This is the second part of a three part interview between legal scholars, Luis Eslava and Sundhya Pahuja, and Taru Dalmia, the Delhi based musician, activist, music producer and public intellectual.
PART II: DOMINATION AND RESISTANCE
- Luis and Sundhya [L&S]: Taru, as legal scholars the idea of soundclashing is extremely interesting. We know that speech and rhetoric have been always part of law, and yet it is hard to grasp the actual mechanics of using sound in our projects. How do you process, or how do you render into a material form, this idea of ‘soundclashing’? Specifically, how are technique and technology mixed at this point with politics, histories of violence and entrenched power asymmetries in order to produce something new, or at least something different?
Taru [T]: There are different processes at play, depending first on whether we are talking about a recording or performance oriented endeavour and then also, the various musical outlets. The Ska Vengers, Word Sound & Power and the BFR Sound System project all differ in their methods. To start with our most recent venture BFR Sound System. We have built a large and powerful Jamaican style sound system. The idea is that this allows us to control the means of producing shows and affords us independence from the market. We can now do shows with organizations and people who can’t necessarily afford to hire expensive PA systems but who might be able to mobilise a lot of people.
Video 4. Taru Dalmia – Let’s Build India’s First Mobile Reggae Sound System
Sound systems are a product of Jamaican performance tradition and have a long history of aiming for sonic dominance. With the system, we can at a given time, take over a space, and bodies with sound. The system at present can literally vibrate maybe around 500 people. So we will take over an area, make people dance and spread our message. Many reggae songs have a radical message. In addition to this, Begum X and I will sing live over instrumental tracks, we also invite local singers to join us. I am also creating exclusive recordings or dubplates with singers from India in regional languages that can be played alongside the Jamaican and African songs. So far, I feel we did this most effectively when we played at JNU, on the 1st of May in Freedom Square, the contested space where protests were organized, where the arrested students addressed their peers after release from prison and where teachers organized a lecture series on ‘nationalism’1 in the face of the recent wave of extreme state repression. Soundclashing means we speak in an assertive voice, in a challenging and at times mischievous tone (see Video 1 included in the first part of the interview).
Word Sound Power, at present, is more production oriented. We will produce and release songs and films that once they are out, acquire a life of their own. We travel to different parts of the country and collaborate with revolutionary singers, who are often associated with specific movements. This has been a tremendous learning experience for us and has allowed us to step out of our own social context and forge connections with struggles in other parts of India. To whatever extent possible, we hope to draw some attention to what is happening in other parts of the country. Blood Earth for instance deals with the struggle in a part of Orissa against the state police-mining company nexus. The official narrative put out by the companies and the state there is full of lies.
The Ska Vengers is both performance and production oriented. At times, we have made a song about our supreme leader just before elections, or we would make a video and song about Indian freedom fighter Udham Singh.2 Performance wise, if we are booked to play at a big music festival or other venue we will make sure our discourse comes across. Some members in the audience will be confronted with certain concepts and ideas, others who are already engaged in struggle might take heart and get a little strength from our show.
Video 5. The Ska Vengers – Modi, A Message to You
Video 6. The Ska Vengers & Frank Brazil – Udham Singh
- L&S: The question of indigenous and Naxalite resistance – in what is known as the ‘red corridor’ of central India – form the central theme of the Word Sound Power project, Blood Earth, as well as the documentary Red Ant Dream to which you contributed with part of the soundtrack. Explicit violence, dispossession, displacement, and the fight for resources of various kinds, are important factors behind indigenous and Naxalite resistance and the government’s ongoing responses to it. But there is an additional important factor, and this is the (seemingly bloodless) battle over ‘public opinion’, which you have already alluded to: how these conflicts are represented on television, mobile and computer screens have become key to understand how this Naxalite and indigenous resistance is understood by people in India and abroad. And we all know too well, that different representations allow certain things to happen or not to happen. ‘Operation Green Hunt’, for example, the official army operation against the Naxalites launched in 2009, had as one of its main strategies to conquer the ‘public mind’ in order to legitimate the wiping out of Naxalites, with all of the collateral effects that this implies. Your artistic interventions come to play an important role here. In many ways they are re-describing the terrain of indigenous and Naxalite resistance for a new public. Can you tell us a how you see your work re-describing the situation in central India today?
T: First off, I’d like to clarify that the people’s resistance movement depicted in Blood Earth, in Kucheipadar Orissa, was not a naxal or guerrilla movement at all. We have to make sure to point this out because the state has used this as an excuse to justify the presence of police and paramilitary, combing operations pre-emptive arrests, the building of ever more jails and police stations in an area that had no policing at all until quite recently. Kucheipadar was to my knowledge an entirely democratic, inclusive people’s movement that was crushed using a variety of means. These include judicial means, in the form of whole scale arrests of entire villages, court cases against key activists, colonial-era style flag marches by armed state forces, as well as extra judicial means, such as intimidation, attempts to bribe strongmen, paid for by the company, or murder.
There is what Arundhati Roy termed a ‘bio diversity’ of resistance in India. It’s important not to confuse these, as the state too often will strategically conflate everything into ‘armed Maoist insurgency’ in order to justify the use of force and unrestrained repression. All of us have been termed ‘anti-national’ and ‘anti-development’. Bhaghwan Mahji, the singer we recorded with for the Blood Earth project (see Video 2.) was arrested two years back for attempt to murder, and a host of other trumped up charges. He is out on bail but pending cases, no matter how spurious become an effective way to control and discipline people as it can take up to 7-8 years before people are acquitted. Often charges are filed under repressive anti-terror laws, which means that bail is often rejected categorically, or people cannot afford it, which means you will find yourself languishing in jail for years. Often times, those who attempt to offer legal assistance, like Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JLAG) for instance, are themselves targeted.
Let me give you some concrete examples, in Bastar in Chhattisgarh for instance, where you do in fact have a strong guerrilla movement, civil rights organizations and journalists have been targeted by both police and thugs that are on state and/or company pay roll. Most recently, in January 2017 activist Bela Bhatia, who was in Bastar to follow up on cases that have been filed against members of the security forces for their systemic use of sexual violence, was accosted by around 30 men in the middle of the night who threatened to burn down her house if she did not leave Bastar. The same thing happened to a journalist from Scroll.in, as well as the all female team of lawyers from JLAG, all of whom have been in the area documenting abuses of power and providing legal assistance to the local population. Actions like these occur because they have the full support of the local district cop, IGP Kalluri, who has called all of the above mentioned civil rights activists ‘white collar Maoists’, who he is intent on chasing out of Bastar. Kalluri in turn has direct cover from the prime minister himself. Paramilitary police will rape and burn people’s houses down with impunity. News of what is happening on the ground in Bastar keeps leaking out but the situation and levels of normalised violence are unimaginable.3
As you rightly [say], discourse and language used to describe this conflict affects public opinion and how this conflict and state actions are perceived. What forms of violence and who’s violence are seen as legitimate? There is a war over narrative and perception. You will notice that, with a few exceptions, in most mainstream news the language of disease and vermin is used when describing the guerrilla movement. Areas are ‘infected’, ‘infested’, ‘plagued’ by ‘reds’. The logical conclusion of this kind of language is expulsion and extermination.
Very little news comes out of the forest except for when a killing takes place. What do we know of the liberated zone? How common people there view the state, their lives, the guerrillas who are fighting for their survival and to overthrow the Indian state? What do we know of their dreams and aspirations? Their viewpoint is largely unrepresented in mainstream Indian media.
That being said, it is interesting to observe that in the last few years, the Naxalite phenomenon has increasingly caught a hold of popular imagination and culture. A number of Bollywood films have been made on the subject, and Naxals are not necessarily vilified in all of them. So perception is contested and as you mentioned, it is a hard fought battle of public opinion. Perception management is a strong component of government strategy. Not just in India but also abroad. Many times foreign journalists who write about the Naxal phenomenon find that they have difficulty getting their visas renewed in India, or find that they are the target of tax investigations. Indian journalists are targeted too. In Red Ant Dream you can hear a police wire communication that was intercepted by Naxals in which you clearly hear police personnel receiving instructions to murder any journalist who shows up at a particular scene to cover events. Arundhati Roy performed an important intervention when she published the article Walking with the Comrades, published now as part of her book Broken Republic. For a time the government had to deny that Operation Green Hunt even existed.
I would like to be in a position to humanise the actors in this conflict, to achieve an understanding that goes beyond us vs the enemy. I’m not sure to what extent we succeed in this. I know a lot of people are not comfortable with us, including in the left. Who are these guys to talk about these issues?
I think I’d also like to state that we do not approach our work with a clear agenda. We don’t start with the premise of ‘how can we intervene in public discourse most effectively’. Many things which are much more effective can probably be done to achieve this aim. We are musicians, of course, like many others we are driven by passion, a sense of moral outrage and also love for our land and people. But before being a public intervention, our work begins in a very personal way. It is a way for us to break out of our own social context, even if only temporarily, to get a glimpse of the forest, to try and achieve an understanding and feeling for what is going on. And to do all this through creating music and interacting with musicians and singers.
Video 7. Word Sound Power – Blood Earth – Poison (feat. Lima )
- L&S: Taru, what about your sense of the political situation in the rest of India, and we could say the rest of the world and its turn to the right? How have you have been trying to respond to, or to process this escalation of official terror as it were?
T: It’s profoundly disturbing. Death is at the heart of the language that surrounds us now. But at the same time, there are heartening moments as well. In a way, I feel less alone now than I did two years ago. We have built relationships of support with people across the country and I perceive a dynamic energy and renewed vitality in those amongst us who are organizing. We happened to be in Delhi for an extended period of time when the arrests of JNU student leaders occurred in February 2016. This is rare for us, as ordinarily we have quite hectic touring schedules. This period coincided with our building of the BFR Sound System. As a result, we found ourselves in the midst of things. We were on campus often and after a while I perceived in myself the need to be part of a crowd, the massive. To chant slogans with everyone in one voice became a physical need. There were thousands of people on the streets at the time. This was heartening. And yet, moments like these pass, and at present I perceive a lot of infighting amongst progressive forces again and we don’t know what the future will bring.
On a personal level, I feel we respond to this by trying to deepen personal relationships. At this time, we need each other. It’s by being in conversation with each other that we can give each other strength and support, but also, ideas may emerge. At present, I feel that all work, projects, shows and recordings that I do need to be a by-product of the relationships with people, with movements, with struggle. We play reggae music, which has a strong message of revolutionary struggle and upliftment. We can make people dance. Our sound system is powerful and can create a sense of physical well-being and connectedness in listeners. At present, this is one thing that we can contribute to political spaces and gatherings. There is a time for speeches, for critical discourse for discussion, for slogans, but dancing and singing together is also very important. We will only get through these times if we find joy in each other and build strong relationships of trust and care, with each other as well as with the larger community. It’s the only way I find myself being able to not get depressed and to despair. I don’t fully understand what drives the brutality of the reactionary forces in society, of the police and state forces and the vigilante groups.
Video 8. BFR Sound System launch @ Champa Gali April 2016
Luis Eslava (Kent Law School) and Sundhya Pahuja (Melbourne Law School)
- The JNU nationalism lectures are now available in book form: http://www.amazon.in/What-Nation-Really-Needs-Know/dp/935264025X ↩
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Udham_Singh ↩
- For more on Bastar and the politics surrounding state violence see: http://www.amazon.in/Burning-Forest-Indias-War-Bastar/dp/9386228009/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1488611992&sr=1-1&keywords=the+burning+forest+india%27s+war+in+bastar ↩