(This story was originally published on 19 August 2021. It is being republished from The Quint archives on the occasion of the actor's birth anniversary on 29 March 2022.)
Amidst the prolonged tension and anxiety of the crisis at Jawaharlal Nehru University, there have also been moments of exhilaration.
For me, it was a unique experience, as in the kaleidoscopic rush from the 1960s and the 1970s, when in the midst of the agonistic and antagonistic politics of India, along with the communist leaders, even actors, directors and performers were arrested under the law of sedition.
On 23 September 1965, my father and renowned playwright and actor Utpal Dutt was arrested under the Preventive Detention Act. ‘Another Side of the Struggle’, an article in the Deshitaishi was cited as a seditious piece. The issue was banned and Dutt was arrested and lodged for the next seven months at Presidency Jail, Calcutta. My memories of him being in jail resonate with his accounts of his time:
I am no hero, I hated every minute of my prison time. But the seven months passed off quickly, because all the top leaders of the Marxist Party (of India) were already there and there was a lot to learn from them. And then there were the fascinating convicts – murderers, bandits and completely innocent men sent to prison by conniving feudal lords. I filled two notebooks with interviews and realized for the first time why Marx had included the prison in his definition of the state machinery of repression. About 98% of the prisoners serving sentences in jail had been convicted for the so-called crimes against ‘property’. The prisoner is a weapon in the class struggle, in the ceaseless war to maintain private property. All the talk of reforming and re-educating criminals is balderdash.Utpal Dutt in Towards a Revolutionary Theatre (Seagull, 2009 p 52)
The accounts of Dutt’s prison stint follows encounters with his comrades and the other convicts. With his comrades, they organised cricket matches, reading groups and of course, a one-act play on Bukharin’s trial called ‘Louhamanab’ (The Iron Man). He writes about his inmate comrades:
The discipline of the Communist detenues, their tenderness towards the convicts, their study of Marxist philosophy and economy in an organised manner every afternoon, further strengthened my belief that in this party is concentrated all that is good and militant in our country.Dutt in Towards a Revolutionary Theatre (Seagull, 2009 p 55)
‘Red Salute Comrade’
The cultural event at JNU titled ‘Country Without a Post-Office’ supposedly turned violent when a group of people from nowhere arrived to shout anti-India slogans.
The administration and the State thought it was the ideal opportunity to clamp down on JNU which has remained amongst the right wing swing and its neo-liberal nexus, a space out of bounds for intervention and changeover into a neo-liberal space.
These moments of exhilaration came after the arrest of the JNU Student’s Union President, Kanhaiya Kumar, when students— outraged, but also in panic— started assembling in front of the JNU administration block; meeting, performing, listening to scholars and teachers speaking on nationalism and breaking out in slogans of ‘Red Salute Comrade’.
As the numbers swelled in front of the administration buildings —which got named ‘Freedom Square’ by the students —the protest slogans got louder. On the day of the release of Kanhaiya and subsequently Umar and Anirban, the slogans of Azadi and ‘Red Salute to Comrade’ resonated around the quiet forests that encase the 100 acres of the premier University campus.
A number of my colleagues at JNU felt that while the ‘azadi’ slogan is inclusive, the slogan ‘Red Salute Comrade’ could be alienating for those who do not adhere to a left ideology, though the three students arrested and released on bail have no problems in announcing their communist ideological commitment. All who gather at these events, however, echo the slogans, and the same number of hands go up with ‘azadi’ as they do with ‘red salute’.
Kanhaiya, Umar and Anirban’s speeches after their release also came with a positive voice, an understanding of a state’s mechanism to punish if you do not adhere to a consensus-based democracy. What makes a prison experience for people who believe in a left ideology a positive experience, which adds to their general optimism about the world? Why does the state fail to ‘reform’ the communists by taking them to jail, violating the natural justice system?
There is no remorse in going to jail, in risking their own careers —and in a world where students, scholars and performers are ready to align with state and corporate powers to become entrepreneurs or artpreneurs, how do they, the believers, stand aside and critique the system?
A Positive Voice
As far as slogans and mass mobilisation are concerned, the day Dutt and his comrades were released from prison, a large gathering at the Maidan was organised. A ship was built in remembrance of Dutt’s masterful play, ‘Kallol’, which the state wanted to censor. After the speeches at the Maidan, excerpts of the play were performed. It was an experience people wrote about and remembered for a long time.
All the leaders of the Communist Party were there and scenes from ‘Kallol’, particularly Khyber’s joining of the mutiny, were played out. Slogans, greetings and the sheer transformation of the space into a people’s space was what we all remembered. Kanhaiya, Omar and Anirban’s speeches created the same visceral excitement in us.
Need More Egalitarian Society
In conclusion, to answer the question I have raised, what makes the communist feel optimistic amidst a population which embraces neo-liberalism and acts as tacit supporters through general cynicism?
Did the communists of India ever really envisage a socialist revolution, or did they imagine of a more active democratic practice of inclusion and egalitarianism? Was it a dream of seeing a society where the middle class did not adopt the privileged position given to them and to be a more inclusive society? Do our idealistic students still hold onto the dream?
If they do, we can also dare to dream. My father told me his dream, one of a democratic society based on egalitarianism. Our students are dreaming the same dream so why can we not join them?
The future gives the ‘red salute’ to the past. Red Salute to a seditious playwright, director, actor and father, Utpal Dutt, on his birthday.
(Bishnupriya Dutt is a Professor in Theatre and Performance Studies, at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU)
(On Utpal Dutt’s birth anniversary, The Quint is republishing this story which was originally published on 29 March 2016.)