A poster by Kabir
For the past two years, Sheetal Sathe had not been seen, but her songs continued to haunt our consciousness. The young singer with the soul-stirring voice was portrayed as a symbol of hope in Jai Bhim Comrade, Anand Patwardhan’s searing documentary on the Dalits of Maharashtra. Sathe, a member of the Pune-based cultural group of Dalit protest singers and poets, Kabir Kala Manch, was branded a Naxalite in 2011. Since then she had been underground, along with Sachin Mali and Sagar Gorkhe and three other members of the group.
On 2 April, Sathe and Mali surfaced in full media glare, staged a ‘satyagraha’ outside the Vidhan Bhavan in Mumbai, and courted arrest. As they were taken into custody, Sathe retained her fieriness and raised slogans as she was whisked into the police jeep.
Sathe and Mali (both 27, married and expecting their first child) are facing charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), Mali was retained in ATS (Anti-Terrorism Squad) custody, and Sathe sent to judicial custody on compassionate grounds until 17 April.
The recent ruling by the Bombay High Court granting bail to Kabir Kala Manch members Deepak Dengle and Siddharth Bhonsle, who were arrested in May 2011 (along with Angela Sontakke, a member of the banned CPI(Maoist), still behind bars) gave hope to the disbanded cultural group and led to the decision of Sathe and Mali to come out of hiding. The high court declared that mere sympathy to Maoist ideology does not incriminate a person, and none of the Kabir Kala Manch members can be said to be active members of CPI(Maoist).
Through music and poetry, Kabir Kala Manch took up the cause of social inequality, exploitation of the underclasses, farmer suicides, female infanticide, Dalit killings and the widening net of corruption. Patwardhan of the Kabir Kala Manch Defence Committee, made up of civil society activists, says that Kabir Kala Manch members are at an impressionable age where their ideological thinking is still in process and their work covers a wide spectrum of political ideas such as Ambedkarism, socialism and Marxism. “I have known them since 2007 and can vouch for the fact that they have never taken up arms,” says Patwardhan.
Kabir Kala Manch was formed in Pune in 2002 in the wake of the Gujarat riots and made up of students and young professionals who performed protest poetry and plays in slums and streets, shaking up the cultural scene in Pune as they presented a voice for the voiceless. Both Mali’s and Sathe’s academic backgrounds are exemplary; Sathe being a gold medallist and post graduate from Pune University.
Mumbai-based lawyer and activist Kamayani Bali Mahabal, also a member of the Kabir Kala Manch Defence Committee, says that the existence of the group is crucial as they create space for dissent through shayari and songs that are much more effective than speeches. “They are responsible artists who interpret art as a catalyst for social change. Unfortunately, for the State there is no distinction between Dalit protesters and activists and Naxalites,” says Mahabal, who was exposed to their work through Jai Bhim Comrade.
Mihir Desai, the lawyer for Sathe and Mali, says the defence is waiting for the Anti- Terrorism Squad to complete its investigation and file a supplementary chargesheet.
“A lot of people who fight for radical changes in society get attracted to different ideologies, but as the Bombay High Court stated, as long as you don’t act in pursuance of those ideologies, you are not guilty,” says Desai.
Despite repeated attempts, TEHELKA was unable to reach the Anti-Terrorism Squad.
Patwardhan says that the case against the Kabir Kala Manch proves that the State does not tolerate the voice of weaker sections of society. “In our democracy, only the upper-class elites are allowed to have a voice,” he says.
Kabir Kala Manch member and poet Deepak Dengle, who is out on bail after two years in prison, penned a poem in jail called Kis kis ko qaid karoge, mocking those who imprison lovers of freedom. The stirring words of the poem promise that the young revolutionaries will not be kept quiet for long.