Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 17, April 18, 2015
Saluting Sobho Gianchandani: A Symbol of Pride of the Subcontinent
Friday 17 April 2015, by
Sobho Gianchandani, one of Pakistan’s last leaders from its first generation of Marxists, passed away in Larkana (in Pakistan’s Sindh province) four months ago on December 8, 2014. He was cremated in his native village near Larkana on December 9, 2014.
Gianchandani was a member of the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) and stayed active after it was banned in the 1950s.
With his death an era has come to an end in the sense that the generation of Leftist politicians who organised peasants and industrial workers in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s has passed into history.
According to analysts, Gianchandani’s work in this field was of phenomenal significance in ensuring the victory of the overtly socialist Pakistan People’s Party in 1970.
Sobho Gianchandani was a student of Santiniketan set up by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore in Bengal. He went there to study Fine Arts at the Visva-Bharati University that Tagore had set up in Santiniketan. He recalls that Tagore, who was then in his late seventies, used to call him as the “man from Mohenjo-Daro”. (Gianchandani was born on May 3, 1920 in a Hindu family in Bindi village near the famous archaological site in Larkana district.)
In an interview in 2009, recalling his active political life, he said he had become a “three-headed monster” for the Pakistani establishment, adding: “I am a Communist, I am Hindu and I am Sindhi.”
Despite being a member of the CPI in 1942 he defied the party line and participated in the Congress-sponsored ‘Quit India’ movement, having been stirred by Gandhiji’s fervent call: “Do or Die!” It was then that he was arrested for the first time.
Subsequently in Pakistan he was repeatedly jailed for his views and politics. His active political career lasted until the mid-1960s.
A leading Pakistani intellectual, he was the first non-Muslim and non-Urdu recipient of Pakistan’s top literary award, Kamal-e-Fun in 2004.
As a token of our tribute to him we are publishing the following article that was written in August 2012 and sent to us. Unfortunately we could not use it then due to unavoidable reasons.)]
“There’s nothing dearer than one’s country not even one’s religion or anything”
In the struggle for India’s independence, Sind was not behind other provinces. The anti-imperialist forces fought unitedly to liberate the country from the foreign yoke. However, a section of the patriots sought and struggled not only for political freedom, but also for the establishment of a society free from poverty, hunger and tensions of tomorrow. Although they faced enormous hardships, yet they didn’t give up the fight even after independence and division of the subcontinent. One amongst them is Sobho Gianchandani, a man of firm conviction and extraordinary courage.
Sobho was born in 1920 in Larkana, Sind. At a very young age he came under the influence of the nationalist ideas. When he was hardly nine years old he started wearing khadi and reading patriotic literature. He read the autobiography of Gandhi, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s Glimpses of the World History and the biography of a well-known Bengali revolutionary turned communist M.N Roy. However, the books that set his brain on fire were on socialism, Thomas More’s Utopia and Raja Jhanak Jo Sapnoo [The dream of Raja Jhanak]. He got convinced that socialism was the only system which could ensure justice, equality and freedom to everyone in the real sense.
His nationalist urge led him to join Santiniketan of Rabindranath Tagore for higher studies. The atmosphere at Santiniketan was truly liberal, patriotic and progressive. On January 26, 1940, on Sobho’s initiative the Indian Independence Day was celebrated on the campus by the students. Sobho also gave an inspiring speech on the occasion. There were a total 450 students out of which 250 were girls, 23 from Sindh alone. Some of the students had come from foreign countries. They belonged to different races, regions, religions and had different outlook. They had different political inclinations but most of them were attracted by communism. Sobho’s room-mate in the hostel was a Muslim Communist from Indonesia. On the campus discussions were held on national and international issues, ideologies, and Sobho used to actively participate in them. By the time, he had completed his MA he had already turned a Communist.
In 1941 he returned to Karachi and joined the Law College. By then, a branch of the All India Students Federation [AISF], a student organisation of the Communist Party of India [CPI], had already been active among the students of Sindh. The pioneering role was played by Hashu Kewalramani, a journalist trained at the United Kingdom (UK). Hashu remained in the UK for seven years and was a close associate in India League of Krishna Menon, a Leftist, who later became a right-hand man of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Hashu returned to Karachi in 1936-37. He organised the students and brought them under the banner of the All India Students Federation with himself as the President and Kishin Motwani and Abhichandani as its General Secretaries. Very soon the organi-sation became a powerful movement and spread to all the towns of Sindh. At Karachi an office was set up to solve the problems of the students and to discuss the political issues. Pritam Tahiliani, Santosh Kumar Dharmani, Rocho Pardasani, Sarla Ahuja, Moti Motwani, Radhakrishnan Wadhwani, Sukhram Virwani, Rijhu Abichandani, Rochi Pardasani, and Hashu’s own younger brother were active members of the AISF. Some of them worked as whole-timers. Besides the AISF, the Student’s Congress, which was a part of the All India Congress, was also active under the leadership of Tulsi Tahiliani. But the AISF was more powerful, more representative, and had more members and following. Its branches were set up in different parts of Sindh. At Sukkur, in 1940, a conference of the Sindh students was organised. C.T Valecha, a prominent leader of the Congress and member of the Legislative Assembly, Sindh, wanted Indira Gandhi, daughter of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, to preside. However, all the students with Leftist views wanted Muqimuddin Farooqi, a student of Delhi University, and at that time the General Secretary of the AISF, to preside. They succeeded and Farooqi presided over the Sukkur Students’ Conference.
Despite differences, all the students belonging to different student organisations unitedly opposed the dragging of India into the Second World War and organised demonstrations against the government. The most impressive event in the annals of this organisation, according to Baldev T. Gajra, a Congress leader in Sindh, was the holding of an anti-imperialist demonstration on September 1, 1940 in Karachi. Thousands of students joined the demonstration and shouted anti-British and anti-war slogans. The authorities, alarmed at the rise and militancy of the student movement, came down heavily upon the organisers. They arrested a large number of students including Hashu Kewalramani, President of the AISF, Pritam Tahilramani and Santosh Kumar Dharmani. Hashu Kewalramani was prosecuted and sentenced to 18 months rigorous imprisonment.
However, the authorities failed to suppress the revolutionary spirit of the students. Immediately after the arrest and imprisonment of Hashu Kewalramani, Sobho Gianchandani took over the leadership of the student community of Sindh. In 1941,the AISF organised and led a strike against the enhancement of fee in all the colleges of Karachi. Narayan M. Wadhwani, Parcho Vidyarthi, and Sital Daryanani were also in the forefront and organised the students in Metharam and Sewa Kunj hostels and brought them in the agitation. The Union succeeded in getting the fee reduced and got the instalment system introduced.
Under Sobho’s stewardship the AISF became highly popular. To make the students aware of socialism and the achievements of the Russian Revolution, study classes were organised. Sobho used to deliver lectures and was respected by the entire student community. ‘He was extremely handsome, modest and intellectually superior to all,’ reminisces Wadhwani, a student at D.J. College and Sobho’s co-worker. ‘In kurta, pyjama, he [Sobho] looked magnificent and had a towering personality... He would not pose to be a leader. He would mix with them and sit with them even on the floor just as one of them.’ ‘He had a unique position,’ Wadhwani states further. ‘Whenever there was a common cause, even the Muslim Student’s Union would cooperate with us.’ Students were encouraged to work among the workers and peasants, to organise them on class basis, and to bring the masses into the anti-imperialistic struggles.
In 1942, the Congress, under the leadership of Gandhi, gave the call for a ‘Quit India’ movement. By then Hitler had attacked Russia also. In order to save Russia, the first socialist state in the world, the Communist Party of India decided to support the British in the war efforts and characterised the war as People’s War. To convince the students about the new line, the CPI convened a conference of the AISF at Patna. Sobho, along with some other Sindhi comrades, went to attend. Mian Iftikharuddin, Farooqi and Sajjad Zaheer addressed the students and asked them to stay away from participating in the Congress-led movement. Sobho was not convinced. Although he was the member of the CPI, yet he not only participated in the ‘Quit India’ movement against the party line but also encouraged and organised the students to carry on revolutionary activities to force the British to quit India. According to Wadhwani, ‘In the freedom movement we had no differences whether it was led by the Congress or anybody as long as it was for emancipation of India from British imperialism.’ The first act of defiance indulged in by them was to picket the colleges and schools as a protest against the arrest of the Congress leaders after the declaration of the movement. The students organised a procession. When it reached the Civil Hospital, police arrived on the scene and resorted to lathi-charge wherein Tulsi Tahiliani was injured and taken to the hospital. Later on he was arrested and detained without trial. Sobho gave a slip to the police and went underground and guided the movement from there.
On September 8, 1942, Sobho, Wadhwani and Parcho Vidyarthi and some other students decided to hoist the national flag at the top of Metharam hostel. The authorities came to know about it. Fearing the Indian soldiers might refuse to shoot the students, the Chief Commissioner deployed a contingent of British Army personnel. At that time the entire province, except Karachi, was under Martial Law on account of the anti-British activities of the Hurs, a sect of the Muslims of Sindh who owed allegiance to Pir Pagaro. The Pir had a following of ten lakhs in Sindh alone. In 1942 the Lahore Mail was derailed by the Hurs in Sindh near the Uderolal station. Fearing the alliance of the two, the government took stringent measures to suppress the revolutionary spirit that had engulfed entire Sindh. ‘Pir Pagaro was arrested and hanged along with his 4000 Hurs in the Central Prison, Hyderabad in 1943,’ reminisces Jethanand ‘Raghumal’ Betab, a Congress leader of Sindh who was also in the same jail on account of his role in the ‘Quit India’ movement. Thousands of students were arrested and put behind bars. Young Hemu Kalani was hanged for tampering with Railway tracks. The revolutionary activities of the underground students constantly kept the authorities on their heels. However, they were unable to foil their plans.
Sobho, Parcho and Narayan Wadhwani, Ramchandani and Jethamal Gehani conducted the movement in different ways. Processions were organised, revolutionary material was prepared, posted and distributed. A novel way was invented by Sobho. Under his instructions, explosive material was dropped in the post offices [which sometimes went aflame] to create panic among the authorities. One day both Wadhwani and Parcho were caught when they were going to cut wires near the Lovers Bridge. As the house of the Governor and Karachi Club were nearby, the authorities tried all means to elicit any information regarding the movement but failed. Many young students were tried and jailed in connection with the Pinjra-Pole Bomb case, Marriot Road Dacoity case and Landi Shooting case. Sobho too was arrested in the first week of January 1943 and sent to Sukkur jail where he remained for one-and-a-half year. Ali Mohammed Markani, a trade union leader, was in the same barrack in which Sobho was locked. There were seven whole-timer Comm-unists in the jail along with Sobho.
In jail many political prisoners came under the influence of communism. Sobho used to impart the communist ideology to and hold dis-cussions with them. After release they became active in the trade union movement, peasant movement [Hari Haqdar] and students movement. Uttamchandani and Wadhwani, close associates of Sobho, became Communists and members of the CPI. They took over the responsibility of the student front. Uttam-chandani became the President and Wadhwani the General Secretary of the AISF at Hyderabad.
Along with the AISF, Sobho was also active in the trade union movement in Sindh. The CPI was quite powerful and popular among the workers and controlled most of the unions. It encouraged the working classes to raise their voice against exploitation and also supported their struggles. In Karachi, a strike occurred in Janki Das and Company, a tailoring company that had a chain of its branches in Delhi, Shimla, Lahore, Karachi, Quetta etc. At Karachi, Janki Das had a very big tailoring department with 70 workers. A.K Hangal, the veteran Indian cinema artist, was with Janki Das and Company as a master-cutter and was getting Rs 500 per month. Politically he was inclined towards the communist ideology. It was he who organised a strike in the tailoring department and contacted the Communist leaders. Bukhari, Sobho and Muztaba Qazi supported him. The strike was successful but Hangal was sacked. Thereafter he became a whole-time worker of the Party. In 1945 Sobho, Wadhwani and Uttamchandani started two labour unions, Bhangi Workers Union and Glass Factory Union; the former was very powerful particularly in Hyderabad. At Karachi a strike of sweepers was organised by them.
Royal Indian Navy Revolt
The naval mutiny started in Bombay on February 18, 1946, had its impact on the Karachi ratings also. The ratings in Karachi decided to revolt. But before they actually revolted they went to the CPI office for guidance, support and leadership. As their ship was some distance away from the shore, the revolting ratings had to swim to reach the shore. When they reached the office, they were totally drenched. At that time the leader of the CPI, Jamaluddin Bukhari, popularly known as J. Bukhari, was away to Bombay to attend the Central Committee meeting. Sobho was next to him. He told the ratings: ‘I will help you, but guidance is a different story altogether since Bukhari is not here and there is no call by the Central Party. Hence I do not know what part I should play.’ Sobho assured them of moral support. But on the very next day, it was announced over the All India Radio that P.C. Joshi, the General Secretary of the CPI, had announced the support of the Party for the revolt. That strengthened Sobho’s hands and he played a significant part in the guidance of the revolt. As no other party was willing to support the revolt, Sobho along with other comrades approached the students among whom he was immensely popular in Karachi. The students belonging to the Students Congress and Muslim Students Federation came out openly ignoring the line of their respective parties to support the striking ratings. They took out processions led by Sobho carrying Communist Party, Congress and Muslim League flags on the roads of Karachi.
The revolt lasted for three days. There was a lot of turmoil in the city. According to Wadhwani, almost all the unions in Karachi at that time were controlled by the Communists. The workers and students, on the call of the Party, joined the protest-marches and meetings in large numbers. In that connection the CPI arranged a meeting in the evening at Idgah Maidan. Thousands of people came for the meeting. A majority of them was from the working class. The leaders of the revolt came there too. They addressed the public along with Sobho, Hangal, who was then the secretary of the Karachi unit of the CPI, and Qazi Maztaba, a trade union leader. Here the call was given for a general strike on the following day. It was also announced that the demonstration would culminate in a mass rally at Idgah Maidan. Despite warnings the Communist Party did not call off the meeting planned for the next day. On February 23, there was a complete hartal in Karachi.
According to official reports, there were a number of attacks on government buildings, including two police outposts, Grindlay’s Bank, post offices and revenue department building. Some vehicles belonging to the police and Army were also stoned. The report further stated that a majority of the crowd consisted of students, both Hindu and Muslim. They refused to listen to anybody. When the Muslim leader, Ghulam Hussain, tried to pacify them, they stoned his car. By 11 in the morning over 30,000 people, Hindus and Muslims, gathered at the Idgah. The District Magistrate hurriedly promulgated Section 144 and three Communist leaders were arrested on the spot. Heavy police guards were rushed in but the people refused to move. The police opened fire in which eight people were killed and 26 wounded.
Sobho was a Marxist and remained a Marxist. After partition he stayed in Pakistan and worked for building the communist movement. Immedi-ately after the creation of Pakistan, Sobho was arrested and kept in jail for 45 days. When Sobho was in jail, Habibur Rehman, Minister for Jails in the Pakistan Government, met Sobho in jail and told him to sign a paper by which he would be sent to India. He said: ‘All Hindus have gone, you are a Hindu, why don’t you go to India? I will release you just now, issue the orders and send you by plane.’ Sobho replied to him in a very sarcastic way: ‘You are an Indian, you have migrated from India. I am a Pakistani. I was born here. This is my native land. It is better you go back to India and I will stay here.’ Hearing this Habibur Rehman was enraged and ordered to put him in a room lighted with 1000 watt electric bulbs. It was a sort of torture which continued for a number of days which ultimately damaged Sobho’s eye-sight. The working class, however, honoured him by choosing him as the Vice-President of the All Pakistan Trade Union for 1948-49 and later as the Secretary of the All Pakistan Trade Union, Sindh.
At the Calcutta Congress of the Communist Party India, held in 1948, it was decided to form a separate Communist Party for Pakistan. Delegates from Pakistan were also present. Sajjad Zaheer, a Communist from United Provinces [India], was chosen as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Pakistan. A Central Committee was also elected. Sobho represented Sindh in the Committee. In 1952-53, a conference of the Communist Party was held in Lahore. Sobho, Jamaluddin Bukahari and Pohumal attended the conference. However, before the movement could become a force, the government took stern action by launching a conspiracy case, known as the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case, against the Communists. All the communist leaders were arrested, and in 1954 the Communist Party and its affiliated organisations were banned. Sajjad Zaheer had to return to India.
Sobho spent ten years of his life in jail and many years in house-arrest and remaining underground. The sufferings did not dampen his spirit and he kept on criticising the system and exposing the authorities for ignoring the deprived sections of the society. Through Naeen Sindh, a Sindhi newspaper started by G. M Syed in 1958, Sobho, as its editor, highlighted the grievances of the Sindhi people and spread progressive ideas.
In 1959 the general elections were to be held for the Pakistan Parliament. In Sindh Communists—like Sobho, G.M Syed, Jatoi and others—were held in high esteem by the masses. Till then Mian Iftikharuddin of Lahore was the only but most vocal Communist Member of Parliament. He had two influential papers at his command, The Pakistan Times in English and Imroz in Urdu, edited by Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The papers carried on pro-communist and anti-capitalist propaganda and gave laudatory account of the progress being achieved by the communist regimes in Russia and China. It was expected that the new Parliament would have at least 30 Communist members. According to Sobho, that was worrisome for America and the reason for the imposition of the Army rule in Pakistan on October 8, 1958. Even at that time G.M. Syed advised Sobho to go to India, a safer place for him, but for Sobho, the love of his motherland was greater than his own life. He refused. Sobho was put under house arrest in his village from 1959 to 1964. In 1971 he was jailed again for opposing the military sponsored genocide in Bangladesh. He was forbidden to travel abroad until late 1980. To reach the masses he wrote a number of stories that advanced his socialist ideas, including Pardesi Pretam,Rahima and the well-known Inqilaab ki Maut [The Death of the Revolution].
Bhutto was enamoured of him. B.M. Kutty, a renowned name in Leftist politics himself, has written in his autobiography, which in fact is a saga of his struggles for the creation of a truly democratic and prosperous Pakistan, about Sobho’s unrelenting resolve. Sobho’s days of harassment in Pakistan, however, were unending. He was like a thorn in the flesh of the authorities, feudals and reactionaries. He was sent messages that if he didn’t stop spreading his ideas of socialism in villages, he would be kidnapped. He was asked to tell his brother to sell the little land he had and leave. Ignoring the threats, Sobho and his brother managed to build three schools in the area, which exist even today.
Along with political torture at the hands of the authorities, Sobho and his family faced financial hardships so much so that once he even sold his books to the Shah Nawaz Bhutto Library when, during one of the darkest hours in his life, he needed money to treat his severely ill son. Unfortunately, his son died. Despite that he did not deviate from the path he had chosen. Kutty recalls that during the 1970s, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto urged Sobho Gianchandani to join the Pakistan People’s Party, but despite repeated offers, Sobho refused. When Bhutto came to power, he gave him so many options but Sobho preferred to be a part-time professor at the Law College in Larkana. Simultaneously, he also started practising at the High Court and fought cases of the poor landless labourers.
In 1988, Sobho contested and won on a reserved seat for the National Assembly. Both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif asked him to join their party but he refused saying he would sit in the Opposition and work for the poorest sections of the society. Unfortunately he could not enter the Assembly. The ISI, according to him, blocked his way by using unfair means in the re-counting of votes.
Swimming against the current, Sobho kept on his efforts to build a new Pakistan, to provide justice to the deprived sections. He attacked religious obscurantism and opposed discrimi-nation against women in the name of religion. He openly declared that the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan were reactionaries and were not fighting for Islam. He boldly stated that religious extremists in Pakistan had turned the country into hell. In the name of Islam, they were killing innocent children and closing the doors for women. He warned the people of Pakistan that if such elements were not suppressed with iron hands, they would ruin the country. Though he did not recognise Musharraf’s legitimacy as the head of state, yet he appreciated his courage to suppress the extremists. Sobho endorsed his actions to wipe out the handful of reactionaries who were spreading like a plague threatening the stability and integrity of Pakistan. He asked the people not to submit but to fight and wipe out such forces.
In 2004, during Musharraf’s regime, it was decided to bestow an Award of Excellence [Kamal-e-Fun] on Sobho, in recognition of his literary contribution to Sindhi literature. It was expected that Sobho would go to Islamabad to receive the award from the hands of Musharraf. Sobho refused to go to Islamabad saying: ‘It is against my principles to receive the award from a dictator.’ Then it was decided to arrange a special ceremony in Karachi wherein the Governor of Sindh would give him the award. Sobho did not go and sent his daughter and son-in-law to receive the award on his behalf. A man of integrity and commitment, Sobho has contributed each and every ounce of his energy to the service of the country which, according to him, is above everything
In the present scenario of the world and Pakistan, the task of creating a better world has become very difficult. However, despite the worldwide rise and consolidation of the Rightist forces and the weakening of the Left, Sobho’s hope of the success of socialism in future has not diminished. Even after decades of his work, ‘Sobho Thindo’ [The Day shall Dawn], he is still striving for its realisation. We salute his conviction and courage.
[This article is mainly based on the interview given by Wadhwani, a Communist co-worker of Sobho in the freedom struggle at Karachi, and Sobho’s own interview given to Dawn. Besides some books like B.M. Kutty’s autobiography, Sixty Years in Self-Exile: No Regrets, Baldev. T. Gajra’s Sindh’s Role in the Freedom Struggle (Gajra was a freedom fighter and associated with the Sindh Congress) Subrata Banerjee’s The RIN Strike (the author was a ratings in the Navy and had participated in the revolt) have been consulted. —A.J.]
Dr Ajeet Jawed is an Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Satyawati College (Day), New Delhi. She can be contacted at e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org