‘We are all anti-nationals’

Singer and poet Sheetal Sathe, whose troupe has been accused of being anti-national, on her dream of bringing about a cultural revolution through music

February 19, 2016 02:05 am | Updated 02:40 am IST

“It is an irony that those who fight against caste to make society more equal and inclusive and are working towards building the nation are called anti-national,” says Ms. Sathe. Photo: Anand Patwardhan

“It is an irony that those who fight against caste to make society more equal and inclusive and are working towards building the nation are called anti-national,” says Ms. Sathe. Photo: Anand Patwardhan

Singer and poet Sheetal Sathe uses music as a form of protest to highlight oppression of women and Dalits. A member of the Kabir Kala Manch (KKM), she was in jail for three months on the charge that she and her husband were Maoists. The couple and other members of KKM had courted arrest voluntarily. Ms. Sathe’s husband has been in jail for the last two and a half years; she is out on bail. Ms. Sathe was in Delhi to sing about Rohith Vemula, the research scholar from the University of Hyderabad who committed suicide last month. She spoke to Anuradha Raman about desh bhakts (patriots) and desh drohis (national traitors), the problem of power, and the capacity of music in addressing inequalities. Excerpts:

Some politicians in the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, have called Rohith Vemula anti-national. You have been called one too. You and your husband have been called Maoists and have been jailed. How do you come to terms with all this?

It is an irony that those who fight against caste to make society more equal and inclusive and are working towards building the nation are called anti-national. My troupe, the Kabir Kala Manch, has been called anti-national for the issues we have raised. By that yardstick we are all anti-nationals. We are quite often not allowed to perform. When our troupe members are arrested, it makes me wonder who the real desh bhakts are today.

Who do you think are the desh bhakts ?

I think the definition varies from people to people and the political parties they belong to or identify with. For the BJP, this stems from a belief in the caste system, in an entrenched patriarchy and in seeing to it that these are perpetuated. This gets reflected in the party’s attitude towards women. Anyone who speaks against the caste system automatically becomes a desh drohi. Vemula, who was a member of the Ambedkar Students Association, was a desh drohi as he questioned the system that discriminated against him. Similarly, those who eat differently are desh drohis . The Congress, on the other hand, has never clarified its position on desh bhakts . I would like to tell all of them that I am patriotic too and I believe in the Constitution.

Is this labelling of desh bhakti more pronounced now under the BJP government? Even colleges and campuses are witnessing pitched battles between students who have positioned themselves as nationalists and those who have not.

Satta [power] makes people confident. I do get that sense as I find that those who want to preserve democracy and protect the freedom of expression are under attack and are being suppressed. The Congress keeps calling itself secular though its real stand is quite confusing while the BJP’s is far more specific. The majority of numbers and being in satta has given confidence to the BJP and its ideology gets political credibility.

Are the desh bhakts coming in conflict with the Ambedkarites? Who are the Ambedkarites?

Anyone who believes in the annihilation of caste is an Ambedkarite. And there will be a struggle between those who believe in caste and those who don’t.

What do you have to say to those who have joined the BJP? Would you call them Ambedkarites too?

Caste is by birth and you are born into it. But ideology is not by birth. Those who have aligned with a party that believes and perpetuates the caste system cannot be called Ambedkarites.

Why do you say so? Isn’t the capture of power too a way of tackling the inequalities of the system?

Does the BJP have a plan for the annihilation of caste? If it does, it should make it public. The ideology of the party reinforces its caste bias.

Your husband and you were arrested on the charge that you are Maoists. Are you one?

The Kabir Kala Manch is ideologically opposed to Maoism, which we believe is a dogmatic way of looking at the world. The Constitution that we have given to ourselves is what we believe in.

How does music help you address the inequalities of society?

I am trained as a singer and this is the only way I can register my protest. I tell everyone that we live in an unequal world. I dream of bringing about a cultural revolution through my music. If they don’t allow me to sing on the campuses, I will sing on the roads, anywhere. I sang in Jawaharlal Nehru University and Ambedkar University, and the students came out to listen. I sang at the Press Club of India and there were people willing to listen to the songs of protest.

You constantly refer to freedom of expression. What do you understand by free speech? What is the context of your reference?

My Constitution gives me the right to speak. I am also aware that this right is not available to all. When my audience is women from the villages of Maharashtra, Dalit women are my reference. I am a Dalit woman and Dalit women are at the bottom of the social structure, both within their own caste and outside. Their struggle is against caste as well as class. Till she speaks up, freedom of expression will remain an intent in the Constitution. And I speak on behalf of the women I represent. When I am asked to speak on Rohith Vemula, it is the students who are taking on the well-entrenched caste system in the universities, who are the subjects of my song, and I sing for them.


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