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Kabir Kala Manch : The Sound of Silence

By Neerja Dasani

10 October, 2012

The longer one lives in a representative democracy the more it seems that it isn't quite what the civics textbooks make it out to be – you know the whole, ‘of the people, by the people, for the people' stuff? For instance, when faced with the prospect of corrupt business practitioners causing huge losses to the state, pocketing politicians eager to facilitate that process or a music band protesting the effect of this nexus on the people, who is the government most likely to punish? It's a bit sad how obvious the answer is, and sadder still, how resigned we are to this situation, no matter which part of the world we find ourselves in.

In the past few months there has been extensive media coverage of the Pussy Riot story in which three members of a feminist rock group were handed a two-year jail term for performing an anti-Putin song inside a Russian Orthodox Cathedral. The case has become a global talking point, including in India where many people have spoken out in support of the group and their message of freedom from a ‘repressive corporate political system'. But how many of us have heard of Kabir Kala Manch (KKM)?

Over a year ago the members of this Pune-based cultural group, found themselves being given a new identity by the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad – the one-size-fits-all term for anyone that makes the state squirm – Naxalism. Two members, Deepak Dengle and Sidharth Bhonsle were arrested while others including singer-poets Sheetal Sathe, Sagar Gorkhe and Sachin Male were forced to go underground. Even their families were persecuted since, as we all know, ‘sedition' is genetic.

There seems to be a guarded silence around this case as far as the media is concerned – no breaking news, no SMS campaigns and no ‘expert' panel discussions. The few people, who have come across this story, might not have done so, if it weren't for Anand Patwardhan's hard-hitting documentary, ‘Jai Bhim Comrade'.

Ironically, one of the central motifs of the film is the legacy of Dalit protest music, which calls for a unified struggle against caste oppression, labour exploitation and inequality and is a vehicle for the reclamation of the dignity of those who continue to be denied it. KKM – featured prominently in the film – are moulded out of this same indignant material; they're armed with assertively wry lyrics and haunting voices, which more than meets the requirements for an ‘anti-national' label.

This list of ‘branded' citizens is now growing at an alarming rate. Arun Ferreira, Jeetan Marandi, Debolina Chakraborty, Shamim Modi, Seema Azad, Vishwavijay, Prashant Rahi, Sudhir Dhawale, Vernon Gonsalves, Abhay Sahoo, Soni Sori etc., etc. – the names of people implicated by the state (many of whom are still in jail) just flitter in and out of our consciousness from time to time, disconnected from the issues they are fighting for, lost in the barrage of infotainment – our attention completely under arrest. We barely notice that the administration at Idinthakarai, Tamil Nadu, has set a chilling national record: the first time in independent India that 8000 cases of sedition have been filed at a single police station.

Aren't these the freedom fighters of our times? By forcing into our collective mindscape a culture of dialogue, accountability and transparency, these activists are the real nation-builders. That the corporate state repeatedly tries to stifle their voices is no surprise, it's a global phenomenon. What is unusual is the silence of those of us who can afford to speak out.

Perhaps we've all become too used to being mere consumers of democracy. Like the compromised poets in Benjamin Zephaniah's poem ‘Bought and Sold'; we've got a price tag for everything: elections, college seats, hospital beds, marital alliances, directive principles and even freedom. Our primary culture has become that of consumption and so we no longer know what it means to participate in the production of democracy.

But what if each of us decided to make our own little contribution to the creation of our shared cultures, to voice our common concerns, to make some noise? As Deepak Dengle asks in his poem from prison, “Who all will you arrest?/There are hundreds of birds of freedom, who all will you arrest?/We'll take the cage and fly away and you won't even know it” (Rough translation from the Hindi original)

Maybe it's time to unplug those headphones and reconnect with the reality around us. If we all choose to exercise the freedom these activists are fighting for by singing their songs, reciting their poetry, or sharing their ideas with our colleagues at work, in schools and colleges, or on the bus back home, who can stop us? After all we're all free to sing ‘Shiela Ki Jawani', right?

So let's make a racket and bring down this wall of silence. If a sound democracy is what we're after, we're going to have to tune ourselves in.

(For more information on the Kabir Kala Defence Committee you can log onto: http://kabirkalamanch.wordpress.com/ )

- An excerpt from ‘Jai Bhim Comrade', featuring ‘Kabir Kala Manch': http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r7JRWE64CEw





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