October Issue 2008
Interview: Comrade Sobho Gianchandani
“I’ve never doubted that Pakistan would overlook my contribution”
– Comrade Sobho Gianchandani
At age 88, Comrade Sobho Gianchandani is one of the oldest living communists in the subcontinent. He has seen it all, done it all — and still believes that communism will return to the world in a big way. In this wide-ranging interview conducted at his Larkana home, where he lives with his family, the “son of the soil,” as he refers to himself, takes Newsline on a reflective journey into the past. From his days at Shantiniketan to his involvement in the politics of pre-Partition and post-Partition Pakistan, it’s been an action-packed life.
Q: What made you decide to study at Shantiniketan?
A: In 1939, when I passed my intermediate, one of my classmates, Lekhu Tulsani, asked me what I had decided to do. I told him I wanted to devote my time to Rabindranath Tagore at Shantiniketan instead of pursuing my initial aim of becoming a lawyer. Shantiniketan was a reputable institution with a vibrant environment, well known for its education in the various arts, and it also housed several international communities — Chinese, Indonesians, Americans etc. I sent a telegram to Tagore saying, “I am of good character, a good student and want to study at Shantiniketan. But I am not prepared to clear a technical pre-entry test at your institution.” One day, I received a telegram from Shantiniketan, stating that I had been admitted without an interview. Thus, along with 23 girls and a boy, Gulchand, we left for Shantiniketan on May 19, 1939.
Q: Did you get to interact with Rabindranath Tagore?
A: It was very strange when Tagore called me to his office on the first day. He told the principal of the college, “Bring that boy from Moen-Jo-Daro (that’s how Tagore always referred to me), who wrote that very assertive letter demanding that he must be admitted without any interview.” I entered his office, he was writing something on a paper. He said, “Why were you so sure that I would admit you to my college?” I said, “Sir, I was sure because I have read your books and I felt that you recognise talent.” He said, “I like your face; you Sindhis are really good-looking.” He was also full of praise for the 23 Sindhi female students: “In just six months, they have learnt different genres of dance. Also, I like their modesty and simplicity. They came here with only three pairs of clothes, which they wash regularly.” Next, he asked me why Sindh had become a place of such strife and why there were so many dacoits. Then, suddenly, he said, “You Sindhis killed our best man, Majumdar.” The man was a Bengali archaeologist from Shantiniketan who was working at Moen-Jo-Daro. I told him a Brohi dacoit had killed Majumdar near Dadu, because he suspected that the latter had discovered gold.
Q: Being a revolutionary, how did you contribute to the freedom movement during your student life? Do you think the Communist Party made a mistake in supporting the British in the Second World War?
A: I became a communist at the age of 21, and while I was in the party I was very outspoken. The first students’ conference was held in Patna in 1943, a year after the ’42 movement began, to which I took a delegation of 11 youngsters from Sindh. After Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1943, the International Communist Party switched sides and started supporting the British. The Communist Party all over the world had changed its stance on the war: from being viewed as an imperialist war, it had now become a people’s war. A meeting was arranged to sell the new idea to the students. The Communist Party sent Muqeeb-ud-din Farooqi, Sajjad Zaheer and Mian Iftikhar to do the job.
Addressing the students, Farooqi, the secretary of the Communist Party of Delhi, a gentleman from Delhi University, told the students not to feel betrayed and that the world was changing and, they [the Communist Party] with it. The Sindhi comrades, who had grown up in revolutionary times, were shocked at hearing that they were being asked to support the British.
While the leadership of the Indian Communist Party abided by this reversal, they were unable to convince some of the students of the wisdom of their choice. I came to the conclusion that when thousands of students were prepared to go to jail, I couldn’t back out, so I resolved to join them against the British and joined Gandhi’s struggle.
The decision had its consequences; just three days after joining the freedom struggle, I had to chase off three CID agents who had come to arrest me. I remained underground for a month, resurfacing on January 25, 1944, to address 3,000 students and to reassure them that I had not deserted them but was sustaining the movement underground. Then followed several jail terms. I was arrested soon after the address to the students; the authorities wanted to extract information out of me which they failed to, so I was put back into jail. It was during my time in jail that I met most of the senior leaders of the Congress and some full-time workers of the Communist Party.
Q: What contributed to the divide between the Muslim and the Sindhi Hindus near the time of Partition, which eventually led them to migrate?
A: The Sindhi Hindus, comprising mainly money-lenders and landowners, had [the mistaken impression] that there would be some disturbance, as had been the case in the past, and that Partition would simply imply a change of rulers. Also, they were sure that they would be able to stay on and continue to dominate the economy of Sindh, the accounts department and the services.
As the time of Partition drew near, the Sindhi Hindus increased their support to Congress’s Allah Bux Soomro in Sindh, and the Muslims came to realise that the Hindus were using Soomro to secure their own private interests under the umbrella of the Congress.
Consequently, the Muslims felt inclined towards Jinnah’s movement for an independent Pakistan. Then came the troubles in Sukkur and the Masjid Manzil Gah riots, in which Sindhi Hindus were targeted. According to G.M. Syed, the riots were staged at the instigation of Ayub Khuhro, Pir Ali Mohammad Rashidi and other important pirs of upper Sindh. That’s when the Sindhi Hindus decided to migrate to India.
Q: Moving to post-Partition Pakistan, had the elections taken place in 1959, would the political history of the country have been any different?
A: It was presumed that the elections scheduled for January 1959 would make a difference in the political history of the country. In our estimation, the Awami League would secure 65 out of the 100 seats in East Pakistan; 25-30 seats were expected to be won by Maulana Bhashani.It was also conjectured that at least 30 communists would come to the assembly, some from the Awami League, some from Maulana Bhashani’s party and the other seven from the Communist Party. America, too, had calculated such an equation and was uneasy with the fact that if Mian Iftikharuddin alone — the only communist in the assembly at the time — could prove to be such a headache, what would happen if 30 communists, along with Mian Iftikharuddin’s brains and his newspaper empire, gained seats in the National Assembly?
But nobody knew at that time that Iskander Mirza was planning a coup. We came to know through Comrade Hassan Nasir on October 3. He had been informed that Ayub Khan was invited to assumepower to prevent the elections from taking place in January 1959. And on October 8, 1958 martial law was imposed.
The October 8 headline of Dawn read: “Army takes over Pakistan.” I rushed to G.M. Syed and asked him “Is the army at your door?” He asked me what I meant, so I handed over the newspaper to him. He broke his silence and said, “Sobho, run away to India! It would be a safer place for you. You should not stay in this country anymore.”
I replied, “Not at all, why should I leave? This is my land. I have grown up here. I will stay here with you through thick and thin.” My Sindhi comrades also advised me to leave the country. I told them I had made my decision to stay; I had family here, we had land and property, and more than anything else, I was a son of the soil, I could not tolerate being an immigrant. So, I stayed in 1947, and as you can see, I am still here.
Q: How do you view the role of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the political history of Pakistan? Do you think he was a revolutionary?
A: I have never liked Bhutto; he was a dictator. Time and again, he had tried to convince me to support him. But I never did. I even avoided meeting him because I knew this was a man who pretended to be revolutionary, but he was really an agent of the Punjab establishment.
Bhutto had wanted to join the Awami Party. G.M. Syed told me a joke regarding this: “One day, Bhutto come to my residence and said, “Shah sahib, I want to join your party.” Jokingly, I said to him, “Do you know ours is a party of rebels?” Bhutto replied, I know. Comrade Hyder Bux Jatoi interrupted us and asked Bhutto “Have you taken your father’s permission? A Khan Bahadur’s son cannot become a member of a rebel party.” Bhutto shouted back, “Revolution is not the monopoly of Hyder Bux Jatoi! I am also a revolutionary.” Hyder Bux Jatoi persisted. Bhutto spoke to Shah Nawaz Bhutto via telephone. Meanwhile, Iskander Mirza contacted Shah Nawaz Bhutto and told him, “I have planned a great career for your son Zulfikar, tell him not to join the rebels.” Consequently, the next day Bhutto came and submitted his resignation, saying he didn’t want to be a rebel. “I told you so,” shouted Hyder Bux Jatoi.
Q: You contested the 1988 elections as a candidate for the National Assembly on a reserved seat and won, but ultimately you didn’t make it to the National Assembly.
A: According to the announcement made on Pakistan Television, I had secured the majority of votes among the 16 or 17 candidates. After the announcement of my success in the elections, both Sharif and Benazir asked me to join their parties, but I told them that I intended to be in the opposition because I stood for the poorest and most deprived sections of society.
While I was busy establishing contacts with all those who had supported and voted for me, my brother called to tell me that the Election Commission had ordered a recount of the votes on the application of Bhagwan Das Chawla, a businessman, who was claiming that he had secured a majority of the votes. The third sessions judge of Larkana refused to recount the votes and told the Election Commission that the election results had already been announced.
However, what followed is a reflection on the sad state of affairs in our country. One of my comrades, G.R. Aslam, told me, “Comrade, go and rest. The results have already been decided by the ISI, and your name is not on the list of winners.”
Soon, I received a telephone call from Bhagwan Das Chawla. “You seem to be very happy that you have won,” he said, “but I have spent 63 lakhs to reserve the seat and 7 lakhs to file the appeal. You know 7 million rupees makes no difference to me. Do you know how it was made possible?” he asked me. “I have an army colonel, who is an employee in my company. He secured my seat for me.” By using his contacts, [he had ensured] that all the doors were closed on me.
Q: From being a revolutionary, how did you turn into an agricultural reformer?
A: While I was under house arrest in my village from 1959-1964, I was looking after a small rice factory — my brother’s solution to my state of unemployment. Rice was scarce then because of a disease that had attacked the old variety of rice, and having read about the agriculture of other countries and how they had made deserts bloom, I decided to try my hand at solving this crisis. I contacted the Dokri Rice Association, where I got in touch with a Mr Bhatti who had introduced Irri 8. I first got only a handful of the seed and grew it on my land. My father being a conservative grower was critical of this and said I was out to “destroy all” with my experiments with seeds. However, I went on to produce 2,400 kilograms of rice on just one acre of land, whereas, traditionally, one acre of land was producing 400 kilograms of rice at the time.
The next crop was Mexi Pak (a variety of wheat imported from Mexico). It was a challenging task to introduce a wheat crop to a land that had been producing rice for thousands of years. People were fascinated by the fact that a man who did not even know how rice or wheat was grown had settled in the area and grown a magnificent crop of rice, wheat and mango, and thus I became an agricultural reformer.
Q: Your literary work (comprising several newspaper columns and two Sindhi publications), has won the Award of Excellence from the Academy of Letters. How do you feel about getting state recognition?
A: I was the first Sindhi to be awarded by the Academy of Letters, [and that too] after much persuasion by some Baloch and Sindhi writers. They brought to the notice of the jury that not a single Sindhi had been awarded since the academy’s inception. Everybody thought I would rush to Islamabad to receive the award from General Musharraf.
But I said, Sobho will fall sick on the day he is summoned to Islamabad; it would go against his principles to receive the award from a dictator. So, they arranged for the governor of Sindh, Ishratul Ibad to give me the award. The governor said, “I want to meet this interesting man.” I was told that a special ceremony was going to be held in Karachi and the governor would present the award. On that particular day, I pretended to be in Larkana and sent my daughter and my son-in-law to receive the award on my behalf.
Q: As a communist, do you feel you have contributed enough to society and, conversely, has society recognised your contribution?
A:I am one of the oldest living communists in the subcontinent. I have been content with my life here and with my decision not to migrate. I have tried to contribute [in my own way] towards the building of the Communist Party and towards achieving the beautiful world we had hoped for. It does not matter if we have failed, because even in the Soviet Union, communism has undergone a change.
We have some of the finest intellectuals, writers and thinkers in Pakistan and, even academically, I don’t think my life has been a failure here. I have been bestowed with the Academy of Letter’s Award of Excellence for the ‘best writing’ in Sindhi, as well as Rs.500,000. Having spent nearly 10 years of my life in jail and another five or more years underground or under house arrest, I’ve never doubted that Pakistan would overlook my contribution,
Q: Following the demise of the Soviet Union, how do see the future of communism on the world stage?
A: Ultimately, we will win. All is not lost — 25% of the voters have voted for the Communist Party in Russia. The party enjoys an important geo-strategic position and will play a major role in the power game. Communism is not dead, millions of people still feel that the state should take care of their needs.
But times have changed, as has the strategy. Communists all over the world are working towards achieving a welfare state. Look at India, 62 members in the Lok Sabha are old communists. Once I asked the then secretary general of the Communist Party of India (CPI), “What are you doing in India? Are you looking for a revolution?” He replied, “No, we are saving the Muslims from massacre, fighting against Hindu extremists. We are creating hurdles for corporate giants who have snatched the resources from the masses and are looking to usurp still more resources. We are trying to stop the land mafia from encroaching upon more land and depriving the masses of their homes. We are fighting the war of the poor, the suppressed and the deprived in the assemblies. We are fighting this war with words, not bullets, and our voice is being heard by the policy makers in the assemblies — and simultaneously by the public, which keeps this voice alive through a movement for their rights.”
Q: Do you think Pakistan can ever become a communist state?
A: No, it is very difficult for a Muslim state to become a communist state and to tolerate communism. I know there are many people who still believe that this old man is striving to establish communist rule in the country.
I am content that our comrades have penetrated different institutions and are working diligently for the welfare of society at large, which is what our aim was. So, the dream of a welfare state is not dead; I see my comrades engaged in the fight against reactionary forces by raising their voice in the media and through public mobilisation
Q: What are the most challenging threats facing Pakistan now?
A: Religious extremists have turned this country into a living hell. Under the banner of Islam, they are killing innocent children and closing the doors for women. I fear that if they are not dealt with, with an iron hand, they will thrust our progressive society back into the Stone Ages. Although Musharraf was a dictator and had no legitimacy, he had the courage to take up arms against handful of reactionaries, who are proliferating like the plague and pose a threat to our coming generations