In picture: Sheetal Sathe speaks of the poverty and exploitation of her people
Something is terribly wrong when a government feels threatened by protest songs and jails singers, says Satyen K Bordoloi as he profiles the now underground group Kabir Kala Manch through Anand Patwardhan's searing documentary, Jai Bhim Comrade.
One important question rang in everyone's mind as they sat stunned watching a 10-minute clip from Anand Patwardhan's seminal documentary, Jai Bhim Comrade. Why would the government of one of the biggest, richest and most populous states of India, Maharashtra, feel threatened by a rag-tag, seemingly nondescript street music group - that had neither cut any major record deal nor had any songs go viral like Kolaveri Di?
So threatened and desperate that they sent the best of their police force, the ATS - Anti Terrorism Squad, after them? The answer stares at you in the face in Jai Bhim Comrade.
A woman in her mid 20s, Sheetal Sathe, stands on the stage in a maroon kurta. The bad sound system is unable to hide either the soul-wrenching quality of her voice or the power of her words. She intersperses her songs of poverty and exploitation of her people, the Dalits (untouchables), with comments like: "Ambedkar had once said that if this Constitution fails to give people economic, social and political justice, then it will be brought down by my own people."
At the end of the 10-minute clip from Anand's film - shown at a press conference at the Press Club, Mumbai, on May 12 - there wasn't a single dry eye in the motley gathering that included actor Ratna Pathak Shah, former top cop Sudhakar Suradkar, and popular Marathi singer Sambhaji Bhagat among other journalists, civil society representatives and concerned citizens.
Watch a short version of the clip here:
Two singers of the group 'Kabir Kala Manch' (KKM) - Deepak Dengle and Siddharth Bhonsle - were arrested by the ATS for being pro-Maoists under the UAPA - Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967.
Other members including singer-poet Sheetal Sathe, Sagar Gorkhe and Sachin Mali have gone underground fearing worse after ATS men harassed their families. The group has not sung a single song since a year and no one knows where or in what condition they are.
Hearing Sheetal Sathe's expressive voice and her powerful words, which she pens herself, you hear an extremely talented woman, who could have become anything. Instead, she chose the hard life of poverty and perennial want (her mother says in Jai Bhim Comrade that Sheetal 'lives for the world, not her family), but one of great importance because her voice and words don't merely entertain, they inspire and move people.
She chose to be a poor man's Bob Dylan, articulating their pain, anguish and oppression.
Sheetal's widowed mother, who lives in a Pune slum and works as a nurse in a local hospital, has been kicked out of her job, despite it being permanent, after the ATS harassed her at her work place. The state police allegedly did a media trial by planting stories about them being 'urban' Maoists and Naxalites in Marathi and some English media press.
Without a shred of evidence, Deepak Dengle and Siddharth Bhonsle have been behind bars for a year now. Ironically, sedition, introduced by the British rulers of India to silence those seeking independence from their tyranny, is today the most powerful tool in the hands of Indian rulers of the country, once again against people seeking freedom from the state's tyranny.
Anything - writing a play, a book, publishing a pamphlet or in the case of Kabir Kala Manch, singing songs that reflect upon and question the state and the plight of its Dalit and poor - have led the state to unleash the devil of 'sedition' on them.
A Dalit activist, writer and editor of the Marathi magazine Vidrohi, Sudhir Dhawle, was arrested in January 2011 and charged with 'sedition' (Section 124) and waging war against the state under Section 121 of the IPC, all because he highlighted the injustice and atrocities against Dalits.
While Sudhir still languishes in jail, Mumbai-based Arun Ferreira, a civil rights activist, was freed on January 4 of this year, after four-and-a-half years in prison after the police accused him of being a Maoist, and slapped 10 cases on him. He was acquitted in all of them by the High Court in 2011.
However, on September 27, 2011, when he was released from the Nagpur jail, plainclothes men swooped on him, pushed him into a vehicle without number plates and took him away, even as his family watched in horror. The next day, the police said that he had been rearrested on two more charges.
He has been acquitted in one and is out on bail for the second.
Watch Arun Ferriera speak on his arrest and police torture:
Thus, one can imagine the fear in the minds of the Kabir Kala Manch members. Even Dr Binayak Sen, whose high-profile case attracted over a dozen Nobel Laureates to write to the Indian government, spent nearly three years in jail. This was enough time for his humanitarian work with the Chhattisgarh tribals, where he also exposed the state's injustices, to go to ruin.
Anand Patwardhan says, "The despicable plight of Dalits in this country is an open secret. These youths protested against this mass injustice through songs. How can we call ourselves a democracy if we even deny an oppressed group this basic right to protest?"
Even if they do sing about injustice, why should it threaten the state? The answer lies hidden in actor Ratna Pathak Shah's comment at the press conference. "Their [Kabir Kala Manch] art emerges from their own life and surroundings. The way they can articulate their pain and struggle through songs is spectacular. It is because of this articulation that their pain reaches out to people like me."
Watch the video of the conference here:
It is this articulation that the state fears the most. For in India, alongside one of the highest GDP growth rates in the world, lies the world's largest number and concentration of malnutritioned population at nearly 35 per cent. Five percent more at 40 per cent, and the World Health Organisation will declare India to be under famine.
But clearly we are actually prospering. The granaries are overflowing enough for food to rot. There's no shortage of any commodity in the market and all seems peaceful.
However, something is clearly amiss. And who are these 35 per cent, i.e. over 400 million Indians who are starving to death. A majority of them are the 'untouchable' Dalits who don't often get jobs because of their caste, and the rest are the neglected tribals. This 7-8 per cent GDP growth has not only refused to trickle down but has left a glaring economic, social and financial abyss in the nation.
The rich are getting richer, and the poor - more malnutritioned.
This problem is compounded and fuelled by the social hierarchy of the nation with thousands of caste-based atrocities reported each year. Yet, when one considers their oppression, it is not just these few thousand major events of violence, but this daily denial of the fundamental right to life and livelihood that has created a 'civil-war' like situation with the Maoists in the tribal areas - something which the state fears might begin brewing even in urban areas.
After all, 400 million hungry people with nothing to lose, if accumulated, can make for a very potent army. If instead of silence, the "lower" castes one day decided to do something as insignificant as collectively stopping work for just a day, the nation would come to a standstill. This the state does not want. So what if the existing status quo is unjust, illegal and victimises millions?
Every dissent is thus meticulously suppressed. Even the idea of dissent, the mere whiff of it like an Orwellian 'thought-crime', just as in the case of Kabir Kala Manch, is tacitly but deftly silenced. Ratna Pathak Shah said, "When I was young we would hear about the different people and issues around. But those voices that speak against injustice have fallen silent. It must not be allowed to fall silent in any civilised society."
A society dependent on suppressing a vast majority can only be civilised in name. And the truth, in such a scenario, can unsettle an unjust order which the powerful need maintained.
The way the state maintains status quo is the theme of Anand Patwardhan's film Jai Bhim Comrade. Patwardhan took 14 years to make it.
"Everyday, two Dalits are raped and three killed," goes a shocking statistic in the film which begins on one such murderous day, July 11, 1997, when 10 Dalits who had gathered to protest the desecration of an Ambedkar statue, were shot dead by Mumbai Police.
Six days after this massacre, unable to take the pain and grief of his people and as a mark of protest, Dalit singer, poet and activist Vilas Ghogre committed suicide.
Jai Bhim Comrade then traces the legacy of the unique democratic protest style of the Dalits, through their stirring poetry and music, and the story of Vilas Ghogre and other singers and poets.
What emerges are tales of injustice and atrocities in the world's largest democracy that will wrench your gut. Its riveting parallels span not just Maharashtra (where the film is situated) but the world.
A Dalit leader in the film is heard saying, "We have a singer, a poet in every home." It is here that you realise the similarity between the fight for justice of the mostly lowly and oppressed of Indian people and that of the Afro-Americans. Both share a strong tradition of music and poetry that provides them relief, strength and prepares them to fight against injustice.
But the Dalits wage their war with non-violence because that is what their 'Babasaheb' exhorted them to do. And that does not stop the state from accusing them of being 'Maoist sympathisers'.
Anand Patwardhan has a keen sense of social satire. He rips apart the notion that equal justice prevails for everyone in India. When you see political leaders of national stature speaking of wiping out entire castes and religions, which in a true democracy would have landed them in jail, you realise how truth can sneak out from rhetoric and rewriting of histories, and punch you in the gut.
Jai Bhim Comrade also abounds in irony of how a Constitution drafted by a 'Dalit', Dr B R Ambedkar, continues to fail his own people. It balances the grand sweep of Dalit injustice with individual stories. Thu, on one side, you see a Dalit working in a garbage heap without the basic protection, cleaning Mumbai's filth, on the other you also see middle-class Mumbai talk about 'how dirty and filthy these people are', the irony of their filth completely lost on them.
It is here that Sheetal Sathe's quoting of Ambedkar - that if the constitution failed to give people economic social and political justice, it would be brought down by my [Dalit] people - acquires tremendous significance.
Through the film, Anand makes the July 11 incident a fitting metaphor for what has been happening in the country with the Dalits for thousands of years. It is also symbolic of how the state, often ruthlessly and cunningly, rips apart and decimates movements for justice and equality in India.
The film may have taken Anand Patwardhan 14 years to make, but in reality, this story of those who inherit injustice with their genes has been in the making for thousands of years in India.
What if this inheritance of injustice were to become public knowledge, enough for people to protest against it en masse?
Kabir Kala Manch is thus as much or more dangerous for the upper class state and its population, than terrorists who gun down people in cold blood. After all, despite singing only in communities and on road sides, KKM holds power in their words and tunes to become a catalyst to ferment revolution.
Anand Patwardhan, Ratna Pathak Shah and other concerned citizens have formed a committee to push for the release of the two singers and for the charges - direct and tacit on the group members - to be dropped so they can come out in the open.
Patwardhan is as ironic in real life, as he is in his films. The Rs 51,000 he got from Maharashtra state after winning a National Award for Jai Bhim Comrade, he is putting up to pay lawyers to fight for the members of Kabir Kala Manch that have been booked by the same state.
Talking about the importance of their art, Ratna Pathak Shah says, "Their art is born out of their own first-hand experience. That has extraordinary validity in our society today where everything is second hand. No one has the right to suppress such voices, not even the government."
Kabir Kala Manch is an important group because they are one of the few, globally, using the power of music to the maximum - to raise awareness and become catalysts for justice at the grassroots level. They regularly sing about rising prices, lack of opportunities and market oppression of MNCs.
Ironically, you don't have to be a 'Dalit' to reflect on their words. After all, living in a third world country and thus lower in the caste hierarchy of the world, in a sense all Indians are 'Dalits' of the world. Thus the songs of groups like KKM, in a globalised world, speak directly to each one of us.
If for no other reason than just this, groups like Kabir Kala Manch need patronage and not persecution. For they truly are a group that are 'for' the people, 'by' the people and, most important, they sing 'of' the people.
(To keep yourself updated with the latest about the Kabir Kala Manch and their case, you can visit the blog started by concerned citizens like Anand Patwardhan and Ratna Pathak Shah at http://kabirkalamanch.wordpress.com
Satyen K. Bordoloi is an independent film critic, writer and photojournalist based in Mumbai. He reviews films for the wire service Indo-Asian News Service (IANS).
His photographs and writings on cinema, art and culture have appeared in many national and global publications both print and online.