In May 2011, members of Kabir Kala Manch (KKM), a group of Dalit protest singers and poets from Pune, were accused by the police of being Naxalites. Two KKM members have been in prison for more than a year, while others are hiding, in fear of their safety. The evidence is scanty, mostly to do with supposed ties to Anjali Sontakke, the Naxal ideologue arrested by Maharashtra’s Anti-Terrorist Squad in April last year. Ramu Ramanathan, playwright and part of the KKM Defence Committee, describes their surreal dialogue with the authorities and the ongoing fight for justice

A FEW years ago, I was to modernise Kabir’s dohas in a theatre workshop for architecture students. To make it interesting, I set them into popular rock-’n’roll tunes. And thus, ROCKING AND ROLLING WITH KABIR was born. We threw in a bit of ideology, made Kabir an activist, a Bob Dylan-cum-Jyotiba Phule persona. We ensured the first scene had more noise onstage than the noise in the audience!

The play culminated with Kabir going underground; and then Kabir — the harbinger of peace and progress — being shot. Our premise was simple. Kabir encouraged the synthesis of faith and questioned ideas across different cultures. He invented secular democracy. Unfortunately, the real world is cruel.

Zealotry is an ugly business. When Kabir protested, he was silenced. When Kabir was dead, a girl played a guitar riff; and then a statement condemning the death of Kabir scrolled on the A/V. The signatories were the who’s who of the planet from Socrates to Buddha; from Marx to Gandhi; from Raja Rammohan Roy to Ram Manohar Lohia; from Ghalib to Ambedkar. The final name in the list was: Anand Patwardhan — the eternal protestor. After the show, everyone had a good laugh. It was a little in-house joke.

Today five years since, history repeats itself. Kabir has been jailed. Kabir is underground. Anand Patwardhan and many others form the Kabir Kala Manch (KKM) Defence Committee; to whose coffers Patwardhan donates Rs 50,000.

That was art; this is harsh reality.

Patwardhan, who had first seen a KKM performance in 2007, is now grappling with legalese to get justice for the KKM members with funds fast depleting.

Today, most of the KKM artistes, who performed, are underground and two members, Deepak Dengle and Siddharth Bhonsle are behind bars at the Arthur Road central prison. Branded Naxalites, they were arrested on 12 May 2011 by the State under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).

I recall KKM appearing on Pune’s theatre scene in 2002. The group had young Dalit boys and girls – who sang songs and staged angry plays. They repudiated aesthetics for the politics of the stage. A typical KKM show in the bastis ensured the first scene had to have more noise onstage than the noise in the audience! This was a theatre tactic that Indian People’s Theatre Association put to good use when ideology was on their side. An open truck would enter a crowded mohalla, create a hullabaloo, and the play would be performed on the truck.

This is part of the great Maharashtra tradition of Ambedkar-Phule that is diminishing.

Years ago, the Vidrohi Sammelan, with unflaunted passion, had stated from Dharavi, art and politics can never be separated. The mainstream Sahitya Sammelan with their upper caste writers at Shivaji Park announced their menu of sheera and upma. The Vidrohi announced theirs, beef. The battle lines were drawn. High caste friends said, “This is wrong. After all, shouldn’t we Hindus remain united; or else we’ll become a minority in our own country?”

A typical KKM show in thebastis ensured the first scene had to have more noise onstage than the noise in the audience

The Vidrohi gang is incorrigible. They set up camp against the World Social Forum, which one of them called the “Social World Forum”. They mocked the socialites and do-gooders from across the road. The icons were questioned. It became Globalisation and Stiglitz’s Discontent, and the biggest scam of post-liberalised India: the NGO scam.

Post Godhra, a young students group called Satyashodhak Vidyarthi Sangathan sets up a poster exhibition. It’s not Vivan Sundaram nor Akbar Padamsee, but it’s the first organised protest of its kind against the “Duryodhana of the Hindutva Laboratory”. Police permission is denied. No gallery to exhibit. So, they beat the system.

I mention both examples because in February 2005, KKM members got a crash-course in radicalism from heavy weights of the “vidrohi movement” like Bharat Patankar, Kishore Dhamale, Kishore Jadhav, Dhanaji Gurav and Sudhir Dhawale. That’s where KKM drew their strength from; and their ability to perform guerilla style.

In the later years, KKM came under the State’s radar with its frequent allusions to democracy’s failures, about oppression, and domination of one caste over the other. When Sheetal Sathe sang how Ambedkar said if the Constitution did not give people justice — political, social and economic — his people should overthrow it, the State began to act.

It counter-argues, based on a statement under Section 164 of the criminal procedure code, how KKM members had an affair with the Naxalite ideology of the CPI (Maoist) who indoctrinated them. The charge: training camps in Pune’s Khed taluka, lecturing in support of Angela Sontakke and others, rubbing shoulders with revolutionaries and visiting campuses and bastis with “a message in the service of a cause….”

IT’S BEEN more than a year since Dengle and Bhonsle were arrested. As part of the KKM Defence Committee, we decide to meet the Maharashtra chief minister. Our agenda: to request the State government to withdraw false charges against Shahirs (singer-poets) from KKM. Also Sheetal Sathe, Sagar Gorkhe and Sachin Mali, who are underground due to the fear of torture and a jail term, be provided an opportunity to come ‘overground’. Above all, artistes be allowed to perform.

The CM is a statesman. Pleasantries are exchanged. Tea and poha is served. Patwardhan boots up his Apple Mac and showcases excerpts from his documentary Jai Bhim Comrade on a whitewashed wall. On screen, Sathe and co-members of KKM mobilise audiences. There are sharp witticisms about the abject poverty and discontent in slums. The 15-minute screening concludes.

The CM agrees that human rights are meant to be defended. Promises are made. We exit.

Time passes.

A bit slower for Dengle and Bhonsle in jail.

Meanwhile, the court hearings proceed inside a bleak-looking Sewri Court. The security is humongous and they keep a strict vigil. One day, the judge does not turn up. The legalese and the administrative wrangles seem insurmountable. Plus, the lack of funds to mount a serious challenge.

The 29-year old Dengle who celebrated his wedding anniversary in jail on 14 May, meets us at Sewri Court, his literary inspiration is still not exhausted. He hands me a poem,Inquilab Chaiye. The poem is in Hindi and has a rudimentary rhythm. He sings the firstmukdha: Ek moothi baandho reh baandho/Ek moothi bandho re doston/Bas ek mukka chaiye/Aur ek dhakka chaiye/Inquilab chaiye doston/Inquilab.

The police battalion gather around Dengle. They hear him sing.

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