Monthly Archives: June 2012

Notes from underground


Notes from underground

Last month, a group of filmmakers, actors and activists formed the Kabir Kala Manch Defence Committee to support the Dalit singers who went underground last year after being branded Naxalites. Kareena N Gianani looks at similar initiatives and finds hope, anger and an awareness of the reinvention needed to keep a cause ” and the person ” alive

June 24, 2012
Kareena N Gianani, Sunday Mid-day

Towards the end of a recent screening of Anand Patwardhan’s 2011 documentary on caste atrocities, Jai Bhim Comrade, a 20-something girl appeared onscreen. A ripple of seat-shifting ran through the auditorium at Xavier’s College, as if on cue. Her unflinching gaze planted a nagging thought in the viewers’ minds, hinting that something was going to make them sit up, very soon. Her easy smile told them otherwise. Everyone edged closer to their seats, anyway.

Documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan is part of the Kabir Kala Manch Defence Committee. He had interviewed the Pune troupe’s members for his documentary on Dalit exploitation, Jai bhim Comrade. Pic Courtesy/MS Gopal (

Sheetal Sathe half-closed her eyes and sang about Dalit atrocities, poverty and exploitation. The static in the sound system of the makeshift pandal in Pune could not tarnish her deep, heartrending voice. By the time the gooseflesh settled down, the next scene showed Sathe, an atheist, sitting with her mother in a chawl whose walls were invisible because of the dieties’ posters fighting for space. Sathe spoke of how Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar clearly said if the Constitution did not give people justice — political, social and economic — his own people would overthrow it. Her mother looked on.

Sathe, with four members of her street music troupe, Kabir Kala Manch (KKM), has been underground since May last year. On May 12, 2011, two members of KKM, Deepak Dengle and Siddharth Bhonsle, were arrested by the state under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), and branded Naxalites.

Defending the right to disagree
Last month, on May 11, Patwardhan, supported by activist Kamayani Bali-Mahabal, actor Ratna Pathak Shah and playwright-director Ramu Ramanathan, among others, formed the Kabir Kala Manch Defence Committee. Patwardhan, who is currently touring in Australia to screen Jai Bhim Comrade, says over email that the KKM members are mostly Dalits from poor families who do not carry weapons, only sing songs.

“Had someone like you or me uttered the same words and sentiments as KKM did through their songs, I doubt the State would have branded us Naxalites and begin to hound us till we were forced to go underground.”  When, adds Patwardhan, the mining corporations put pressure on the Centre and the Centre puts pressure on the State and the ATS to show results in the fight against Naxalites, what better soft target to hit than a group like the KKM?

“And there is always a gullible media to swallow the story. Occasionally, these stories unravel as one did when the Malegaon blasters turned out to be a Hindutva gang and not the poor Muslims who had been tortured for six years for the same crime,” says the documentary filmmaker. Ironically, the state awarded Jai Bhim Comrade the National Film Award. Patwardhan made his point by donating the Rs 51,000 prize money to the Committee fighting against the state.

Silencing dissent
At her Bandra residence, Shah thinks for a moment before she finds the perfect analogy for the given situation. “The KKM members were closer to the material they sang about — closer than performers like me can ever be. Their art is confrontational and direct, and, as an actor, I can see why the impact is magnified. Don’t we pay Rs 500 to watch stand-up artistes criticise politicians, policies and social issues?”

Kabir Kala Manch’s lead singer, Sheetal Sathe, is underground with four other members after two of her troupe members were branded Naxalites and arrested in May last year

Shah remembers a time when, a couple of years ago, at a stage performance of Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai’s controversial plays, Booh and Lihaaf respectively, a viewer stormed out after a fight with the actors. He was shocked that Shah could stage something that “obscene and corrupting in front of his 14 year-old daughter”. “The show was meant for adults in the first place. Still, we never once took away his right to disagree with us. But in the case of the KKM, that is exactly what state is doing — silencing voices that speak against them.”

The KKM Defence Committee is also trying to raise its voice against the treatment meted out to the families of the KKM members who have gone underground. Sathe’s mother, for instance, says Mahabal, was thrown out of the Ruby Hall Clinic in Pune, where she worked as an assistant. It is Binayak Sen all over again, says Mahabal.

She currently attends the KKM hearings with other members and runs a blog and a Facebook page dedicated to the KKM. She also plans to organise a peaceful protest around Independence Day this year with the help of Justice And Peace For All (JAPA), a group of musicians who spread activism through their art. Last December, JAPA members performed at Carter Road in support of Binayak Sen. “We got some rappers who rap in Marathi, too. When it comes to these cases, you must keep doing something new — innovating in terms of ideas — to generate interest. We, the middle class, can be surprisingly thick-skinned otherwise,” smiles Mahabal.

‘Unite the cause’
The first thing 39 year-old Arun Ferreira remembers after his five year-long jail stint in January, is a “thumb marathon”. “I was supposed to SMS relatives, friends and fellow activists who fought for me. But I’m so slow that I don’t think I am still done with that.” “I don’t think I’ve gotten used to life outside jail,” says Ferreira, looking around at the ice-cream parlour in Bandra.

Arun Ferreira, who was released from prison in January, plans to form a committee in Mumbai, similar to the Committee For Release Of Political Prisoners, New Delhi, which works for the rights for political prisoners. Pic/Atul Kamble

The man behind the counter looks up from his own ‘thumb marathon’ on his mobile phone and leans to look at Ferreira, as if to see what a man just outside prison looks like. Ferreira doesn’t notice. He is busy smiling and speaking of how he misses the “real conversations in jail as compared to the ‘pings’ and ‘pokes’ outside”.

Ferreira shows no outward signs of distress. Nothing in the way he walks across the street with his denim sling bag suggests that he was arrested under the same UAPA act under which the KKM was booked last year. Neither does his demeanour give away the fact that he is working on a plan to start a Mumbai-version of the Committee For Release Of Political Prisoners, New Delhi, an organisation fighting for human rights since 1989.

Ferreira is all for activists forming committees to support causes against the UAPA, but says that somewhere, we need to go beyond the individual. “We must understand that we need a larger platform and united causes — no issue is ‘just’ social, environmental, about women — it is all about expressing our right to dissent.”

Ferreira isn’t comfortable revealing names of those who will be a part of this body. “I’ll continue doing what I am doing even now — being part of other committees working toward releasing political prisoners, filing applications, extending legal help to them and their families and so on,” he says.
In jail, Ferreira spent a lot of time with those booked under the UAPA, such as Dalit activists Sudhir Dhawale and Vernon Gonsalves. “Words like ‘vidroh’, these days, are enough to land you in jail. We don’t need more cosmetic laws, we need a change in the existing set-up. I think it’s time we remembered that democracy was, in the first place, born out of struggle.”

Keeping the case alive
Eddie Rodrigues, associate professor at the department of sociology at the Mumbai University, understands where Ferreira is coming from. “Post-liberalisation, the left, right and centre seem to have come together and are working on a modern development model that keeps out three-fourth of our population. The media comes in to sensationalise things and many NGOs reap its benefits thanks to this section. Voices of dissent and those that speak up for this part of the population are seen as ‘trouble-makers’,” says Rodrigues.

The struggle, he adds, is not dead, but because there is no political will, unorganised groups have a limited impact. Sumedh Jadhav, a 50 year-old activist who formed the Sudhir Dhawale Muktata Abhyaan after Dhawale’s arrest in May 2010 says a lot changes for the committees working against the UAPA arrests as time passes. “All that the cops found before arresting him were documents about Bhagat Singh and a book with a red cover.

When we first started the committee, there was a lot of hullabaloo in the media and in the people. Even today, we have moral support, but other cases have come up and I am struggling to keep Dhawale’s work alive even among our own community.” Jadhav, who works as an LIC agent, attends court hearings and goes to Dalit-dominated bastis to spread Dhawale’s message. He says he often joins similar causes in the hope that Dhawale’s case, again, will be in the limelight. “I wouldn’t say there are no listeners, but I feel that I need to ‘reinvent’ myself and my cause. Perhaps, get on Facebook…”

Jai Bhim Comrade-Songs That Won’t Be Silenced


Kavita Krishnan

Anand Patwardhan’s new documentary Jai Bhim Comrade is an epic that tells the tale of dalit oppression, resistance, politics, and cultural expression;a tale of great ugliness, and also of great beauty and power. 

Patwardhan took 14 years to make this film: beginning with the July 1997 police firing on the Ramabai Colony that claimed the lives of 10 dalits who were among those protesting the desecration of an Ambedkar statue. He followed the protracted struggle for justice, through the enquiry commission and the trial, right up to the conviction of the police officer responsiblewho is whisked away to hospital, does not spend a day in jail, instead gets bail within a week, followed by a subsequent promotion. 
Soon after the film’s release, came the news of the BathaniTola acquittal, reminding us that the process of ‘justice’ for the poor and oppressed remains as fraught with bias and injustice as ever.
One aspect of the Ramabai Colony massacre story is the political betrayal and opportunism by the RPI leadership. The Shiv Sena-BJP was in power at the time of the massacre. But gradually the Dalit movement’s leaders sell-out. Towering figures of the Dalit Panthers movement like Namdeo Dhasal are shown sharing a platform with Bal Thackeray as he spews the worst communal venom against minorities and advocates extermination: “They say these encounters are fake… This species must be exterminated …the courts can keep investigating after that, they have plenty of time.” Ten years after the firing, the RPI leadership eventually joins hands with Shiv Sena whose government presided over the massacre, touting the formula of ‘Bhimshakti uniting with Shivshakti.’ And even the present generation of Ramabai Colony’s residents begins to undergo a modification of memory. 

There are those inimitable moments, typical of Patwardhan’s films, where his disarmingly gentle questions to English-speaking elites – and the answers they evoke – devastatingly expose the irrationality and arrogance of the privileged, who like to believe they are educated and advanced. For instance, there is the young leader of a rally and conference of Chitpavan Brahmans, who claims his caste is superior because its members “inherit Parashuram’s genes.”

The film also establishes how caste prejudice is flourishing amongst young, well-off professionals – a section which likes to claim that caste consciousness is something they have shed, and which it blames quotas for perpetuating. You have evening walkers deriding the huge annual Ambedkar Jayanti rally in Mumbai, because “those people are dirty.” Asked if he knew the reason for the celebration, one English-speaking man says he hasn’t read anything Ambedkar wrote; reminded that Ambedkar authored the Indian Constitution, he says, “Yeah, ‘we the people’ and all that.”A young student at a Barista outlet airily claims that the “Dalit issue” has been “ameliorated” and no longer needs quotas; asked for real-life instances of this, he replies that he has no friends “like that.” 

One of the poignant threads probed by the film is the suicide of Patwardhan’s friend, cultural activist Vilas Ghoghre, whose song on the workers’ story – Katha Suno Re Logon – many of us have heard in Patwardhan’s Hamara Shahar. Four days after the Ramabai Colony firing, Ghoghre committed suicide. The film tries to find answers for the question – why did Ghoghre, who had been a Marxist rather than an Ambedkarite, and whose poems and songs reflected his Left ideology and activism, wrap a blue scarf (the colour of the Ambedkarite movement), around his head when he ended his life?
Ghoghre’s expulsion from his cultural organization – Ahwan, belonging to the same political tradition as Gadar – left him embittered and hurt. He was expelled because he sang at RPI functions to earn money to sustain his family. Was this a case of a Left cultural group’s insensitivity to a Dalit activist? For many Left performers, the question of survival and sustenance has often been asource of dilemma and discomfort, irrespective of caste. The phenomenon of Left cultural activists who address pressing needs of family survival by turning to funded NGOs or non-Left parties or commercial performance is a common one – and in most cases, this leads eventually to a rift with the group. But possibly there were other factors at work: Anand Teltumbde, in his discussion of the film, cites “undercurrents of castes and sub-castes” and discomfort with Ghoghre’s Ambedkarite past within the organisation.  

But the film does raise deeper problems with how caste is treated in Left theory and practice. Gadar speaks of how class/caste is understood in terms of the base/superstructure metaphor, as ‘economic base’ being accorded primacy as compared to the ‘political superstructure.’ Is this really a correct representation of how Marxism understands struggles that fall outside the strictly ‘economic’ realm?
In What Is To Be Done, Lenin’s seminal early work in which he articulated the ideological-political direction of the communist movement in polemics with ‘economists’ who privileged economic struggle as the sole basis of political struggle, Lenin had clearly treated class struggle first and foremost as political struggle, and broadened the horizon of political struggle from various segments of the economy to diverse layers of the society and its given political form. For Lenin “the class struggle of the proletariat” comprised “the economic struggle (struggle against individual capitalists or against individual groups of capitalists for the improvement of the workers’ condition) and the political struggle (struggle against the government for the broadening of the people’s rights, i.e., for democracy, and for the broadening of the political power of the proletariat).”(Our Programme)
Caste in India inhabits both the economic (in terms of struggles with landlords and employers for wages, housing, land) and political (in terms of struggles which press the State to act against discrimination and atrocities, for representation, for quotas in education and employment, and so on) realms of struggle. As Jai Bhim Comrade shows, the identity of ‘dalit’ and ‘worker’ is inextricably interwoven, with dalits forming the bulk of those employed in jobs like garbage disposal, cleaning and sanitation, and rural landless workers. There simply can’t be a wall between ‘class struggle’ and the struggles for dignity, equality, and political assertion of dalits. 

The idea that class struggles must mean economic struggles alone is a social democratic distortion of revolutionary Marxism-Leninism. But, unfortunately, the social democratic notion that class struggles are primarily ‘economic,’ and that gender, caste, and even issues like corruption are somehow set apart from ‘class’ struggle is a very tenacious one, both on the Left, and among the Left’s critics.
One of the most remarkable things about the film, as about most of Patwardhan’s films, is that it takes no shortcuts, and in fact makes several seeming detours – to address gender and communalism, for instance – without ever appearing contrived or effortful.

The film that begins with Ghoghre’s song, introduces you to the Kabir Kala Manch towards the end. The KKM is a troupe of young artists of a radical Ambedkarite and Left tradition, and their performances, filmed by Patwardhan, electrify. It is appalling that the KKM has been banned as a ‘Maoist’ outfit, and that Sheetal Sathe, the KKM’s young poet and lead singer, has been forced underground.
While addressing all the weighty issues of dalit politics, dalit atrocities, and the quest for justice, the film also finds time to explore the relationship of a daughter (Sheetal Sathe) to her mother. The daughter is an atheist and has married against her parents’ will, leading to conflict with the mother, who is a devout believer, her tiny slum-dwelling housing a shrine to several deities. 

But this is no conventional ‘ma’ of the Hindi films. Mother and daughter are forthright about their differences, but their deep mutual affection can be felt. One of Sheetal’s most moving and beautifully rendered songs is about mothers. Sheetal precedes the song with a comment on how “Women are there in large numbers in our movement, but few in leadership. Men say – women’s liberation is fine, but my wife mustn’t be part of it!” And at the end, Sheetal’s mother appears in all her quiet and dignified anger, asking why the KKM has been banned and why her daughter has been forced underground?   

The many questions – disturbing, but also exhilarating in the radical political possibilities they suggest – stay with you long after the film is over, much like the haunting melodies of Vilas Ghoghre and Sheetal Sathe.

KKM Defence Committee meets Maharshtra Chief Minister


June 1, 2012-Kabir Kala Manch Defence Committee delegation met  Maharashtra Chief Minister, Prithviraj Chauhan   today. The delegation comprised of  Prakash Ambedkar, Anand  Patwardhan, Sumedh Jadhav, Ratna  Pathak Shah, Ramu Ramanathan,  Simantini Dhuru and Kamayani Bali Mahabal.

The chief Minister saw a clip from Jai Bhim Comrade regarding Kabir Kala Manch for about 15 minutes and then gave a patient hearing regarding the arrests of Kabir Kala Manch Members  Deepak Dengle and  Siddhartha Bhonsle The Chief mInister was informed that Kabir Kala Manch members have been targeted and are being harassed by the Police. Sheetal Sathe’s mother has lost her job from Ruby Hall hospital after  the arrests of KKM members. She is a widow and Sheetals brother has a  heart problem.
Similarly Deepak Dengle’s wife who makes both ends meet by making dabbaas is suffering from leukimia . The delegation stated that removing the democratic space from under the feet of people from the weakest sections is more likely to push their youth towards Naxalism rather than away from it.
The Chief Minister promised to look into the matter and work towards a resolution within the democratic framework.

A report in the Mumbai Mirror below-

A  group of activists met Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan on Friday asking him to stop the police from branding functionaries of the Pune-based Kabir Kala Manch, a cultural troupe, as Naxals, and arresting them.
The activists of the KKM Defence Committee met the CM included film-maker Anand Patwardhan, human rights  activist Kamayani Bali  Mahabal,  N ational leader of Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh Prakash Ambedkar, actress Ratna Pathak Shah and playwright Ramu Ramanathan.
The Kabir Kala Manch (KKM), came into the limelight and the radar of the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS), as well as the state Anti-Naxal Operations Unit after one of its members – Deepak Dengle- was arrested on May 12, 2011 for his alleged Naxal links.
While the state went on to add a host of charges against writer Dengle, primary among them was that the KKM was being used by the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) as a ‘front’ to indoctrinate city youth in Naxal ideology.
The police’s investigations at the time revealed that Dengle had been part of a training camp organised by the CPI (maoist) in Pune’s Khed taluka and some other members of the Kabir Kala Manch were also present there.
In a statement, the Kabir Kala Manch expressed dismay that in a state like Maharashtra, which gave birth to thinkers like Jyotiba Phule and Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, government figures show that on an average two dalits are killed and three women are raped every day, making for chilling statistics.
In the statement, the KKM said, ‘Today while Deepak Dengle and Siddharth Bhonsle of KKM are in prison, many other members including lead singer-poets Sheetal Sathe, Sagar Gorkhe and Sachin Mali have gone underground after threats from the police. All are charged with being Naxalites and the ATS is using an uncritical media to plant regular allegations against the KKM. Even these allegations do not accuse the KKM of any violence, but are dependent mainly on guilt by association.’
Drawing parallels with Dr Binayak Sen, who was jailed for close to three years before the Supreme Court intervened, the KKM said that it hoped that Sen’s incarceration and subsequent bail would have made the government more careful before branding people as Naxals.
The KKM Defence Committee has urged the state government to withdraw all false charges against members of the KKM, free the cultural activists who are currently in prison, and allow them to perform in public again.