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Dalit musicians of India challenging rising inequality and untouchability

Kabir Kala Manch's first performance outside Maharashtra at a Songs of Protest event in Bangalore in September 2013. (WNV/Puspha Achanta)In early April 2015, three courageous and revolutionary musicians from Kabir Kala Manch — Sachin Mali, Ramesh Gaichor and Sagar Gorkhe — will have completed two years of unjust incarceration in Maharashtra, a western-Indian state.

Kabir Kala Manch, which means Kabir Arts Forum, is a young cultural troupe whose songs and plays often critique the state. They were among the performers at Horata, a cultural resistance festival that the media and arts collective Maraa organized in Bangalore in October and November 2014. But the Bangalore police expressed concerns about the participation of the Kabir Kala Manch, accusing them of being involved in “anti-national” activities. In fact, the location of their show had to be changed to venue that could accommodate police presence.

“Since December 2014 and even earlier, there have been assaults on the freedom of expression — a constitutional guarantee — of writers and singers like me,” said Sarath Naliganti, a young Dalit political activist, who also sang during Horata. “But the Indian government is hardly curbing the rising frequency of such unacceptable actions.”

For the last 30 years, Sambhaji Bhagat, a frequent co-performer with Kabir Kala Manch, has been singing at various protests against the increasing indifference of the state and society towards the socio-economically marginalized. His songs highlight the violence faced by Dalits, who are considered to be outside India’s caste hierarchy and even treated as untouchable in India. Bhagat pens verses about the excesses of the corrupt in the government and the few people who enjoy privileges at the expense of the majority.

Sambhaji Bhagat (centre) performs with Dhamm Muktiwadi (right) & Baba (left) of Vidrohi Shahir Jalsa in Bangalore in March 2015. (WNV/Pushpa Achanta)

“We are cultural politicians,” Bhagat said. “Our role is to counter injustice with justice and healing, war with peace, falsehood with truth, and hatred with love. The medium and methods used to convey the message are important as they could determine if the communication is correct and complete.”

Bhagat strives to ensure that the study of the history of Dalit struggles and their past cultural and political icons are included in the school curriculum. This proven to be a crucial task due to the increased misrepresentation or exclusion of indigenous people and Muslims — under the pressure of Hindu fundamentalists — from academic discourse.

Simple yet powerful

Since its inception, members of Kabir Kala Manch, a 13-year-old group of around 10 young musicians belonging to socially and financially marginalized households from Pune, a city near Mumbai, have been writing and performing meaningful songs and plays. They fearlessly urge listeners to oppose government policies promoting privatization and economic liberalization that perpetuate India’s vast socio-economic divide. Combining pain with satire, they have stirred the conscience of many about the adverse impact of globalization.

The Kabir Kala Manch is also considered a symbol of peaceful resistance, as it performs regularly across the country in slums, university auditoriums and theater venues. However, a couple of its recent shows were nearly cancelled or interrupted by people who believe the group threatens national security because it openly critiques the state. Different members of the Kabir Kala Manch have been imprisoned since 2011 on exaggerated charges of political extremism under the draconian 1967 Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Apart from Gaichor, Gorkhe and Mali, the imprisoned include Sheetal Sathe — Gorkhe’s cousin and Mali’s wife, who is a Dalit — and Deepak Dhengle, a 39-year old Adivasi, who belongs to an indigenous tribe. Sathe and Dhengle were released in July and January 2013, respectively.

“Deepak, who co-founded the group in 2002, is a self-taught playwright, singer and drummer,” said Rupali Jadhav, Gorkhe’s wife and a member of Kabir Kala Manch. “Actually, none of us ever trained in music or the performing arts.”

As a girl raised in an economically backward neighborhood called basti in HindiJadhav faced opposition from her parents and brother when she wanted to study economics, as none of them pursued higher education and college would be expensive. Consequently, she started a part-time job to fund her education. After she met Gorkhe and they decided to marry, they left their respective families, who criticized their ideologies and relationship.

Jyoti Jagtap is another Kabir Kala Manch member and is Gaichor’s wife. She was inspired to join the group eight years ago, after watching the troupe perform at a cultural event as an undergraduate student. “As we all rely on the support of our spectators, most of us in the Manch do various jobs,” Jagtap said. “A few of us work with non-profit organizations educating and assisting socio-economically disadvantaged communities in availing basic rights and entitlements.”

Personal and public liberation

#Torture" data-image-description="<div> <div> <h1><span style="font-size: 14px; line-height: 1.5em;"> </span></h1> </div> <div>By Yogesh Sadhwani, Mumbai Mirror | May 21, 2014, 12.28 AM IST</div> <div></div> </div> <div> <div id="commntData"> <div id="storydiv"> <div> <div id="LeftData"> <div id="sshow"> <div> <div id="bellyad"> <div> <div><img title="They beat me till I fell unconscious... When I woke up, it began all over again" alt="They beat me till I fell unconscious... When I woke up, it began all over again" src=",width-300,resizemode-4/01-01.jpg" width="300" border="0" vspace="0" /></div> <div> <div>Leonard Valdaris, whose son Agnelo (inset) died in police custody, and Agnelo’s friends who were sexually abused by cops</div> </div> </div> </div> </div> </div> <div id="ftredcmt"></div> </div> <div id="inc_dec"> <div><strong>Friends of custodial death victim, picked up for minor theft, reveal horrific torture in the custody of Wadala railway police</strong></p> <p>The Government Railway Police has initiated a departmental enquiry against 12 policemen following a complaint of sexual abuse and torture by three robbery suspects, including a minor.</p> <p>The three were detained by the Wadala railway police on April 15 along with Agnelo Valdaris, 25, who died in custody three days later. While the police said Valdaris was run over by a train while trying to escape, his father alleged the cops murdered him in cold blood. The state CID is investigating that case of custodial death.</p> <p>The police detained the four friends to get information about a gold chain worth around Rs 60,000 they had allegedly stolen from a senior citizen. They were picked up within minutes of each other from their Reay Road homes on April 15.</p> <p>In their May 12 complaint about the torture, the three have also levelled detailed accusations of how Valdaris was tortured in front of them. They have demanded the policemen be booked for murder, sexual abuse, kidnapping, assault and tampering of evidence, among other charges. The 12 policemen are of the ranks of constables up to senior inspector, including a woman officer.</p> <p>One of the complaints was identified as Sufiyan Khan, 23.</p> <p>Valdaris, whose father is a clerk in the port trust, and Sufiyan, son of a mechanic, worked as drivers with transporter companies. The minor is class 8 dropout. The fourth youngster is unemployed.</p> <p>Mirror is withholding the names of the other two – both alleged victims of sexual abuse. This correspondent spoke in person to the three complainants. Mirror is in possession of a copy of their complaint.</p> <p>“(Constables Ravi) Mane and Kamble stripped me naked and put me on a table,” one of them has said in his complaint. “Mane assaulted me with a belt and Kamble with a baton. They hit me so hard I fell unconscious. They poured water on me. After I regained my senses, the torture started again. This time I was forced to perform oral sex on Agnelo and the minor. When I refused, I was threatened with more beatings. Left with no option, I did as asked. They later hanged me naked upside down and assaulted me again with belts and batons.”</p> <p>This complaint said an officer who was identified only as Ganya tried inserting a stick in his anus. He said the police threatened to pour petrol into his anus as the stick was too thick. The complaint also lends credence to the allegations that Valdaris was tortured to death by giving details of how he was also tortured in asimilar manner.</p> <p>“When Agenelo complained of chest pain and fainted, the police did not provide him any medical attention,” said the complaint. “They then took us to the court two days later. They threatened us not to tell the magistrate anything about the torture. They did not bring Agnelo with us as he was badly injured. In these two days, we were forced to eat the leftovers from the policemen’s meals.”</p> <p>According to the complaint, the police on April 18 sent the minor to a juvenile home and remanded the other two were remanded in custody. That was when the police told them Valdaris had died while trying to escape.</p> <p>“That is just not possible,” the complaint said. “We saw how badly Agnelo was beaten. There was no way he could run with his injuries. The police are trying to cover up their torture using the false claim that Agnelo tried to escape.”</p> <p>The three were let off on bail on April 22. After the GRP commissioner ordered an enquiry based on the complaint, the three were, to their horror, asked to visit the same police station where they were allegedly tortured and collect their summons.</p> <p>“When I had gone to collect the summons, constable Ravi Mane threatened to frame me in more criminal cases if I pursued the case,” said one of the three youngsters. “He said that the police will hound me forever.”</p> <p>GRP Commissioner Prabhat Kumar told Mirror, “CID is investigating the custodial death case. We have asked a DCP to probe the departmental lapses. But she can’t reach any conclusion as the CID is seized with the investigation.”</p> <p>Advocate Yug Mohit Chaudhry, who is representing the trio, said Maharashtra has witnessed the highest number of custodial deaths in recent years as policemen are seldom brought to justice. He advocated the installation of CCTV cameras in all rooms of police stations and stringent punishment for errant policemen as a solution.</p> <p>“These victims of police brutality are now being threatened to take back their complaint,” said Chaudhry.</p> <p>“This is nothing but tampering of evidence. They are able to go on unabated because no action has been initiated against them so far. This is the worst case I have come across so far. It is not only about murder but also about deviant sexual abuse and ruthless torture of the accused.”</p></div> <div></div> <div>Read mor ehere ––When-I-woke-up-it-began-all-over-again/articleshow/35398407.cms</div> </div> </div> </div> </div> </div> " data-medium-file="" data-large-file="" class=" wp-image-37948" src="" alt="Aruldas Vijaya rehearses before Horata. (WNV/Puspha Achanta)" width="263" height="350" />

Another performer at Horata was 29-year-old Aruldass Vijaya, a Dalit singer, drummer, painter and performer in Bangalore. Growing up in a low-income neighborhood, he has protested slum demolitions, street vendor evictions and water privatization in Bangalore through his songs and plays in Kannada and Tamil for over a decade. Vijaya also trains socio-economically oppressed youth in theater and music and counsels them against petty crimes, substance abuse and quitting school.

“By learning and practicing various art forms, many youth and I have avoided robbery, street fights, chemical abuse and idling and increased our self-worth,” Vijaya said. “Music and acting allow the young to express their struggles and aspirations and also relate to others on a different plane.”

Naliganti leads the Dalit Bahuj Cultural Association, a four-year old forum involving a few hundred youth. They join from local colleges and organize literary and theater events focusing on former and current Dalit, Islamic and female political and social icons. The association features Naliganti’s unique and stirring music in its popular efforts to build interfaith and inter-caste harmony and hosts public festivals promoting Dalit culture and food — like beef, which is affordable and eaten by many Dalits, Muslims and Christians, but avoided by some Hindus who worship the cow.

“I hail from a family of musicians who earned their living from hard daily-wage labor,” Naliganti said. “Since my teenage years, I have been highlighting the challenges and successes of Dalits, Muslims, women and transgendered people through my compositions.”

Among the other performers at the Horata festival in Bangalore were Meera and Kaladas Deheriya, a Dalit singer and poet couple whose songs portray the harsh realities of contract laborers and urge them to demand their rights.

“Being from a caste with an extreme socio-economic disadvantage, I have survived in utter poverty,” remarked Kaladas Deheriya. “As a contract worker in the municipality of Raipur [Chattisgarh’s capital] and at other factories, I have faced grave exploitation with minimal pay for maximum work.

Meera and Kaladas Deheriya, and their sone Geet Kumar, during Horata. (WNV/Pushpa Achanta)

The couple, who now sing with their teenaged son Geet Kumar, have been active in various social movements nationally and in Chhattisgarh, a central Indian state, over the last 15 years.

“Instead of remaining silent,” Kaladas Deheriya explained, “Meera and I have been organizing women and male workers by meeting them outside factories through the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, a federation of mine, cement, agricultural and other workers unions with hundreds of members that was launched in 1982.”

Meera Deheriya also supports women workers in fighting specific issues such as sexual harassment and gender discrimination at the workplace. “We have been enlightening laborers about fundamental human and labor rights, and social entitlements through regular discussions, songs and street theater,” she said. “This has helped the workers pressure employers for better wages and address labor law violations with some success. However, we must intensify our campaigns, as India’s labor laws are becoming employer-friendly at the expense of the lowest worker.”

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