PUNYANAGARI (The Virtuous City)

Anand Patwardhan


Pune, Aug 22. Last night a FTII and Yugpath student organized screening of “Jai Bhim Comrade” began with a tribute to anti-superstition campaigner Narendra Dabholkar, who had just the previous day been gunned down by fanatics in the same city. It was our 4th screening of the film at the FTII and as before, the large NFAI auditorium was overflowing. The screening and discussions went off without a hitch. Not a single audience question led me to suspect that Hindutva elements were in attendance. In fact I am always happy to get questions from opposite sides of the political spectrum as I believe that such debates and discussions benefit everyone and are precisely the function of the kind of cinema I believe in.


As the film and discussion ended, some audience members left but more poured in for the next event – the first stage appearance of members of the Kabir Kala Manch in over two years. It was of course a depleted KKM. Accused by the State of associating with Naxalites, three of their main singers and poets are still in jail awaiting trial. Last month Sheetal Sathe, their charismatic lead singer/poet was granted bail but was unavailable having just delivered a baby. Barring Deepak Dengle, other KKM members who are out of prison, were not lead singers but part of the chorus or the support team. As Jyoti Jagtap said to the audience in her introduction: “We are not trained musicians from the Gwalior gharana, or the Jaipur or Agra gharanas. We are working class youth from the basti, factory and farm-labour gharanas. We won’t be able to deliver the perfect note or play the perfect instrument but if you listen to our words, I am confident that what we have to say will be of interest.”


KKM lived up to its promise. They began with a song they dedicated to the memory of Narendra Dabholkar. It was the Ambedkar inspired song against superstition “Amhi Devhara Bajula Saarlay” (We have set aside all our gods). Following this was a rousing anti-nuclear song on Jaitapur, then the moving “Sau” an ode to Savitribai Phule and concluding with the defiant: “Kabir wants to break his shackles to dance and sing. Let him dance and sing !”


The entire audience was captivated. People were elated and milled around in the NFAI premises for a long time afterwards. Some students sent for chai, others wanted to take group photos. Suddenly I saw Deepak Dengle surrounded by an animated group of about a dozen people. After a while we realized that this group was hostile and we pulled Deepak away to have tea rather than allow an argument to escalate. The group now took their wrath out on FTII students. A single plain-clothes policeman at the site seemed completely disinclined to stop the aggression. Suddenly the group revealed its identity by chanting ABVP (Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad) slogans and shouting “Down with Naxalites”. Out of nowhere orange flags and sticks appeared and began to be brandished. Finally as people walked away from them the group seemed to disperse and we got on with our tea and photos. But the group had merely retreated into the darkness and not dispersed. Outside the NFAI compound they physically attacked and injured 5 FTII students, one of whom was hospitalized with a head injury that needed stitches. Concerned with the safety of KKM, the students escorted them out and they all reached home safely.


So ended KKM’s first stage reappearance in over two years. It will be recalled that a few months ago 2 KKM members were jailed overnight at Taloja for singing songs at a protest march against a builder who had usurped a pilgrimage site connected with the working class Saint Tukaram. The police claimed they had sung “Naxalite” songs. The songs in question happened to be composed by the legendary Ambedkarite poet Vamandada Kardak. A pattern of suppression seems to be emerging. By branding them as Naxalites the State has succeeded in creating a tag which even a court judgment in favor of KKM may not remove. When they emerge from jail they will be followed and harassed either by the police or by right-wing vigilantes.


Another pattern is emerging. Two days ago “unknown” gunmen killed Narendra Dabholkar in broad daylight. No right-wing group has taken credit. All the vociferous opponents of Dabholkar from the mainstream BJP and Shiv Sena to the lunatic fringe of the Hindu right, deny all responsibility. Yes we opposed him they admit, but no, we did not kill him. Last night at least the ABVP was not shy to announce who they were. This is of course easier to do when you can paint your opponents as anti-national Naxalites. Earlier Dabholkar too was branded as a Naxalite in some quarters. The non-violent anti-nuclear protestors in Kudankulam have been called Naxalites as have been people connected with Medha Patkar. Naxalites are now entering our cities, scream the newspapers. They will soon be pouring out from our taps.


(August 22, 2013)

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