Mumbai’s Rebels: Those Who Couldn’t Remain Unmoved


The risks of a militant struggle for an alternative path of development that is radically different from the one followed by India’s ruling classes seem to most dissidents far too dangerous.  Yet there are some who stand firm in their conviction: what should be, can be.  An outline of a few of Mumbai’s rebels who chose this arduous path.

Amalendu’s crime, Kalpana’s crime, is the crime of all those who cannot remain unmoved and inactive in an India where a child crawls in the dust with a begging bowl; where a poor girl can be sold as a rich man’s plaything; where an old woman must half-starve in order to buy social acceptance from the powers-that-be in her village; where countless people die of sheer neglect; where many are hungry while food is hoarded for profit; where usurers and tricksters extort the fruits of labour from those who do the work; where the honest suffer while the villainous prosper; where justice is the exception and injustice is the rule; and where the total physical and mental energy of millions of people is spent on the struggle for mere survival.
— Mary Tyler, My Years in an Indian Prison,
Penguin, 1978, pp 213-14.

The hugely disappointed hopes of the people after independence have routinely found expression in political dissidence among the youth and intellectuals of India’s cities, but only a few among them have dared join the rebel caravan’s long march.  The risks of militant struggle for an alternative path of development, radically different from, indeed, deeply conflicting with the one followed by India’s ruling classes, seem to most dissidents far too dangerous.  Yet there are some who not only insist that all our problems are not intractable, they stand firm in their conviction: what should be, can be.  For them, the obstacles to a better future for the Indian people cannot be meaningfully addressed within the capitalist framework.  The political establishment portrays them as a bunch of “left-wing extremists”, indeed, as “terrorists”, a tag echoed by the mainstream media.  Their arrest, torture, and implication in false cases are deemed legitimate in power elite circles.  In this, the world’s largest democracy, it seems to have become a “crime” to join the struggle of those without power, wealth and privilege against the possessors of power, wealth and privilege — to take the side of the persecuted in the class struggle.

The instances of a few of Mumbai’s rebels — those who chose/have chosen the long march — might be illuminating, possibly even throw light on their distinctive brand of politics.  Anuradha Ghandy (1954-2008), founder-member of the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR), Mumbai, went on to embrace the vanguard party; in the last phase of her personal trajectory, she was one of the front runners of the Communist Party of India (Maoist).

Arun Ferreira, influenced by liberation theology when he was a student of St Xavier’s College in the early 1990s, but expressing a clear preference for liberation over theology, adopted radical politics as a course of action, was arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 2004 (UAPA) in Nagpur on May 8 last year, falsely implicated in a host of cases, tortured and forced to undergo narco-analysis, and is now on a hunger strike along with his comrades in Nagpur jail.

Vernon Gonsalves gave up an executive’s career in Siemens to engage in, alongside the unorganised workers of Chandrapur, the class struggles to win rights promised in the Constitution and the law, was arrested under the UAPA in Mumbai on August 19 last year by the anti-terrorist squad, falsely accused of being found with explosives, tortured, and is now in the Arthur Road jail.

Shridhar Shrinivasan, prominent in the much-celebrated August 8, 1978 student-takeover of the University of Bombay and the hoisting of the mutineer’s flag on the Rajabhai clock tower, of his own accord prematurely gave up his studies to join the rebel caravan in rural Maharashtra, was arrested under the UAPA on August 19 last year outside his residence in Govandi, tortured and implicated in a host of cases similar to the ones foisted on Vernon, and is now in the Arthur Road gaol.

In the Vanguard

Going on a fact-finding trip out-of-town is always one of the high points in the life of a democratic rights activist.  It was, I think, in the late 1980s, I was preparing to go to Nagpur, en route to Chandrapur, to investigate a police firing on contract workers at a construction site of the Chandrapur thermal power station.  I was then in my first stint at the EPW, and Krishna Raj, the editor, had joined in my excitement.  “It will be a great pleasure meeting Anuradha Ghandy”, he said, “Anu’s so charming, a magnetic personality”.  Anu met us, Gayatri Singh and me, at the Nagpur station.  We got into a cycle rickshaw, while she led us on her bicycle, on our way to the dalit basti where she lived.  I had heard so much about her, the personal from Jyoti Punwani, editor of Adhikar Raksha, the magazine the CPDR published, and the political from P A Sebastian, the general secretary of the organisation — how Anu burst on the scene in the early 1970s at Elphinstone College, invigorating the progressive youth movement (PROYOM) on campus, inviting celebrities from the world of art, cinema and theatre, more than supplementing the heat and light in the Hamill sabha, and so on.  In the early years of the CPDR, again, I was told, Anu’s magnetism attracted new members and persuaded celebrities and well-known intellectuals to endorse statements and campaigns condemning state institution of “black laws” and violations of democraticrights.

In 1982, Anu and Kobad, her husband and close comrade, moved to Nagpur, choosing to live in a dalit basti, engaging in an intense personal struggle to change themselves, both culturally and politically, identifying with the most exploited, the most oppressed and the most dominated — unorganised workers, poor peasants and landless labourers, tribals and dalits, and women from these sections.  When I came to Nagpur once again, in the early 1990s, as part of a two-member CPDR team, to investigate a case of three “missing” tribal youth in Bhandara district, this time I got the feeling that Anu and her comrades were not unscarred from state repression.

When we (the two-member CPDR team) came back to Nagpur from the hinterland of Bhandara after having investigated the disappearance of the three tribal youth, I had to face a well-attended press conference alone, without the other member of the team, the lawyer, Suresh Rajeshwar, who had to urgently get back to Bombay to attend to another matter.  I was nervous.  There was, as was to be expected, a volley of very legitimate questions about violence, about a land mine that the Naxalites had planted that had killed a number of police personnel combing the area in a vehicle.  The journalists present wanted to know the CPDR’s position on these matters.  I hesitated, gathered myself and emphatically stated, “We hate violence”, and then to buy a little more time, “we abhor violence”.  Anu, who had made it to the press conference, was looking at me, apprehensive, uneasy at what I might say next.  I gathered myself and asserted, “It is important to understand the context.  The violence of the oppressed is always preceded and provoked by the violence of the oppressors.  The point is to first put an end to the latter.  How?  To preach non-violence is, in effect, to strengthen established violence, the violence of the oppressors.”

It was clear that I was not a Gandhian, but to my surprise the journalists did not object to what I had said.  Neither did Anu, later on.  The rebels have however been uneasy with democratic rights activists reminding them of the imperative need to refrain from resorting to “terror” (senseless violence) in countering state and state-sponsored terror, impressing upon the rebels to continue to embrace humane values even in the wake of thousands of lives (of their mass base) being utterly shattered as a consequence of established terror, for instance, more recently, the state-backed Salwa Judum in Dantewada in Chhattisgarh and the Gaon Bandhi in Gadchiroli in Maharashtra.  But I did not do that then, for there was certainly no need to remind a person like Anu of this.

The vanguard party’s belief in the necessity of armed struggle, “revolutionary violence”, aimed at destroying the violence of the oppressors in order to move forward on the path to a new society free from exploitation, misery and inequality, and hence, increasingly free from violence of any kind, inevitably led Anu towards the life of a guerrilla.  It was the Maoist guerrillas that had won the hearts and minds of the people in Gadchiroli, Chandrapur and Bhandara districts in Maharashtra, in places such as undivided Bastar, now Bastar, Kanker and Dantewada districts in Chhattisgarh, Koraput and Malkangiri districts in Orissa, and so on, for they had, beginning in the early 1980s, been in the forefront of the struggle for the people’s rights there.  They had taken up the issues that affected the people’s lives the most — winning forest rights, carrying out militant actions for higher rates for tendu leaf picking and bamboo cutting, taking over and redistributing landlords’ land, and so on.  And in periods when there was some respite from state repression, and with the meagre resources at their command, they had mobilised the people in constructing minor irrigation and potable water facilities (including wells for drinking water) through voluntary labour, initiated the cultivation of vegetables and the planting of fruits, introduced diesel pump sets and rice mills, formed cooperatives, mutual aid teams, and credit societies, and helped spread literacy and provide elementary healthcare, all of these, keeping class politics in command.  But these activities, essential as they are, could not go very far because of the bitter contention for political power in the area and the unleashing of state and state-sponsored terror by successive governments.

In such circumstances, defensive armed struggle assumed centre stage.  Despite the confines of patriarchy, women had entered the armed squads in almost equal numbers; some of them had even risen to become leaders.  Anu joined them, learned the Gondi language, bonded with them, sang their songs and recited their poems, enriching her life, and, in turn, elevated the lives of the people all around her.  She had that venturesome spirit in her; she must have been in her late 40s, but it was not in her to remain on the sidelines.  The little I know of her, she probably worked from dawn to dusk, did not sleep enough and did not eat enough.  And, the vanguard needed her more than anybody else, for she could be at once bold, courageous, and decisive, yet kind, gentle and considerate — a valiant fighter for the emancipation of humankind.  But tragically, cerebral malaria took her life, her body already considerably impaired due to sclerosis.

Liberation Theology to Marx

Arun Ferreira, in his late 30s, was arrested at Dikshabhoomi in Nagpur on May 8 last year along with Murli (Ashok Satya Reddy), Dhanendra Sriram Bhurule and Naresh Babulal Bansode under the UAPA.  Arun, Bhurule (a freelance journalist, recognised for his writings on extrajudicial killings and rape of tribal women by the police) and Bansode (an activist of the Rationalist Association) had gone to meet Murli, an associate of the rebel caravan from Warangal since his student days, and an activist among the coal miners of Singareni, who was on a visit to Nagpur.  The police were tracking Murli’s movements.  He has been subjected to some of the worst forms of torture that is meted out to political prisoners who are deemed to be “left-wing extremists” — at a remote police station in Gondia district in Vidarbha, 30 ml of petrol was pumped into his anus.  The police have, through association, put Arun in the same political category as Murli, implicating him in a host of cases, subjecting him to torture, though not as brutal as the ill-treatment of Murli, and to narco-analysis tests.  After his arrest, the police raided both Arun’s and his wife Jenifer’s residences, in Bandra and Thane respectively, subjecting Jenifer’s mother and Arun’s parents to trauma.

Arun comes from a socially conscious family.  His mother’s brother, the late Father Raymond D’Silva, was a liberation theologist, for a while, associated with the All-India Catholic University Students’ Association (AICUF, without the S).  He helped sensitise a generation of Catholic youth about the impoverishment of millions of human beings as a situation of “social sinfulness” that permanently violates human dignity.  If one were to abstract from the biblical and mystical trappings of this theology, Father Raymond can be said to have interpreted the doctrine as a body of ethical theory that poses such questions as: Why is there widespread poverty and misery when the Indian resource base is so abundant?  Why is there such an unequal distribution of resources and why are the rich who own and control these resources so irresponsible as to, in effect, render millions of people without sufficient food and shelter, and deny them the right to a proper livelihood?  The aspirations of liberation theology, equality and justice, were deeply ingrained in Arun right from his youth.  As a student of St Xavier’s College, he played an active role in the social service centre, visiting the Cheshire Home (a home for paraplegics), teaching and reading to blind children and orphans in Don Bosco’s shelter, and so on, always in the forefront when it came to such activity among the student body.  But, as things would have it, Marx’s last thesis on Feuerbach was to ultimately prove decisive: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it”.

After graduating in 1993, Arun worked in the right-to-housing struggles of Mumbai’s slum-dwellers as a member of the Nivara Hakk Suraksha Samiti — among other things, he was closely involved in the slum rehabilitation at Dindoshi, which entailed the relocation of slum-dwellers from Colaba to Goregaon.  He also continued his involvement with students in the Vidyarthi Pragati Sanghatana (VPS), a student organisation formed in 1977, notable for the active participation of its members in the decision-making process of the organisation, fighting for the democratisation of student councils in the various colleges, cultivating student-worker and student-peasant solidarity, the latter, buttressed by its “go-to-the-village” campaigns.

More recently, Arun was horrified at the brutal killings of four members of a dalit family on September 29, 2006 in Khairlanji village (Bhandara district), the police department’s attempt at a cover-up, the hospital administration trying to conceal facts, the government striving to ensure that the incident be quietly forgotten, the so-called dalit leaders’ endeavour not to rock the boat of the ruling alliance, and the violent repression of the dalit masses who came out into the streets to protest against the casteism that pervaded all of the above and to demand justice.  Indeed, the police, apart from violating the right to freedom of speech and assembly, had dealt with the dalit protests in a blatantly casteist manner.  And, the home minister had threatened to treat the protestors in the same manner as the ruthless handling of the Naxalites.  Arun was active in the post-Khairlanji protests — the rebels’ endeavour was to hasten the emergence of an uncompromising leadership among the dalits, and to find support for the dalit cause among the underprivileged kunbis, marathas and “other backward classes”.  He was also organising students in Chandrapur, some of whom (of the Deshbakth Yuva Sanghatan) have since been persecuted by the police.

Politics in Command

Vernon Gonsalves, in his early 50s, was arrested under the UAPA by the anti-terrorist squad on August 19 last year near his house in Andheri (East) in Mumbai on a busy public road while buying provisions and brought to his residence 12 hours later at half past midnight the next day, when the police carried out an unauthorised raid in the presence of his wife Susan and their 12-year old son.  Shridhar Shrinivasan, in his early 50s, was also arrested by the anti-terrorist squad under the UAPA outside his residence in Govandi on August 19 last year.  Both of them have been accused of being found with explosives.  Indeed, the police boasted that they had foiled a plot by the two to set off explosions in different parts of the city!  They have been tortured — among other things, blindfolded and threatened that they would be shot dead in staged encounters.  Shridhar’s legs were stretched in opposite directions.  Both, he and Vernon were chained to the floor and kept in a sitting position for two days at a stretch.  They were subjected to sustained interrogation, sometimes lasting 20 hours at a stretch.  They have been implicated in a host of cases, mostly in Vidarbha.  Taken there, Vernon had to be hospitalised due to failing health, while Shridhar was paraded in four villages and publicly humiliated.

Vernon comes from a lower middle class background; he undertook tuitions to sustain himself while he was in college, completing a master’s in commerce with flying colours.  In Burhani College, Mazagaon, he played a leading role in 1978-79 among the students fighting against an authoritarian college management, in the process, realising the importance of maintaining student unity and putting up a leadership that is far-sighted.  Upon the completion of his studies, he got a job in Siemens as an accounts executive, but soon gave it up to join the Naujawan Bharat Sabha (NBS), formed in the early 1980s, inspired by Bhagat Singh and his close comrades.  He moved to Chandrapur, where, along with Susan (they married in 1984) and other close associates, they started organising the unorganised workers — in the coal mines, the cement and paper factories, and the construction site of the Maharashtra State Electricity Board (MSEB), forming the Akhil Maharashtra Kamgar Union in 1988.  They led a militant struggle of the 5,000 construction workers at the MSEB site, heroic in many ways, especially since they were confronting the combined might of the project authority, the powerful private contractors, and the local administration and the police that allied to deny the workers their legal rights, including minimum wages, and tried to thwart all efforts to organise and unionise the workers.  Vernon had by then embraced the rebel caravan and taken on the task of strengthening its vanguard.

Shridhar studied at Elphinstone College, but gave up his studies in the late 1970s to become a full-time activist. The high point of his activism when he was a student was the leading role he played in the historic August 8, 1978 takeover of the University of Bombay as part of the Students Anti-Fee Rise Action Committee.  He was part of the team that conceived of and planned the whole operation.  Shridhar was also one of the founder-members of the VPS and was, later on, in the 1980s active in the NBS, which, among other things, took on the arduous task of organising contract workers.  In the 1990s Shridhar moved to the rural areas of Vidarbha, organising the tribal people in the struggle to win forest rights and on the question of land to the tiller, as also the rights of coal mine workers.

More recently, he was part of a campaign by the rebel caravan to highlight the root causes of the agrarian crisis in the cotton belt of Vidarbha — a host of neoliberal policy measures adversely affecting the economics of cotton cultivation, apart from the land question.  The rebels had not made inroads into Vidarbha’s cotton belt, but they wanted to win the confidence of the peasants there, convince them to refuse to pay amortisation and interest to the banks and the moneylenders, and join the peasants in organising a resistance against the seizure of their property.  The struggle would have been difficult but the peasants would have been politically awakened, enthused to strive for a better future.

I find this approach of the rebels imbued with historical precedence, something that has eluded most scholars writing on the present agrarian crisis and the phenomena of “farmer suicides”.  Recall the cotton boom in 1861 when the American Civil War broke out and the supply of raw cotton to the manufacturing centres in Britain and elsewhere in Europe was cut off, and India became an alternative source of raw cotton.  As the international price of raw cotton went up, the Indian peasant responded by shifting from food crops to cotton, borrowing from the ‘sahukars’ (the moneylenders) to make the transition possible.  But when the American Civil War came to an end and the international price of cotton crashed, the peasants could not pay the sahukars upon the latter foreclosing the debts.  Usurious terms of credit and the mortgaging of land by merchant moneylenders led to the Deccan Riots.  On that occasion the peasants had united to take on the sahukars, even burning the moneylenders’ records.  But why is it that this time around the peasants turned inwards, blaming and punishing themselves by taking their own lives?  Could rebel politics have then saved the lives of thousands of peasants who have committed suicide in the wake of the present agrarian crisis?

Injustice, the Rule

What then of state and state-sponsored terror, masquerading as justice, meted out to those who “cannot remain unmoved and inactive in an India where . . . justice is the exception and injustice the rule”?  More than 30 years ago, Mary Tyler (quoted in the introduction to this piece) wrote about those who could not remain unmoved, inactive witnesses to the ugly contours of what they saw in independent India.  Instead of removing that filth (the myriad wrongs) which conscious and compassionate human beings hate to see, a repressive state tries to pluck out their eyes.  These rebels have a point when they constantly reiterate that what we have in this country is a facade of democracy that has disguised (masked) authoritarian governments since independence.  How can democracy flourish in a society that is so deeply marked by profound inequalities in the distribution of incomes and wealth?  How long are we to continue the periodic charade of choosing members of the political establishment, those financed and co-opted by the dominant classes, who will then govern the country for the next five years?  More than ever before, what we now get is governments of the markets, by the markets and for the markets — markets, as one poet put it, which know all about prices but nothing about values.  One has only to contrast the leaders of the political establishment — mercenary, self-seeking, corrupted by the lure of office, power and money — with Anuradha Ghandy, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves and Shridhar Shrinivasan, whom we have profiled here — modest, unpretentious, self-sacrificing, and deeply concerned for the oppressed.

Bernard D’Mello is deputy editor of Economic & Political Weekly, Mumbai, India.  This article also appears in the 3-10 May issue of EPW.

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