“We were performing at the Ambedkar statue in Mumbai. We sat there for almost 3-4 hours, spoke to the press. No one turned up to arrest us. Later, the leaders from the Kabir Kala Manch Bachao Samiti who were with us, took us to meet the then home minster RR Patil. We were formally arrested by the ATS (Anti-Terrorism Squad) only after the meeting. After four years, we are out on bail. We are finally able to breathe freely and can sing our songs without any censorship.”
This is what Sagar Gorkhe and Ramesh Gaichor — members of the Kabir Kala Manch, who were arrested by the ATS for their alleged connection with Naxals — have to say. The Supreme Court granted them bail on 3 January 2017, four years after their arrest. They are now ready to get back to the streets with their new songs.
Kabir Kala Manch (KKM), a Pune-based cultural group, was formed in 2002 after the Gujarat riots. It was later branded as a ‘Maoist front’ by the state ATS. The ATS accused KKM artistes of being in contact with Naxals and working as per the instructions of Angela Sontakke and her husband Milind Teltumbde, as an urban sleeper cell for the Naxalite movement. The charge sheet against the KKM artistes states that they had allegedly participated in arms training with 150 Naxals in the jungle areas of Gadchiroli in Maharashtra between November 2011 and April 2012. The ATS booked Sheetal Sathe, Sachin Mali, Ramesh and Sagar along with eight other members of KKM under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Sheetal and Sachin staged a satyagraha in Mumbai and surrendered themselves to the police in 2013. Sagar and Ramesh, who were then on the run, decided to appear in public after Sheetal and Sachin’s arrest. They staged a protest at the Ambedkar statue near the Mumbai Sessions Court and were later arrested by the ATS.
“We never surrendered. When you are accused of being Naxals, the word ‘surrender’ has a different meaning. We had never committed any crime. So the question of ‘surrendering’ simply doesn’t arise,” they say. “When the police started arresting members of the KKM, we decided to go into hiding out of fear. We were on the run for more than six months. We were not able to find a way out. Then we came to know about the Kabir Kala Manch Bachao Sangharsh Samiti. We met Anand Patwardhan ,one of the members of the Samiti, and then consulted a lawyer. They suggested that we should follow the procedure of the law and face the prosecution,” Sagar adds.
“After our arrest, we were taken to the Arthur Road Jail. We were strip searched and sent to the barracks. First they kept us in one of the barracks along with many other jail inmates. Some of them were smoking, some of them were spitting, It was dirty, filthy — something we were not used to. This could’ve easily broken our morale. Later, we were shifted to the ‘anda cell’ in Taloja jail. It was a small, 6 x 12 room. It would get very lonely. They used to lock us up for most of the day. We could communicate with only the 12 people in the nearby barracks when we were allowed to go out for few hours. It was the struggle with the system and also the struggle within. We were still trying to come to terms with the fact that we had to spend time in this environment,” Sagar recounts.
Ramesh says in prison, they found some respite in practising their art: “We are artists. So the obvious form of expression for us was poetry. That is how we wrote our first song — it was about our condition inside the jail. It provided some relief, so we decided to keep writing.”
Even then, there was a barrier presented in the form of censorship. “Our only sources of information were the letters from our friends and the newspapers we read. But these were censored too… An officer in jail used to read the newspapers and cut out the part that he felt prisoners shouldn’t read. But letters from friends provided information, based on which we wrote the songs. We used to send these songs back to our friends through letters. But once an officer read one of the songs while examining our letter. The officers were told that we might instigate people through our songs. So he simply refused to send it — without any logical or legal reason. That was when we realised that our songs were going to get censored too. But we had to keep writing and find ways out to send them so that our troupe could perform,” says Sagar. These songs were later published as a book — Gajanadchi Sangharshagatha, meaning ‘songs of struggle from prison’.
When the High Court rejected their bail plea twice, the KKM members started to lose hope. Their lawyers, however, were optimistic and approached the Supreme Court.
“It was a routine day. We only knew that our bail plea would be heard in the Supreme Court. So we kept waiting for the update. We were told by a constable that according to news on television, Sachin Mali had been granted bail. We enquired if he knew anything about our case, but he didn’t. We had asked one of the prisoners who was taken to court to check if there was any update. He came back but didn’t tell us anything. We thought our plea was either rejected or not heard, as it was a separate application. Sagar was feeling restless and kept trying to communicate with the prisoner. But he simply ignored us. It was only after some time that he turned to us and calmly told us that bail had been granted. He wanted to dramatise it! Everyone burst into laughter after hearing this,” says Ramesh.
They were released by the jail authorities after completing the necessary legal procedures. Their friends were waiting for them outside the jail premises. “We went to a nearby tea stall with them and started singing. We were performing outside the prison walls, without any censorship or tension. No one was going to stop us. We were back with our team,” say Sagar and Ramesh.
They were released after spending almost four years in prison. The Supreme Court observed that the investigating authorities had presented only one witness in court — out of the 147 witnesses mentioned in the charge sheet. This was cited as the prime reason for granting bail.
Ramesh and Sagar are set to perform again, under the KKM banner (the group has split, with Sheetal and Sachin forming their own troupe). They want to perform the songs they have penned during their jail term. But the struggle is far from over.
“We are invited for performances, only to be told that it has been cancelled. Being branded as Naxals has ruined our lives,” Sagar and Ramesh say. Sagar had to drop out of the final year of his BA Sociology course, while Ramesh — who was working as a professor at a Pune college — was forced to quit too. “Getting our jobs back is simply a dream for us. But we want to keep performing. Our new songs are ready. People can understand only when we simplify things for them. This is why we have decided to explain and criticise the decision of demonetization through our new songs. Songs on other topics are ready too,” says Ramesh, while Sagar adds, “We will keep fighting for justice. But we will continue to sing too.”
“People’s art is a weapon for liberation.”