long lecture Ghandy had delivered, nibbling dry cashewnuts while talking about revolution in France, China and Russia even as a huge classroom of cadre sat hungry and tired for hours. ‘When it was over, we told him we were hungry and he looked angrily at us and left,’ the commander said.”

Anuradha last visited her mother after her father’s death in 2002. “She had grown so old. She had greyed and weakened,” says Kumud. Anuradha, by then, already had sclerosis. By the mid-2000s, Ghandy was a key Naxal leader, in charge of party documentation, and in 2007, Anuradha became a member of the Central Committee. A year ago, on April 12, Anuradha died of cerebral malaria after years of suffering from sclerosis and inadequate medication while working in the tribal areas of Maharashtra. Her mother, brother and husband did not attend her funeral. Ghandy himself is now in Tihar Jail, with prostrate cancer and severe cardiac problems.

—with Smita Nair

Vernon Gonsalves

BORN to a Mangalorean Catholic couple, Vernon Gonsalves grew up in an educated, lower-middle class family in a Byculla chawl in Mumbai. Son of a bank employee, Vernon joined Burhani, an unassuming college in the neighbourhood, where he slowly became involved in the students’ movement—his first major agitation was against the college management.

Just out of college and looking for a “meaningful” job, Vernon, now 52, along with several other left-wing activists, came in contact with Kobad Ghandy. And though he got a well-paying job at Siemens soon after college, he left it to teach economics at Ruparel and K.C. College. “He quit as he could not identify with his mediocre job profile. Teaching kept him more involved among books, his writing and the movement,” says Susan Abraham, his wife.

Vernon plunged full-time into activism after Emergency was clamped. “Kobad was deeply involved in the agitation against the government’s excesses. Vernon found a reason in life,” recalls Susan, a former journalist. “I was born in Zambia and came from an affluent family. I was attracted to the issues Vernon raised. I dedicated myself to labour issues in the early 1980s,” says Susan, who studied law while working as a journalist. Now she works with a law firm and fights human rights cases.

When Ghandy shifted to Nagpur along with Anuradha to work for the rights of tribals, Vernon decided to follow. “Vernon wanted to go to Vidarbha and help labourers get minimum wages. Vernon and I got married and immediately shifted to Chandrapur,” says Susan. Just six months after they landed there, the couple took on landlords and contractors, fighting for the rights of labourers. They also started a CPDR centre here and that gave an impetus to our agitation,” she adds.

Susan spent nearly 10 years in Chandrapur with her husband. “In 1993, I shifted to Surat and joined the powerloom workers. I soon shifted back to Mumbai as a plague epidemic broke out in Surat. Our son was born in Mumbai.”

While Susan began practising law in Mumbai, Vernon stayed back in Chandrapur. He shifted to Mumbai in 2006. A year later, the Anti-Terrorism Squad arrested Vernon from near his house in Andheri, calling him a Maharashtra state committee member of the banned CPI(ML)—a charge both Vernon and Susan deny. There are about 19 ‘serious’ cases filed against Vernon, who is now lodged in Taloja Jail.

Saketh Rajan

AFTER he was shot dead by policemen on February 6, 2005, in the forests of the Western Ghats in Karnataka’s Chikmagalur district, a book on the history of Karnataka penned by 38-year-old Maoist leader Saketh Rajan was considered authoritative enough to be a part of university curriculum. A second volume of the book, Making History, had just been published and a third was said to be in preparation to be published under Saketh Rajan’s pen name Saki. Four years before his death, Saketh Rajan’s wife, comrade and silent collaborator on the Making History project, Rajeshwari, was killed by the Andhra Pradesh police in the forests of Visakhapatnam.

Hailing from a Brahmin family in conservative Mysore, Rajan’s late father S.K. Soundar Rajan was a Major in the Indian Army. After he died, his mother said the family had dreamt of a career in engineering for Saketh but he chose to study English literature, journalism and public administration at the Maharajah’s College in Mysore.

“He was a man of many parts. An intensely private man, a serious thinker, a college Romeo, a great player of the mandolin, a yoga exponent, and a complete rebel who was also very soft-spoken and sensitive,” writes Lingaraj Gandhi, a long-time friend of Saketh and now a professor of English literature at Mysore University, on a website dedicated to him.

Saketh got a Masters degree in communications from Bangalore University before moving to the Indian Institute of Mass Communication in Delhi for a diploma. “He was always compassionate towards the poor. It was amusing for us, who came from poor, rural homes, to hear him speak because he was from an affluent family,’’ says N. Bhrungesh, press secretary to Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa and a former collegemate of Saketh.

He is believed to have gravitated towards the Naxal movement during his post-graduate diploma days in Delhi, where he won as many as four gold medals at IIMC. Among the many stories associated with Saketh are those which recount how he refused to accept a certificate or shake hands with the chief guest, a minister, at the IIMC convocation.

Saketh was elected to the State Committee of the Peoples War Group in the first conference in Karnataka in 1987 and later became the state secretary. He assumed the name Prem and was rarely seen in Mysore after 1985. According to police records, Saketh was an accused in a 1989 armed bank raid carried out on the Javalgere Syndicate Bank, in the Sindhanoor taluk of Raichur district, by over nine Naxalites. He is believed to have subsequently entrenched himself in the Western Ghats region, trying to generate support for the Maoist movement among tribals.

In a book on Naxalites in Karnataka, published in 2007, former state police intelligence chief and current DG of the CID unit, Dr D V Guruprasad, pointed out that no Naxal killings were reported when Saketh Rajan headed the Karnataka unit. “He was not a strong believer in armed struggle,” says a senior state police officer. Saketh’s death on February 6, 2005, however resulted in a retaliatory strike by members of the Andhra Pradesh unit on a police outpost on the Karnataka border, resulting in the death of five policemen.

Shridhar Shriniwasan

FOR Shridhar Shriniwasan, it all began with a poster exhibition on ‘Why poverty still prevails in India’, a outine ‘extracurricular activity’ in college. Those were the heady days after Emergency and talk of rights and repression reverberated in the campus. The exhibition moved Shriniwasan, a student of mathematics at Mumbai’s prestigious Elphinstone College, enough to mobilise all “like-minded students” to come up with “real means” to fight poverty and suppression.

Shriniwasan, who belonged to an upper-middle class Tamilian Brahmin family in south Mumbai, quit his studies to become a full-time activist and later, according to the state Anti-Terrorism Force, rose to become a member of the Central politburo of the CPI(Maoist) and state secretary of the Maharashtra unit. On August 17, 2007, Shriniwasan, now 51, was arrested along with Vernon Gonsalves from the outskirts of Mumbai. The two—lodged in Taloja Jail in Thane district—have been charged with “waging war” against the country.

Shoma Sen, Shriniwasan’s close friend in college and now an English professor at Nagpur University, remembers how, in August 1978, he initiated a drive against fee rise at the University of Bombay. Some 400 students went ahead with a “token hijack” of the university premises and finally, the Vice-Chancellor had to give in.

Shriniwasan came in contact with Gonsalves and Ghandy and followed them to the tribal region of Vidarbha. “In Vidarbha, he rallied the tribals on their forest rights, on the question of land to the tiller, and also the rights of coal mine workers,” recalls Susan Abraham, a friend and Gonsalves’s wife. The 1990s saw Shridhar slowly shifting his agitation towards the root causes of the agrarian crisis in the cotton belt of Vidarbha.

Sabyasachi Panda

He is five-ft-and-six-inches tall, scrawny, sports a beard and is on the wrong side of 40. The only photograph the Orissa Police, or anyone else for that matter, has seen is at least 20 years old. Sabyasachi Panda, a mathematics graduate from Samant Chandra Sekhar government college in Puri and the most wanted Maoist leader of Orissa, has over 100 criminal cases lodged against him in several police stations of the state, including that of masterminding the murder of VHP leader Laxmanananda Saraswati last year in Kandhamal district.

Panda has several aliases, including Sunil, Sarat and Soman. Not much is known about his activities after he left home in 1991 to join the late Nagabhushan Patnaik—CPI(Marxist-Lenin) ideologue and a contemporary of Kanu Sanyal. Police officials who have tracked his rise in the Maoist movement say Panda developed serious differences with his mentor Nagbhushan and in 1996 revolted against the CPI(ML) to form Kui Lawenga Sangha and Chashi Mulia Samiti, which later became the frontal organisations of the People’s War Group (PWG) in Orissa before being banned by the state in 2006. When the PWG and the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) joined hands to form CPI (Maoist) in 2004, he was declared commander of the Basdhara division of the rebels in Orissa that was active in Raygada, Gajapati, Nayagarh and Kandhamal districts.

The halo around Panda has grown not just because of his reputation of being the most violent brain in the Naxal world, but also because he comes from a political family. He was born in Mayurjhalia village under Ranapur area—famous for its pre-Independence uprising that led to the murder of a British Army major—of Nayagarh district to freedom fighter-turned-politician Ramesh Chandra Panda, three-time MLA from Ranapur area between 1971 and 1980 and a CPI(M) member before he switched over to BJD soon after its formation. The senior Panda was the district president of the party till his death in 2003. Panda grew up with his three sisters and elder brother Siddharth, who is a BJD member and a consultant to industrial houses. “The police are groping in the dark. They don’t know anything about him,” says Siddharth.

Panda caught the attention of the Maoist leadership when he masterminded the attack on a sub-jail and a police station in March 2006. After an attack in February 2008 on a police armoury in Nayagarh district, claiming 18 lives, he declared himself the secretary of the Orissa State Committee of CPI (Maoists). Then Panda stunned everyone with the brutal murder of VHP leader Saraswati and his four disciples in Jalespeta of Kandhamal on August 23 last year. After the murder, Panda told a group of mediapersons in the deep forests of Kandhamal that Saraswati was killed as he was “spreading social unrest”.

Senior police officials admit to his deep knowledge of the terrain he operates in. “He is very cautious when it comes to his own security. He generally adheres to the drill of not making himself vulnerable. He never goes to cities and never stays in one place for long,” says an inspector-general of police.

BJD MP from Jajpur, Mohan Jena, who in 2004 met Panda as government interlocutor for peace talks with Maoists, says, “His agitation is solely based on the development of poor sections of the society,” Jena even claimed to have been floored by a poem titled ‘Laxmi’, written by the radical.

Source : Indian Express