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.
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.
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?”
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.
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…”