It was July 11, 2007, the tenth anniversary of one of the darkest chapters in the long history of Maharashtra’s atrocities against Dalits. Ten years ago the residents of Ramabai Colony in Ghatkoper had woken up to find that someone had placed a garland of footwear on their statue of Dr. Ambedkar. Anger simmered and a few score residents poured onto the adjacent Eastern Express Highway to protest the desecration. The protesters were unarmed but smashed the windows of some stationary cars. Within minutes a platoon of the Special Reserve Police SRP arrived and without any warning opened fire on the protesters. Then for good measure, 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 on the spot, one a few years later, after his family had spent their meager resources trying to save him.
I became more than a mere horrified citizen when four days later, Vilas Ghogre, poet and singer, hung himself in protest in his hut in nearby Mulund. Vilas had visited Ramabai Colony in the aftermath of the firing and was unable to bear his grief. Vilas’s music and poetry I had loved and recorded over many years, and his song runs through my 1985 documentary on the homeless “Bombay Our City”.
I tried to understand why Vilas, an Ambedkarite who had become a Marxist, had committed suicide. And why at the moment of his death he reasserted his Dalit rather than his Marxist identity by tying a blue scarf on his forehead and writing a chalk message “Long live Ambedkarite Unity” on his blackboard (yes, in his tiny room in Mulund, an entire wall was an old discarded school blackboard).
The journey eventually took me 14 years as I explored class and caste and followed the legal cases against the police and their counter-cases against the victims of the firing. I also ended up following other poet-musicians like Vilas who used their art for emancipation.
The 10th year of the journey brought me back to Ramabai Colony where an all day commemoration was in progress to honour the victims and martyrs of Ramabai and Khairlanji. At Khairlanji village in 2006 four members of Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange’s family had been butchered, his wife and daughter stripped and raped before being killed. The killer mob comprised of fellow villagers from middle castes. Out of over 80 accused, those connected to powerful parties were acquitted. Six got the death penalty, later commuted to life. The court ruled that the Prevention of Atrocities Act did not apply here and that no one had been raped or molested. Rape had not even been investigated though bodies had been found naked. When Dalits across Maharashtra protested against the massacre huge repression followed leading to deaths and thousands of arrests. The Home Minister described the protests as “Maoist inspired”. Three years later the government gave Khairlanji an award for being a model of peace and amity (“Tantamukti Gaon”). With half its Dalit population murdered, it was the peace of the grave.
On 11 July 2007 the sense of outrage and injustice was palpable at Ramabai Colony. Many musicians performed that day. But the most electric of all was a young group from Pune, the Kabir Kala Manch. As Sheetal Sathe’s strong, clear voice rang out, the words piercing the hearts and minds of even the most jaded, I knew right away that the legacy of Vilas Ghogre would never die, it would expand and encompass, for it was a living, felt need.
I began to follow the KKM. We filmed at their work place, an office lent to them by a socialist sympathizer and in their slum home near Mahatma Phule’s memorial house. We spoke with Sheetal’s mother, an amazing woman in her own right, who despite her religious faith in the “goddess” tolerated and even approved the growing rational consciousness of the children she had worked hard to educate. We filmed their public performances in the city and countryside. We filmed them lending musical support to a diverse range of activist movements that had taken on the venality of the system, from Medha Patkar’s non-violent peoples’ movements to their own Mahatma Phule-inspired movement for inter-caste marriage.
But as atrocities like Khailanji repeated themselves with unfailing regularity, I began to sense KKM’s songs becoming more militant. Ambedkar was now interwoven with Marx and I marveled at how potent the combination was in the hands of young believers who challenged the selling out of an older generation that had settled for crumbs from the high table. Despite this gradual change nothing about the KKM was dogmatic. They tolerated my hodge podge Gandhian, Ambedkarite, socialist ideas. They were always open to debate, discussion, reformulation and they were internally democratic. So much so that even in performance, while Sachin was the published poet and Sheetal and her brother Sagar were accomplished musicians, the group saw to it that everyone got a chance to sing, to write, to perform.
Our film was taking a long time to complete. Occasionally KKM saw bits and pieces of it on the edit table and we would discuss caste and class. They knew from the film that Vilas Ghogre had been expelled from his Marxist group because upper class/caste Marxists in charge had failed to grasp the conditions of his life. Young and impressionable as the KKM was, I saw them performing in public in working class neighborhoods, holding study circles with youth and adults, always questioning, always letting a hundred flowers bloom.
In 2011, I lost contact with the group. None of my calls were being answered. When I went to Pune in June to meet Sheetal’s mother, I understood the reason why. Deepak Dengle of the KKM had been arrested by the Anti Terrorist Squad and was being accused of being a member of a banned Naxalite (Maoist) party that was waging war against the Indian State. The police had begun a witch-hunt. In fear, KKM members ceased their public activities and went underground. When I met Sheetal’s mother she reaffirmed that her children did not believe in violence and had promised to fight only with “the song and the drum”.
Police-planted articles began to appear in the media. The accusations against KKM drew on “confessions” obtained in police custody like the one by Deepak Dengle alleging that KKM was present at a meeting that Maoists had conducted. Deepak subsequently withdrew his statement stating that it was obtained under torture. Deepak spent over a year and a half in jail. He was recently released on bail after Justice Thipsay of the Bombay High Court held that even under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), mere membership of a banned outfit could not constitute grounds for detention, that an actual crime or the intention to commit this would have to be proved. I met Deepak last month after he was released and he described how acid was used on his back at the torture stage and how his family was threatened.
In 2012 we had formed a Kabir Kala Manch Defense Committee. The latter portion of my film Jai Bhim Comrade features the KKM. After the film won a national award the Maharashtra government added a cash award to the winner’s kitty. This became our initial corpus as we formed our defence committee to prevent the unfair profiling of this cultural troupe and the curbing of their freedom of expression.
We feared for the lives of underground members of the KKM. Once someone is branded a Naxalite, death by “encounter” becomes possible. We met the Chief Minister of Maharashtra and showed excerpts of the film to let him understand who the KKM was. Later a delegation met the Home Minister who informed us that the charges against the KKM were not serious and advised us to encourage them to surface.
Finally last month we were overjoyed when our lawyer friend Mihir Desai informed us that two KKM members Sheetal Sathe and Sachin Mali had made contact and did indeed want to come over-ground and face the consequences in court. To prevent the police from claiming that they had “caught” them, we had to ensure that their surfacing took place in a very public location where the media would already be present. We chose the State Assembly which was in session.
Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, Prakash Reddy and Bhalchanra Kango of the CPI and three members of our Defence Committee were present as Sheetal and Sachin spoke to the media outside the Assembly hall and sang a song declaring that their action was not a “surrender” as they had done no wrong, but a “satyagraha” for the freedom of expression.
The police at the Assembly had no idea who these people were! Finally the ATS was contacted and arrived a few hours later to collect their quarry. That evening we met the Chief Minister who promised to prevent the torture of the two activists. In court the next day Sheetal who is 6 months pregnant, was sent directly into judicial custody (where torture does not usually take place but where nutritious food is a rarity) while Sachin was remanded to ATS questioning for two weeks. We learnt that although Sachin was not allowed to sleep for almost 3 days, which does constitute a form of torture, no bodily torture was done. I am sure this is because of the public pressure that has been sustained – the Times of India reported that the ATS switched off its fax machine because of the volume of the letters pouring in, in support of the KKM. The police on their part are countering with articles in the mainstream media loudly proclaiming that Sachin and Sheetal are indeed Naxalites.
Are they really Naxalites? I see them as fiery idealists who are fighting to make our society just and equitable. Does that clearly distinguish them from Naxalites? Perhaps not, and this is why the ATS and the State is confused. To me the distinction lies in the fact that the only weapons Sachin and Sheetal have chosen to fight with are poetry and song.
Even if in the worst-case scenario, it is concluded that they had made contact with a banned organization, what bewilders me is the question of what the State wants from them now. They gave themselves up. They have expressed the desire to sing freely again within the bounds of democracy. There are other members from their group that are still underground, who are obviously watching to see what the State does. What is the message the State is sending them? That it prefers to brand them as Naxalites? To push them into the forest rather than allow them safe passage?
The other day Sheetal’s bail application was refused despite her pregnancy. Neither she nor Sachin are accused of any act of violence. Are people who gave themselves up voluntarily, going to run away? Why did the ATS oppose bail? The only possible explanation for such behaviour is that there is now Central government money to be made by those that prove they have a Naxal problem. Will civil society sit back and watch?
24 April 2013*
A month after this article was written Sagar Gorkhe and Ramesh Gaichor from the Kabir Kala Manch came out of hiding, sang in public, and were arrested by the ATS. Three months later Sheetal Sathe who was about to deliver a baby was released on bail.
After two years awaiting trial, Sachin Mali, Sagar Gorkhe and Ramesh Gaichor remain in jail. Their bail has been twice rejected by Justice Joshi of the Bombay High Court. The Kabir Kala Manch Defence Committee is filing an appeal in the Supreme Court.