There has been a massive uproar over the arrest of activist-artists Sheetal Sathe and Sachin Mali by the Mumbai ATS on charges of being Naxalites. The couple had surrendered after being in hiding for nearly a year. One of India’s most renowned documentary film-makers Anand Patwardhan, whose last documentary Jai Bhim Comrade features both the artists’ performance, spoke to TEHELKA about the duo and the effort being put into their release.
Sheetal Sathe and Sachin Mali have been featured in your documentary Jai Bhim Comrade. How long have you known them?
I first met them in 2007 at the tenth anniversary of the firing at the Ramabhai colony. Since then, I have been following them, recording their music, attending their programmes. They have worked with various kinds of people’s movements. They have worked with the likes of Medha Patkar, Bhai Vaidya and scores of other leftist, socialist and civil liberties groups.
What do you think of the charges levelled against them?
There are two aspects. UAPA, which in itself is a draconian act, which can allow the state to imprison people for just being members of a banned organisation, has been slapped on these two. Governments choose to ban organisations from time to time. RSS was banned earlier. But we had a Prime Minister – Atal Behari Vajpayee – who has been a member of that organisation. The SC had given a ruling that mere membership of a banned organisation is not something punishable by itself, in that there’s a distinction between active membership and passive membership. In other words, the state will have to find those accused guilty of a crime in order to imprison. Two other members of Kabir Kala Manch (KKM) were given bail by the Bombay High Court on these grounds itself. By the state’s own understanding, there is no reason why these two should be kept in jail. The cases can continue but they should be released on bail.
I don’t think they are Maoists or Naxalites. They might have been attracted to the ideology owing to the military assaults on Adivasis and Dalits, but they are certainly not active members. They are sympathisers.
Why were they absconding since April 2012?
They were underground. Two years ago, members of KKM were arrested and two of them were tortured. When that kind of a thing happens you don’t expect people to be happy about it and take chances. Therefore, they went into hiding.
What’s the status of the case right now?
Sheetal is in judicial custody. This is a huge relief as she is six months pregnant. We will file Sheetal’s bail application tomorrow. We fear for Sachin as he is in the custody of the Mumbai ATS and we fear he will be tortured as the others were. We will have to wait till he gets out of their custody to file a bail application.
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