The members of this Indian cultural troupe have been harassed, jailed and branded Maoists, but they stay true to their vision of an equal society
- By Suparna Dutt D’CunhaSpecial to Weekend Review
- Published: 21:30 September 25, 2014
- Image Credit: Supplied
- Sheetal Sathe and other members of the Kabir Kala Manch have been targets of administrative vindictiveness
It’s not that the state will suffer no rivals; it’s that its rivals always suffer. In India today, being a political prisoner is not a rarity. As the trajectory of cultural resistance groups in the recent period reveals, whenever its ideologies have attained critical mass, the state has clamped down on them.
Ramesh Gaichor, Sheetal Sathe, Sachin Mali, Deepak Dhengle, Siddharth Bhosale, Sagar Gorkhe and Jyoti Chorge are just a few of the outspoken critics of the government who have been imprisoned because they have angered the administration.
Well-versed in using music as a medium to protest, these young men and women are members of Kabir Kala Manch (KKM), a working-class cultural troupe with a “political” voice, formed in Pune, Maharashtra, in the aftermath of the Gujarat riots. Since 2002, armed with songs and drums, their voices have reached out to the masses, reverberated through the alleys, slums and colleges across Maharashtra, and shaken the big hitters in the corridors of power.
Over the years, punished for protesting, these poet-singers belonging to Dalit and tribal communities have passed from a period of police harassment into a period of formal control (actual imprisonment) and are now doomed for life to a system of “invisible” control. Some are let off, but stuck with the anti-national tag.
In every society, disturbing peace is a crime, and those who engage in it can expect punishment. But it is better if delivered in a court of law and not by a state with a whip. Sitting inside a small coffee shop, rising above political squabbling and wrongful imprisonment to affect change, Dhengle, after a week of volunteering in the rescue efforts in Pune’s Ambegaon where a massive landslide killed over 200 people and wiped out a village in late July, shared his thoughts on singing for justice, and singing against exploitation. On this day he doesn’t draw any undue attention from plainclothesmen who track his every move.
Living in the world’s largest democracy, when I tell him it is hard to imagine that one can be arrested for singing a song that is deemed a high-level threat to the state, he said, with a beaming face showing no signs of fatigue, “We are artists, and reflect what we see. The voice, with which we sing, is the vidrohi voice (the voice of opposition), and it is drawn from a long history of Dalit literature and activism that prompted social betterment.”
Confessing he had no interest in activism when he joined KKM in 2004, Dhengle said he only wanted to sing, but got interested in politics because being a tribal, he was sensitive to the suffering of the poor. “I felt my songs should be of service to the people.”
Dhengle, the primary poet and composer of KKM, doesn’t flinch away from insisting that virodhi shahiri, or protest poetry, is his weapon of choice against injustice. “We hold a mirror up to society, and don’t believe in violence. But the administration is scared of our revolutionary zeal; they want to instil fear in the minds of people, and suppress the Dalit voice.”
The statistics are harrowing: India’s National Crime Records Bureau has found that more than four Dalit women are raped every day across the country. Dalit Media Watch, a group that reports on crimes against India’s lowest caste, has reported that two Dalits are assaulted, murdered and have their homes torched every hour. And in Maharashtra, the birthplace of social reformer and progressive thinker B.R. Ambedkar, popularly known as Babasaheb, the incidence of atrocities remains unacceptably high.
Against this background, the signs of their anger become more than evident, particularly after the mass killing of Dalits in Bombay in 1997 and the Khairlanji massacre in 2006 in Nagpur. Many protests against the atrocities took place in Maharashtra. Ironically, instead of bringing the guilty to book, the state responded by branding the protesters Maoist insurgents. It was not so long ago that public health specialist and human rights activist Binayak Sen was similarly charged and jailed for close to three years before the Supreme Court intervened to grant him bail in 2011.
KKM started with more than 25 members, comprising professors, social activists and students, mainly to promote Hindu-Muslim unity, and soon its politics and aesthetics, crisp and rhetoric-free message appealed to the like-minded people. But its focus has changed since.
“After Khairlanji there was all this rage. As we see increasing atrocities against Dalits and tribals, and how the state hushes it up, we vent our anger and frustration through our songs, our politics,” said Dhengle, his fighting streak belying his otherwise mild-mannered personality.
Travelling across the country, KKM has lent musical support to a diverse range of activist movements, taking on the venality of the system, including the proposed nuclear plant at Jaitapur and Lavasa’s controversial township project in Maharashtra.
Interestingly, KKM was one of the first protest music groups to use western instruments. This diversity of influences is part of what makes their music appealing to those outside the Dalit-Left movements as well.
“In March we performed in Chandigarh’s Punjab University, paying tribute to Bhagat Singh (an iconic revolutionary leader of the Indian freedom struggle) in front of an enthusiastic audience of students and professors. We also performed in Bengaluru and at the inauguration of a film club in Kochi. Our only purpose is to go and sing at peoples’ movements, and we’ll continue to do that,” said Dhengle, having successfully executed set-pieces designed to attract maximum attention and cause maximum impact for the authorities.
Interestingly, the incessant intimidation on KKM has given the group a platform larger than they could have ever hoped for, but there’s a hitch. “State and police suppression — our tribulations, trials and imprisonment — gave us an opportunity to reach out to more people. Enthusiastic, curious people come to watch us perform, but at the same time everyday people, on a personal level, are scared to associate with us, or be seen with us for fear of police harassment,” said Bhosale, a 28-year-old carpenter, who joined KKM in 2005.
Though KKM has retained its appeal, over the years many of its original members were forced out due to constant, systematic harassment by the administration and police intimidation.
From Dalit atrocities, tribal rights and farmers’ suicides to rapes and crony capitalism, KKM has been asking some uncomfortable questions through their protest poetry and street plays. As expected, they paid a high price for trying to wake people up from suburbia stupor. Despite having never taken up arms or been involved in acts of violence, they found themselves being given a new identity — Maoist, a term increasingly used by the state for anyone who defies its might.
In 2011, Dhengle, Bhosale and Chorge were arrested by the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) for sedition, waging war against the state and alleged links with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), a Left-wing extremist outfit fighting for more than a decade to overthrow elected governments in several Indian states. They were charged under the repressive Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).
Alarmed by news of the arrests and worried for their own safety, the rest of the group — Sathe, Mali and Gorkhe — went underground. After Dhengle was freed from prison last year, they courted arrest outside the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly. Dhengle, with fellow activist Bhosale, spent two years in Arthur Road Jail in Mumbai.
“They are not Maoists. I see them as fiery idealists fighting to make our society just and equitable. To me the distinction between KKM and Maoist insurgents lies in the fact that the only weapon they have chosen to fight with is their poetry and song,” said filmmaker Anand Patwardhan, whose National Award-winning “Jai Bhim Comrade”, a 200-minute documentary shot over 14 years that put the spotlight on protest music by Dalits, brought the activism of KKM to the fore in 2011.
One year later, Patwardhan, using the cash given to him by the Maharashtra government for his award-winning documentary as initial corpus, formed KKM Defence Committee to prevent unfair profiling and curbing of their freedom of expression. The filmmaker is trying to secure bail for the rest of the KKM members, Gaichor, Mali and Gorkhe.
Reacting to the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the students’ wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), that forced St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, to retract an invitation extended to KKM activist Sheetal Sathe to participate in a panel discussion on “The invisibility of caste” in August, the filmmaker said, “KKM has nothing to do with Nationalism or Naxalism. KKM believes in a pluralistic India where caste, religion and race are replaced by the recognition that we are all human beings first who deserve justice, peace and true democracy. The ideologues of Hindutva, no matter how big a national flag they wrap around themselves, have always had a completely different agenda.”
Now out on bail, Sathe, who was six months pregnant when she was arrested last April, is somewhat of a rising star in India, and it is not for her music.
Unjust imprisonment often reduces men to brutes. It isn’t the horror of the sameness of time but the unimaginable brutality, of attenuated panic, of watchful paranoia that make prisons unendurable for those who serve time for crimes they did not commit. But for the few who are unwavering in their resolve, prisons only serve to strengthen them.
Confronted with the brutal condition inside the prison system, their voice has also helped expose the moral scandal of Indian life.
In a poem he wrote during his time in prison, Dhengle, who like his fellow activists subscribes to the potent mix of Marxism and the teachings of Ambedkar, mocked those who imprison freedom lovers: “Who all will you arrest?/There are hundreds of birds of freedom, who all will you arrest?/We’ll take the cage and fly away and you won’t even know it” (rough translation from Hindi).
“They stripped me, tied my hands and legs and hung me from the ceiling. I was in so much pain that I asked them to shoot me dead. But I never felt that I made a mistake and so was punished. Those two years made me stronger — mentally and physically,” Dhengle said, whose defence claimed that he was forced to confess sympathy for Maoists in custody.
Echoing the same sentiment, Bhosale added, “Indian jails are factories manufacturing criminals. And the police force is not for the poor, but for the rich.”
Surely, the country must know the history of Indian artistic dissent, and that if you put artists in prison, they will observe the details. And that when they get out they will talk about them.
Chorge, a law student, who was 19 when she was arrested by the ATS for alleged links to the banned organisation in 2011, said, “It hurts when we are made to feel like terrorists. We love our country more than they [police and administration] do.”
Even prison bars, high walls and the barbed iron wire of Byculla Jail in Mumbai, where Chorge was lodged from April 2011 to April 2013, couldn’t quell the fire in her belly. On December 26, 2011, she began a hunger strike demanding better food and improved living conditions, together with 200 other inmates, for six days. “We called off the strike only after we were promised better food, and much to our delight food served thereafter did improve a lot.”
Two years ago, when Russian feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot was sent to prison for singing “Virgin Mary Put Putin Away” inside the Russian Orthodox Church’s main cathedral, asking the Virgin Mary to chase President Vladimir Putin out of power, the music world was outraged. The case got the whole world talking, and like elsewhere, in India too many have spoken out in support of Pussy Riot, and freedom from a repressive political system.
But in a country where insignificant matters are discussed and deciphered by “expert” panels on national TV, these attempts of the state to silence dissent are often hushed up.
Launching a scathing attack on prime minister Narendra Modi, alleged to have redefined freedom of speech and thought as “free, so long as you agree”, Patwardhan said, “Modi and the corporate backers who put him in power have been manipulating media for long. And now it is getting worse. Censorship is often invisible; it is manufactured consent, which is much more subtle than overt censorship. Then there are also extreme right-wing hoodlums who have the impunity to act overtly when the state cannot do things officially. In our country, only the upper-class elites are allowed to have a voice.”
Counter-insurgency officials consider Left-leaning intellectuals to be the torchbearers of radical ideology and, therefore, the greatest threat. “They see a Muslim as terrorist and a Dalit as Maoist. It’s true we galvanise people’s sympathies for the same causes that the Maoists claim to fight for, but we are not the same,” Bhosale added.
In a travesty of justice, though freed from jail, they are still shackled by invisible chains.
“Our phones are tapped; intelligence agencies follow us and track our every move, and look for any excuse to detain us. We have to report to police station every Sunday as part of our bail formalities, and go to Mumbai every month for court hearings,” said Bhosale, who was let off on bail last year, along with Dhengle and Chorge, when the Bombay High Court ruled that it is impossible to hold that every person attracted to or influenced by the Maoist ideology is to be treated as a member of a terrorist organisation.
He continued, “I change my phone number often because of constant hounding by intelligence agencies and police. If I switch off my phone, they harass my family, asking them my whereabouts.”
Of course, systemic problems are not limited to what goes on behind the prison walls. Now Dhengle, a motor mechanic suspended from his job at Pune Municipal Corporation, survives on the goodwill of his friends.
“We all lost whatever small jobs we were doing. We have to report to the investigating agency regularly, and have to sit there for hours. That affects our work, and our daily lives,” added Bhosale, who earns his living doing odd jobs.
Ironically, the political rhetoric celebrating cultural diversity in India is at considerable odds with reality. Members of the Dalit caste, which number 200 million, have long been mistreated, and have experienced consistent denial to access to education. Even today, Dalits are treated as bonded labour in rural India. “When the state abdicates the responsibility of standing up for the poor, underprivileged, and become champion for intimidation, the country is in trouble indeed,” said Dhengle.
Dhengle typically argued that the only antidote to the disruptive individualism and crony capitalism is renewed stress on egalitarianism. “We believe that there can be no end to casteism without addressing the class issue, and vice versa. The struggle for both will go together, which is why we believe in Ambedkar and Marx, and mix both ideologies.”
That revolutionary fire that drove Bhosale out of ordinary life, he said, was dictated by the ideals of Communism. Capitalism has made man selfish, divided the world into givers and takers. Takers, Bhosale stated, are always agenda-driven — they give in order to take.
“Indian democracy has many shortcomings; people who run the country are corrupt to the core. We want to change the materialistic mindset of the youth. Selfishness is forcefully built into our human fabric.”
According to Dhengle, excessive individualism is the root of India’s problems. “There is an erosion of trust. The deadly combination of crony capitalism, fundamentalism and caste politics is making the society morally bankrupt. We have created a society in which materialism overwhelms moral commitment.
“Communal violence is growing by the day. The disquieting silence of Modi at this rising intolerance is, in a way, an alert to the people with progressive thoughts that they will not have his back. But we will continue to lend our voice to several public-interest causes; the primary focus of our work is to provoke dialogue on the struggles of Dalit people.”
Though wrongfully incarcerated, the time they spent in prison did not sap their energy or crush their spirit. “Government is silencing dissent, which is an essential component of a healthy democracy. Freedom is something that everybody has; it is just that some people imagine themselves to be fettered,” said Bhosale. After all, they have proven that they are not afraid to speak truth to power, even when the risks are extreme.
Suparna Dutt D’Cunha is a writer based in Pune, India.