And comrades admire Jyoti Jagtap

11 July,2022 07:13 AM IST |  Mumbai  |  Ajaz Ashraf

That’s why comrades have not forgotten her as she festers in jail. They send her books on psychology—her passion, wire money to her prison account, and take donations to fund her legal battle

Jyoti’s mission was to wage a cultural battle against inequalities. Pic/Twitter

Jyoti Jagtap was on her way to Pune's Saras Baug on September 8, 2020, to meet her mates from the Kabir Kala Manch, a cultural troupe which often has had to endure the state's iron fist in its 20-year existence. The Saras Baug meet had been convened to discuss the implications of the arrest of two members of the Manch - Ramesh Gaichor and Sagar Gorkhe - a day earlier, for inciting the 2018 Bhima-Koregaon violence with their music show and for harbouring links with the Maoists.

Jyoti was being tailed as she wended towards Saras Baug, for when she stopped her scooter at a traffic light, a woman slid on the pillion and said: "You are under arrest." Jyoti was driven to the office of the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS). At Saras Baug, every minute of the wait for Jyoti suggested a grim possibility, subsequently confirmed with an officer calling up Rupali Jadhav, a Manch member: "Come and take Jyoti's scooter."

Jyoti was 32 then, Rupali 30. But the arrest did not rattle them. "Those who take on the state are psychologically prepared to be arrested," says Rupali, adding, with a chuckle, "Next, you will hear I am behind bars." On September 8, though, Rupali's only concern was to call up Jyoti's family and friends to inform them about her incarceration, and that it would be a long haul for her as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act invoked against her has stringent bail conditions.

Shocked Jyoti's family certainly was. They are the only exception among the families of the Bhima-Koregaon accused who have not gone public with their feelings. One reason could be their location - they reside in a village, Belsar, in Pune district - where the state easily inspires awe. They sorely miss Jyoti; her mother often cries for her daughter, it is said.

Yet, at the same time, they wish Jyoti had heeded their entreaties to discontinue singing songs and staging plays, often those she had herself written, and trained the light of her brilliance on studies instead. Because of the spark they saw in her, they had sent her to Pune, where she did a Master's in psychology.

But the brilliant are gifted with insights the mediocre do not possess. It became Jyoti's mission to wage a cultural battle against India's inequalities. Although summarily dubbed a Maoist, the family believes Jyoti can do no wrong. But how do they prove this to the society?
So they wait, in silence, for the court to exonerate her. That is like waiting for Godot, for even the charges in the Bhima-Koregaon case have not been framed. The stigma of UAPA silences many.

UAPA also traps the accused in the state's definition of them.

Consider this: Jyoti, before her arrest, was about to complete a course that would have qualified her to set up her own clinic for psychological counselling, a dream she had nurtured through her years of stage performances. Very likely, she would have then found little time for the Manch, which has, every few years, new members replacing those who leave.

But now she is in a cuckoo's nest, also known as Byculla Jail in Mumbai, where those broken by the state live on the thin line dividing sanity from insanity. She counsels them. In a letter to Rupali, Jyoti said the state must post psychiatrists to jails. The cynic would say it is the state that needs psychological help, evident from the gross misuse of UAPA.

"We are not friends, we are comrades," says Rupali, whose circle of friends is different from Jyoti's. "Our politics brought us to the Manch. We stand up for each other," Rupali explains. They send books on psychology to Jyoti, wire money to her in jail, and take donations to fund her legal battles. They will not abandon Jyoti, for she was instrumental in keeping the Manch's identity intact during the years its members lay low, following the arrest of Deepak Dengle and Siddharth Bhosale in 2011.

There were suggestions then that the Manch should disband to evade state repression. "No," Jyoti argued. "The state wants us to take two steps back. We should stay two steps ahead." Their popularity had soared with the 2011 release of Jai Bhim Comrade, an Anand Patwardhan documentary that had inspiring footage of their performances.

In 2013, because of the Patwardhan-led Kabir Kala Manch Defence Committee's intervention, Manch members courted arrest. The first batch comprised Sachin Mali and Sheetal Sathe. The duo was jailed. They were followed, months later, by Ramesh, Sagar, Jyoti and Rupali. The men were sent to jail, where they festered for the next four years.

Jyoti and Rupali teamed up with Deepak, who was granted bail in 2013, to ensure the Manch did not lose its voice, as they sang against class, caste and gender oppression, with the chutzpah typical of the Manch, with the hope of ushering in the change promised in the Constitution. But then, the state can be like a live naked wire dangling from an electric pole, delivering shocks to those who dare to rewire it without switching off the power. That, in essence, is Jyoti's story.

The writer is a senior journalist

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