Raza Naeem remembers the iconic revolutionary Sobho Gianchandani on his centenary
A hallmark of Sobho Gianchandani’s student days at Rabindranath Tagore’s institute, Shantiniketan, was the celebration of independence day on January 26, 1940. In 1928 the Congress had approved the resolution for independence day. It was a real challenge since Tagore had forbidden the celebration of independence day for five years. So Sobho’s fellow students tasked him with convincing the Principal, who went to Tagore with the request. Tagore was upset at the proposition but gave in. It should be remembered that Tagore was wary of the colonial police authorities, who shadowed activities at Shantiniketan and even suspected him of being a Japanese agent. Conversely, Tagore, too, disliked spies.
The independence day event at Shantiniketan that year turned out to be a memorable one for Sobho. He gave a five-minute speech in English, his first-ever speech. There were Australian teachers, Indonesians, African-American students, Japanese and Chinese students in the hall. When Sobho descended the stage drenched in sweat, the Australians, the Japanese and others approached and congratulated him. So, overnight, he became an international person.
Though he is often not credited for it, Sobho is among the first-rank of modern Sindhi sort-story writers
This was a huge incident. Three days after the meeting, a dark-complexioned man came in front of the library, he had curly hair and he was wearing a vest. The man patted Sobho on the head and said, “Sho Bolo” (Well Done). Sobho learnt from friends afterwards that he was indeed India’s great painter Nandalal Bose! In fact, Bose was saying in Bengali, “Being a Sindhi you have come to awaken the Bengalis!” One can imagine how pleased Sobho would have been with such a huge honour and endorsement.
At a subsequent meeting with some revolutionaries in Balabpur, he met Panna Lal Dasgupta, who guided him on the road to socialism, in that he suggested to young Sobho a few books. One of these books Sobho remembered until the very end; this was Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. When he returned, Sobho had those books taken out. One book was titled Soviet Democracy. He memorized a sentence present on its back page: “There is only one privileged class in the Soviet Union, that is our children.” He was greatly influenced by this sentence. And he resolved that he would work for a society where the future of children is protected.
From Trotsky to Gandhi, and from Subhash Chandra Bose to M. N. Roy, these books had a great impact on his intellectual growth. On one hand, Congress fell from his favour and on the other, he developed tolerance about religion. He became beyond hatred and discrimination in the name of religion. Sobho’s political views were gradually growing and taking shape. He had, nevertheless, made “freedom for India” his motto.
Sobho stayed at Shantiniketan for two years, where he learned to his heart’s content. He became self-confident. He forged international friendships. He also learned Bengali there; and his fast friendship with literature, too, was nurtured there. When Sobho finished his education at Shantiniketan and was departing for home, his Jewish teacher summoned him. He asked every graduating person in turn as to what they had gained at Shantiniketan. When Sobho’s turn came, he replied, “I came here as a child, and leave as a man.” Sobho had arrived there in June 1939 and returned in April 1941. He had gone there to learn music but returned as a revolutionary.
The second occasion when Sobho was forced to prove his loyalty to Mohenjodaro arose when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, during his time in power, sent one of his agents to him, saying that if he wanted to save his family from official trouble and restrictions, he should sell his properties at the market rate and depart for India.
After his arranged marriage to a girl named Lilan, he moved to Karachi, when the freedom movement was at its height and anti-British feelings were ascendant. He took admission in S.C. Shahani Law College, and while studying there came in touch with the Karachi Students Union, which was led by semi-socialist youth. He was elected the Secretary of the Sindh Students Federation. He was just in the second year of his LL. B and started preparing for the final examinations when the Quit India Movement against the British began. So all his desires for LL. B and law remained unfulfilled (it was achieved much later in 1968). He became a part of this movement.
Sobho had thus become a communist at the age of 21. It was also a delicate time for the Communist Party, whose party line over the Second World War (the line of “people’s war”), as well as the demand for Pakistan was changing. Sobho formally joined the party in 1945. Wherever he went, the police followed him. Eventually, he was arrested on January 25, 1943. This imprisonment of 1.5 years lasted until July 1944. Afterwards, his ‘goodwill’ visits of arrival and departure in jail continued. He went to jail six times, remained there and returned. In this series of arrival, residence and departure, Sobho rotted in jail for a total of ten long years of his youth in Lahore’s infamous Shahi Qila along with other prisons. These ten years do not include those 5 years when he was under house arrest in his own village.
Sobho went to jail for the first time in 1943 in connection with the Quit India Movement at the age of 23. Afterwards, he went underground at the instruction of the Party. Sobho personally did not really like the politics of going to jail; though he had pledged a great duration of his life while in jail and house arrest. But he indeed tried to explain that one should not deem good the politics of welcoming with open arms going to jail at every moment. His analysis was that whoever comrades come from jail, they indeed narrated that they did not attain any development of consciousness in jail, and workers did not benefit from being there. Therefore Sobho had resolved to try his best to avoid jail. He kept prioritizing the politics of education over agitation. He considered study circles very important. And so, always and everywhere, he made arrangements for study circles. Thus this is a great contribution by him to Pakistan’s communist movement.
Moreover, Sobho also liked working in trade unions. In 1948 when the Pakistan Trade Union Federation was founded and Mirza Ibrahim was made its President, Sobho was its Joint Secretary. It was also his wish that if forced by necessity, he should be arrested while working in the trade union. And when he was arrested in 1943, the trade union was running the movement for “Better Flour, Better Ration.”
In this prison, Akbar Mirza was the jail officer. For interesting people, even the jailers who are appointed to keep an eye on them are very interesting. Once he saw Lenin’s writings in Sobho’s barrack and said that they are illegal and he would have to confiscate them. Sobho said, “You have no right. Hashim Raza is the Commissioner of Karachi, only he can censor.” Afterwards, he called Sobho to his office to say “Do not create an uproar unnecessarily. The books will remain in my office. When you finish one, take another one from here.” And this is exactly what happened. Sobho read all of Lenin’s books in 1943. Now, how many books did Lenin write? 54; and they were heavy! Sobho had read 54 books written by Lenin in 1943 when he was just 23 years old.
It is true that the direction of Sobho’s life was also determined by people, but he was more grateful to books. Books had granted him a strong background. He remained a person who read profusely. There was hardly any peacenik, or terrorist revolutionary or democratic philosopher whom Sobho had not perused in detail. He was well-aware of the principles, ideologies and actions of the Russians Bakunin and Kropotkin, the revolutionary extremists of France and the leaders of the Irish War of Independence who sacrificed their lives.
A great incident of the 1960s was the Sino-Soviet dispute. Communist parties worldwide became affected in some manner by this dispute. Sobho’s party split on this issue. For his part, Sobho was against involvement in this dispute specifically. In a similar manner during the Indo-Chinese war of 1962 many comrades insisted that Sobho should give an anti-Indian statement so that his house arrest could end. But Sobho was against the war, so he rejected, saying that he would not give a statement against India in order to save himself.
After the end of the nightmare regime of General Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan and the holding of elections in 1988 following the return of Benazir Bhutto from exile, a number of enlightened people began to campaign for Sobho. He was up against the millionaire Bhagwan Das Chawla. It was a spectacular but strange election campaign where Muslims were running Sobho’s campaign. As a result, Sobho got votes from areas whose names he could not even pronounce. When the election results were announced on state television, Sobho was successful with the maximum votes among 16-17 candidates. Both Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto (mirroring her late father’s action, who had asked Sobho to join his party upon assuming power in the 1970s) called him in turn to congratulate and invited him to join their parties, respectively. But Sobho gave the response appropriate for someone like him:
“I will not become a member of any party. I am the only minority member against the whole Assembly, therefore I will stand for the lower class, and will become a representative of the deprived, be they Christian, Hindu or Muslim.”
But money talks. So the extremely ‘transparent’ Election Commission held a recount. Sobho was dropped and his opponent won.
Sobho proved his greatness at another place. In another difficult moment of trial, he remained steadfast. He was not at all disappointed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Regarding defeated socialists, he said, “A few cowards have tired of lifting the weight of the world.”
He did not deem the dissolution of the Soviet Union as the failure of socialism. According to him, neither socialism failed, nor collectivization, nor even the public sector. Though, in his analysis, too much centralism was enforced in the name of revolution. First, there was ‘party dictatorship’, then ‘central committee dictatorship’, then ‘Politburo dictatorship’ and then one-man dictatorship was established in the Soviet Union. In the final days of the Soviet Union, extremely well-educated and deeply committed revolutionaries passed away and those who survived were made clerks and managers. So on one hand the revolutionary passion was totally struck down and on the other, bureaucrats became deities inside the Party. According to Sobho, the future of socialism is bright, provided only that there should be more democracy, the right to criticize, the right to speak and space for tolerance. He kept saying till the end of his life that “I will always keep feeling proud of the cause of communism.”
Sobho had also remained a noted writer. He was a proponent of art for life and when he was released from jail in 1944, he ran a campaign along with other comrades that somehow Sindhi comrades should be stimulated to write natural stories. He edited a journal from Karachi named Nayeen Dunya (New World) for the purpose. His essays were collected in a book titled The Forgotten Pages of History, while his book of columns is titled History Speaks. His book of short stories is called When Will Spring Come, which was actually the name of his story. There were a total of nine stories in this collection, which were later on translated into Urdu with the title Inquilabi Ki Maut (Death of A Revolutionary); the revolutionary of the title is the real-life Ibrahim Malabari, whose life was given the shape of a beautiful story by Sobho. One feature of his stories is that despite being a committed writer, his stories are free of propaganda; secondly, the characters, society, background and language, as well as the idioms, are all in Sindhi. One of his stories “Rahiman” is notable against the widely-prevalent custom of child-marriage in Sindh. Another “Pardesi Pritam” (Foreign Lover) is about the love between a Chinese male student and an Indian female student, where the affair is doomed because of the cultural, historical and spiritual difference between the two countries. The story “Ujar Gaya Ashiyana” (The Ruined Nest) is about the issue of dacoits in Sindh. A singular story “Kab Aaye Gi Bahar” (When Will Spring Come) is about the problems of women and the various views women hold about men.
Though he is often not credited for it, Sobho is among the first-rank of modern Sindhi sort-story writers, despite his low output in this genre. His contemporaries like Sheikh Ayaz, Dr Tanvir Abbasi and Ibrahim Joyo were much influenced by him; Ayaz even dedicated a book of his to Sobho.
In addition to all the above, Sobho also wrote poetry: all of which has been regrettably lost. His sole drama is titled Napoleon Jo Maut (The Death of Napoleon). The crowning achievement of his literary career was his autobiography titled Roshni Je Pindh Men (On the Journey of Light), which has recently been translated into Urdu. In short, Sobho is one of the founders of modern Sindhi literature. He was also a member of the Progressive Writers Association and one of the founders of the Sindhi Adabi Sangat (Sindhi Literary Society) before partition. Both organizations flourished after 1947 despite the destruction of Partition and the great shock of the migration of Hindu members. Not for nothing was Pakistan’s biggest literary award, the Kamal-e-Fann Award (Perfection of Art Award) given to Sobho in 2004, acknowledging the beautiful struggle of his life. He became the first Sindhi, Hindu and non-Urdu writer to be honoured so, despite the opposition of the literary mandarins.
The last years of Sobho’s life were consumed by the worries and expenses of his youthful son Kanhaiya, who developed Hepatitis-C. Sobho almost lost his mind agonizing over his son’s predicament, even selling his antique library (which contained priceless books on Pakistan, India, Sindh, philosophy, religions, the world’s best literature and Marxism) for 800,000 Pakistani rupees to save his son. But his son could not be saved.
Two things need to be said in closing this necessary tribute to Sobho Gianchandani. One was his strong sense of being rooted to the land – his land, the land of Mohenjodaro. This resolve was severely tested on two occasions: in 1950, Pakistan’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan asked Sobho to leave for India, since he was Hindu and his country was India, not Larkana. Sobho was given the opportunity to depart for India in the exchange between Indian and Pakistani prisoners. When that did not work, Khan tried to have Sobho depart forcibly. Sobho had a message sent to Sri Prakash, the Indian ambassador in Pakistan that he was an inhabitant of the country, this was his soil, his ancestors were buried here, he was born there and he was being forcibly sent. Then Parkash refused to accept Sobho, arguing that one cannot be made Indian by forcibly pushing someone. The second occasion when Sobho was forced to prove his loyalty to Mohenjodaro arose when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, during his time in power, sent one of his agents to him, saying that if he wanted to save his family from official trouble and restrictions, he should sell his properties at the market rate and depart for India. Sobho’s response was this: “You are not the actual inhabitant of this land, I am. And I will not leave my land vexed by your cheap actions.”
Sobho was wont to say, “For the Pakistani establishment, I am a three-headed monster — I am a communist, I am Hindu, and I am Sindhi.”
Last month in his Dawn column, Harris Khalique threw a challenge to the Pakistani establishment to move beyond “Iqbal’s Pakistan” and try “Bhitai’s Pakistan” – invoking the spirit of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, one of Sobho’s spiritual guides. I go a step further and say let us all work for “Sobho’s Pakistan” – a land which is generous enough to include and celebrate communists, Hindus and Sindhis alike.
Shaikh Ayaz had predicted about one of South Asia’s greatest communists that “Sobho is our Lal Qalandar. After his death, there will be a festival at his samadhi.”
Sobho’s birth centenary year has just begun. Amen to that!
All translations from Urdu are by the writer’s unless otherwise stated. This essay was first published in The Friday Times
Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached at: email@example.com