Sheetal Sathe, Dalit singer and activist of the Kabir Kala Manch, had been invited to speak at the Malhar Festival in St. Xaviers’ College Mumbai on the eve of Independence Day. The ABVP issued a threat of violent disruption, after which filmmaker Anand Patwardhan gave a talk in her place. Below is an excerpt from the text of Anand’s speech on the occasion.
14th August. Another Sad Day for Democracy
I speak before you today in place of the designated speaker, Sheetal Sathe. It is not that Sheetal Sathe could not come on stage today because she or her baby fell ill. It is not that she had nothing to say. It is not that she was afraid to say what she had to say. And it is not that she did not come because she doubted the sincerity of those who had invited her.
It is precisely because she treasures the love and respect shown to her by the students who had invited her to speak and sing at this year’s Malhar festival that Sheetal Sathe has chosen not to allow the organizers of this festival and all the people gathered here to be exposed to the ugly threats of disruption that have been issued against them in case she spoke and sang here today.
Let it be known far and wide who exactly has issued these threats. These threats have not been issued by a court of law or by the police, or by any instrument of the State or national government. Sheetal Sathe is out on bail precisely because an Indian high court ruled that her liberty did not have to be curtailed while she was undergoing trial to establish her innocence. The court has not taken away her freedom of speech or her right to sing. The court has not sought to officially stifle her voice or the voice of the millions of oppressed and stigmatized people that she sings about.
An extra-constitutional body that threatens the very fabric of our secular democracy has issued this threat. There are many such extra-constitutional bodies that are growing in power today. Such bodies have many names and many duties. Some decide what books the people of India should read. Some decide what films we should see. Some decide what speeches and songs we should hear. There are many self-appointed censors, but make no mistake, they belong to one single family with one single ideology and one set of beliefs. These beliefs have been inculcated from a very young and impressionable age. I will not list all these beliefs except to point out that apart from asserting that the aeroplane and rocket science was invented thousands of years ago in the Vedic era of Brahminism which they call the golden era, it includes an abiding faith in the Manusmriti, an ancient Brahminic law code that deprived Dalits and women of their most basic human rights and permitted untold atrocities upon all those who challenged it.
Today this ideology comes before us in a new disguise of nationalism. It is draped in the flag of India – the very tricolour that it loudly denounced at the time of Independence when its followers insisted on hoisting an orange flag of Hindutva instead. They also refused to sing “Jana Gana Mana” demanding that “Vande Mataram” should be the national anthem. Needless to point out that “Vande Mataram” was penned by Bankim Chandra in his 19th century novel Anandmath, a book that vilified India’s Muslims.
Apart from nationalism there is another even more seductive disguise that has recently fired the lust of India’s elite and middle classes. It is the disguise of “development”. This development lust has trumped even the tricolour for it says “So what if the world’s oil and water is rapidly depleting? So what if there is pollution, global warming and the threat of tsunami and nuclear disaster? Why should we protect India’s air, water, forests, land and ore from the multinationals who wish to grab it?”
They are ready to sell our sovereignty for the short-term gain of a few, as long as they are allowed to make a hologram of the national flag. They then proceed to promote our most primitive, racist and exploitative cultural and economic traditions while making suitable noises about modernity and development.
How do you and I resist? Make no mistake. This is an ideology that brooks no dissent. Today is yet another sad day for India’s democracy. It is a day when an extra Constitutional power backed by a ruling political party has issued a threat against a college run for over a century by Christians. Yes, that is the bottom-line. That is what makes St. Xaviers College and in particular, its principled principal, a specially vulnerable target.
Sheetal Sathe and the KKMDC do not wish to jeopardize this festival. But we wish to put on record that we will never be silenced. And we want the public to know who exactly has issued this particular threat. The threat has been issued by the Akhil Bharati Vidyarthi Parishad (APVP) the youth wing of a political party that came to power by telling the people of India that it no longer stands for the divisive, communal and casteist politics that it had been associated with in the past.
You have to understand the real reason why groups like the ABVP hate groups like the KKM. It has nothing to do with nationalism or Naxalism. It is because their visions of India are diametrically opposed. The Kabir Kala Manch believes in a pluralistic India where caste, religion and race is replaced by the recognition that we are all human beings first who deserve justice, peace and true democracy. The ideologues of Hindutva, no matter how big a national flag they wrap around themselves, have always had a completely different agenda.
– Anand Patwardhan, 14 August 2014, St Xaviers’ College Mumbai