The Nuanced Agitator: An Interview with Kabir Kala Manch's Sachin Mali

Sachin Mali, who was granted bail by the Supreme Court on January 3, spoke to The Wire about his experiences in prison, his ideology, the caste system, and his relationship with his wife and son while imprisoned.

Sachin Mali with his son. Credit: Javed Iqbal

Sachin Mali with his son. Credit: Javed Iqbal

Talking about ideology is the path to making Sachin Mali comfortable. After four years in prison, he was only willing to give an interview if he would be written about separately from his old comrades in the Kabir Kala Manch, and if he could speak about his and wife Sheetal Sathe’s ideology.

Mali is a justifiably guarded man, but once he begins to speak there’s a fascinating nuance to his arguments. On the subject of intra-party fighting and student movements, he said, “All these flags and ‘isms’ are gone, humako inshan ka shoshan ko nasht karna hai, so take what is useful from Marx, take what you want from Ambedkar, take what you want from Phule, and jo kaam ka nahi hai, woh chodd doh. ‘Ism’ ko identity aur dharm matt banao, uska siddhant ko samjo or uske niti moolya samjo, and what world we want, pay attention to that.”

I have not destroyed anyone’s afterlife

neither have I snatched away anyone’s heaven

nor have I attacked someone’s hell


I have not spoken against things below or

above this known world,

I remained aloof to your world of Maya

created by Pundits and Purohits.

I never used Buddha and Marx’s teachings

to seal anyone’s reverence for spirituality.


In these confused times, when you rule today

what can a mere poet like me

do much more than play the beats for an imagined, ideal world?


I merely tried to soothe the sufferings of this world,

I penned a few verses about this gathering of grieving, suffering souls,

I sang a few songs of a revolution to end this reign of grief.

I spoke a few words for annihilation of caste,

Merely – as a return gift!

But your State has imprisoned me.


You, who speak of otherworlds

Are afraid, like a thief is of a few sparkling stars in the dark night.

But  I speak of this world–here, today, now.

All I ask is to acknowledge the difference between us.

Then you can go ahead and charge me for destroying your afterlife

I repeat – I’m saying it again and again

I have not destroyed anyone’s afterlife.

(Translation: Simantini Dhuru)

Mali has often been misrepresented and when I told him that he could check and re-check his statements, he defended the right of an artist or writer to create without control – an oft repeated motif in his statements. He also expressed his views on the question of representation: ‘Now even I am not from a Dalit caste, but I speak with a lot of conviction against the caste system. I am focusing singularly on that. There are some Dalits who come to me and say you will not understand what our world is. Only a Dalit can understand what a Dalit’s pain is. This is what the caste system does. It makes watertight compartments.’

This is part two of a two part series on the Kabir Kala Manch (KKM). Read the first part here.

Let us start from the beginning, from when you first got politically involved and began to write..

Sachin: I first got involved on the December 21, 2001, I was 19 and in FYBA [first year student of Bachelor of Arts], my first step in the movement. It was an event of Gadge Baba. I was already an atheist back then. See, I come from a very poor family. My mother was an informal worker, father was an alcoholic. There were a lot of fights at home. There was so much suffering, I was very angry with god. I used to abuse god.

So I attended a play on Gadge Baba, who was also an atheist, who for the first time made me realise I am not the only atheist. I stayed back after everyone left, to meet the performers. So I went to them, and asked the people there if God existed or not. I had my own conclusions but I still had to ask someone. So I asked him. He was afraid I was some RSS-walla, and didn’t give me a direct answer.

There was another person there who asked me who I was, what I studied. I told him, ‘I am studying my FYBA but I am doing majdoori in the cold storage. I am not attending too much college.’ I eventually told him I didn’t want to talk to him, I wanted an answer from the performers about my question about god. Then he said ‘I am a professor in your college. Come to my place, we will answer all your questions, we already have a study circle. And tomorrow, on 21st December there’s a protest soon in Tazgaon against alcohol and tobacco.’

When I reached there, I first heard the songs from the movement, and I broke down. There were songs by Sambhaji Bhagat, Annabhau Sathe and Vilas Ghogre. That there is someone in the world, who understood my pain, and there are songs about the poor like this. I joined them there. Then in Satara at Lal Bahadur Shastri college, there was a sahitya samelan.

There, I first read Namdeo Dhasal, Narayan Surve, on the pendals. Everyone else was asleep, but I was reading. There were Tukaram and Choka’s Abhangs. All these thoughts and writings made me feel like they were written for me. That night itself I went and wrote some 20-25 poems. The next day I went to show them to my professor. Yes, they were very amateur, but they were raw, I felt so much that first time. And that’s how I started to write.

I am not a singer, and my home had no artistic leanings, no one sings in my house. But everyone else around me started to sing, so I started to write songs. I was with SFI [Students Federation of India] initially, and we needed songs to bring people out, in meetings. Even before I was in Kabir Kala Manch, I was writing songs.

As you’ve said before, jail gave you time to study, to write, to read. But for that creative process, you need other books, other writings, references. And we’ve heard the libraries aren’t very good in prison. How did you manage in prison?

Sachin: Yes, the libraries aren’t good. In the beginning, when I went to jail there were no books. But since the first month I would get Abhay Kanta’s Parivartana Warsaru. Then Kapil Patil’s Lok Mudra, and Yashu Patil sent me Mukt Shadbha. All these three magazines from the movement, I had access to. Every fifteen days and every month these magazines used to come to me, uncensored. And then I asked for Samrat newspaper, which is a Dalit paper which the state refused to give me.

And the library?

Sachin: It’s as good as if there is no library. It’s always locked, and they never open it. And the only books available are the religious texts. Maximum are the Hindu religion books and some Christian missionary books, but mostly books on Hindu religion.

Which was the best book you got to read in prison?

Sachin: The writings of Sharad Patil, of the Satyashodak Communist Party, was a milestone book for me. Everyone who wishes to understand revolution needs to read this book.

You were telling us earlier that the slogan, ‘Jai Bhim Lal Salaam’ is much older than most people know.

Sachin: After Ambedkar passed away, Dadasaheb Gaekwad had a bhoomi satyagraha (land struggle). There was Nana Patil who was communist, who had his own parallel state against the Britishers in Satara. When they came together, one had a blue flag and another the red flag. This was the first time the slogans came together. And the debate went on. From the Dalit Panthers, to the Republican Party of India’s first split, from Marxvad-Ambedkarvad, this Ambedkarvad-Marxvad, it hasn’t settled till now. People are asking to choose between one or the other, but the situation calls for something else. The situation calls for an end to caste and class and gender inequality. Not to turn anything into a religion.

At the height of your activism, Khairlanji took place. And since you’ve been in prison, there have been multiple atrocity cases, from Ahmednagar and Nitin Aage’s murder to name a few. You speak of social revolution as a solution to this. But for decades now, even non-Naxalite groups have thought of violence as a response. What other options are there?

Sachin: In some situations you can respond to violence with violence, for tit for tat killings, but that won’t stop atrocities against Dalits. That’s why the fight against Brahminism is the main fight. It’s the most important fight as atrocities against Dalits are increasing. You can see in Una, or in Khairlanji, or Sonai, the people who are attacking Dalits are always your OBC, your Marathas, or Patidars, who are from poorer families, working class. This is the reserve force of the caste-ists, the brahmanwads, these are the people who used to attack Muslims and Dalits too. The poor of the peasant caste are the reserve force, and what will happen with this tit-for tat philosophy? You will have to kill the OBC and peasant-working class. And how many will you kill? You can’t respond to that violence. You can attack people but they’re just the hardware, how will you destroy the software that is Brahminism?

Look what happened recently in Satara. A Dalit boy killed an upper caste lover, but the upper caste people around the entire area went and attacked the Dalit community. If Dalits responded with violence, wouldn’t the upper castes who are in the majority, attack Dalits wherever they are in the minority?

This is how a caste war will happen, not a class war. This is why Brahmanwad has to be fought first and a cultural revolution will have to come first and you have to tell the peasant caste and the Dalit caste their historical story of unity, that their thousand-year-old culture of resistance against the Varna system, from Gautam Buddha, to Charwar, Lokayut, to Tukaram, Chakrudhar, Shivaji, Phule, Shahu, Ambedkar. To talk about how the parampara of the peasant caste and the Dalit caste had come together and done so much to shape history. With this history, we can lay the foundation of a struggle for equality. Today we can lay an anti-caste movement.

Can you give us some examples in history where the Dalits and OBCs have stood together and decided to shed Brahminism?

Sachin: The best historical example is one of the Sikhs. They were farmers, and Guru Nanak in the beginning itself was against the caste system. What happened eventually, we can examine later, but it is an example. Sikh religion was against Brahminism itself. The other is Chhatrapati Shivaji. His fight was for the untouchables, the Adivasis and the farmers and he showed them the dream of a swaraj – a pro-people nation that was not communal – but today’s Brahmanwadis would like to sell it as ‘communal’. You will find the true face of Shivaji in Govind Pansare’s book Who Was Shivaji?

There have, in history, been a lot of examples. Dalit and peasant caste have come together and made history and we’re trying to find the threads of that history, to trace the exploited of the kissan jaati and the Dalit-OBC caste, and to build a dream. And what is this dream? A dream of an equal state. A dream of a social democracy, an economic democracy, where there is land reform. Here in Maharashtra, we can see the Maratha’s have a lot of working class bhoomeen, ulppo-udharak hai, the Dalit are obviously more landless but one has to bring them all together and make a strong demand for land reform. On this demand you can bring the OBC and Dalit together, but neither the Ambedkarite groups nor the communists are doing it. This is what comrade Sharad Patil had said, but the Ambedkarite movement wants smarks. They will put up big statues of Ambedkar and they will think their work is done. In this way, there’s a lot of sambhanva, to bring the exploited people of the Dalits, the exploited of the kissan jaati, and move towards equality. In our cultural practice, our main aim is for this kind of unity.

But when it comes to talk about the destruction of the caste system, it’s mostly the Dalit movement that comes forward. They are the captains of that, and in the future they will be the captains of the anti-caste movement. To get the OBC and Maratha will only come if you come if you join it with the issue of land. This is their sutra, this is their pranay. People will tell me, ‘I am an artist, I am not a political party’ but no political party has taken this agenda. I have written in my articles and books, asking the Ambedkarites, the Socialists, the communists, why they haven’t taken up this agenda.

What are the responses you have gotten?

Sachin: So far the CPI, the traditional communist party, has been seriously considering that there needs to be a cultural agenda for the party. In my book, I had asked them how they would respond to the challenge of the RSS, of the Hindu rashtra and Brahmanwadi. What is the anti-virus to their virus? To stop their nationalism, we need our own nationalism, the nationalism of Phule-Ambedkar, the end of caste nationalism. Phule said, country doesn’t mean people living over one land. A country also includes people’s cultures, their histories, their adarshes, and the minimum that they should feel that the people who live on this one land feel as one people, and that we can take this country forward. But the tragedy is that the nationalism of the Congress, the RSS and the communists – all three nationalisms are not a nationalism that envisages an end of caste. And falling short of that, they become Brahminical nationalisms.

On some level you speak from a position of being positive when many see the situation as bleak. People have been speaking about the global shift to reactionary and right-wing forces, from Modi to Trump, to Turkey to the Philippines. Most Western cultures already had a dominant white nationalism and India, yes, already had a dominant Hindu culture. But India was once this place where many different others could call it their own. And now the Hindu rashtra idea is taking that dream apart. Hasn’t the time for what you are speaking about come to an end?

Sachin: Ambedkar has said that every caste here is a nation in itself. In the villages there are always two countries – savarna and avarna. For us to become one nation, we first need to destroy the contradiction between avarna and savarna. It’s a mountain-long struggle, it’s been going on since Buddha to now. Yes, the rightwing in India is increasing [in power] but even more people are responding to them. Whether it may be Brexit or Trump, it is a reflection to the world going through an economic crisis. Whenever capitalism goes into crisis, the rightwing gets power. The Hitler and Mussolini were born from that, just like Modi was given birth to by corporations. After 2014, for the first time, as a writer, I saw how writers were returning awards and I never saw it before. I wrote about it then, how people who were sleeping in graves are finally coming out of their graves, those who lived in glass palaces are now coming out onto the streets. There was this change, this hope, and it helped the strength for my dream of equality. It gave me energy.

Sheetal Sathe performing. Credit: Javed Iqbal

Sheetal Sathe performing. Credit: Javed Iqbal

Speaking of energy, or morale, how has prison life affected you?

Sachin: They wanted to stop me, to keep me in jail, to stop me from writing. They wanted to break me. With the food they gave, the small spaces they kept me in, the atmosphere they allowed me to have. They have physically damaged me. Iss kalakar ko naasht karna hai.

I have a memory problem now. I just got up and walked to the waiter now to tell him which soup I wanted but within those ten seconds I forgot what I wanted. They have succeeded there. I have difficulty sleeping. I would be reading till six in the morning sometimes. The Anda cell of Arthur Road is made in a way where you can’t even see a tree. You can’t even hear anything. You can only hear the fan rotating. I have developed digestive issues, I have pissing problems.

Sheetal and I had support from 18 countries though Amnesty [International] and from the Sachin Mali Mukt Abhiyan, which Sheetal channelised in the grassroots, to take our morchas locally. That helped me maintain my psychological balance.

Sheetal: If he needed something, he would send a list to the defence committee. And if he missed his date, he would, for instance, not get a pen.

Sheetal, what was your experience like in the women’s prison when you entered? Your politics were also different, how did you adjust?

Sheetal: I wasn’t in prison for too long. The first month I spent just trying to understand everything. I was only there in one case. There is usually a negative perception that the administration has for those arrested in Naxal cases because ‘they will agitate, they will fight for rights, go on hunger strike’, but for me there was a lot of sympathy because I was pregnant. And with women, there’s a strong level of human compassion.

In jail, I realised, many women are mentally and ideologically already in prison, whether they’re outside jail or in their own homes. And those women who’re not liberated, who are now in prison, feel a double sense of imprisonment. They enter a physical jail, after being in a mental jail their whole lives. Women need to deal with these two, three prisons. And their depression is reflected in their excessive turn to prayer. There are women who pray from anywhere between three to eight hours. Their separation from their children, whether older or younger, really affects them. Then they have no work, they are just sitting around, and their mind just moves towards religion.

What are the living conditions like, is there a hierarchy in prison like there is in male prisons?

Sheetal: In Byculla, the capacity was normal but sometimes it would increase, when they would arrest women for beggary or chori. The hierarchy in prison is with those who’re politically minded, those arrested in Naxalite cases and then Sadhvi Pragya. The others on the highest level are the ones arrested in narcotics cases. There isn’t a single woman arrested for a terrorist case. Then there are the domestic violence cases, the mothers-in-law etc. Then there are those who are brought to work from Bangladesh. And what the labour contractors do, is that once they (the labourers) finished their work, he would inform on them to the police and they would be arrested instead of being paid. There’s a lot that always comes and goes and there are a lot of women in there. And these are the lowest in hierarchy in prison, not only as they are foreign women but also Muslim and working class. There was one Brahmin woman who I saw.

Are there political discussions in prison?

Sheetal: Not many. The African women are very aware. They compare how their jails are better than ours. They talk about how pregnant women are treated better in their prisons.

In my experience, I saw when women go to jail, everyone becomes secular. If Muslim women are having a prayer, all the Hindu and Christian women go and sit there. Same with the Christian prayers. If the women are doing namaaz, all the women go there. I didn’t even find the library in prison but every woman had their Bible or Quran or religious texts.

The Manusmriti?

Sachin: Manusmriti padh ke koi brahmanwadi nahi banega, usko samaj mein bhi nahi aayega. [Nobody can become Brahmanical simply by reading the Manusmriti. They won’t even understand it.]

How does the knowledge system function inside prison?

Sachin: In jail, people are usually afraid of knowledge. I was in jail, I taught people how to write applications – ‘I want to meet my family, I am innocent,  I want my case to run faster, I want permissions’. I taught people how to write RTIs about their chargesheets, to get documents. I used to train people about this. The officers used to attack me there, they were like, ‘you see your own case. Why are you teaching others? Kyu shane banare ho inko? Don’t write their applications, you’d have a problem.’

Ramesh and Sagar were together, but you were alone. Who were the people with you?

Sachin: I was surrounded by people arrested in terror cases. People from SIMI, Indian Mujahideen and some gang people. There were police officers too, who were convicted for the Lakhan bhai fake encounter. I used to talk to everyone there, there were people who were innocent too. I have seen real terrorists and fake ones.

Mali and Sathe performing with a few others. Credit: Javed Iqbal

Sachin Mali and Sheetal Sathe performing with others. Credit: Javed Iqbal

Most religious Muslims tend have an anti-communist ideology, did they ever get into debates with them?

Sachin: Yes. I used to talk to them. I asked them, that in the Quran, the basic tenet of peace, humanity, I agree with, but how to establish equality – that is our debate. They talk about martyrdom, about heaven and hell, I don’t believe in that. I have written in a poem that till today I have never written about anything above the sky or under the earth. I have never used my vocal chords for that, and never will. I asked them – those who were really guilty of the blasts. ‘You took part in blasts for revenge, for what happened in Babri, or what happened in Godhra, you wanted to avenge the injustice against Muslims, you wanted to show their pain. Fine. But about those Muslims dying in structural violence? Those who sell goods, who work in bakeries, who work in garages, who pick up thrash, who sell poultry, what about their pain? Have you read the Sachar Committee report?’ They don’t even know that report. So I asked them, that if you’re working for the pain of the Muslim community, don’t you see this pain?

And there’s also caste among Muslims.

Sachin: Yes, there is casteism. Those who consider themselves Syed think themselves upper caste. When people fight one another, they point their castes out as verbal abuse. You are an Ansari, you are a Syed, etc.

When you went to prison, did people ask you what case you were in? And how would they react?

Sachin: I am arrested in a Naxal case. I am not a Naxalite. I actually am an artist who speaks against them. But because of my songs and poetry the government considers me a Naxalite. People’s reactions would be very confused. They either didn’t know what a Naxal was, or that a Naxal was ‘he who just kills police. A khoonkar.’ But when I used to sing, recite poetry or debate with them, they used to like me.

I have heard that in prison, there’s a reputation for those in Naxal cases. But you speak openly against them, so what was your status in prison? Especially among the police too?

Sachin: In jail, the bigger case you’re in, the higher your status. A man who steals has no value, but a man who has indulged in bombing, he has status. Those who committed rape, some prisoners used to beat them. ‘Ma-behen nahi hai kya?’ The Shakti Mill people were beaten at the gates, by the prisoners and the guards. A child rapist would be beaten. Prisoners had anger against these things. I have seen murderers feel regret against killing ants.

There are many contradictions inside man. There is yet to be an ‘ism’ born to understand these contradictions within people. The police first used to see me very negatively. But again once, they heard me, they heard my songs, they spoke to me, they became my friends. The police have an inner humanity. They may wear a uniform, but they are also human. Yes, when they wear it, they’re wearing the ideology of the state. There are many police people who said they want to help me, that they like my ideas, but then they say I am bound by the uniform. If my superior says I have to hit you, I will hit you.

There were many ambitious policemen. There were also many Ambedkarite policemen who knew I would sing the songs of Ambedkar-Phule. I used to share my books with them. There were others who were afraid of the words ‘human rights’. They never really harassed me, they knew I had support from the outside, but when the violence of the state was inflicted upon others, I would interfere. I used to call a spade a spade. And some of the officers used to get irritated, and try to ask me to stop it. I would speak up against the caste system with how the Dalits were the only ones doing certain work in prison. As for the Naxalites, their cure for the illness has become an illness itself.

War itself, is against humanity. There are no values in war. Thus, to change society you can’t have war as your main weapon. This is why I condemn the violence of both the state and the Naxalites.

Did you feel your case would last longer than four years?

Sachin: I didn’t think so. I didn’t really know what the state was, what repression could really feel like, what suppression would be, I didn’t know they’d keep us in like this. I didn’t steal, I wasn’t a terrorist, I didn’t commit forgery, I didn’t have any guns, I didn’t murder. I had come forward, I was an artist and I thought they’d leave us. But we saw how the case moved, it was too much.

We saw how Salman Khan got bail. One artist got drunk and killed a poor man, and another artist sings songs to awaken the poor man’s conscience. Salman Khan got bail within a day and he was already convicted. ‘All are equal and some are more equal than others’ – and this is how democracy comes under threat.

(During the interview Abhang [Sheetal and Sachin’s son] started to cry when he was been put to bed)

When was the first time you saw Abhang cry?

Sachin: In court. I saw him for the first time after two months. I touched him for the first time after seven months. That was a horrible game the state played with me.

If he sees the police, he starts asking about me. Once the judge asked, ‘why do you bring the child to the court?’ He said that the child’s parents are accused, ‘don’t bring him, it might play on his mind.’

When you did your satyagraha, you knew that Sheetal was also arrested. How were those days?

Sachin: It was very emotional. We used to write every one-two days. She used to talk about children in prison, how bad it is. I wrote two songs about that period, having a conversation with my then unborn child. And I cried as I was writing. I saw other children, how their games change, with court, with handcuffs. And I know there is a subconscious impact on Abhang now. He was afraid of the police. Sometimes I would give the policemen chocolates and sweets to give to Abhang so his fear would give away. I would tell him that the police are not your enemies. He used to ask me what the police do to me. He once had a dream where he awoke screaming that the police were beating me.

Being a father in prison must have made you relive your childhood?

Sachin: I had no one familiar around me so my entire back-history used to play before me. The life I had when I was free, the dreams that I had. I had to learn to live with that memory.

There were a lot of things that bothered me but I knew one thing, I was not an ordinary person, I was a social revolutionary in prison. I spoke about changing society, and for that I knew that if I had to work, I had to deal with prison. I will tell you one horrible point. We are not Naxalites, we are anti-Naxals, in fact. But according to the state, we are Naxalites, and that we’ve surrendered. And even after surrendering, they put us in jail. Now there is a re-education surrender policy of the state, where anyone who is a Naxal who surrenders, is not put in jail for a single day, and all the cases, are dealt with. Those who had Rs 10 lakhs on their heads, those who killed 10-15 policemen, who orphaned their children, those kind of Naxalites are not in jail, because they’ve surrendered. But those who sing songs are in jail for four years? Jo dafflee bajata hai? A pregnant singer? A poet?

Sachin Mali and his son at the performance. Credit: Javed Iqbal

Sachin Mali and his son at the performance. Credit: Javed Iqbal

Postscript – Interview with Abhang, Sheetal and Sachin’s four-year-old son.

Who are the police?

Abhang: They hit.

Where was your father?

Abhang: In jail.

Where is jail?

Abhang: In Arthur Road

Where is Arthur Road?

Abhang: In court.

Where is court?

Abhang: In Arthur Road.

Where is Mumbai?

Abhang: In Arthur Road.