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Shades of repression

By Aritra Bhattacharya

Shantanu Kamble was charged with sedition and waging war against the state. Evidence? He wrote and sang like Gadar. The continuing arrests of cultural activists in Maharashtra outline the state’s response to anyone speaking out against systemic atrocities

cultural activism

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Read Part 4 of this series

Shantanu Kamble vividly remembers one thing the cops kept repeating while torturing him: “Do you think you will become like us just by wearing jeans and shoes?” This was a casteist remark directed at Shantanu, who comes from a lower-caste background. While he was accused of many things in police documents, this one—of violating the status quo by attempting to be like the upper castes—did not make its way into the chargesheet. It remained behind the veneer of ‘equality’, compounding Shantanu’s ‘crimes’. But what was he accused of?

According to police records, Shantanu was found with Madan Lal (an alleged Naxalite) in Hotel Arjun,  Nagpur,  with ‘objectionable literature’. He was charged with sedition and also booked under sections of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) -- which deal with membership of an unlawful association and membership of a terrorist organisation/gang -- and produced in court as Kishan Kamble, a Naxalite. Activists from Nagpur and surrounding areas mention that newspapers at the time carried stories of Kishan Kamble’s plans to blow up the railway station with explosives, among other things.

The cops tortured Shantanu incessantly. “For 10 days, they would tie my eyes and beat me up, all the while asking me the name of my ‘original organisation’. They would pin me to the floor, part my legs and three to four people would stand on each leg. When I cried out in pain, they would say, Ab naare laga, maa mat chilla (why don’t you sloganeer now instead of crying out in pain?),” he says.

Shantanu was active in Avahan Natya Manch through the 1980s. Thereafter, he was involved with Vidrohi, which was set up in the late-1990s as a counter to the state-sponsored Marathi Shaitya Sammelan which, critics argued, was dominated and controlled by upper-castes, and awarded only upper-caste authors. As the Vidrohi movement split, Shantanu worked with Sudhir Dhawale and others towards its ekikaran (unification); out of this current was born Republican Panther, a broad-based organisation with a radical political agenda, which will be profiled later on in the series.

“Culture is the medium to take our thoughts to the people,” says Shantanu, underlining the role cultural activism plays in the fight against ‘fascist forces’. The state too acknowledged this side of the activist; Shantanu says that during a court hearing, the prosecutor noted that proof of the former waging war against the state lay in the fact that he wrote and sang like Gadar, the famous Andhra Pradesh-based revolutionary.

Sudhir Dhawale was Shantanu’s close associate at Vidrohi and Republican Panther. In January 2010, Sudhir was arrested at Gondia and charged with sedition (Section 124) and under Sections 17, 20 and 39 of the UAPA, which relate to: raising funds for terrorist acts; being a member of a terrorist organisation and providing support to a terrorist organisation. The chargesheet against Sudhir acknowledges his work as a cultural activist, but makes that the grounds for his prosecution. Among other things, the chargesheet (English translation) states:

      ‘…He worked for propaganda and spreading of the thoughts of CPI  (Maoist) through Aavhan Natya Manch. He participated in party programmes together with Anuradha Gandhi and Kobad Gandhi, Milind Teltumbde, Vernon Gonsalves, Advocate Sujan Abraham and other members of CPI (Maoist). He has written against the POTA, UAPA Acts…The accused has written and published inflammatory books such as

Introduction of Naxal Revolution, Charu Majumdar – Heroes of Indian Revolution

    …Accused Sudhir Dhavale worked for propaganda and spreading of CPI (Maoists) by staying at Mumbai…’

It can be argued that the cases against Sudhir and Shantanu are part of a pattern—they outline the state’s response to those speaking out against systemic atrocities. Examples abound across Maharashtra, and a look at the trajectory of cultural resistance groups in the contemporary period reveals one thing—whenever groups working with a radical political ideology have attained critical mass, the state has clamped down on them by accusing them of being front organisations of CPI (Maoist); the first part of the series outlined two such cases. In almost all instances, members of the groups have been booked under UAPA in addition to being charged with sedition. Multiple cases are then lodged against activists to ensure they stay behind bars even if they get acquitted/ bailed in one or the other.

Legal tangle

Take the case of Viplav Teltumbde, for instance. Viplav was studying law in Chandrapur in the early-2000s and was attached to the Vidarbha-based Vidyarthi Ekta Manch. The group organised programmes and wrote and sang songs against the caste system, communalism and imperialism.  Viplav says the group had about 400-500 members and would perform in colleges across the region. In 2004, he was arrested along with members of the Vidyarthi Ekta Manch core group. They were charged with sedition, damaging public property (Sections 124 (A) and 121 of IPC), and being attached to a banned organisation (under UAPA). As in other cases, Vidyarthi Ekta Manch was dubbed a front-organisation of the CPI (Maoist); cases were lodged against the arrested accused in various police stations in the region, and they had to spend considerable time appearing for each case. All the accused are out of jail now—they have been acquitted in some cases, while in others hearing is still on.

“People who were active in the group felt threatened and depressed by police action; the cops would turn up at their homes and harass their family members. Now most people who were attached with the group, including those who are out on bail, have settled down in regular jobs,” says Viplav, who works as a lawyer.

Babasaheb Saimote, Anil Mhamane and Dinkar Kamble were arrested in October 2008—they were picked up on grounds of possessing Naxalite literature while on their way to Dikshabhoomi in Nagpur, where they were to set up a bookstall. Police charged them for having connections with a banned organisation under UAPA. Babasaheb says that while Anil was attached to the SFI and was a cultural activist in Chhatra Bharati, an organisation that campaigned against the Khairlanji massacre and raised the issue of farmer suicides through its performances, among other things, Dinkar was active in the dalit movement. Once the cops picked them up, they were questioned about their connections with the Maoists; following their arrest, Babasaheb says that colleges in Sangli were asked to alert the police in the event of anyone singing songs or staging plays at their gates.

In most of the cases, including the ones against members of Deshbhakti Yuva Manch mentioned in the first part of this series, those accused have been acquitted of all charges. “The cases made against them are quite weak,” says Nagpur-based lawyer Surendra Gadling, who has defended many of the accused. Surendra himself was a cultural activist, and was part of Avahan Natya Manch before he became a full-time lawyer. Mumbai-based lawyer Susan Abraham echoes his views, and says that in most of these cases, policemen are shown as the complainant, thereby throwing into doubt the veracity of the case itself.  Also, most cases of this nature are lodged in Gadchiroli, even though the accused might be based in Mumbai. For instance, although Sudhir Dhawale was based in Mumbai, he was picked up from Gondia and the case was lodged there too. Arun Ferreira, a political activist who was jailed in 2007 for his alleged Maoist links, but was acquitted of all charges and released from prison in January 2012, sees this as a deliberate ploy on the part of the state to avoid publicity.

“In areas like Gadchiroli, most of the cases lodged are against alleged Maoists, and one more case of the same nature there wouldn’t make it stand out, whereas the same can’t be said of Mumbai,” he says.

The fact that the case against members of Kabir Kala Manch (KKM), ongoing in Mumbai, has received so much media attention proves Arun’s point, though the fact that this group is closely profiled in Anand Patwardhan’s documentary Jai Bhim Comrade could also have contributed to this attention. In the months following the hounding of KKM members, a Kabir Kala Manch Defence Committee was in place, comprising Anand Patwardhan and playwright Ramu Ramanathan, among others. The committee has highlighted the case, organising press conferences and arranging for legal aid for the accused.

Critics of the committee, however, point out that its defence of KKM has also posed a problem. They note that the committee says that KKM members do not have any connections with Maoists, and therefore they should be freed and all charges against them dropped. By extension, this means that state action against people who do have connections with Maoists but may not be engaged in armed action against the state is legitimate, they argue, adding that this reduces the space for dissent. Critics also mention that the committee has focussed on the KKM members, although others like Angela Sontakke, Sushma Ramteke and Mayuri Bhagat have been booked in the same case. Angela is considered to be a ‘dreaded Maoist’, and most of the other accused in the case have been projected as guilty by association. The Sewri Sessions Court rejected the bail application of all seven people accused in the case, but the High Court has granted bail to the KKM members, observing that mere belief in a radical ideology is no proof of criminality.

Indirect repression

In most of the instances cited above, barring Sudhir Dhawale and KKM members, all the accused have been acquitted. While Sudhir is still in jail, some KKM members are out on bail, while others have been declared ‘absconding accused’. But being freed from jail, or managing to give the police the slip is hardly a relief, as Sheetal Sathe’s mother found out. Sheetal was one of the members of KKM who went underground following the arrest of some KKM members in early-2011. Subsequently, her mother lost her job, and was thrown out of her house by her husband and son, who held her responsible for Sheetal’s ‘Maoist’ antecedents. This isn’t surprising in the context of Louis Althusser’s characterisation of the family as one of the poles of the Ideological State Apparatus. Althusser notes that while state agencies like the police and army function through direct repression, institutions like the school and family function behind the veneer of ideology. They play a role in upholding dominant ideological biases and produce conformists who settle in with the system.

It is not difficult to see this playing out in the lives of cultural activists, many of whom mentioned how the family was one among the many oppressive structures they had to battle against. In some cases, the family has been used by state agencies to corner activists and defame them.

But there are other, more immediate ways of state repression. One of them is the use of UAPA against activists. “What the Act does is criminalise intent; it does not reprimand one for doing something, but rather on the pretext that one may do something. This allows the state to include a gamut of activities within its fold,” says Arun Ferreira. He also narrates how, when he was in jail with Sudhir Dhawale, the latter told him about the methods the police resorted to in order to botch the formation of Republican Panther (RP). “Sudhir told me that phone conversations between two activists would be tapped, and a third person about whom they might have been speaking was made to listen to these conversations,” recalls Arun. Activists of  RP also described how their attempts to form cultural squads in the districts of Maharashtra were botched by police teams, which threatened those interested in being part of the squads, warning them to maintain safe distance from the ‘problematic elements’.

Freedom and the liberal state

“Once the state assumes a fascist character, there is bound to be repression,” says Sambhaji Bhagat, a cultural activist for over three decades, while speaking about the repression he and his colleagues across various groups past and present have faced. 

The repression Sambhaji speaks of, however, need not be located only in the fascist register; if one follows Michel Foucault’s work, the repression can be seen to reside in the liberal character of the state. The liberal state is premised on an agenda of limited governance, but Foucault argues that limited governance is actually a call for pervasive governance. Here, freedom becomes a space to make oneself conducive to carrying out what is expected of one; this power of the state over the body politic is known as bio-power and it requires citizen subjects to be alert all the time, and watch out for threats that may disrupt the social body, but at the same time remain vigilant about themselves. In other words, the freedom the liberal state offers is just a space to mould oneself as a ‘proper’ citizen. Speaking of bio-power, Foucault says:

    ‘This form of power applies to immediate everyday life which categorises the individual, marks him by his own individuality, attaches him to his own identity, imposes a law of truth on him which he must recognise and which others have to recognise in him. It is a form of power which makes individuals subjects’ (1).

This form of power ‘subjugates and makes subject to’. From the liberal state’s point of view any struggle against this subjection and submission poses a threat to the social body and must be dealt with under the tenets of ‘law’—as is the case with its actions against members of cultural resistance groups. What also accounts for the state’s strong aversion to these groups, and its attempts to crush them whenever they gather some traction is perhaps the fact that through their songs and performances these groups attempt to produce a different kind of citizen – one who does not dissent and fit neatly within the system.


  1. Michel Foucault, ‘The Subject and Power’ in Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, Hubert L Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1986, p 212

Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality: Volume I, New York: Vintage Books, 1980

Michel Foucault, Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France, 1978-1979 (Lectures 1-3), New York: Picador, 2009

(Aritra Bhattacharya is a researcher presently based in Maharashtra. This is the second in his series on the repression of cultural activism in Maharashtra, researched as part of the Infochange Media Fellowships 2012.)

Infochange News & Features, April 2013