Mukti Chai

Cultural protest meet in Kolkata demands release of all political prisoners

Exactly two months after Chhatradhar Mahato, leader of the Lalgarh adivasi movement, was given life sentence by a sessions court along with five others, Cinema of Resistance, a constituent of the All India People’s Forum, organised a cultural protest meet at Muktangan Rangalaya, in Kolkata, on 11th July. The meet was in continuation with a string of street corners, rallies, conventions, signature campaigns being organized by civil liberties organizations and radical left groups throughout Bengal as resistance to the draconian and unjust judgement. The idea was to unite all voices of dissent from the country and to use cinema and other mediums of cultural protest to join with those voices to give a resounding shout out.

The evening of protest started with a screening of 'Prisoners of Conscience', Anand Patwardhan's 1978 documentary on Emergency and the subsequent movement to release political prisoners. As Dr. Binayak Sen pointed out later in the evening, that film was also impressively prescient, and warned us about things that are happening today, nearly fifty years after the film was made.

Ranjit Sur, from the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR), addressed the 150-strong audience on the absurdity of legal proceedings that are going on in Bengal's sessions courts. For example, Chhatradhar Mahato and five others were arrested in 2009 but they were retroactively charged with the revised UAPA act which came into effect from 2013. Interestingly Raja Sarkhel and Prasun Chatterjee were charged with sedition, because they were present in a meeting organised by the People's Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA), and their mere presence was considered 'seditious'. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Partha Chatterjee (the current education minister) were also present in the same meeting, but that was conveniently overlooked.

Ajay TG, noted documentary film maker from Chhattisgarh who had been booked under UAPA and is still facing a 8-year-long Kafkaesque trial, in a moving address questioned if the term 'political prisoner' needs to be redefined and made broader, as unlike the late 70s when communist and socialist political activists and middle class youth were overwhelmingly jailed by the state. 40 years down the line thousands of adivasis, dalits, muslims and ethnic minorities - who do not necessarily have a defined political identity and whose only crime seems to be fighting for their land, livelihood and self-determination - continue to languish today in various jails.

Binayak Sen said that we need to challenge and overturn the state's definition of what is sedious and what is not. As a national vice president of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), he reiterated that PUCL demands and will fight for the release of Chhatradhar Mahato and his five comrades, all other political prisoners in Bengal jails, as also unconditional release of all those imprisoned for voicing their dissenting opinion, or for taking part in movements to safeguard their rights and livelihood.

Economist and noted writer, Subhendu Dasgupta recounted how civil liberty activists made use of Utpalendu Chakraborty's documentary 'Mukti Chai' as part of the movement then. He also said, the pattern in which every movement – from that of Koodankulam to Maruti workers - is being crushed, the movement for release of political prisoners must necessarily become a core part of each and every people's movement.

Soni Sori and Rajiv Yadav (secretary of the Rihai Manch), sent their solidarity messages to the protest meet. In his message, Rajiv Yadav shared how in UP and Bihar, hundreds of innocent Muslim youth are being hounded and detained for years without any trial or shred of evidence. A substantial number of them are from West Bengal. The climate of Islamophobia, communal violence and othering of minorities are at the centre of such an onslaught, he felt.

The cultural meet saw coming together of veteran protest singers of West Bengal, who demanded the release of political prisoners through their songs - a bridge was built through the songs of Ranjan Prasad, Nitish Roy, Anushree-Bipul, Susmit Bose, and new generation singers of the newly formed 'pratirodher gaan' (songs of resistance). The audience joined their voices and fervour to the tune of 'This land is my land, this land your land' when Susmit took to the stage. Ranjan Prasad and Nitish Roy mesmerized the audience with their songs. As Bipul-Anushree’s song, 'ora sidho-kanhor bhai ora titumirer bhai/ somosto raj bondi der mukti chai' (They are brothers of Sidho-Kanho, brothers of Titumir/ We want all political prisoners free) echoed in the Muktangan auditorium, mixed with slogans and applause, the programme came to an end. Incidentally Chhatradhar and his five co-accused sang the same song in court in protest, after the verdict was delivered against them.

The appeal for raising a solidarity fund for legal defense met with an enthused response, and the programme ended with a resolve to carry forward the struggle in days-to-come.

Liberation Archive