How a famous Brecht poem became both the reason and the subtext to implicate prominent HRDs in India

Written by Sushmita | Published on: September 24, 2018

The Good Person of Szechuan is a play by famous playwright Bertolt Brecht. Brecht started writing it in 1938 but couldn’t complete it till 1941. The play was first performed in 1943 in Switzerland and was accompanied by a musical score and songs by the Swiss composer Huldreich Georg Fruh. This is a story of an inherently good woman who has to dress up like a man in order to preserve herself in a challenging world.



Bertolt Brecht.

Shen Teh is rewarded by the Gods for her kind acts and the Gods give her money by which she buys a small shop. Shen Teh must preserve her goodness with these new means in order for Gods’ faith to be restored in humanity. Though successful at first, her generosity means bad business for the shop which may become a badly run poorhouse, attracting crime and police surveillance.

She invents herself as a cousin, Shui Ta, a man to oversee and protect her shop. Shen Teh then goes on to dressing as a man and wears a deep voice taking on the role of Shui Ta. Her own personality then takes on the attributes of her male cousin. Shen Teh is kind and generous. Shui Ta is pragmatic to the extent that he can be severe and vicious. As the generous Shen Teh protects an employee from committing suicide, eventually falling in love and getting pregnant, she only realises later that the man was merely using her for the money. Shen Teh is crying in the shop but only still disguised as her male cousin Shui Ta. The employees in the shop mistake Shui Ta as having killed her cousin and bring her to the court, where Gods themselves are the judges. Shui Ta reveals himself in front of the judges and puts them into a dilemma as to what is the best course of action. Finally the narrator throws out the problem to the audience of the play.

Interpretations of the play suggest that it is a play which urges its audiences to find out how a ‘good person’ can arrive at a ‘good end’ in a world in itself ‘not good’ and basically asks the audience to understand that to arrive at the larger good, possibly some oppressive social structures need to be changed.
 

Brecht in Indian courtrooms

Interestingly, Brecht was mentioned in the arguments that went on in the petition filed by historian Romila Thapar, economists Prabhat Patnaik and Devaki Jain among others, against the unlawful raids and subsequent arrests of prominent human rights activists in India, in the Supreme Court before a three member bench comprising Chief Justice of India (CJI) Dipak Misra, Justice DY Chandrachud and Justice Khanwilkar. The Bench heard senior advocates Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Harish Salve, Anand Grover and ASG Tushar Mehta before reserving its verdict for Monday.

On August 28 activists Gautam Navlakha, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira, trade unionist and lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj and Telugu poet Varavara Rao, had been ­arrested as a part of what is being seen by civil society groups as a state sponsored nationwide crackdown on dissenting voices. The houses of several other activists including Susan Abraham, Sta­n Swamy and Anand Teltumbde were also raided.

Earlier, on June 6 poet, activist Sudhir Dhawale, Adv. Surendra Gadling, Prof. Shoma Sen, Mahesh Raut and Rona Wilson were arrested in a similar crackdown. All arrests were allegedly made in connection with the Bhima Koregaon violence.

Dalit Bahujans gathered in thousands at Bhima Koregaon memorial to celebrate the bi-centenary of the battle of Bhima Koregaon were attacked allegedly by members and supporters of Hindutva supremacist groups on January 1. Various sections of the society came out in protest across Maharashtra. Various reports, including one by this correspondent, suggested that police bandobast at the memorial was inadequate. But in the aftermath of the violence the police unleashed a massive combing operation against Dalit-Bahujans and conducted several raids and arrests the legality of which is disputed.

The first FIR registered in this regard named Hindutva leaders Manohar Bhide and Milind Ekbote as the instigators of violence. However they roamed scot-free even today! Meanwhile, the Maharashtra police's reign of terror continues in the form of raids and arrests. What is more insidious is the subsequent charging of all the people especially human rights activists under the draconian UAPA. 

Liberty can’t be sacrificed at the altar of Conjectures
It appears that the entire basis of the FIR against those arrested is that Dalit Rights activist Sudhir Dhawale sang a song, the lyrics of which were allegedly, “a call to bring down the State”. These words are actually a translation of a poem in the play by Bertolt Brecht, The Good Person of Szchewan. Adv. Singhvi, who was arguing on the behalf of petitioners, quoted CJI Dipak Mishra’s judgments rejecting the ban on the Malayalam novel Meesha where the SC upheld freedom of expression particularly cultural, artistic expression of a poet.

The hearings are now over. Though the case diary has not been handed over to the accused, from what transpired in the court, it appears that Pune Police and Maharashtra Government have yet again resorted to presenting some letters as evidence, which hadn’t been yet produced in the court of law and in fact displayed on TV channels like Republic and Zee News.

Adv. Anand Grover questioned the authenticity of these letters, “Letters alleged to be written by Rona Wilson and Sudha Bharadwaj are in Hindi, but have Marathi words. These are words which only Maharashtrians use. Your Lordships would know that. That is why I am saying this case is cooked up”.

When the matter came up on September 19 for hearing, Dr. Abhishek Singhvi argued how Tushar Damdugde’s FIR appears to have been filed as an afterthought.

The only evidence, as also argued by Singhvi was the purported ‘letters’ leaked by the police to the media, which on their face value itself appear fabricated. The letters are not verifiable as accepted by the ADG Law and Order of Maharashtra.

All the “letters” are purportedly either from or to a “Comrade Prakash”. It is the State of Maharashtra’s own case that “Comrade Prakash” is the pseudonym of Professor Saibaba, who has been incarcerated since March 2017, while the letters are written after this date. Singhvi argued that it is prima facie impossible that Professor Saibaba is emailing and writing letters while in Nagpur Central Jail.

Singhvi argued in the court that experts in counter terrorism like Ajai Sahni have categorically stated that these “letters” are fabricated. He reiterated that it was impossible to believe that genuine letters that disclosed a conspiracy to assassinate the prime minister were recovered but no FIR registered.

A “cloak of criminality is being cast upon the arrested activists” where in fact the record shows that they have been systematically targeted by being implicated in false cases. Singh argued that Varavara Rao a renowned poet, has been falsely implicated in 25 criminal cases and acquitted in all, while everyone may not agree with his views, he has the right to express them. He added, Arun Ferreira has been implicated and acquitted in 11 cases, Vernon Gonsalves has been acquitted in 17 out of 19 cases, the other two are pending.

In the entire episode, all legal processes have been flouted, clearly indicating the malafide intent of the police. While letters have been leaked as having been recovered from the accused, the process of search, seizure, arrest are replete with illegalities.

At the close of the hearing on September 19, Justice Chandrachud reiterated, “We would like to create a clear distinction between documents (that depict) opposition and (those which prove) an attempt to create disturbances, to overthrow the government…there may be opposition to the system, to even this court but our shoulders must be robust enough to handle any criticism of the judgments we write…”

“Liberty cannot be sacrificed at the altar of conjectures…this case has to be be examined with a hawk’s eye”, the judge had affirmed.

Additionally, in gross violation of the law, witnesses who are supposed to be independent persons from the locality, were in fact Pune Municipal Corporation workers brought with the police from Pune.

“You carried two clerks of the Pune Municipal Corporation to act as ‘Panchas’?” asked Justice D. Y. Chandrachud.

It was also raised during the hearings that two retired judges who have publicly affirmed that they were the organisers of the Elgar Parishad, haven’t even been investigated.

On the other hand Adv. Prashant Bhushan called the investigation, a “never ending and rolling” investigation.

Injustice and revolt in the city
Coming back to Brecht, in the same play Shen Tei says “Unhappy men! Your brother is assaulted and you shut your eyes! He is hit and assaulted and you are silent!… What sort of a city is this? What sort of people are you? When injustice is done there should be a revolt in the city. And if there is no revolt, it were better that the city should perish in fire before the night falls…”

One turns to literary sources, citing parables, prose, poetry from time to time in political discourses, especially when freedom of speech is in danger.

The lines of Brecht’s play, translated in Marathi were invoked in a similar manner on January 1.

From time to time political leaders including the Prime Minister have invoked literary figures namely Faiz, Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, Iqbal among others to make a case about a better society.

One can only throw this question to the audience then, how do those doing good meet with a good ending? Or if they don’t, is there another ‘revolt’ in the making?

 

Related:

State Crushing Dissent Again!
Raiding the Resilient
The Truth about the Elgaar Parishad