Sad to hear that Comrade Sobho Gianchandani is no more. He passed away in Larkana on Dec 8, nearly 95 years old. He lives on as an inspiration to all those seeking a better, more just, humane society. The last time we met was in July 2003, when he came over with his daughter and two of his grandsons to visit us as he often did when visiting Karachi. He made it a point to do so particularly after his close friend, my father Dr Sarwar passed away in 2009.
Below, my brief video profile of him for Geo TV (2003) in which he talks about his lifelong struggle for people’s rights. This, he said was his real struggle, the struggle for social justice by any name, rather than a fight against imperialism or extremism. And a 2002 feature I wrote about him (couldn’t find an online copy).
Sobho: the struggle continues
(Published in The News on Sunday, Pakistan, Sept 22, 2002)
By Beena Sarwar
Had he been a bit younger, Sobho Gianchandani might have been contesting the forthcoming elections on an independent platform from his hometown Larkana. But at 83, the veteran activist and lawyer now limits his political activities to attending seminars and gatherings. This summer, for example, has seen him in Hyderabad, Larkana, Karachi, and Jamshoro, despite the intense heat, on the invitation of those for whom he has long been an inspiration and a symbol of commitment to leftist politics and Sindh.
My video profile of Sobho Gianchandani, Geo TV, 2003
When after about twelve years of dictatorship, Pakistan returned to electoral politics in 1988, Gianchandani took the plunge into the electoral fray, contesting on a seat reserved for non-Muslims under the separate electorate system imposed by Gen. Ziaul Haq. Although in principle opposed to the separate electorate system, he felt that was the only way he could get into the assemblies. He won, but the results were ‘reversed’ after having been announced. A court case followed, which lingered on until the dissolution of the assemblies in 1990 ushered in a caretaker government and fresh elections.
By that time, he already had almost half a century of political involvement under his belt, having started out during the Quit India movement in 1942. Then still a student at the S.C. Shahani Law College (now S.M. Law College) in Karachi, he soon found himself in jail, the first of many such incarcerations. On being freed in 1945, an unrepentant Gianchandani joined the communist Party, and became a leading member.
“I fought for the freedom of Sindh, which included Larkana. I fought the British.” This struggle was in line with the policy of the communist Party “to support the struggle of the backward Muslim nationalities for nationhood.” Young Gianchandani, born to a Hindu family in the village of Bhindee near Mohenjodaro, joined in that struggle with an undying commitment.
But the new state of Pakistan was not sympathetic to such politics, and he was imprisoned again in 1948. Told to leave for India or be prepared to die in jail, Gianchandani refused. He was released in 1952, but then again arrested and jailed (1954-55) after the communist Party was banned two years later. In 1957 he joined Karachi University to study law, but his politics led to another arrest, this time resulting in a five-year confinement at Bhindee (1958-64). During that period he threw himself into agriculture, and “became an excellent farmer”, as he recalls with some satisfaction. The next year, when India and Pakistan went to war, he was jailed again, for three months this time.
He has humorously referred to himself as a three-headed monster: a Sindhi, a communist, and a Hindu — each an anathema for the Pakistani authorities. In his own community, he remains an oddity, a Hindu who refuses to pander to the ‘choot chaat’ of the caste system. “When the rag-pickers come to our door, I give them water in my own glass.”
In 1968, Gianchandani made another bid at completing his studies, joining Kazi Fazulullah Law College, Larkana. He finished the course in two years, and began teaching constitutional and international law there. “I came into civil and criminal law later,” he says, conjecturing that today, he is probably the oldest practicing member of the Sindh High Court. (“I don’t take new cases though”.)
A vociferous reader, he continues to build up an already extensive knowledge of history and politics, vocally opposing military rule and arbitrary changes to the constitution, advocating a swift return to democracy and peaceful relations with the neighbouring countries. However, he concedes that some of the steps taken by the present military government have been positive, like the abolishment of the hated separate electorate. “Now there are constituencies where the Hindu or Christian vote will matter,” he says. “Before, if a Hindu girl ran away with someone, her family would have to go to the Hindu representative in the assembly if they needed his intervention, no matter if they lived in Larkana and he was in Lahore.”
Gianchandani’s nationalistic consciousness was first jolted awake when he went to Bengal, to do his BA at the famous learning center, Shantiniketan, founded by Rabindranath Tagore near Calcutta. The years (1939-41) spent at that sophisticated and cosmopolitan environment were an eye-opener for the village boy from Sindh, who had travelled across the sub-continent by train; the general disparagement about his ethnic background, including the astonishment of Tagore himself that Sindh had sent across this intelligent young fellow, stirred up pride for his heritage. But Sobho Gianchandani is no bigot.
Some years ago, when he was invited to give a lecture tour in the USA and applied for a visa, the American ambassador expressed an interest in meeting this man on whom they had a file several inches thick. “He asked me, ‘Do you want Sindhu Desh?’ I said no. I want maximum autonomy for Sindh within the Pakistani federation,” recalls Gianchandani. “Mengal accused me in London of being an anti-Punjabi. I told him, no. I am not. Just as there are good people everywhere, there are many in the Punjab too. Our comrades in the Punjab, people like Ahmed Salim, Abdullah Malik and others, they have always stood by us and supported the struggle of the oppressed people for justice.”
Nor, he asserts categorically is his quarrel “with the Americans or with the mullahs,” although he is openly critical of the role played by both in destroying the social fabric of Pakistani society. “Terrorist organisations were given permission by America to operate here. Pakistan is virtually under American occupation now. From Jacobababad to Pasni, America rules.”
“My struggle continues to be for justice. A father, when he goes to sleep at night, should be confident that his children will have enough food to eat the next day, that they will have a future. My struggle continues to be for socialism. You can call it Islamic socialism, or democratic socialism as in the Scandinavian countries, or anything. I still believe in the revolution, in a society that provides justice for all, not denies it because someone is a Hindu or a Bheel. I still want a change in society so that no one goes to sleep hungry.”
This tall, straight-backed man with the steady gaze has had his share of personal tragedies: a young grand-daughter’s husband killed by dacoits, an infant great grand-daughter drowned, the untimely death in 1983 of his son-in-law Asomal Pohu, who was also a comrade-in-arms, and the biggest blow of all last year, the death of his only son Kanaya, a medical doctor who had hepatitis-C. Gianchandani sold his precious library, for half the price originally offered some years ago by the Ministry of Culture, to pay for Kanaya’s medical treatment. This extensive collection of rare books is now in the Shahnawaz Bhutto Library in Larkana.
“I kept some children’s books for my grandson, and some 3,000 books that had gone for binding. All the rest are gone. My collection of pre-Independence books, books on Communism and Socialism, all my editions of the Quran, I told them, take these, but treat them with respect. Here, they are properly kept in cupboards and treated with respect, don’t mistreat these books. I still read the Quran every day. All my editions of the Bhagwad Gita… they told me, hide these. I said no, nothing to hide,” he says in his straightforward way. “In fact, that’s my mission in Karachi, to collect more books and build up my library again.”