As Sathe, Mali Split from Kabir Kala Manch, the Struggle Between Caste and Class Continues

Others in the cultural group have claimed that the couple's exit is an attempt to distance themselves from controversy and avoid further problems with the police.

Mumbai: Shital Sathe (31) and Sachin Mali (33), an artist couple who rose to fame for their revolutionary songs sung under the cultural outfit Kabir Kala Manch (KKM), have broken their 15-year-old association with the group due to “ideological differences”. The couple is now in the process of creating their own cultural-political platform, which they say will prioritise caste over class issues. “We are drafting the manifesto of our cultural group. This new group will have a philosophical blend of Ambedkarite and Marxist ideology. We will soon have a state level launch,” said Mali, who was released earlier this month after having spent nearly 45 months in jail for his alleged links with Naxal groups.

KKM, a politico-cultural group, was formed in Pune after the 2002 Godhra riots to spread communal harmony. It began using protest poetry and plays to take on government policies and address social inequalities. Their efforts were halted after the state’s anti-terrorism squad booked them under the controversial Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) in 2011 for their alleged links with Naxal groups. Since then, the group has scattered – most went underground and then resurfaced two years later in April 2013 to court arrest outside Mantralaya. The singing duo, like other members of KKM, was booked for their alleged links with the banned outfit Communist Party of India-Maoist and for working as per the instructions of its alleged leaders Angela Sontakke and her husband Milind Teltumbde. Shital was pregnant at the time of her arrest and a few months was later granted bail on medical grounds.

But while KKM was facing state repression and got entangled in legal complications, internally the group was going through drastic changes, mainly on ideological issues. “To address the issues of caste, a Marxist understanding of class was not enough. A unique problem like caste required a much serious engagement,” Sathe told The Wire. For Mali, leaving KKM was an act of moving away from “dogmatic Marxism”. “We could not have possibly spent the rest of our political life explaining them (KKM) our issues. Parting ways was the only viable option.”

Sathe joined KKM soon after its formation in 2002. Mali followed a year later, quitting his job as a bus conductor to become a full-time activist. The group, although clearly left leaning, has long maintained that it has no connections with any Naxal activities. Mali, in one of his essays written months before his arrest in April 2013, even came down heavily on Naxal groups. “These stands were never easy to take. The more we jostled to stir clear of Naxal ties, the more pressure was exerted. It became important for us to take a public stand.” Mali was responding to the question on criticism that the couple has faced recently for publicly taking a stand against the KKM and other left radicals leaders.

The split has left the group with palpable anxieties. One of KKM’s key leaders, Deepak Dengle says the couple’s public postures are problematic. “For instance, when they say they are against Naxalism, the implicit meaning is that KKM has been a supporter of Naxal activities. Taking on the group publicly impacts our safety, more so when the state has been attacking and branding artists like us as Naxal.” Dengle thinks that it is likely that the couple wants to distance themselves only to avoid any further problems with the police. He also hopes that the couple maintains an amicable professional relationship with the KKM.

It is not that KKM songs did not deal with caste in the past. The group, with most artists belonging to Dalit communities, sang many songs of atrocities and class struggles. But Mali says caste assertion was his and Sathe’s contribution. “Earlier KKM sang songs of poverty, without mentioning who these poor are. My songs gave an identity to the poor. I spoke of their conditions locating their castes.”

Over the past one year, while Mali was still in jail, Sathe has performed on her own without using the KKM banner. Mali, through Sathe, even sent out a letter to KKM asking them to not use any songs written by him and sell songs sung by Sathe. A similar letter was sent to Sudhir Dhavale, editor of Vidrohi magazine to drop their names from its board of editors. In 2011, Dhavale, a Dalit activist was arrested under the UAPA in a separate case and later acquitted by the trial court after the prosecution failed to produce any substantial evidence against him.

Dengle is not happy with the claims made by Sathe and Mali. “If Sachin has written those songs and Sheetal sang them, I had given the music. Others had contributed too. It was a team effort. Not just one or two persons’ work,” Dengle insists.

Splits on the subject of caste and class within left cultural groups are not new. In 1997, four days after 11 Dalits were killed by police firing in the Ramabai chawl in Mumbai, Shahir (bard) Vilas Ghogre, committed suicide as an act of protest. Towards the end of his life, Ghogre had made his disillusionment with left politics public. He wanted to die as an Ambedkarite and hung himself with a blue scarf. With chalk, he wrote his dying statement on the wall: ‘Down with the police action. I salute the martyred sons of Bhim. Hail Ambedkarite unity. Shahir Vilas Ghogre.’ Mali says their move is similar to many Shahirs of the past who started with communist ideology and later shifted towards Dalit activism following the teachings of Ambedkar. “Even Annabhau Sathe, a Marxist poet died as an Ambedkarite,” Mali says, referring to the well known Dalit activist, author, poet and singer.

Mali also compared their political standpoint to that of student leader Rohith Vemula, who committed suicide last year in the University of Hyderabad. “Rohith had taken a strong stand against the left. He saw a natural ally in us. He wanted Shital to participate in their protests, which the Ambedkar Students Association had launched days after their suspension from the university.”

Documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan, who is associated with the KKM Defence Committee, says this conflict is not new and is more a transition. “The KKM Defence Committee was formed when we realized that the State was branding this young Dalit cultural troupe as Naxalites. We encouraged them to come out of hiding and defended them at the trial court, right up to the Supreme Court where they finally got bail. The group has now separated, but legally, they face the same charges. Our main task is completed in the sense that after four long years they are free now to conduct their own defence before the people of this country.”

On the issue of class and caste, and the differing perceptions between the two sides, Patwardhan said it is not surprising “as they are young.” “Ideologically they are to varying degrees on a shifting continuum between Marx and Dr. Ambedkar. From Gadar to Vilas Ghogre to Sambhaji Bhagat, everyone had registered their differences within and outside their groups. That tension between caste and class continues.”