Cultural Resistance in Times of Rising Authoritarianism in India: A Dossier

Kabir Kala Manch: A History of Revolutionary Singing and State Repression

, by GURLHOSUR Geetanjali

Kabir Kala Manch founded in early 2000s has been at the receiving end of the state. As it grew in popularity its members faced incarceration for long years and continued oppression under successive governments.

“I remember it was a rainy day. I was about 23 then. When I heard the group performing in our basti (informal urban cluster), I had goosebumps! I had never heard songs that spoke of the struggles of women, Dalits [1] and the poor. I was enthralled.”

Rupali Jadhav joined the cultural protest group Kabir Kala Manch in 2009, and in 2011, she was forced to run away from her house, hide from the police and go underground. Over the next couple of years, the state police had incriminated and arrested six members of her group.

2002 in India was a time of growing dissent against the government’s apathy to the communal riots in the western state of Gujarat and the gruesome caste violence in the state of Maharashtra. There were calls for protest against hatred based on religion, casteism and hate speech across different regions of the country. Over the next decade, massive protests emerged from the people’s movements and the cultural groups who resisted the state’s anti-people policies and growing religious fundamentalism. Kabir Kala Manch (KKM) members also took an active part in these demonstrations. Their songs took their struggle against casteism, religious fundamentalism, and state oppression to different parts of Maharashtra. They were targeted by the state and union governments, both irrespective of the political party being in power.

KKM street performance.

Named after the 15th-century Indian mystic poet and saint Kabir, KKM was formed around 2002 in Pune, a city with rich cultural history in the Deccan region of India. The group came into being to promote Hindu-Muslim unity and reclaim the anti-caste space, members say. All of KKM’s members belong to the region’s oppressed caste and indigenous communities, and many are low-income working-class youth who grew up listening to folk music. Traditionally, Mang and Mahar (untouchable Dalit) communities of Maharashtra were landless labourers and musicians of villages.

“Although music is a part of our community’s culture and tradition, I did not know I was an artist until I joined the group,” Rupali, a singer, theatre artist and a shahir (poet), told the author on a phone conversation over the commotion of children screaming, women laughing and folk music playing in the basti where she lives.

KKM’s artists and activists perform street plays, poetry, and musical activities to educate, organise and protest against oppression. An essential part of Maharashtra’s music tradition has been anti-caste poetry and music. Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, Sukhdev, Savitribai and Jotiba Phule, Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar [2] (also called Babasaheb) are some of the revolutionary Indian freedom fighters that KKM members write and sing about. The Indian state has always been on edge regarding radical speech and expression. But when the dissenters belong to already oppressed and vulnerable communities, they become easy targets to step on.


As the timeline of systemic violence against KKM points out, oppression of socially marginalised communities has always been a function of the state, regardless of the ruling party. Clamping down on grassroots artists, like Dhavala Dhengle, Siddharth Bhosale, Shital Sathe, Ramesh Gaichor, Sachin Mali, Jyoti Jagtap and Sagar Gorkhe of KKM, began even before the right-wing BJP government led by Narendra Modi came to power in 2014.

Since 2011, the state has detained and eventually charge-sheeted several KKM’s members under the contentious Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) of 1967 and 2019. The UAPA Act, primarily enacted to contain terrorist organisations and anti-secessionist groups, has become, over the years, a potent tool in the hands of the Indian state for systemic, lawful suppression of anti-establishment organisations. However, under the current NDA regime, the UAPA and further amendment in 2019 has extended its indiscriminate use against individuals who write, speak and sing against the establishment. Charge-sheeting under UAPA and the court process is punishment in and by itself, rather than a procedure of proving criminality, stated Indian lawyers after Father Stan Swamy, an 84-year-old tribal activist charged with terrorism, died in police custody early this year.

The first arrests of KKM’s cultural activists were made under charges of purportedly having “links” with the officially banned left-wing organisation Communist Party of India (Maoist). The state’s Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) framed a case of “unlawful activities” against Dhavala Dhengle, a father of two, an employee at the Pune municipal corporation, and Siddharth Bhosale. The ATS has been a special police force operational in several states of India, like Maharashtra, since the 1990s. Dhavala was suspended from the civic body and imprisoned under the UAPA for close to two years.

“On May 12, 2011, the ATS came to my workplace and abducted me! One of them pretended to be an old acquaintance and walked me to a car. Suddenly, several men pushed me in. They took me straight to Mumbai’s Arthur Road jail,” claimed Dhavala, sitting across from me in his two-room apartment in Pune. The 50-year-old tribal activist, writer and singer belongs to the indigenous community of Mahadev Kolis of Maharashtra and is known as a Vidrohi shahir (rebel poet) in the movement.

During his years in prison, Dhavala wrote ‘Who All Will You Imprison?’, one of many verses he wishes to compile in a book titled ‘Behind Bars’.

Who All Will You Imprison?
Translated by Geetanjali Gurlhosur and Madhuresh Kumar
Millions of birds of freedom
Who all will you imprison?
We’ll fly away with the cages
Without you even knowing.
We extracted the iron with which
The bars of this cage are made
And to melt this iron
We boiled our blood.
Only iron will recognise iron and what will happen then?
We’ll fly away with the cage
Without you even knowing.
In the walls of this cage
Is our sweat
And to make the bricks and cement
We have soaked the soil.
Soil does not betray, what do I tell you?
We’ll fly away with the cage
Without you even knowing.
Every part of the cage
Tells us stories
Of workers buried
Under the floor of this cage.
The workers are with us, who will stop us then?
We’ll fly away with the cage,
Without you even knowing.
Imprison us, hang us,
Skin us alive,
We walk on the path of justice.
Put up your fences, lay out your thorns,
How long will you persecute us, you will tire yourself.
We’ll fly away with the cage
Without you even knowing.

Kabir Kala Manch
Credit : Rupali Jadhav.

“After my husband was arrested, we received only half of Deepak’s (Dhavala’s more popular name in the movement) salary, 3,500 rupees (40 Euros) per month. I started providing meal-boxes for a living. None of our relatives came to help at the time. They are still scared to call us today,” Dhavala’s spouse Ranjana told the author with tears in her eyes.

Meanwhile, other KKM members, including Rupali, an undergraduate student then, were compelled to abandon their families, college and jobs, and go underground. “While I was away hiding in my native place, the police mentally harassed my family by frequently visiting and telling them I was a murderous militant. They used to show my family random photos of women who looked like ‘militants’ in a forest. You can actually find these photos on Google easily. My mother believed I would be killed.” Rupali recounts the horrible time when the state police were out to brand KKM members as ‘pro-Naxals’ (leftist militants).

The Indian government’s standard operating procedure to deal with resilient and consistent voices of dissent includes branding them as ‘terrorists’, ‘anti-nationals’, ‘pro-Naxals’ or ‘Maoists’. These are all different terms employed to consider a class of individuals as ‘enemies’ of the state and a threat to national security. Over the last decade, this state language has been crucial for spreading propaganda against Bahujan (scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and peasants), Muslim and Adivasi (indigenous) activists working for human rights and democracy. And national media propagating the state’s hyper-nationalist language is not uncommon under autocratic regimes.


However, following the arrests in 2011, a documentary called Jai Bhim Comrade, which featured the lives and performances of KKM members, was released in 2013. Indian documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan had begun making the film in the aftermath of the 1997 state murder of ten Dalits in Mumbai and the following the suicide of Dalit poet and Left activist Vilas Ghogre. The positive public reception to the film brought confidence to Rupali Jadhav, Sachin Mali, Shital Sathe, Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Gaichor, Jyoti Jagtap and other members who were in hiding to come overground and face police investigations. According to the activists, this was not ‘surrender’ but a form of satyagraha (giving oneself up for truth).

Anand Patwardhan further helped form a defence committee of concerned citizens to protect the KKM artists from custodial torture and fight the court case for their release. While Rupali and Jyoti were not arrested, the others were. Owing to the defence committee’s efforts, then-pregnant Shital was released on bail. Dhavala was also granted bail but remained under police surveillance, which made it hard for him and his family to continue living their everyday lives. In almost eight years, the Dhengles have moved four times due to police harassment.

Sachin, Sagar, and Ramesh who remained in custody with charges under the UAPA, were finally released on bail in 2017 by the Supreme Court of India. In 2018, the state targeted the artists again and arbitrarily connected with the eruption of deadly violence between two communities at Maharashtra’s Bhima Koregaon, a place with historical significance for the Dalits. Maharashtra police raided houses, confiscated phones and harassed families. Yet again, the freedom of expression was threatened under the pretext of links to terrorism.

Between 2018 and 2021, the state has arrested a total of 16 social activists, including left-leaning authors and scholars, on the charges of inciting violence at Bhima Koregaon and plotting the Prime Minister’s murder. Of these are KKM’s Jyoti, Ramesh and Sagar, who were taken into custody during the COVID-19 lockdown again in 2020. They remain in prison till today.

Disturbed by constant political persecution of KKM members, Dhavala said in exasperation, “I can’t sleep for days at times; I am so disturbed. Ramesh, Sagar and Jyoti were indicted in the Bhima Koregaon case only because they are from Pune! The core members of KKM are in prison and waiting for the rest of us to do something.”


According to a report on changing democracies, published by the V-Dem Institute of the University of Gothenburg, there has been a steep decline in academic and cultural expression freedom in India since 2018. News reports suggest that the government planted evidence and forged data to incriminate people who speak against state-sponsored injustice. Not surprisingly, the police, judiciary and the state has eased up on Hindu-extremist caste leaders Milind Ekbote and Manohar Bhide, who were also accused in the same Bhima Koregaon case.

On the other hand, Rupali and other KKM members have faced state terror for more than a decade now. Rupali says, “if one is fighting for justice, then taking a step forward is better than taking a step back”. Like most young KKM artists, Rupali had to drop out of college due to the police investigations. In the COVID-19 pandemic, she set up an online business of T-shirts with revolutionary prints, called Roots, through which she now earns a small income. Post lockdown, when she was selling T-shirts at a stall, the police tried to harass and interrogate her, to which she responded:

Kisi ko itna bhi mat darao ki dar khatam ho jaaye (Do not scare someone so much that there is no fear left.) We must understand that the state will always surveil and suppress. But we are the people’s artists, and we will always speak for the people,” said Rupali. KKM continues to attract young musicians from the marginalised communities, who are also wary of state vigilance. While some are determined to commit to the movement, others are harassed into quitting.

Justice Abhay Thipsay of Bombay High Court in bail order of Deepak Dhengle on January 31, 2013, held the rights to freedom of speech, to assemble peacefully and to form associations in primacy over the UAPA:

“Speaking about corruption, social inequality, exploitation of the poor etc. and desiring that a better society should come in existence is not banned in our country. Claiming that these wrongs exist in our society cannot be banned and made punishable.”

From his prison cell, Sagar Gorkhe, another member of KKM wrote a verse called ‘Why Are Our Eyes Wet?’ in 2016:

When religion rises on the power of the rulers
Some will walk crushing dead bodies under
When the guardians of the powerful become the keepers of faith
Even God will stain burqas with blood
Then tridents will say the name of “Ram” and swords will say the name of “Rahim”
Then our homes will burn and our hearts will burn
When religion becomes your only way to survive
Then, human — consider yourself lost
Your defeat, your grief will be celebrated
as the victory of faith
You will be taught the lesson of high and low
to fight ruthlessly and to live in despair
Why stay silent
and live such a life of suffocation?


[1Dalit, also achuta or untouchable: A person outside the four-fold caste system of Hinduism and considered below them in the social hierarchy. Typically, dalits have been leather-workers, scavengers, landless labourers, and poor farmers, though a small minority has broken out and moved into other, more intellectual professions in which they are traditionally denied entry, for example administration and academia. The term dalit, which has been chosen by dalits themselves, is variously translated as crushed, stepped on, or oppressed. Based on the British colonial system of social categorisation the current official term for them is the Scheduled Castes. Other terms have also been used to refer to dalits in the past. Gandhi called them harijans. Many caste Hindus use disparaging terms to refer to them, which may differ from region to region.

[2Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891‑1956): One of the most prominent Indian leaders of the twentieth century, who founded the dalit discourse in Indian politics and helped spark a revival of Buddhism in India, a movement now known as neo-Buddhism. Also, as the first law minister of independent India and as the Chairperson of the Constituent Assembly for drafting of the Constitution of India, he is considered the ‘father’ of the Indian Constitution. He resigned from the post of law minister in 1951, following the stalling by Parliament of his draft of the Hindu Code Bill through which he sought to promote gender equality. His birth date, April 14, is now a public holiday in India and is known as Ambedkar Jayanti. As a sign of respect, many Indians use the title Babasaheb for him. “Jai Bhim!", referring to his first name, is used as a greeting among many Dalits and the progressive circles. He was posthumously awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1990, the government of India’s highest civilian award.


Geetanjali Gurlhosur is a freelance writer, researcher and filmmaker.