Silencing cultural dissent

IN Opinion | 30/06/2013
Kabir Kala Manch activists sang and performed on issues of malnutrition, women, female infanticide, farmers' suicides and other such themes. But since when is this deemed to be unlawful?
asks Geeta Seshu

While Sheetal Sathe, lead singer of the radical cultural troupe, Kabir Kala Manch (KKM), was released on bail on Saturday on an order from the Bombay High Court on humanitarian grounds, the moot question still remains: should she, and other members of the group, have been arrested at all and why?


Sathe and her husband and fellow KKM member, Sachin Mali, were placed under arrest after they ‘surrendered’ in April this year. Sathe, who is pregnant and due to deliver in a few weeks, was on the run from police since April 2011, on various charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA) and of being members of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist).

Sheetal’s lawyer, Vijay Hiremath said that police filed a chargesheet on the same day she was granted bail. The main thrust of the chargesheet is that the KKM member was seen performing in naxal-dominated areas, Hiremath said, adding that the case was a weak one. Moreover, it relies on an eye-witness account of an unidentified surrendered naxalite, who claimed that the troupe received arms training. In the 131-page charge sheet, attaching statements of 17 witnesses, the Maharashtra Anti Terrorism Squad (ATS) also claimed that KKM was a front for collecting money for the maoists.

KKM came into public limelight when they featured extensively in ‘Jai Bhim, Comrade’, a documentary on the death of Dalit singer Vilas Ghogre made by well-known documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan. However, they were forced to go into hiding for more than a year as a result of the charges leveled against them. The charges against the KKM is an attack on their freedom of expression and curbs their right to perform freely without fear of state reprisal, argue Patwardhan and others who formed the Kabir Kala Manch Defence Committee.

Thus far, the evidence of ‘unlawful’ activities against them appears to be that they sang and performed on issues of malnutrition, women, female infanticide, farmers’ suicides and other such themes. But since when is this deemed to be unlawful?

What is really of concern is that the charges against them are part of a larger attack on the free expression of cultural activists in the country, all of who are branded as ‘naxalite’ or ‘maoist’. Apart from members of cultural organisations in the so-called ‘red belt’ of central India, others who came under the radar include film-maker Ajay T G ( who spent three months in jail in Chhattisgarh but released when police failed to file a charge sheet), journalists and editors of small magazines in Uttar Pradesh, like Seema Azad and Vishwa Vijay (who earned the wrath of the Mayavati led government for writing on the Ganga Expressway corridot and were arrested on charges of sedition but are now out on bail) or in Maharashtra, Dalit poet and editor of ‘Vidrohi’, a cultural magazine, Sudhir Dhawale (the magazine took up issues of violence against dalits and worked for the annihilation of caste. Dhawale was charged with sedition and is still in jail).

For the state, already engaged with Maoists in a bloody battle on the ground, members of cultural troupes or writers became easy pickings. They are seen as public faces of political organisations, even if there may be no formal or established links between them. This, despite a Supreme Court judgement that mere membership of a banned organization, is not a criminal activity.

In the absence of any clarity about the case against them, save for a nebulous charge that they indulged in ‘unlawful’ activities under the UAPA – a law that is opaque and has no mechanism for review, the arrests on the activists of the cultural group have had a chilling effect on their work.  And if that isn’t illustrative of the state’s ability to silence dissent, what is?

















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