Songs of dissent, laws of control

An artistic group in Pune, the cultural capital of Maharashtra, is among the targets of India's counter-terrorism measures. But an acclaimed film opens a new front for freedom of expression.  

Jayshree Bajoria
12 May 2015

As lights go out in the cinema, Narayan Kamble fills the screen, singing of injustice and revolution in a fiery voice that belies his 65 years. The bespectacled and bearded Kamble, a folk singer in Mumbai, is the fictional protagonist of the film Court, a powerful and widely acclaimed multilingual film that in 2014 won India’s national award for the best film of the year, and went on to bag eleven international awards.

Kamble’s songs of official neglect toward the poor and marginalised Dalits bring to mind artists from Kabir Kala Manch, a Pune-based group of singers and poets. The individual and the collective have more in common than just their angry songs, their language, or the state they live in. They also share the position of being on the receiving end of Indian authorities' attempts to silence their right to free speech.

In the film, Kamble is initially arrested on charges of abetting the suicide of a sewer worker through his agitating verses, in a case that is clearly fabricated; the story follows the long, winding judicial process to establish his innocence. He is later charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), India's key counter-terrorism law, for allegedly disseminating seditious material.

Between 2011 and 2013, the authorities in Maharashtra also arrested six members of Kabir Kala Manch under the UAPA, claiming they were secretly members of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). Kabir Kala Manch largely consists of young Dalit people; it uses music, poetry, and street plays to raise awareness about issues such as the oppression of Dalits and tribal groups, social inequality, corruption, and Hindu-Muslim relations. Three of those arrested - Sachin Mali, Sagar Gorkhe and Ramesh Gaichor - have been behind bars in pre-trial detention for two years. Sachin’s wife, Sheetal Sathe, six months pregnant when she was arrested, was eventually released on bail in June 2013. 

Several other social activists have been arrested on charges ranging from terrorism to waging war or sedition. The most prominent among them is Binayak Sen, a vocal critic of the Chhattisgarh state government's counterinsurgency policies against the armed Maoist insurgency, who was detained in May 2007 under the Chhattisgarh's Special Public Security Act (SPSA).

He was eventually charged with sedition, anti-national activities, treason, criminal conspiracy, and waging war against the state - among other crimes. The supreme court ordered him released on bail in April 2011. But his real punishment, as is highlighted by the experience of Kabir Kala Manch and the fictional Narayan Kamble, lies not merely in imprisonment but in the endless ordeal of the judicial process itself. 

The scope for abuse

The UAPA law has such broad prohibitions that it can - and has, as with Kabir Kala Manch - resulted in restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and association, in ways that violate international norms. The government has used the law to silence those who share the ideology of a banned organisation, even if they are not members and don’t participate in the group’s unlawful activities. The government claims that speech consistent with the organisation’s aims is sufficient proof of membership. 

Yet the supreme court made clear in Sen’s case that being a sympathiser or being in possession of Maoist literature does not make one guilty of sedition. The Bombay high court, too, in granting bail to two members of the Kabir Kala Manch in January 2013, noted that the charges filed indicated that they were sympathetic to Maoist philosophy but not active members of the Maoist organisation. The court said that provisions added to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act in 2008 were drastic and that therefore, membership in an illegal organisation should be interpreted that in light of fundamental freedoms such as the rights to free speech and expression. This court said that passive membership was insufficient for prosecution. 

Moreover, the UAPA defines the act of terrorism itself in very broad terms, leaving much scope for abuse. In the film depicting Narayan Kamble, the public prosecutor reads out the definition in court:

“Whoever does any act with intent to threaten or likely to threaten the unity, integrity, security or sovereignty of India or with intent to strike terror or likely to strike terror…by using bombs, dynamite or other explosive substances or inflammable substances or firearms or other lethal weapons…of a hazardous nature or by any other means of whatever nature.”

The defence lawyer interjects: “Where is the bomb? Where are the lethal weapons?”

“Or by any other means of whatever nature,” the public prosecutor reminds the court. The audience, alive to the absurdity of the situation, erupts in laughter.  

Unfortunately, both for the fictional Kamble and for the actual members of Kabir Kala Manch, the law - until it is amended to ensure it is in line with international human-rights standards - remains a powerful tool that can be used by the state to crush their songs of dissent.

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