The crushing power of street performances from the margins: A profile of Kabir Kala Manch’s Sagar Gorkhe, Jyoti Jagtap and Ramesh Gaichor

Profiles of Dissent is a series centered on remarkable voices of dissent and courage across the world. They are writers, poets, activists, human rights defenders and those who have been incarcerated for speaking truth to power.

6 September 2021

“At no time have governments been moralists. They never imprisoned people and executed them for having done something. They imprisoned and executed them to keep them from doing something. They imprisoned all those prisoners of war, of course, not for treason to the motherland […] They imprisoned all of them to keep them from telling their fellow villagers about Europe. What the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve for.”― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956

A political prisoner is a person who is imprisoned for their belief. Regimes across the globe arrest people for who they are and not for what they have done, thus making the category of the political prisoner into a criminal offense. It is a thought crime: the crime of thinking, acting, speaking, probing, reporting, questioning, demanding rights and, more importantly, exercizing citizenship. It is also a crime of existing in a Black, Brown, Muslim body that can be targeted and punished for who they are, or what they represent.

These inhumane incarcerations do not just target private acts of courage, they are bound together with the fundamental questions of citizenship, and with people’s capacity to hold the State accountable – especially States that are unilaterally and fundamentally remaking their relationship with their people.

The assault on the fundamental rights has been consistent and ongoing at a global level and rights-bearing citizens are transformed into subjects of a surveillance State.

In this transforming landscape, dissent is sedition, and resistance is treason.

A fearful, weak State silences the voice of dissent. Once it has established repression as a response to critique, it has only one way to go: to become a regime of authoritarian terror, a source of dread and fear for its citizens.

How do we live, survive, and respond to this moment?

In collaboration with maraa, The Polis Project is launching Profiles of Dissent. This new series centers on remarkable voices of dissent and courage, and their personal and political histories, as a way to reclaim our public spaces.

Profiles of Dissent is a way to question and critique the State that has used legal means to crush dissent illegally. It also intends to ground the idea that, despite the repression, voices of resistance continue to emerge every day.

It also intends to ground the idea that, despite the repression, voices of resistance continue to emerge every day.

Kabir Kala Manch

Kabir Kala Manch (KKM) is an urban grass-roots performance group at the helm of a socio-political movement rooted in cultural struggles of the most marginalized communities in India. KKM was formed by working-class youth from low-income Dalit and Bahujan caste communities in Pune as a response to the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat. Drawing inspiration from India’s legacy of dissent – from Kabir and Sant Tukoba (Tukaram) to Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar, Jyotiba and Savitri Phule, Bhagat Singh, Annubhai Sathe and contemporary cultural activists such as Sambhaji Bhagat and Vilas Goghre – KKM write and perform Marathi and Hindi songs and street plays in the language of India’s laboring people. KKM’s performances are accompanied by the rhythmic sound of the duff, one of the instruments of Indian resistance movements since the 16th century. KKM performs on the streets and also works with leftwing organizations such as trade unions and student bodies.

Jyoti Jagtap in 2019 described Kabir Kala Manch as a process: “There was no preconceived idea of what we wanted to do, to be. As we worked, we continued to develop our own thinking, our songs. So, we started as liberal secular, singing about religious plurality but then moved to a more materialist-based understanding of society grounded in our own life experiences to educate, give direction to laboring people and document their struggles.” Over the years, KKM’s work has addressed caste, gender and class violence, caste atrocities, crony capitalism, privatizations and surveillance encouraged by the majoritarian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP has been in power since 2014 and takes direction from the Hindutva fascism of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS).

In their early years, as KKM gained popularity in the state of Maharashtra and beyond, their words became a powerful weapon against oppression. In 2011, they appeared in Anand Patwardhan’s award-winning documentary Jai Bhim Comrade thus coming under the attention of the State. While KKM continued its resistance movement, the State targeted them for their cultural activism and political dissent: KKM members lost jobs, struggled to make ends meet and keep up with academic work and continue to endure separation from each other and their families. In 2011, members Deepak Dengle and Siddharth Bhonsle were first imprisoned under the contentious Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967 (UAPA) by the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) under purported charges of “links” with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) [CPI(M)]. These arrests compelled the other KKM members to go underground for two years.

With the support of Anand Patwardhan, other public intellectuals and civil society organizations, Sheetal Sathe and Sachin Malhi presented themselves for satyagraha (giving oneself up) on 2 April 2013 and were incarcerated on the grounds of “links” to CPI(M). On 7 May 2013, Sagar Gorkhe, Jyoti Jagtap, Ramesh Gaichor and Rupali Jadhav also did a satyagraha outside the Maharashtra State Assembly and emphasized that they were “not surrendering.” That day, the authorities selectively arrested Sagar Gorkhe and Ramesh Gaichor. Sheetal Sathe, who was pregnant, was released a few months later, but Gorkhe, Gaichor and Malhi spent four years in prison before finally being granted bail by the Supreme Court in 2017. This case remains due to be heard at Mumbai’s session Court.

During those four years in prison, Sagar Gorkhe and Ramesh Gaichor wrote over a hundred pieces for KKM, who continued to perform despite the continued Police harassment.

As members of the Bhima Koregaon Shauryadin Din Prerna Abhiyan, Sagar Gorkhe, Jyoti Jagtap and Ramesh Gaichor were actively involved in the organization of the Elgar Parishad held at Shaniwar Wada, Pune, on 31 December, where the group also performed. Following this, they were arrested for a fabricated case around a plot to assassinate Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and are part of the group of political prisoners known as Bhima Koregaon-16 (BK16).

Ramesh Gaichor is a people’s poet, singer, activist, composer and director of street plays for KKM. Ramesh was born into a poor Maratha family in Pune, where his father worked as a security guard. Ramesh was an undergraduate student in Wadia College, Pune, when in 2002, news of the Gujarat pogrom shook him and led him to KKM, whose focus on caste, class and communal differences resonated with him. He started composing and remains a core member of the group. For a few years he worked part-time for KKM while earning an income as a hospital clerk and a lecturer, but in 2008 he became a full-time member. His father recalls “He was a very smart student in school and he always liked to write poetry and do plays. He was also always interested in social work, in doing good for the poor.”

Sagar Gorkhe, president of KKM, is a people’s poet, an activist and a singer whose work advocates for a “fairer world for women and working people.” Sagar belongs to the Dalit Matang caste and his parents moved often to find work at construction sites and as security guards and domestic help. In a conversation in June 2021 with Rupali Jadhav for Dalit Camera, Sagar’s mother, who is a domestic worker, said Sagar showed a keen interest in singing and performing early in his childhood. While doing his undergraduate studies in Sociology at the Babasaheb Ambedkar College, he joined KKM, and the family would attend their performances. Rupali Jadhav recalls that “As a student, Sagar worked as a sweeper and a car cleaner to be able to pay for college, but later he worked full-time with Kabir Kala Manch.”

Jyoti Jagtap was born in Saswad, a city in Pune district, and remembered being “rebellious from the start” refusing to be co-opted into “women’s work.” Jyoti’s journey in progressive social movements began as an undergraduate student in Waghire College at Saswad, where she joined the Rashtra Seva Dal to work on student and women’s issues. When Jyoti joined KKM in 2007 on moving to SP College in Pune to do a Master’s in Psychology, her worldview widened as she became acutely aware of caste and class and read Dr B.R. Ambedkar. So deep became her commitment that, notes Deepak Dengle, Jyoti Jagtap was the one whose determination not be silenced motivated KKM to carry on with their performances during the time Sagar Gorkhe and Ramesh Gaichor were in jail.

Date of arrest: 7 September 2020 for Sagar Gorkhe and Ramesh Gaichor; 8 September 2020 for Jyoti Jagtap.

Charges: On 17 April 2018, the KKM members’ homes were searched and raided by the Police with a search warrant that mentioned Bhima Koregaon. Rupali Jadhav recalled that the Police took their phones, even though they found nothing. On 24 January 2020, when the case transferred to National Investigation Agency (NIA), the KKM members’ names were included in a First Information Report (FIR), they were interrogated from July 2020 onwards and eventually arrested in September. On 9 October 2020 the NIA filed a supplementary 10,000 page charge-sheet (further to two charge-sheetsalready filed by Pune Police) that alleged all three KKM members were involved in sedition, waging war against the Indian government and in “promoting enmity between two sections [and] criminal conspiracy.” Approximately 17 charges have been listed against each of them under several sections of the UAPA and the India Penal Code, 1860, based on accusations that they were part of the organization and giving provocative presentations and speeches a day before the 2017 Elgar Parishad. The NIA has also re-used a questionable witness statement from the pending 2013 case to reiterate their earlier claim that the accused were “trained cadre” of the CPI(M) and had participated in discussions with an absconding Maoist leader on taking the “Naxalite” struggle in the forests to urban areas. In addition, the NIA has accused the KKM of being a “frontal organization” of the banned CPI(M).

In the days leading to their arrest, Sagar Gorkhe and Ramesh Gaichor recorded a press statement that was released on 7 September 2020, claiming that they were pressured by the NIA to act as witnesses to implicate the Elgar Parishad as a Maoist space. If they agreed to accept this narrative, the NIA would drop the charges against them but otherwise they would be arrested.

Update: Sagar Gorkhe and Ramesh Gaichor and Jyoti Jagtap were arrested during the COVID-19 pandemic and no court date has been set for a hearing thus not been able to meet their loved ones. As the pandemic spread into the overcrowded Indian jails, all three KKM members tested positive and Jyoti Jagtap also showed symptoms. According to Rupali Jadhav, the Byculla women’s jail where Jyoti is held had reasonable treatment facilities and she received care during her illness, but has not fully recovered due to the hardship of jail life and poor food. Sagar Gorkhe and Ramesh Gaichor are in Taloja jail and have kept themselves occupied with writing political plays and songs and furthering their education.

Location of work: Pune, Maharashtra

When Kabir Kala Manch performs, the State trembles

Translated excerpts from Kabir Kala Manch’s performances

Jyoti Jagtap’s introduction to a Kabir Kala Manch’s performance during Justice for Rohith Vemula at the University of Hyderabad, February 2016

Jyoti Jagtap: Would you say that religious people, those who do all sorts of rituals and prayers, are our friends? Would you say that they are our friends?

Audience: Yes, there are many.

Jyoti: Yes?

Audience: No, they are the government.

Jyoti: No? Look, we have no problem being friendly with religious people. What are we going to get by chanting we are atheists and hoisting ourselves on some cheap, lofty tree? I say this even though I am an atheist too. As the saint-poet Tukaram said – actually I should say Tukoba, for they have twisted his name and added Ram at the end, just as they turned Basavanna into Basaveshwara, adding Ishwar [Lord] to his name. They have sprinkled God onto everything. […] What I am trying to say is that in our movement we seem to be going to an extreme level, by claiming that believers can never be our friends. Rohith [Vemula] expressed it very well, when he pointed out that the hard-core Hindutva-vadis are often involved in bomb blasts and other acts of violence. You must be aware that right now in Bharat [India] most of the cases related to bomb blasts and riots involve some Hindutva factions. And yet they are the ones calling for a ban of MIM and Muslim organizations, claiming they are a violent religion. That is the kind of politics we are witnessing here.

But what about us, what about the so-called progressives? We just take the moral high ground.  But for everyday people, their faith is what helps them through their everyday lives, they don’t care about anything else. The saint-poet Tukoba said in Marathi — I shall translate it in Hindi for you. Tukoba used to say:  there is no God; keep this in your heart. But when you step into the world, engage with others as if there is a God. Why? Because common people believe in God. And if you want to communicate with people you must make place for God. I don’t mean blind superstition or ritual, but you must think about a way to meaningfully give expression to the core of their belief.

This is a serious matter we must reflect on. What is happening at this moment is that while Hindutva forces are claiming to speak on behalf of the people and as a majority, we are alienating ourselves from the people on the grounds of our atheism. We need to reflect on this; think about our tactics strategically in this regard. Because look at what our opponents are doing — they say,  “Tear down the Babri Mosque, Build the Ram Temple!”. I say to them, who are you to tell me where my Ram is, where my Maula is? I will decide that for myself. Do you follow what I am trying to say? Just as these Hindutva forces are seeking to mix politics with the sentiments of common people, we need to find ways to mobilize people to distance themselves from the politics of hatred in the name of religion. We need to continue to debate and discuss this more in the future. However, we currently face the situation that our comrades are in prison and are being accused of inciting violence by the very same Hindutva forces. Our comrade Sagar Gorkhe, the life-partner of Rupali, who is here on stage, has been in prison for one and a half years already. Deepak Dhengle, who is also here, has just been released from two years in prison on meaningless charges of sedition and terrorism, using laws such as the UAPA [Unlawful Activities Prevention Act]. They have plenty of reasons to put us in prison. Yet from jail, our comrades Ramesh Gaichor and Sagar Gorkhe have been writing. Sagar Gorkhe has written a song called “Why are our eyes wet, what is this water that fills our eyes?”

Why are our eyes wet, a song by Sagar Gorkhe (2016)

Why are our eyes wet

What is this water that fills our eyes?

The smile on our lips, where has it gone? Where has it gone?

Why is the embrace of motherhood missing?

Why is the innocence of childhood missing?

Why [is it] missing?

Where are the blossoms?

Where are the busy alleys?

Why are the blossoms now seen to be withering?

You, dear human, played such a game of religion

Our hopes lay scattered in a heap of corpses

Why is life trapped in religious beliefs?

The smile on our lips, where has it gone? Where has it gone?

When religion rises on the power of the rulers

Some will walk crushing dead bodies under

When the guardians of the powerful become the keepers of faith

Even God will stain burkhas with blood

Then tridents will say the name of “Ram” and swords will say the name of “Rahim”

Then our homes will burn and our hearts will burn

When religion becomes your only way to survive

Then, human — consider yourself lost

Your defeat, your grief will be celebrated

as the victory of faith

You will be taught the lesson of high and low

to fight ruthlessly and to live in despair

Why stay silent

and live such a life of suffocation?

Why are our eyes wet?

What is this water that fills our eyes?

The smile on our lips, where has it gone?

Where has it gone?

A song by Ramesh Gaichor partly used as a soundtrack to the documentary Set the Song Free

The expenses are rising

It’s becoming harder to be human, to live, to eat, bro’

Day and night our heads are being sliced and diced into bits

The expenses are rising … the income is falling

For even the best of us running a family is backbreaking

The price of petrol, [cooking] gas, children’s school fees

and the rent for the shack are all rising

How to buy a house of one’s own, how to work oneself to death

I save paisa by paisa after working for the boss

Where’s the hope to put the cottage of my dreams,

the patio of my dreams on the program, bro?

The local metro line to happiness in this bloody life is derailing

The expenses are rising

There’s corruption even in the queue for the public toilet

The roof sheeting is torn, torn are my clothes

Poverty is the only jewellery adorning my wife’s life

Every bloody month the time passes in tears

Where is the hope to keep life going, to keep the home fires burning, bro’?

Turning me into a drunkard, making my wife go back to her parents

The expenses are rising

With half a pound of oil, potatoes and onions,

my rice and dal are cooked in tears of despair.

Father’s healthcare is in the hands of the government pharmacy

the morning tea is without milk

Where is the hope to laugh or spin around with joy, bro’?

Why bother telling you about my sordid alley of a life

The expenses are rising …

Every inch of the shack is thirsting for joy

The children’s little hearts long for rasgullas

They’re calling me back to the village, don’t know why I can’t go The bloody shopkeeper’s no longer willing to give provisions on credit

Where’s the chance of repaying debts, or celebrating Diwali or Id bro’?

Between sorrow and happiness this life of mine is stuck

The expenses are rising

The above essay
is a part of
Profiles of Dissent