The war against inequity and injustice is a protracted war, says dalit cultural activist Sambhaji Bhagat who, with Gadar and the Jana Natya Manch, created a new form of guerrilla theatre
A few years ago, RSS and Shiv Sena goons threatened Sambhaji Bhagat, also referred to as Maharashtra’s Gadar, at a programme in Pune. They dared him to set foot in the city’s Pimpri-Chinchwad area again.
Egged on by their threat, he made special efforts to inform the people in question about the date, time and place of his next programme in the area. They came prepared for a fist-fight, “in true Sena style” says Sambhaji. “Standing on stage, I pointed at the crowd and said—yeh sab Babasaheb ke bachche hain. The goons fled without uttering a word,” he says, guffawing. Babasaheb ke bachche is a reference to the supposed violent tendencies of dalits, a mere reference to which was enough to pack the Sena goons off the scene.
Standing tall at close to six feet, the broad-built writer, playwright, lyricist, singer and activist is quite a presence in the cultural resistance scene in Maharashtra. His first brush with cultural activism was with Avahan Natya Manch, which was profiled in the previous part of the series. After Avahan disintegrated, Sambhaji involved himself in crucial foundational activities with Vidrohi and Republican Panther; he mentored young cultural resistance groups like Kabir Kala Manch, and made inroads into proscenium theatre while staying true to his radical Marxist-Ambedkarite political leanings. He also scored music in some films and taught in schools, all while performing his immensely popular songs of resistance ceaselessly across rural and urban Maharashtra with his own group.
Like fish in water
“The dalit masses have made me Sambhaji Bhagat,” says the 53-year-old shahir. At a meeting to discuss a programme to be held on January 26, 2013 against the clampdown on freedom of expression across the country, it was revealed that the organising committee was short of Rs 5,000. Sambhaji volunteered to raise the sum on his own. “I will go out with my duff into the bastis and get Rs 5,000 from contributions from the masses,” he said, clearly aware of his own stature.
Coming into his own at a time when mainstream leftist and Ambedkarite parties had become ideologically bankrupt, Sambhaji played a crucial role in Avahan Natya Manch which had its connections with CPI(ML).
Between 1981 and 1990, he travelled across various parts of the country, often collaborating with the likes of Gadar to conduct training workshops for revolutionary culture spanning a month to 45 days. “We used to run camps in movement-run schools, which would be attended by 100-150 activists. The daily routine in these camps focussed on political theory in the mornings and cultural training during the rest of the day,” says Sambhaji.
“The exigencies of the movement, and the immense state repression it functioned under meant that newer forms had to be devised, especially since the party had been outlawed in Andhra Pradesh,” he notes. In accordance, he, Gadar and other Jana Natya Manch activists, created a new form of guerrilla theatre.
Post the 1990s, however, when new questions faced the movement in the wake of the New Economic Programme, the rise of Hindutva, and the place of caste and gender in the reconfigured reality, Sambhaji’s differences with the party line came to the fore.
“Being born a dalit, my experience of the caste question that was different from the way the party was addressing it. Some of us read Ambedkar and Phule’s writings, in addition to Marx and Mao, to get to the root of the caste system,” he says, adding that while the party stuck to a class line, its characterisation of the situation as semi-feudal and semi-imperialist was way off the mark.
“If feudalism was the main contradiction, it was brahmanism that was behind it; therefore, it was a social problem and not an economic one, and ways had to be devised to fight it head-on,” he says.
By the mid-’90s, Avahan Natya Manch was dead. Under the new economy, multiple NGOs had sprung up, which gobbled up potential activists and many of his earlier radical colleagues had gone underground.
“I needed to stay overground because only in that way I would be able to address these questions openly. Mao’s writings taught me to live among the masses like fish among water, and that’s what I attempted to do,” he says.
Since all those who maintained connections with the CPI(ML) were being repressed, he needed a broad organisation to stay overground—an organisation that would be anti-fascist, anti-communal, anti-imperialist and anti-caste.
At the time, the Shiv Sena government in Maharashtra declared its intention to hold a Marathi Sahitya Sammelan, and sanctioned Rs 25 lakh for the purpose. It would be held in Shivaji Park, a bastion of the Sena and a stronghold of the upper castes/classes. Critics dubbed this a Brahminical Sahitya Sammelan, and various progressive activists across the state decided to hold a Vidrohi Sahitya Sammelan in Dharavi.
Sena goons, however, vowed that they would not allow the Vidrohi Sammelan to take place. “I spoke to a ‘brother’ in Dharavi, a goonda, who vowed to protect our subaltern sammelan. Although he was offered a ransom to kill some of us who were organising the meet, he refused it,” says Sambhaji. The meet was a big success, and gathered immense traction over a couple of years during the early-2000s. It also provided him a broad base within which he could immerse himself, but only for a while. For, in three years’ time, Vidrohi split into three or four groups, thanks to a variety of reasons, not least the egos of the many individuals involved with it.
For a while, Sambhaji did not have any organisational backing; as part of the radical political current though, he was involved with the formation of Republican Panther, which was announced in 2007, and played an important role in its early stages. However, he drew back from Republican Panther soon.
“In Republican Panther, you had to be part of the day-to-day activities, and that was not something I could do as I had to work for my livelihood. So I gradually withdrew myself,” he notes.
No price for the soul
Sambhaji constituted a team in 2004 under the name of Vidrohi Shahiri Jalsa. Over the years, the rest of the Vidrohi Shahiri Jalsa (henceforth VSJ) team has changed, barring him. There is a crucial difference, though, between VSJ and other groups in this domain. VSJ accepts money for its performances, and pays its artists a portion of the amount.
“If an artist has to work, you have to take care of his/her livelihood. I learnt this through the tragic death of Vilas Ghogre,” says Sambhaji. Vilas was a member of Avahan Natya Manch who started singing for sundry politicians, as working with Avahan did not fetch him any money; however, he soon got depressed with the situation and committed suicide in 1997.
“Today, through VSJ, we politicise the masses. But sadly, because we do not have any political organisational backing, the politicised masses are absorbed by NGOs or by mainstream political parties that succeed in making all the correct noises. Earlier, during the Avahan days, we knew that politicised masses would be taken into the fold of the party that was behind us. The absence of an organisation hurts, but what is to be done? This is a protracted war, and one must go on,” he says.
However, one of the allegations against Sambhaji is his inability to hold together a core team in VSJ. In fact, some activists who worked with him earlier resent him for this. “He has no group—what can one achieve without a solid group? We can no longer be raw like we used to be once,” says Avinash Kadam, a member of the erstwhile cultural resistance group called Samagra.
Sambhaji accepts that he’s not an organisation man. “I can’t bring myself to manage a group; that is not my strength,” he says. “Besides, many of my students have gone awry; the fact of the matter is that no matter how much you convince them and guide them ideologically, they will go their way as there is no movement through which they can experience what they learn. It was a luxury we had…The movement, in a sense, was my greatest teacher.”
Sanober Keshwar, who was part of Avahan Natya Manch with him says, “In the Avahan days, I used to move around with a lathi during our meetings to ensure that deadlines for writing new plays were adhered to. There is no one like that in Sambhaji’s group now—someone who can hold the group together and give it direction in a managerial sense.”
Critics also point out that accepting money for performances isn’t really resistance; it’s protest-for-a-price.
“But when you have no party and no political organisation to back you, what does a cultural resistance group mean,” asks Sambhaji. Earlier, during campaigns in far-flung areas, the presence of the movement meant that the people were willing to house and feed the activists. In today’s socio-political climate, that is no longer possible in most cases.
“We have to depend on the masses, in whatever way they support us,” says Sambhaji, adding, “VSJ never demands a certain pre-fixed amount for a programme. We insist on the travel cost being reimbursed to us, and take whatever people give over and above that as our due.”
He suggests that the understanding of what is considered resistance itself springs from a middle/ upper class notion. Those coming from the upper echelons of society can afford to not earn a livelihood for quite some time, but not those who have a hand-to-mouth existence. For them, some amount of money is crucial, and when being part of a cultural resistance group is what they do for a living, it is important that it pays something.
“I am okay with not being called revolutionary. After all, one’s day-to-day life determines what one really is,” he says in his defence.
“It’s easy for Sambhaji to earn pots of money given his stature in Maharashtra. He can very well choose to participate in commercial programmes if he wishes to. But he has not sold his soul, and I don’t think he ever will,” says Sanober.
Battling the odds
Over the years, Sambhaji has managed to make inroads into proscenium theatre. His productions like Adgal dwell on important political and economic issues within a radical political framework. His latest play, Shivaji Underground in Bhimnagar, exposes the hypocrisy of the parochial right-wing parties that have made the king their mascot, but at the same time tries to rescue Shivaji from their clutches and portray him as a progressive ruler.
Entering into ‘elitist’ spaces has also put him in touch with activists outside the domain he used to work in. Today, most intellectuals in Bombay know and regard Sambhaji highly—something that he thinks is crucial in protecting him from arrest.
“I was arrested innumerable times during the Avahan days and when I was connected to CPI(ML). But in the last 4-5 years, despite feeling that I would be arrested, I was not,” he says.
For instance, when activists belonging to the Republican Panther were detained in 2009, he felt he would be arrested too, given his connections with the group in the early years. Later, in 2011, when members of Kabir Kala Manch were hounded for their alleged Maoist connections, he thought he would be arrested as well, since he had trained the Kabir Kala Manch members.
“I was like a father to them, and taught them how to improvise cultural forms and write plays and songs. They would often call me first when they’d finish making a song, or when they needed money for survival,” he says, adding that their relationship was emotional.
“Neither am I a leader, nor am I a cadre—so I do not know if they really have connections with the Maoist party. What I do know is that if they did something wrong, I could scold them and they wouldn’t mind it,” he notes. It was this relationship that made him feel that he too would be arrested in 2011. But perhaps given his ‘connections’ with various well-known activists and intellectuals—after all, he was not an ‘unknown’ entity like Kabir Kala Manch in media circles—he has been given a long leash by the state.
But there are other ways the state works to break him, he says. The Maharashtra ATS and anti-Naxal agencies have infiltrated various domains of his life to create problems in his day-to-day life. Like him, the other side too seems to see this as a protracted war, where something must be done all the time. After all, one can’t afford to sit silently, doing nothing.
Though silence, for Sambhaji, could also mean the birth of a revolutionary song.
(Aritra Bhattacharya is a researcher presently based in Maharashtra. This is the fifth in his series on the repression of cultural activism in Maharashtra, researched as part of the Infochange Media Fellowships 2012.)
Infochange News & Features, June 2013