Poets Branded Naxals by Both Cong & BJP: What is Kabir Kala Manch?

What is Kabir Kala Manch and why are they repeatedly targeted by governments?

Updated
India
4 min read
What is Kabir Kala Manch and why are they repeatedly targetted by governments?
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Kabir Kala Manch, a group of artists singing songs of Bahujans and Karl Marx, have been branded “naxals” by both Congress and BJP.

On Tuesday, 8 September, the National Investigation Agency (NIA), which is probing the Elgar Parishad case arrested three members of the group saying that they were in touch with senior leaders of CPI(Maoist), a banned organisation under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act “so as to spread the ideology of Maoism/Naxalism and encourage unlawful activities”.

Targeted by the State ever since 2011, this Pune-based cultural group has repeatedly been accused of having “Maoist” links. But what is Kabir Kala Manch and why does the State consider them as their enemies?

The predominantly Dalit-Marxists politico-cultural group was formed in Pune by activist Amarnath Chandaliya after the 2002 Gujarat riots to spread message of communal harmony.

The artists would take on government policies, demand for justice and call for democratic principles through their protest poetry and street plays. The group sings songs of resistance to protest against various issues such as the Khairanji caste killings, suicide of Rohith Vemula, untouchability, religious extremism etc.

‘Spreading Naxalism in Urban Spaces’: The First Tryst With the Govt

The first tryst between the KKM and the government dates back to 2011. During a crackdown, the Anti-Terrorism Squad in Maharashtra arrested members of the troupe and charged them under the draconian UAPA. Maharashtra, at that time, was ruled by a Congress chief minister.

File image of Kabir Kala Manch member performing. 
File image of Kabir Kala Manch member performing. 
(Photo Courtesy: Facebook/Kabir Kala Manch)
File image of Kabir Kala Manch member performing. 
File image of Kabir Kala Manch member performing. 
(Photo Courtesy: Facebook/Kabir Kala Manch)
File image of Kabir Kala Manch member performing. 
File image of Kabir Kala Manch member performing. 
(Photo Courtesy: Facebook/Kabir Kala Manch)

Among the members arrested were Angela Sontakke, wife of Milind Teltumbde, allegedly the secretary of the Communist Party of India-Maoist's Maharashtra committee. The ATS said Angela was allegedly the secretary of the Golden Corridor Committee of the banned CPI-Maoist whose aim was to spread the Maoist ideology in urban spaces and recruit new members from cities like Pune, Mumbai, Thane, Surat, Ahmedabad.

From 2011 to 2013, many more members of the group were arrested in connection with alleged links to Maoists. In 2013, the Bombay High Court granted bail to some of the members saying that even though suspects could be “sympathisers of Maoist philosophy” but “none can be said to be active members of banned CPI-Maoists”.

Going into Hiding

After the high court verdict, two of its prominent members, Sheetal Sathe and her husband Sachin Mali who went into hiding came overground to “surrender” in front of the state Assembly in an act of ‘satyagraha’, amid full media glare. Sathe was pregnant at that time.

Anand Patwardhan, documentary filmmaker who had featured Kabir Kala Manch in his acclaimed documentary 'Jai Bhim Comrade', was part of the Kabir Kala Manch Defence Committee formed in 2012 to raise voices for those branded as "naxals" by the State.

Patwardhan, in an article for The Hindu in 2013 had written, that on the day Sathe and Mali surrendered, "we met the chief minister who promised to prevent torture. In court the next day, Sheetal, who is pregnant, was sent directly into judicial custody (where torture is rare but nutritious food even more so). Sachin was remanded to ATS questioning for two weeks. We learnt that he was not allowed to sleep for three days, but no bodily torture was done. This is certainly thanks to public pressure. It was reported that the ATS switched off its fax machine because of the volume of support for KKM. The police countered through the media that Sachin and Sheetal are indeed Naxalites."

After Sathe was granted bail on “humanitarian grounds” by the Bombay High Court withing 3 months for her pregnancy, her performance at Pune’s FTTI institute in August 2013 was attacked by ABVP members.

By 2017, the Supreme Court had granted bail to all the eleven members of the group who were arrested. After this point, the Defence Committee was also disbanded.

Meanwhile, Sathe and Mali split from the group in 2017 citing "ideological differences", according to The Wire.

Role in Bhima Koregaon Violence

In December 2018, members of the Kabir Kala Manch who performed poetry, songs and plays at the Elgar Parishad – blamed to have caused violence in January 2019 – were booked on charges of giving “inflammatory speeches”.

The conference was held in Pune to mark the 200th year of the Battle of Koregaon Bhima between the British Army and the Peshawas, marking a significant event in Dalit history.

On Tuesday, while booking the three members, the NIA also called the artist group a “frontal organisation”of the CPI-M.

The NIA, in its statement, said:

During investigation, it was revealed that senior leaders of CPI (Maoist), an organisation banned under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, were in contact with the organizers of Elgar Parishad as well as the accused arrested in the case so as to spread the ideology of Maoism/Naxalism and encourage unlawful activities.

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