Tag Archives: Dalit

Kabir Kala Manch – Young Turks fired by zeal for their ideology

Standard
Kochi, November 5, 2013, The Hindu

Nidhi Surendranath

‘Ideology’ is a word Deepak Dhengle uses frequently when he talks about his life. His ideology changed his life completely in the last few years and landed him in jail in 2011.

Dhengle, who says he subscribes to Marxism and the teachings of B.R. Ambedkar, was arrested by the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad on charge of associating with Naxalites.

Dhengle, 38, is part of the Pune-based cultural activism group Kabir Kala Manch (KKM), which travels to slums and rural areas of Maharashtra and delivers performances against poverty, caste oppression, and other social issues. Several activists of KKM have been arrested on charge of indoctrinating people into the Naxalite ideology.

Now out on bail, Dhengle was in the city with five other members of KKM to deliver a performance here at the inauguration of a film club. “I have never taken up arms. But the State arrested me under a law that punishes terrorists,” says Dhengle. “We are all democratic people. But we want a true democracy. The Constitution written by Ambedkar should be followed in its true spirit. That is not happening today,” he says.

KKM’s fight, say its members, is against the inequality and minority oppression rampant in India. “There is no electricity and no water in my village outside Pune even today. During the four months of rains, we get electricity only for two hours in the day. There are no good schools. There is a hospital, but no guarantee of getting medicines. Nothing has changed there,” says Dhengle, who works as a mechanic in Pune.

“Pune has one of the most expensive bus systems in the country. How can the poor live in such conditions?” says Rupali Jadhav, a member of KKM.

KKM organises music, poetry and theatre performances in slums and villages on themes such as inequality, illiteracy, price rise, capitalism, and cultural and social oppression. The songs, some of them drawn from the tradition of Dalit protest in Maharashtra and others written by KKM members, deliver their message in simple and direct style. “Our performances come from our folk culture. They tell our audience, primarily tribals and Dalits, about the oppression they face and why such things happen,” says Rupali.

KKM’s musical performances are powerful and draw upon images from the life around them to deliver the message. Their performance was featured in the 2012 documentary Jai Bhim Comrade by award-winning filmmaker Anand Patwardhan. “Our performance is powerful because it is based on our own bitter experiences,” says KKM musician Ramdas Unhale. Ramdas is a carpenter, who like many members of KKM, lives in a Pune slum.

KKM was formed in Pune following the Godhra riots. Dhengle was attracted to the movement in 2004 when he saw and advertisement by the organisation in a newspaper. “I could sing well and I knew I wanted to do something different. So I joined KKM. The ideology came later,” he says.

Others like Rupali and Ramdas joined KKM after seeing their street play and song performances in their slums. Also in Kochi were KKM musicians Rajat R. Avsak, Dattatrey, and Dada Waghmare. All of them do odd jobs in Pune and were drawn into the music and message of the organisation. Despite the arrests, the Kala Manch’s performances are drawing many young people. “The college students who are joining us now already know Marxism. They don’t have to study the ideology first like we did,” says Dhengle. This interest in KKM’s thinking was what prompted the ATS to arrest them, he says. Three of KKM’s members are still in prison, while the others have been let out on bail.

The arrest has hit their lives severely. “We all lost whatever small jobs we were doing. Though we are on bail, we have to report to the investigating agency regularly. That is also affecting our jobs,” says Rupali.

The organisation, however, has managed to keep going. KKM recently performed in Bangalore, with Dattatrey even performing a song in Kannada. Having arrived in Kerala for the first time, the group is disappointed by what they saw here.

“We had high hopes when we were coming here. We heard that Kerala had a strong Communist movement and that women were empowered here. But the myth is now broken,” says Dhengle. “For land so rich in natural resources, the situation is not much better here. Why have the Communists here not done anything? What will I go back and tell all those people who hold Kerala in high regard?” he says.

For now, the members of Kabir Kala Manch will go back with these questions and find ways to fortify their own movement.

 

In the Dark Times, Sheetal Sathe Sings Of the Dark Times

Standard

After voluntarily courting arrest, Dalit activist and performer Sheetal Sathe is finally out on bail. But why was she arrested under the UAPA law in the first place? If she wasn’t a Maoist, what danger did this pregnant woman pose to the government of Maharashtra? A profile of the woman they call ‘Maharashtra’s Gaddar’.

Grist MediaBy Bhanuj Kappal | Grist Media – Mon 8 Jul, 2013

Sheetal Sathe

On June 27, 2013, Sheetal Sathe finally got bail.

I first met Sandhya Sathe, Sheetal’s mother, outside Mumbai’s Byculla Jail in late June. She had spent the last few hours trying to see her daughter, who is eight months pregnant. She looked tired and worried. Policemen stared at us as they walked by, looking pointedly at the recorder in my hand. “Even now, I have no idea what’s going on,” she told me then. “I know nothing about politics. I’d never been to a court till all this happened. I hope she gets bail and the government lets us live the rest of our lives as normal citizens.”

Her daughter, 28-year-old singer-poet Sheetal Sathe, is the president of the cultural protest group Kabir Kala Manch (KKM). At the time, Sathe had already spent two months in prison on charges of being a Naxalite, after she and her husband courted arrest in April. Despite her mother’s fervent prayers, Sathe’s bail hearing was postponed by a week because the Maharashtra government had not bothered to file a reply. She spent 10 more days inside, worrying about the lack of medical facilities and the effect of prison food on her unborn child.

Today, three of her fellow KKM activists are still imprisoned on similar charges. Their crime? Using their art to expose injustice and register their dissent against the State.

I first came across Sathe and KKM while watching Jai Bhim Comrade, Anand Patwardhan’s powerful documentary on Dalit protest music. Even in a film full of inspiring music and stories, KKM’s performances stood out. Partly, it was the way they use dry wit and satire to drive home their scathing sociopolitical commentary. It helps that they are fiercely talented. Mostly, they fascinated me because their songs communicate the anguish and anger of India’s underprivileged millions in a way that no speech or newspaper report ever can. When Sathe sings about the poverty and exploitation of the Dalit community, your chest constricts in rage. When she sings of a mother going hungry in order to feed her children, her voice wrenches you out of the layers of indifference and apathy. And when she calls for a ‘truly democratic revolution’, she makes you want to be the first one to the barricades.

Is it this articulation of daily injustice and oppression, distilled from raw, lived experience that makes this motley group of young poets and singers a threat to the biggest democracy in the world?

*****

 

The members of the Kabir Kala Manch come from the same bastis and slums as their audience. Sathe grew up in Pune’s Kashewadi slum, where the rest of her family still lives. Her mother worked as support staff in the intensive care unit (ICU) at Ruby Hall hospital for Rs 11 a day. This, and the few rupees she earned begging for alms in the name of the goddess Mahalaxmi Devi, all went towards bringing up her three children. Determined to guarantee them a better life, she made sure that Sathe went to a good school rather than the local municipal school. Sathe’s love for music grew amongst her very devout family, who gathered regularly in her house to sing devotional songs. And at school she got a chance to hone her talent.

“Sheetal loved to sing and was always the first to be picked to sing at cultural events in her school. That’s where she got her confidence,” says KKM activist Rupali Jadhav, who is also from Kashewadi.

By the time she was in junior college, Sathe was on the lookout for other opportunities to sing in public. It was her cousin Sagar Gorkhe, also a very talented singer, who told her about a cultural troupe that would be happy to give her a platform for her music.

KKM was founded in 2002 as a response to the Godhra riots and the ensuing rise in communal tensions. “Ramesh (Gaichor) was one of the founding members, along with Yogendra Mane, Amarnath Chandaliya, Haroon Sheikh, and a few other people,” says Deepak Dengle, who joined the group in 2004. “They thought that after the Gujarat riots, something must be done to promote Hindu-Muslim unity.”

The group did a number of shows around the city under the ‘Awaaz Do’ banner. But by the time Sathe and Gorkhe joined the group, a lot of the original team had left or been kicked out, as part of the churning all young groups undergo. They were replaced by new blood and a new focus on Dalit and workers’ rights.

Sathe had no interest in activism when she joined KKM, but that soon changed. Dengle says: “She only wanted to sing, but she got interested in politics because being a Dalit from the slums, she was sensitive to the real suffering of the poor. Like us, she felt her songs should be of service to the people.”

Her political education was helped by the regular study circles conducted by the group. Members would be assigned different subjects to study, and then they would discuss their research with the rest of the group. Heavyweights from the Left and Dalit movements, such as members from the Vidrohi Sahitya Sammelan (an alternative Marathi literature conference that spawned the Vidrohi movement), were also invited to speak at these sessions.
Sathe was a quick learner. “She had a great curiosity. No one had to push her,” says Dengle. “If she came across a new idea, she’d study it immediately.” It was at these discussions that KKM developed and formalized its political ideology — a potent mix of Ambedkarite and Marxist thought. It was also at these study circles that Sathe met the man she would eventually marry.

Sachin Mali was already a fairly experienced activist by the time he joined KKM. He had worked with the Vidrohi Sahitya Sammelan and had been an active member of the Students Federation of India (SFI) while studying at Tasgaon, Sangli. He shifted to Pune for work. Mali took up work as a bus conductor and joined the local chapter of SFI, but was unhappy with the way that organization functioned. A big fan of revolutionary poet-balladeer Sambhaji Bhagat, he started looking for a group that sang Bhagat’s songs. It didn’t take him long to join the KKM, where he impressed everyone with his poetry, his intelligence and, in Sathe’s case, his good looks as well. Says Dengle, “Sachin was a poet, had worked in activism, had a personality that impressed Sheetal. They were attracted to each other. We were very happy that they’d found love within our group.”

Unfortunately, neither family shared Dengle’s enthusiasm since the two were from different castes. Sathe already had regular arguments with her mother over the latter’s devotion to the religion that Sathe viewed as the root of her community’s problems. So it wasn’t entirely unexpected when her mother kicked her out of the house when she found out about the romance with Mali. At Mali’s end, too, the strongest opposition came from his mother who was firmly against the marriage.

The other KKM members put Sathe up in a women’s hostel and encouraged her to keep studying. (She was studying for an MA in sociology at Siddhivinayak College but was not a gold medalist from Fergusson College as many newspapers have reported. It was Sachin Mali who had been a gold-medal winning student in Sangli.) Sathe and Mali’s friends and well-wishers intervened to try and convince the families to accept the match. In the end, Sathe’s mother and Mali’s father and sister attended their wedding, an inexpensive and intimate ceremony on the lines of a Satyashodhak ceremony. (The 19th century reformer Jyotirao Phule’s Satyashodhak Samaj had pioneered inter-caste wedding ceremonies, which do not require the presence or sanction of Brahmin priests.)

“We didn’t want it to be the bland, boring weddings that happen in Left circles,” says Rupali Jadhav. “We wanted to make it celebratory, to show that we believed in what we told people and were happy to apply our message to our own lives.” The wedding was attended by heavyweights from the progressive movement, many of whom performed songs, dances or gave speeches to celebrate their union.

Until this point, the KKM performances had been sporadic, with the group focusing on honing their music and street theatre into the unique artistic voice it is today. They were helped in this task bySambhaji Bhagat, who regularly travelled to Pune to train the group. Bhagat, who formed a close bond with the group, was particularly impressed by Sathe. “Sheetal isn’t just a good singer, she is also a really good poet,” he says. “She can write really well and her songs are complex, unlike most political songs.”

Take for example a song in which KKM lambasts the Dalit political leadership for selling out their community. Sathe quotes Dr BR Ambedkar’s warning that if the constitution failed to provide social and economic justice to the Dalits, it would be brought down. She taunts her audience for not challenging the political leaders who have betrayed them and calls for a new Ambedkar for a new era:

“Better to sacrifice this body
than live like a corpse
Open your eyes to the
dream of Dalit martyrs
And create a new Bhim
For our new era.”

That isn’t the only way that KKM’s music differs from that of their peers. While they fit firmly in the tradition of Dalit-Left folk music embodied by poet-singers like Vilas Ghogre, Gaddar and Annabhau Sathe, they don’t limit themselves to those forms. They don’t care about whether a musical or cultural form is borrowed from another community or culture. Their philosophy, as Dengle puts it, is that ‘art is art and if it works, we’ll use it’. As a result, they were one of the first protest music groups to use western instrumentation regularly. They would constantly be on the lookout for new musical styles that they could experiment with. This sheer diversity of influences is part of what makes their music so appealing to those outside the Dalit-Left movements as well. This was not a group happy to merely preach to the choir.

Then Khairlanji happened, an event that influenced not only KKM but a whole generation of Dalit youth. On 29 September, 2006, a Dalit family was brutally slaughtered in Khairlanji, a village in the Bhandara district of Maharashtra. There were allegations the women had been paraded naked around the village and raped, and that the police were trying to protect the perpetrators. Yet the news was greeted with silence, not only from the government and the media but also by the mainstream Dalit parties.

A month later, appalled by the government’s continued indifference, Dalit youth took matters into their own hands. Protests and riots broke out all over Maharashtra. Their outrage only grew when Home Minister RR Patil dismissed the protests as the work of Maoists.

KKM jumped into the deep end of the struggle. “During the Khairlanji protests, we were on the streets every day,” says Dengle. “When the protesters threw stones at the police, we were there. Every time we heard about a rally or a protest, we’d go and perform in order to motivate the protesters and raise their spirits.” They were rewarded for their efforts by being put on a list of 26 organizations (including Medha Patkar of the National Alliance of People’s Movements and Baba Adhav) that the government claimed had links to the Maoists. The State had been watching, and they had been spotted.

Khairlanji had a profound effect on the group. Their songs became more militant, their demands for justice and revolution more strident. Dengle says, “After Khairlanji there was all this rage. When we saw what had happened, and how the State acted after the atrocity… anger automatically comes out in your songs, your politics, your life.”

They intensified their struggle. They performed at bus stops, at bastis, on the roadside. They were present at every protest in or around Pune, performing their plays and singing songs about the exploitation of the Dalits and the poor. Their targets included the proposed nuclear plant at Jaitapur, the controversial Lavasa development, NCP supremo Sharad Pawar and the police. When the Medha Patkar-led Narmada Bachao Andolan gherao-ed the Congress headquarters in Dadar in 2008, KKM was there. People soon started calling Sathe ‘Maharashtra’s Gaddar’.

Anyone with a working knowledge of the Indian State’s treatment of dissent will know what comes next. It was time for the other shoe to drop.

*****

In April 2011, the police made their move. The Maharashtra Anti-Terror Squad (ATS) arrestedschool teacher and activist Angela Sontakke, who they claim is a senior member of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). Six other arrests followed. KKM activists Deepak Dengle and Siddharth Bhonsle were arrested. On 20 July 2011, the police filed charges against all seven – and eight others who could not be located, including Sathe and Mali – under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).

Alarmed by news of the arrests and worried about their own safety, the rest of the group went underground. Unable to track them down, the police settled for harassing their families instead. “Police would come every day,” said Sandhya Sathe, who had to quit her job because of the case. “Even now that Sheetal is inside, the ATS people come on a regular basis. Now they ask after the two kids [KKM activists] who are still underground. They offer money. They say we’ll give you 10 lakh, we’ll give you a good house. I don’t know anything at all, so what do I tell them?”

Dengle believes KKM was implicated in the case because of their acquaintance with Sontakke, whose CPI (M) connections were unknown to the group. When the police caught Sontakke, they probably saw a chance to kill two birds with one stone.

Sadly, this is standard operating procedure for the police in India when dealing with anyone linked to groups or ideologies that they perceive as anti-nationalist. A comprehensive investigation by the news portal Gulail.com recently proved that the Uttar Pradesh government had knowingly prosecuted several innocent Muslims in terror cases and hid evidence of their innocence from the courts. It is just one shocking example of how our police and governments abuse their power – often targeting political dissidents instead of doing the painful investigations required to find those who actually commit crimes.

Closer home in Maharashtra, there are a number of recent cases where Dalits have been arrested and charged with sedition for possessing books by Bhagat Singh, and just as startlingly, the works of Dr BR Ambedkar, the architect of India’s constitution. In Tamil Nadu, over the course of one year, 8,000 people protesting peacefully against the Koodankulam nuclear power plant have been booked for sedition and waging war against the State. Arun Ferreira, Sudhir Dhawale and Binayak Sen are only three more examples from a long litany of names of activists booked under similar charges.

One and a half years passed since the post-Khairlanji crackdown. Dengle and Bhosle were still in prison, the rest were still in hiding. Meanwhile, public support for KKM was growing, largely thanks to the film Jai Bhim Comrade and the efforts of the KKM Defense Committee (including documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan and several activists). But there was little action on the ground till February 2013, when the bail pleas of the seven people in custody reached the Bombay High Court. In an unexpected but welcome decision, Justice Abhay Thipsay of the high court granted bail to Deepak Dengle, Siddharth Bhosle and two others arrested in the same case.

Justice Thipsay ruled that “suspects could be sympathizers of Maoist philosophy but none can be said to be active members of banned CPI (Maoist)”. He went on to express his mild shock at the evidence based on which the KKM activists had been imprisoned, saying,  “It is surprising that highlighting the wrongs prevalent in the society and insisting that there is a need to change the situation was considered as evidence and used to convince the court of them being members of the Communist Party of India (Maoist).”

Encouraged by this decision, Sheetal Sathe and Sachin Mali appeared in front of the Vidhan Sabha building in Mumbai and courted arrest on April 2, 2013. Before the ATS took them into custody, the young couple read out a statement. They said this was not a surrender, this was a satyagraha and that they were sure they’d be acquitted of all charges. A month later, four more KKM members surfaced, though this time they had to wait a few hours before the ATS turned up to take them into custody. Sagar Gorkhe and Ramesh Gaichor were arrested, while the others were allowed to go home.

*****

June 27. Sheetal Sathe has been granted bail.

The other three, including Sathe’s husband Mali, have filed bail applications, and are hopeful that they will be out soon as well. But this is only the first step. They still have a case to fight, one which could stretch for years in a country where 30 million cases are pending in courts across the nation. And then there’s the stigma of being branded a Naxalite, the police scrutiny that will never go away, the ever-looming threat of fresh arrests and fresh charges.

On the evening of 27 July, as KKM supporters and well-wishers were celebrating Sathe’s bail, Deepak Dengle and Rupali Jadhav were arrested by the Pune police. They had been singing at a demonstration of Varkaris protesting builders taking over the Bhandara and Bhamchandra hills where the 16th century saint Tukaram is said to have lived.

It was just another reminder from the police that when it comes to dissenters against the State, there are no happy endings.

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist who writes about music, art and cultural politics. Follow him at https://twitter.com/StonerJesus.

#India: Stop Misuse of Counterterrorism Laws #KKM

Standard


Charges Against Dalit Performers Raise Free Speech Concerns

(New York, June 26, 2013) – Authorities in India should conduct an independent review of apparent politically motivated terrorism charges filed against performers in a Dalit cultural group, Human Rights Watch said today. 

Members of Kabir Kala Manch, charged in 2011 under India’s draconian counterterrorism laws, remain subject to prosecution for their alleged support of Maoist militants. One of them, eight months pregnant, was denied bail and must wait until June 27 for an appeals decision on her bail application. Indian courts have repeatedly ruled that ideological sympathy should not be interpreted as active membership in a banned organization.

“The Indian authorities should not conflate shared sympathy for concerns about oppression and social inequity expressed by the Maoists with criminal complicity in violence,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should ensure that peaceful activists can speak out without fear of terrorism charges.”

India’s counterterrorism and sedition laws have been widely misused to target political opponents, tribal groups, religious and ethnic minorities, and Dalits, Human Rights Watch said. Amendments made to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act in 2008 and 2012 could result in further misuse. 

In 2011, authorities in the western Indian state of Maharashtra charged 15 people with being members of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) – also known as Naxalites. Eleven of them have been arrested, six of whom are members of Kabir Kala Manch, a Pune-based cultural group of singers, poets, and artists. The group, largely consisting of Dalit youth, uses music, poetry, and street plays to raise awareness about issues such as oppression of Dalits and tribal groups, social inequality, corruption, and Hindu-Muslim relations. 

The state counterterrorism squad arrested two Kabir Kala Manch members, Dhavala K. Dhengale and Siddharth Bhosale, in May 2011. Dhengale’s lawyers allege he was tortured in police custody and was forced to make a confession, which he has retracted. Police also brought cases against four other members of the cultural group, who subsequently went into hiding. 

The authorities accused the six of being members of a “terrorist organization” under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967. If convicted, they face sentences of up to life in prison. They have also been charged under numerous penal provisions dealing with extortion, cheating, and forgery. 

In January 2013, the High Court in Mumbai granted bail to Dhengale and Bhosale, noting that the charges filed indicated that they were sympathetic to the Maoist philosophy but not active members of the Maoist organization. The court said that “drastic provisions” added to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act in 2008 required that membership in an illegal organization be interpreted in the light of fundamental freedoms such as the rights to free speech and expression, and thus “passive membership” was insufficient for prosecution. 

Following the court order, in April and May, the four other members of Kabir Kala Manch –Sheetal Sathe, Sachin Mali, Sagar Gorke, and Ramesh Gaichor – who had been named in the 2011 case, turned themselves in. All four remain in judicial custody as they wait for the police to file charges. A lower sessions court in Mumbai denied bail to Sathe, who is eight months pregnant. 

“This is not the first time social activists have come under attack or been arbitrarily arrested on unsubstantiated accusations of Maoist links,” Ganguly said. “Wrongful arrests of peaceful activists only hurt the government’s image and provide a fertile ground for Maoist propaganda.” 

Dr. Binayak Sen, a physician and human rights activist, was convicted in December 2010 and sentenced to life in prison for sedition, for allegedly acting as a courier for a Naxalite leader in jail, even though he had visited the leader under the supervision of jail authorities. After his arrest in 2007, Sen was awarded the prestigious Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights, and rights groups and doctors’ organizations have campaigned for his release. Sen has appealed his conviction, and the Supreme Court in April 2011 ordered his release on bail in the interim saying: “We are a democratic country. He may be a sympathizer. That does not make him guilty of sedition.”

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on the Indian government to revise the definition of terrorism, and ensure that restrictions on organizations do not violate the rights to freedom of association and expression under international law. Human Rights Watch has also urged the repeal of provisions in the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, such as those authorizing pre-charge detention for up to 180 days including 30 days in police custody, limitations on bail, and presumption of guilt in certain circumstances.

“Instead of arresting people who are using art to raise their voices against poor governance and social malaise, the government should focus on better safeguards for fundamental freedoms,” Ganguly said. “Too often, police, frustrated by their inability to stem criminal acts by various armed groups, have misused the law to arrest critics, social activists, or ideological supporters of these groups.”

To view the 2010 Human Rights Watch report “Back to the Future: India’s 2008 Counterterrorism Laws,” please visit:
http://www.hrw.org/reports/2010/07/28/back-future-0

To read the December 2012 Human Rights Watch news release “India: Reject Amendments to Counterterrorism Law,” please visit:
http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/12/14/india-reject-amendments-counterterrorism-law

For more Human Rights Watch reporting on India, please visit:
http://www.hrw.org/asia/india

 

Enemies of the state: The continuing andolan of the Kabir Kala Manch

Standard

The arrest of Sheetal Sathe and Sachin Mali of the KKM has brought this ongoing controversy back to the real issue at stake — the freedom of cultural and political expression, who these freedoms extend to and whom they ignore, writes Bhanuj Kappal 

BHANUJ KAPPAL   May 2013

ay 6, a sweltering Monday afternoon. A small crowd of reporters and activists have gathered near the Dr B. R. Ambedkar statue at Oval Maidan, Mumbai. Their attention is focused on four singers with blue bandanas performing protest songs and handing out copies of their latest album – a collection of protest music that touches on a range of issues such as caste and class oppression, gender equality, land redistribution and environmental exploitation. Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Gaichor, Jyoti Jagtap, and Rupali Jadhav are members of Pune-based cultural troupe Kabir Kala Manch (KKM), who are wanted by the Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) for alleged links to a banned Naxalite organisation. They are here to give themselves up. A few weeks earlier, their fellow cultural activists Sachin Mali and Sheetal Sathe had courted arrest, and were taken into police and judicial custody respectively.

What follows is a farce. The ATS, which has been hounding their friends and family for almost two years, fails to show up. The bemused activists march to Mantralaya to surrender to Home Minister R.R. Patil, only to be told that they will have to wait. There is still no sign of the ATS. After a long wait, they finally meet the minister, whom they greet with a rendition of ‘Laal Salaam’. Mr. Patil listens to their concerns, and assures them that there will be no torture. Eventually, he has to call up the ATS and inform them that the activists they have been hunting are sitting in his office. Four hours after coming out of hiding, Sagar Gorkhe and Ramesh Gaichor are taken into custody, while their wives Jyoti Jagtap and Rupali Jadhav are allowed to go home.

Earlier, the four singers joke about what they’ll do if nobody turns up to arrest them. But behind the laughter is real concern, and a steely determination to stand up for their rights. They have been hiding from the police ever since KKM members Deepak Dengle and Siddharth Bhonsle were arrested in 2011 along with six other activists for alleged Naxal links. They have had little to no contact with their families. “The police went to Rupali’s mother and told her that Rupali had been killed in an encounter,” says Jagtap. “She has health problems, and she fainted on hearing this.”

Kabir Kala Manch is not unique in being targeted by the police and being branded as Naxalites, but their story is an example of how the Indian state is increasingly clamping down on anti-establishment speech and expression.

The irony is that I’ve made a film featuring these militant songs, and that got a National Award. So it depends on which class and caste you belong to. These people have court cases against them, and I have a National award.  — Anand Patwardhan

The story begins in 2002, when a group of mostly Dalit students and young professionals from Pune came together in the wake of the Gujarat riots. Some of them, such as Sachin Mali, were activists who had participated in the short-lived but influential Vidrohi cultural movement. For others, such as Sheetal Sathe and Sagar Gorkhe, who used to be religious singers, this was an initiation into radical politics. Influenced by the 19th century reformer Jyotirao Phule, and contemporary Dalit-left singers Vilas Ghoghre and Sambhaji Bhagat, they started performing their politically-charged music and theatre in the slums and streets of Pune.

They were very disturbed by the Gujarat riots,” says Sambhaji Bhagat, who regularly interacted with the group. “Then Khairlanji happened, and that was a terrible case. Nobody can bear atrocities like that. They started singing about the genocides and massacres. Being Dalits who came from the jhopadpattis [ghettos] of Pune, they knew the reality of life for thousands of people under oppression. Unlike the middle class, who come to know the reality [of oppression] through ideology, they came to ideology through this reality.”

Kabir Kala Manch’s music is part of a long tradition of Dalit protest music and poetry, dating all the way back to the Satya Shodhak Samaj‘s political tamashas in the 19th century [a traditional performance mixing music, satire and theatre]. Their music and politics is also influenced by Left-leaning musical groups like the Red Flag Cultural Squad, comprising of Annabhau Sathe, D.N. Gavankar and Amar Sheikh.

Anand Pathwardhan and the four accused contemplate their next move after being shooed away from Mantralaya on May 6 |Photos: Kashish Parpiani

“They’re basically a combination of Ambedkarite thought and Marxism,” says documentary film-maker Anand Patwardhan, whose last film Jai Bhim Comrade discussed the present plight of the KKM extensively. “It’s a mixture of two philosophies that seemingly don’t mix, but in their work they get integrated. They’re raising the issue of caste in the Left movement and the issue of class in the Ambedkarite movement.”

By 2007, KKM was travelling and performing in slums and villages all across Maharashtra. Their popularity grew because of their passionate and poignant performances, and the issues that they raised. Lead singers Sheetal Sathe and Sagar Gorkhe are both talented singers and songwriters, and their performances would often leave the audience in tears.

“It’s not just the politics, it’s the art itself,” adds Patwardhan. “Sheetal is a wonderful singer, she has a voice that can move anybody. Sachin’s poetry is also very moving. In the political sphere, you rarely come across such good musicians, people with such command over musical skills as well.”

But with growing popularity came the scrutiny of the State. And when their songs grew more militant, the police swung into action. As mentioned earlier, KKM members Deepak Dengle and Siddharth Bhonsle were arrested from Pune in 2011, along with five other activists, and charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The others went into hiding.

Legal advisor Susan Abraham says: “The charges against them are that they were organising students and workers, and participating in struggles with the aim of building up support for CPI-Maoist.”

She adds that this isn’t the first time that the government has targeted singers and cultural activists, citing Shantanu Kamble and Sudhir Dhawale as examples.

Both the Kabir Kala Manch and its defenders admit that their music became more militant in response to increasing atrocities against the Dalits and other marginalised sections of society, though they deny that they are Naxalites. They argue that in a mature democracy singing songs of rebellion should not be a crime. What is the right to freedom of speech and expression if it does not include freedom to dissent?

Activist Vivek Sundara says: “The state has gone beyond targeting active Naxalites. Now anyone, even a cultural activist, who is against the State and speak out about rights is being targeted. By all accounts, these people have committed no acts of violence. They’re radicals, but they’re only singing and speaking.”

RR Patil with Anand Pathwardhan, Prakash Ambedkar and the four accused

“Our democracy would be a dry democracy, or a fascist state, if we arrest people who sing songs on the basis of mere suspicion,” adds Patwardhan. “The irony is that I’ve made a film featuring these militant songs, and that got a National Award. So it depends on which class and caste you belong to. These people have court cases against them, and I have a National award.”

Their arguments have found support in a recent High Court ruling by Justice Abhay Thipse, which granted bail to Deepak Dengle and Siddharth Bhonsle along with two others who were charged in the same case. Justice Thipse ruled that “suspects could be sympathisers of Maoist philosophy but none can be said to be active members of banned CPI (Maoist)”.

Emboldened by this ruling, KKM members are now coming out in full public glare to submit themselves to legal questioning and the due process of the law. They hope to get bail quickly, and believe that a fair trial will lead to their acquittal. They have no illusions about the police and the judiciary, but are determined to fight it out no matter how long it takes.

“We want the freedom to go to andolans and morchas hand in hand with the people,” says Gorkhe. “Our songs are our strength. All our ideas, we put in our songs and present them to people.”

As the four activists walk to the police station where they will wait for their meeting with the Home Minister, a journalist asks Rupali Jadhav if they have anything they want to say to the police. She replies: “We’ll sing them our songs. After all, that is what we do.”

 

Torch light Procession and protest meet in support of KKM at Gorakhpur

Standard

 Protest at Gorakhpur in support of KKM Gorakhpur, U.P.,4 May, 2013   The cultural activists and intellectuals of Gorakhpur under the banner of Jan sanskriti manch ,brought out a torchlight procession on saturday evening protesting state repression on the revolutionery Dalit cultural organisation Kabir kala Manch of Pune, Maharashtra. Before taking out the procession they assembled at Press club at 4 p.m. and conducted a protest meeting. Speakers at the meeting passed a resolution seeking immediate release of Sheetal Sathe & Sachin Mali, revocation of all false cases  against KKM, social security for their family members and demanded unfettered freedom to continue their cultural activities  . Apart from Jan sanskriti Manch, representatives of IPTA. PUHR and other mass organisations also participated in the meeting as well as torchlight procession. Speakers narrated how repression against KKM started with the arrest of Deepak Dengle and Siddhaarth Bhonsale of KKM under UAPA by the ATS in May 2011 forcing other activists of KKM to go underground. As soon as the bail was granted to Dengle & Bhonsale, Sheetal & Sachin were arrested from the premises of Maharashtra state Assembly where they were on ‘Satyagrah’ asserting their  ‘right to expression’. Speakers highlighted the fact that KKM activists had emerged from the poor, labouring class and dalit background and their  cultural work is directed towards harnessing peoples’ opinion and raising popular consciousness  against social oppression,  economic exploitation, loot and plunder of natural resources by transnational capital and state repression on struggling people. It is this orientation of their cultural work which has prompted Anti-people government to dub them ‘naxals’ or  ‘Maoists’ and frame them under draconian laws.  The imperialist and state agencies stage costly and vulgar shows in the name of culture and seek to co-opt the artists and intellectuals into the system. The cultural movements such as KKM  run counter to such hegemonic cultural strategies of the ruling classes. The torchlight procession started immediately after the meeting. It passed through district court chauraha, chetna tiraha, Golghar , townhall and culminated at press club from where it had started.  Manoj Kumar Singh, Natonal Secretary, Jan sanskriti Manch ,Noted novelist Madan Mohan, literay critic Anil Rai, poets Pramod Kumar, Ved Prakash and Ramu Siddhartha, Dr. Mumtaz Khan of IPTA, Prof. Asim Satyadev, CPI(ML) district secretary Rajesh Sahni, AIPWA district secretary Jagdamba, Advocate Subhash Pal, Ashok Chowdhary, district convenor, JSM, cultural & social  activists Rajaram Chowdhary, Shivnandan Sahay , Anand Pandey, Baijnath Mishra, Haridwar Prasad, R.K. Singh, Syed Akhtar Ali, Maneesh Chowbey, Ashish KumarArun Kumar, Arvind Kumar Barnwal , Niten Agrawal and several others participated in the meeting and procession. Released by Manoj Kumar Singh, National secretary, Jan sanskriti Manch .

 

India – Democracy needs their song- Kabir Kala Manch

Standard

 

  • Special Arrangement
  • Special Arrangement
The Hindu, May  4,2013

They use poetry and song to fight for a just society but the state brands them Naxalites. Anand Patwardhan on the ongoing saga of the Kabir Kala Manch.

On the morning of July 11, 1997, Ramabai Colony in Ghatkopar had woken to find a garland of footwear on its statue of Dr. Ambedkar. As angry residents broke the windows of parked cars on an adjacent highway, the Special Reserve Police arrived and without warning, opened fire on the protestors. Then they took aim at the colony itself. Men, women and children — many of them bystanders watching from the “safety” of their own homes — were killed. Ten died that day, one a few years later.

I became something more than a horrified citizen when, four days later, poet and singer Vilas Ghogre, unable to bear the pain, hung himself in nearby Mulund. I had loved and recorded Vilas’s music over the years and I set about trying to understand why a Marxist Vilas reasserted his Dalit identity in death, tying a blue scarf on his forehead and writing “Long live Ambedkarite Unity” on a blackboard in his hut.

The journey took 14 years. I explored class and caste, followed court cases against the police and those they foisted against the victims of the firing, and followed other poet-musicians like Vilas who used their art for emancipation.

The 10th year brought me back to Ramabai Colony to a commemoration for the martyrs of Ramabai and Khairlanji. At Khairlanji village in 2006, four Dalits had been stripped, raped and murdered. The killer mob comprised non-Dalit co-villagers. Scores of accused with allegiance to influential political parties were acquitted. Six got the death penalty, later commuted to life. The court ruled that this was not a caste atrocity covered under the Prevention of Atrocities Act and no one had been raped. Although the bodies were found naked, rape was not investigated. When Dalits across Maharashtra took to the streets, the government described them as “Maoist inspired”. Three years later, it gave Khairlanji an award for being a model of peace. (“Tantamukti Gaon”).

In 2007, on the 10th anniversary of the firing, the sense of outrage and injustice was palpable at Ramabai Colony. Many musicians performed that day. But the most electric of all was the Kabir Kala Manch(KKM), a young group from Pune. As Sheetal Sathe’s strong, clear voice rang out, the words piercing hearts and minds, I knew right away that the legacy of Vilas Ghogre would never die.

I began to follow the KKM, filming performances in the city and countryside and in the slum where they lived. We spoke with Sheetal’s mother, an amazing woman in her own right, who despite her faith in the “goddess” tolerated the growing rational consciousness of the children she had educated through much personal sacrifice.

We filmed them lending musical support to a diverse range of activists who had taken on the venality of the system — from Medha Patkar’s non-violent confrontations to their own Mahatma Phule-inspired movement for inter-caste marriage.

But, as atrocities like Khairlanji continued, I began to sense a change. Ambedkar was now interwoven with Marx and I marvelled at how potent the combination was in the hands of young believers who challenged an older generation that had settled for crumbs from the high table. Despite this, nothing about the KKM was dogmatic. They tolerated my hodge-podge Gandhian, Left, Ambedkarite ideas. The film was taking a long time to complete and they saw bits of it on the edit table. They knew that Vilas Ghogre had been expelled from his Marxist group because upper class/caste leaders had failed to grasp the conditions of his life. Young and impressionable as the KKM was, they were internally democratic. Even in performance, while Sachin was the published poet and Sheetal and Sagar the accomplished musicians, the group saw to it that everyone got a chance to sing, write and perform.

In 2011, I lost contact with them and soon understood why. Deepak Dengle of the KKM had been arrested by the Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS), accused of being a Naxalite. As the police began a witch-hunt, KKM went underground. Sheetal’s mother insisted that her children had promised to fight only with “the song and the drum”.

Police-planted news articles began to appear drawing on a statement by Deepak Dengle that KKM was present at a meeting with Maoists. Deepak subsequently withdrew his statement, as it had been obtained under torture. Last month he was released on bail when Justice Thipsay of the Bombay High Court held that, even under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, mere membership of a banned outfit could not constitute grounds for detention, that an actual crime or intention to commit one had to be proved. Deepak, after his release, described how acid was used on his back and how his family was threatened.

Back in 2012, we had formed a Kabir Kala Manch Defence Committee fearing for the lives of those branded as Naxalites. After our film Jai Bhim Comrade won a National award, the Maharashtra government added another cash award. This became the initial corpus for our defence work. Finally last month we were overjoyed when Sheetal Sathe and Sachin Mali made contact with our lawyers, to come over-ground. To prevent the police from claiming they had “caught” them, we ensured that they surfaced in the full glare of the media — at the State Assembly.

Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, leaders of the CPI and Defence Committee members and lawyers were present as Sheetal and Sachin sang outside the Assembly and declared that their action was not a “surrender” but a “satyagraha” for the freedom of expression.

Finally the ATS arrived to collect their quarry. That evening we met the Chief Minister who promised to prevent torture. In court the next day Sheetal, who is pregnant, was sent directly into judicial custody (where torture is rare but nutritious food even more so). Sachin was remanded to ATS questioning for two weeks. We learnt that he was not allowed to sleep for three days, but no bodily torture was done. This is certainly thanks to public pressure. It was reported that the ATS switched off its fax machine because of the volume of support for KKM. The police countered through the media that Sachin and Sheetal are indeed Naxalites.

Are they? I see them as fiery idealists who are fighting to make our society just and equitable. Does that distinguish them from Naxalites? The ATS seems confused. To me, the distinction lies in the fact that the only weapon Sachin and Sheetal fight with, is their poetry and song. Even if the worst were concluded — that KKM made contact with a banned organisation — what bewilders me is what the State actually wants from them now. They gave themselves up. They expressed the desire to sing freely again within the bounds of democracy. Other members from their group are still underground, waiting to see what develops. What is the message the State is sending? That it prefers to brand them forever as Naxalites and push them into the forest rather than allow them safe passage? Neither Sheetal nor Sachin is accused of any violence. Yet Sheetal’s bail application was refused. Are people who give themselves up going to run away?

Democracy needs their song.

Keywords: Kabir Kala ManchFreedom

India – That shrinking space for dissent #Protest

Standard
RIGHT TO PROTEST

April 27, 2013, Times Crest 

The government’s action against the Kabir Kala Manch in Maharashtra as a naxalite outfit shows us just why we need to defend our right to protest, writes Anand Patwardhan

On July 11, 1997, Ramabai Colony in Ghatkopar, Mumbai, had awoken to find its statue of Dr Ambedkar desecrated with a garland of footwear. As angry residents poured onto the adjacent highway, the state’s Reserve Police Force arrived and opened fire, killing ten. In grief, poet-singer Vilas Ghogre hung himself in his hut in nearby Mulund.

I had loved and recorded Vilas’s music over many years and tried to understand why a Marxist like him had reasserted his Dalit identity by tying a blue bandanna as he died. I explored class and caste and followed other poet-musicians like Vilas who used their art for emancipation. The 10th year of this journey brought me back to Ramabai Colony where a commemoration was in progress to honour the martyrs of Ramabai and Khairlanji. After the rape and massacre of Dalits in Khairlanji village in 2006, protests had flared across Maharashtra. The government cracked down, describing them as “Maoist inspired”. Three years later it gave Khairlanji village an award for being a model of peace (” Tantamukti Gaon” ).

On 11 July, 2007, the sense of outrage and injustice was palpable at Ramabai Colony. Many musicians performed. But the most electric of all was a young group from Pune, the Kabir Kala Manch (KKM). As Sheetal Sathe’s strong, clear voice rang out, the words piercing hearts and minds, I knew that the legacy of Vilas Ghogre would never die.

I began to follow the KKM, filming their public performances, speaking with Sheetal’s mother who despite her faith in the “goddess” tolerated the growing rational consciousness of the children she had educated. KKM lent support to a range of movements that had taken on the venality of the system, from Medha Patkar‘s non-violence to their own Mahatma Phule-inspired movement for intercaste marriage.

Atrocities like Khailanji began to make KKM more edgy. Ambedkar was now interwoven with Marx and the young believers challenged an older generation that had settled for crumbs from the high table. Yet nothing about the KKM was dogmatic and they remained internally democratic. Sachin the published poet, and Sheetal and Sagar, the accomplished musicians, saw to it that everyone got a chance to sing, write and perform.

In 2011, I lost contact with the group, but soon understood the reason. Deepak Dengle of the KKM had been arrested by the Anti Terrorist Squad (ATS), accused of being a Naxalite. A startled KKM went underground even as Sheetal’s mother insisted that her children would fight only with “song and drum”.

Police-planted articles began to appear in the media. Accusations against KKM drew on “confessions” obtained in police custody like the one by Deepak Dengle alleging that KKM attended a meeting where Maoists were present. Deepak subsequently withdrew his statement stating that it was obtained under torture. He was recently released on bail after the Bombay High Court held that alleged membership of a banned outfit could not constitute grounds for detention, that an actual crime or intention to commit one would have to be proved. Deepak, after his release, described how acid was used on his back during torture and how his family was threatened.

In 2012, a few citizens and I had formed a Kabir Kala Manch Defence Committee, fearing for the lives of those branded as Naxalites. We met the chief minister of Maharashtra and the home minister, who informed us that the charges against the KKM were not serious. Finally we were overjoyed when a lawyer friend informed us that Sheetal and Sachin had made contact and wanted to come overground. To prevent the police from claiming they had “caught” them, the surfacing was arranged outside the state assembly, in full public glare. Prakash Ambedkar and CPI leaders accompanied members of our committee as Sheetal and Sachin sang a song, declaring that their action was not “surrender”, but a “satyagraha” for the freedom of expression.

Eventually the ATS arrived to collect its quarry. We met the CM that evening and he promised to prevent torture. In court the next day, Sheetal, who is pregnant, was sent directly into judicial custody while Sachin was remanded to ATS questioning for two weeks. We learnt that although Sachin was not allowed to sleep for three days, there was no physical torture. Meanwhile, the volume of support for KKM was so sustained that the ATS switched off its fax machines. But they countered through the mainstream media that Sachin and Sheetal were indeed Naxalites.

Are they? I see them as fiery idealists who are fighting to make our society just and equitable. Does that distinguish them from Naxalites? The ATS seems confused. To me the distinction lies in the fact that the only weapon Sachin and Sheetal fight with is their poetry and song.

But in the worst-case, even if it were concluded that they made contact with a banned organisation, what bewilders me is the question of what the state wants from them now? They gave themselves up. They expressed the desire to sing freely again within the bounds of democracy. Other members from their group are still underground, obviously watching to see what the state does. What message is the state sending? That it prefers to brand them as Naxalites and push them into the forest rather than allow them safe passage?

Last week, Sheetal’s bail was refused. Neither she nor Sachin are accused of any act of violence. Are people who give themselves up going to run away? Surely our democracy needs their song.

The writer is a documentary filmmaker