On the morning of 6 December, a small group of men and women in maroon kurtas and white pyjamas gathered under a tree outside the gate of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Park near the Pune railway station. They were performing a street play on the occasion of Ambedkar’s 59th death anniversary.
As strains of a Marathi song “Swatantra naahi, samta naahi, bandhutva naahi, kuthar lokshahi dada, kuthar lokshahi” (There’s no freedom, no equality, no brotherhood; so, brother, where is democracy?) rent the air, a crowd of curious passersby began to assemble around them. A number of policemen were standing nearby. “This is a good organisation. You should join them,” said a policeman with a guffaw, poking fun at the performance.
For members of the Kabir Kala Mach (KKM), performing under police vigil is nothing new. Taking up issues such as caste oppression, inequality, poverty, farmers’ suicides, illegal land acquisition and tribal rights, the Pune-based group of cultural activists has been under the scanner of the police and investigation agencies for many years now and has been branded as a “front organisation” of the Maoists.
So far, seven members of this group have been arrested by the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) and charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Four of them are out on bail, while the rest (Sachin Mali, Ramesh Gaichore and Sagar Gorkhe) are still lodged in jail.
TEHELKA met the members of KKM on 5 December in a small room in Pimpri near Pune, where they had gathered to rehearse the street play they would perform the next day. “This place belongs to one of our friends,” says Deepak Dhengle, who was arrested in 2011 and released on bail later. “Few people give us a place for rehearsals as the police always land up to make enquiries about us.”
Recalling the day he was arrested, Dhengle, who has been with KKM since 2004, says, “I used to work as a mechanic with the Pune Municipal Corporation. On the morning of 12 May 2011, a man approached me in the corporation office and said, ‘How are you? Don’t you remember me? We met at a wedding.’ I didn’t remember meeting him anywhere. He talked to me for a few minutes and then asked me to come out for a cup of tea. The moment I stepped out of the building, some six-seven people in plainclothes grabbed me and dragged me into a vehicle. It took me some time to realise that I had been arrested by the ATS.”
In 2007, the Maharashtra government had released a list of 37 organisations that were alleged to be sympathetic towards the Maoists. KKM, whose members were protesting on the streets against the killing of Dalits in Khairlanji, was also on that list. “Unknown people started calling us to ask about our activities,” says Dhengle. “Often, they used to enquire about Sudhir Dhawale and Sambhaji Bhagat.” (Dhawale, a Mumbai-based activist was arrested in 2011 for alleged links with Maoists and released in May 2014 after being acquitted of all charges.)
Dhengle alleges that the ATS detained him “illegally” for a day at their office in Shivajinagar before officially recording his arrest. “They asked me about the whereabouts of KKM members Sachin Mali and Sheetal Sathe. When I said that I had no clue, they started beating me with belts,” he recalls. “I was stripped naked, my hands and legs were tied with ropes and I was hung from the ceiling. Then they poured an acidic oil on my body, including my genitals. It was unbearable. I was thrashed for at least two hours, and then I passed out. Even three years later, the left side of my body continues to hurt.”
The next day, Dhengle was taken to the Kala Chowki police station in Mumbai. On 13 May, he was produced at the Mazgaon court and remanded to 19 days’ police custody, following which he was shifted to the Arthur Road jail. He was kept there until he got bail on 31 January 2013.
The municipal corporation suspended him from his job immediately after his arrest. “My family had to face a lot of hardship. All our relatives boycotted us. A year after the arrest, the corporation started giving me half my salary,” he says. “We are facing acute financial problems. I cannot find another job. Ever since I got bail, policemen from the local thana, the ATS and other wings of the Maharashtra Police have been landing up at our house at least once every week. They call us once every three days even though we go to the police station every Sunday. They harass us and everyone associated with us. They want to scare people away from associating with us. It’s only because of our faith in the ideology that our family is still together.”
The experiences of the other KKM members now out on bail are no different. Siddharth Bhosale, who was the first KKM member to be arrested, says, “When any new member joins us, the police take down his/her number and make enquiries. Sometimes this scares the new members and they stop working with us.”
A new member of KKM told TEHELKA on the condition of anonymity that he began receiving frequent calls from the ATS after a programme in Nashik on 29 November. This scared his father, who started asking him to quit KKM.
Bhosale was arrested in April 2011 when he was attending his brother’s marriage in Nashik district. “The ATS said I was arrested because my poems and songs reflect the ideology of the Naxals. They alleged that KKM works for the Maoists. But they also charged me in a case where a police party was attacked and another case of arson in Gadchiroli district.”
Bhosale was first kept in Arthur Road jail in Mumbai and then shifted to Nagpur jail. He was released after he got bail on 26 April 2013. But that was not the end of his troubles. In October that year, he was detained for two hours along with another KKM member by plainclothesmen at the Nagpur railway station. The reason was that the duo was carrying 300 copies of a compilation of writings by Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh.
“My parents worry a lot about me,” says Bhosale, who was acquitted in both the cases registered against him in Gadchiroli. “Every time my mother goes to work, she comes and meet me, fearing that this could be the last time she sees me. We have no problem with the police keeping us under watch. But why do they have to come to our homes and harass our families? Why do they have to get us thrown out of jobs by pressurising our employers? As citizens of this country, don’t we have right to live freely?”
Jyoti Jagtap and Rupali Jadhav are two another members of KKM whose life turned upside down after they were accused of collaborating with the Naxals. Both of them married their colleagues in KKM, who are still lodged in Taloda jail. Jyoti married Ramesh Gaichore, while Rupali married Sagar Gorkhe.
After the hearing the news of the arrest of KKM members in 2011, other members such as Sachin Mali, Ramesh Gaichore, Sagar Gorkhe, Sheetal Sathe, Jyoti Jagtap and Rupali Jadhav went underground for two years. In 2013, when the Mumbai High Court granted bail to their colleagues and the KKM Defence Committee headed by filmmaker Anand Patwardhan came forward for their protection, they came overground. Sathe and Mali courted arrest outside the State Secretariat in April 2013, and four others followed suit a month later.
“We went underground because we feared that the ATS would frame us in false cases,” says Jagtap. “When we courted arrest, they asked me and Rupali to go home and arrested Ramesh and Sagar. While we were underground, policemen used to visit my village in Jejuri and tell my parents that I am in the jungles of Gadchiroli with the Naxalites. I avoid visiting my village as my parents would have to suffer.”
Jagtap, who lives in a hostel, complains of the social isolation she has to face. “My friends have stopped talking to me out of fear,” she says. “In our patriarchal society, it is more difficult for a woman activist. Neither I can go home nor I can go to my in-laws’ place. Often, I have to make up stories when my hostel mates ask about my husband.”
She says that the allegation of being a Naxal collaborator has tarnished her reputation. “When KKM activists get acquitted of all charges, will the government or the police compensate all of us for the social and financial damage the allegations have caused?” she asks.
Jadhav recalls an incident in November when KKM was invited to perform at two colleges in Bengaluru. One of the colleges cancelled the programme after the Bengaluru Police told the authorities that KKM was a Naxal front organisation and should not be allowed to perform. “Our programmes often get cancelled because of this Naxal tag,” she says. “The media also put out misleading reports about us. For instance, it was reported recently that Ramesh and Sagar are planning to escape from Taloja jail.”
According to Jadhav, she had started living with her parents after coming overground, but was forced to shift to a hostel recently because the police was harassing her family. “They landed up at my parents’ place a number of times. They also asked my brother to go meet them,” she says.
Nagpur-based lawyer Surendra Gadling, who has been fighting cases for people accused of Naxal links, says, “Visiting people’s homes, tailing their movements and calling them constantly is illegal. But when the police break the law, it is difficult to prove and they always deny it in court.”
According to Vivek Sundara, Mumbai-based social activist and a member of the KKM Defence Committee, “Despite all this, these boys and girls have the support of many people across the country. They may not have their old friends with them, but have made many new friends.”
New Delhi-based Manisha Sethi of the Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association says that marking attendance in police stations is in itself a limitation on the freedom of movement. “These methods are absolutely wrong,” she says. “There have been instances when people remained under the scanner even after being acquitted.”