Indian society is still based on a discriminatory caste system even though it is forbidden by the law. The voices of the Dalit caste are heard in the songs of Kabir Kala Manch band. The resistance of the lower classes to oppression continues through music.
It is a question that has vexed me over the years since the 2011 arrest of two Kabir Kala Manch (KKM) performers, followed by the arrest of four more, charged under one of India’s punitive anti-terror laws, the UAPA, widely regarded as a draconian law. Barring, a heavily pregnant singer, was granted bail on humanitarian grounds after a few months; the rest ended up spending up to four years of their youth in jail.
In early 2018, the musicians face the dreary prospect of fresh rounds of arrest in the western Indian city of Pune in Maharashtra state.
A couple of months back, the band, comprising Dalit musicians who represent the voice of the lowest dis-empowered and discriminated against castes in India’s reprehensible Hindu caste hierarchy, had performed in an event commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Koregaon Bhima – a clash between their upper caste rulers and tormentors, the Peshwas, and the Dalit army of the erstwhile British rulers of India. In the battle, the lower caste Dalit army defeated the upper caste Peshwas, in the process avenging – maybe only for the moment – centuries of subjugation, exploitation, and torture by upper caste Hindu society.
On January 1, 2018, when the bicentennial anniversary of the landmark event was being commemorated in an India currently ruled by a right-wing Hindu majoritarian government, clashes once again ensued, leaving one dead, scores injured, and large-scale rioting in its wake. While many accounts contend the clash was provoked by upper caste Hindu right-wingers aligned to the party in power, the cops cracked down on the lower caste organizers, including members of the KKM. Reports were filed against them, their homes and computers raided. The threat of arrest hung around like the smell of gunpowder.
Thirty-one-year-old Jyoti Jagtap eyes me with suspicion when we meet, after a long wait, outside the Pune railway station. Considering that they are on the police’s radar, her misgivings at my intentions – a stranger who used a filmmaker’s reference to get in touch with the band – seems understandable. Riding pillion on her motorbike while going to meet her other band mates, I go through a role reversal as a writer researching protest and resistance music in India – Jyoti grills me rigorously on my background, work, intent, and perception of politics, especially of the far left Maoist ideology.
A strictly banned ideology in India, Maoist thought, with its emphasis on armed revolution, has, over the decades since the first peasants’ uprising in West Bengal state’s Naxalbari in the late 1960s, seen the proscribed and armed Communist Party of India (Maoist) hold control over vast swathes of the tribal and forested heartlands of India. In those areas armed rebel-cadres command social influence and regularly indulge in bloody turf fights against forces of the Indian state. As had happened with the KKM members during the 2011 arrests, and with other dissenting progressive leftist intellectuals whom successive Indian governments have failed to rein in, this time the government agencies have again used the ‘Maoist’ tag to press charges on the KKM musicians and other participants at the massive Koregaon Bhima commemoration. With very few of the arrested actually convicted, Maoism comes as a handy tool for the state to silence dissidents, many feel.
In the Koregaon Bhima commemoration event, organized by a coalition of over 250 progressive organizations and attended by around 35,000 lower caste Dalit people, the KKM had sung rousingly about smashing the Peshwa upper caste dominance, in effect a galvanizing anthem against Brahminical forces in India.
In the rigid world of Hindu social stratification, Brahmins occupy the top of the pyramid, while the Dalits, often considered as outcastes who are expected to work in perpetuity as skinners of dead animals, sweepers, and toilet cleaners, come at the very bottom. Assumed to have been codified around 1000 BCE, the religious text, Manusmriti, from which the Hindu extremist right in India draws some of its influence, justifies the inequality inherent in the Hindu caste system as the basis for order and regularity in society. Thus, in order to maintain this hierarchy and the status quo, Dalit people have for centuries been suppressed and deprived of basic rights and privileges so that they find it difficult to rise above their religiously-ordained station as menial workers for the higher entitled castes. In effect, using their inherited power, position, and privilege, Brahmins, and the upper castes, enjoy disproportionate control over Indian politics and society, as represented by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s ruling right-wing Hindu majoritarian party.
The KKM was born in opposition to the politics of caste and creed, divisiveness and hatred. In 2002, when the western state of Gujarat was engulfed in communal riots between Hindus and Muslims which left over a thousand people – predominantly Muslim – dead, and which happened under the watch of the current Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who was then administering Gujarat, KKM, a motley group of Pune college-goers and cultural activists, started singing their first songs of resistance. Initially, they sang against casteism, communal politics, and creeping Hindutva-helmed fascism. Look from the other angle and you realize that they were singing for human amity and universal fraternity.
In many ways, KKM is part of a lower caste continuum of cultural resistance against Hindu caste oppression. Starting from the 8th century and culminating in the 17th century, the Bhakti Movement came as a reformist and breakaway strain within Hindu orthodoxy with the image of a singer-songwriter-saint like Tukaram, Namdev, Kabir, Guru Nanak and Ravi Dass and Meera Bai singing against caste oppression, ritualism, and patriarchy occupying centrality. In more recent years, and with the coming of leftist politics in India, revolutionary balladeers like Gaddar, Kovan, Vilas Ghogre, Shambaji Bhagat, and Bant Singh have used protest songs both as a shield and a sword against injustice. And, like the KKM singers, they have paid a price for being musical renegades – Gaddar was shot at; Kovan and Bhagat have faced jail terms; and Vilas Ghogre was compelled to commit suicide.
And when he protested and pursed a case against the upper caste men who gang-raped his daughter in a remote village in northern India’s Punjab, Dalit singer Bant Singh was waylaid on a village road one evening by avenging upper caste men and beaten within an inch of his life. The murderous assault was so bad that both of Singh’s hands and one of his legs had to be amputated. When I met Singh at his village home, he sang songs of freedom, egalitarianism, and justice for me, the stumps that are his amputated hands raised in defiance and with the rising tempo of his singing. It was clear to me that centuries-old caste violence in India couldn’t yet kill the voice of resistance.
It was one such instance of violence that added further aggression to the performance of KKM. In 2006, in a small village called Khairlanji in Maharashtra state, female members of a lower caste family were paraded naked by the dominant caste members of the village before four members of the family were gruesomely murdered. While the cops and the administration tried to hush up the case at the behest of the powerful upper caste, KKM’s voice became shriller in protest. ‘Our songs became more and more confrontational. We took a tit for tat line against such violence,’ Sachin Mali, a former member of KKM, told me as we returned from a rural concert in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar region featuring Mali and his wife, Sheetal Sathe, another singer who broke away from the KKM. The Dalit musical group’s aggressive posturing on stage drew the attention of the government’s intelligence wing, and Mali and Sheetal were among those eventually jailed.
Later, last October, news came in that the Indian government allegedly commissioned illegal spying on the mobile phones of human rights and Dalit cultural activists using the Israeli spyware Pegasus. On the list of those reportedly investigated was Rupali Jadhav, a KKM member. The noose seemed to be tightening around the group.
Somewhat predictably, three members of the KKM, including the outspoken Jyoti Jagtap, were arrested in September this year by India’s National Investigation Agency. Their arrest falls into the pattern established by the Modi government of arresting poets, professors, students, and cultural activists who have stood in opposition to the government’s authoritarian policies. In some ways, these arrests also confirm the powerful bias against India’s marginalized Dalit community, one that has survived untouchability, victimization, institutionalized violence, rapes, and murders to still demand its due.
The arrests lead my mind to the previous four-year incarceration of Sachin Mali. Indomitable in spirit, and with a mind afire by learning and experience, Mali used his jail time to write essays, poetry, and songs, many of which came out in book form during his internment. Perhaps there are many more Dalit protest songs waiting to be written and sung while the community’s fight for freedom continues in India.
This text was created with the support of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation