Singing for People- A Crime under Tyranny?

V. Subrahmanyam

The limits of the tyranny are prescribed by the endurance of the oppressed- Frederick Douglas

Helin Bolek, 28, a singer and an active member of a leftist cultural group, died on 3rd April in Istanbul, Turkey. She had been on a hunger strike demanding the Erdogan government to revoke its ban on their singing group's public performances. She died on her 288th day of hunger strike.

Beginnings of the Cultural Group

Grup Yorum, their cultural group, opposes imperialism and capitalism and solidly supports Kurdish Prople's struggle for their self-determination. This group was formed in 1980s by university students. They released over 20 albums since their 1987 debut.  They sing against capitalism, imperialism, and about the Turkish government’s anti-poor policies. One track is about the clearing of poor neighbourhoods to make way for posh skyscrapers. At times, provocatively, they also sing in Kurdish.

Wrath of the Regime

Grup Yorum has been active despite facing Turkey's successive regimes' angst several times. It has been banned from performing in Turkey since 2016, after the failed coup. The İdil Cultural Center in Okmeydanı, İstanbul has been raided by the police for over 10 times over the last three years. During the raids, instruments of Grup Yorum members were either broken or gone missing. According to the group, a total of 30 people were arrested in these raids. Seven members of the band are still in prisons. Six members of the band were on the state’s “grey list” as wanted terrorists, with a cash reward on their heads. When anyone joins this band, they know for sure  that it would land them in prison. 

Notorious conditions in Prisons

Turkey jails are known for worst conditions, notorious for torture inside the jails. Though the Turkish penal laws have no death penalty provisions, the jail conditions are so horrendous that many commit suicide, several perish for lack medical facilities. Medical negligence to political prisoners is very naked. So, capital punishment is imposed by other means. Now the Erdogan government declared to release 90,000 from teeming 3 lakh prison population in the wake of Covid 19, but not a single political prisoner finds a mention in the release list. After the failed coup in 2016, the whole country has become a prison house. The prison population has doubled and the prison density rose to 121%.  The regime began building 100 more jails. There are 50,000 prisoners incarcerated on political charges. Lawyers, judges, teachers, military soldiers and officials, people of all walks of life were stuffed into prisons. Turkey cared a hoot to the loud voices of protests from all concerned people and organisations across the world against massive human rights violations by the autocratic government. 

Regime's Accusations

The government accuses Grup Yorum of links with the outlawed Revoltutionary People's Front (DHKP-C),  a designated "terrorist" organisation by Turkey regime the United States and the European Union. DHKP -C holds Marxism-Leninism as their guiding ideology and is known for its some spectacular actions against American Embassy in Turkey and assaninations of many retired military officials of Turkey. It is an urban based Cheguarian Party owed to fight imperialism and Turkey's capitalism.

The Hunger Strike

Bolek and a comrade from her group, Ibrahim Gokcek, began hunger strike while in prison to press the government to lift the ban, free the detained band members and withdraw cases against them. Bolek was released in November 2019 and Gokcek in February 2020. Even after their release, they continued their fast. Police took Bolek and Gokcek forcibly to hospital on 11 March but discharged a week later after they refused treatment.

A delegation of human rights activists met Turkey’s Deputy Home Minister last month to seek a solution. The government is adamant and refused to assess the demands until the protest was called off.  

Helin Bolek - A Committed Voluanteer

Bölek, was an active member in Grup Yorum as a singer. She was from Diyabakir, where the Prison no.5 is inglorious for brutal torture of Kurdish activists since 1980s. She was arrested for the first time during a police operation at the İdil Culture Center in Istanbul in November 2016. She was detained with seven other members of the group on charges of "resisting the police, insulting and being a member of a terrorist organization". The musicians Bahar Kurt, Barış Yüksel and Ali Aracı announced that they started an "indefinite and irreversible" hunger strike on 17 May 2019, to end the oppression from the state, the concert bans, and the raids on cultural centers. After spending three years in jail she was released in November 2019. She continued her death fast even after her release. Hunger strikers in Turkey traditionally refuse food but consume liquids like lemon water, to prolong their protests.

Bolen's Mother's Appeal to Save Her

In the recent weeks, Helin's mother appealed to the authorities to save her life. "She cannot sleep at night, because her nerve endings have got inflamed. ...I want my daughter to sing folk songs again. I do not want my child to die. Don't you want to see these bright people on the stage? So, everyone who hears my words, please do something, but quickly." It fell on stone deaf ears. Helin's martyrdom was waiting to happen.

Mourning and Tributes

After her death, large crowds mourned Helin Bölek and they began to march. Incessant rain had not damped their spirit. The police intercepted the march and detained several participants. Police stopped them from going to cemetery and detained numerous people. 

Masses paid tribute to Bölek in the neighbourhood in late afternoon. Her coffin was covered with carnations and carried by women on their shoulders. Helin’s mother was accompanied by mothers from TAYAD (Association of Solidarity with the Families of Prisoners).

During the memorial, people sang a song of the band, “No death for us) and chanted “Helin Bölek is immortal”, “Long live our death fast resistance” and "Group Yorum is the people, it cannot be silenced", Group Yorum informed in a statement released later.

Ibrahim Gökçek, who continues his death fast, joined the memorial on wheelchair, to take  leave of his companion for the last time. Gökçek said that they would be victorious, whatever it may cost.

Statement by rights organizations

Human Rights Association (İHD) and Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TİHV) have released a joint statement. They said:
"We are sorry for the passing of Helin Bölen. We could not prevent this impending loss." They have also called on the government to quickly take action to prevent any more losses. 

PEN America too mourned her death and issued a statement. Julie Trebault, director of the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) of PEN America, said the following:
“Turkish authorities’ hostile attitude towards freedom of expression and their continued crackdown on artists, writers, thinkers, and activists, especially those working on Kurdish issues must cease immediately, and Grup Yorum members, still in prison, must be unconditionally released. Bölek’s death makes the truth painfully clear: The very lives of artists are at peril". 

It is true. Whether it is in Turkey or in India, the laws of tyrannical rule are universal. Repression on those who raise the voices against fascism are met with iron laws of repression. Those imprisoned in Bhima Koregaon Case or those convicted in Gadcheroli Conspiracy Case are living examples here.

Helin's sacrifice will forever inspire the oppressed everywhere

Singing for the oppressed or raising voice for the voiceless, is just not a legitimate act for the fascists worldwide. They consider it a crime against the state. But the activists like Helin Boken continue to defy the despotism to liberate their homelands. After her, their songs reflecting the troubles and tribulations of the Turkish masses, echo entire country. Here is a Grup Yorum 's popular song:

"Ciao Bella" (A greeting to a friend, roughly means, Hello, beautiful!)

Here is when I wake up one morning
Rye Bella, Rye Bella, Rye Bella, Rye, Rye, Rye

My homeland that I found tied up
All over occupied
My homeland that I found tied up
All over occupied

O partisan take me with you
Rye Bella, Rye Bella, Rye Bella, Rye, Rye, Rye
Take me to your mountains
I can't stand the captivity
Take me to your mountains
I can't stand the captivity
If I die I’m partisan
Rye Bella, Rye Bella, Rye Bella, Rye, Rye, Rye

You should bury me with your hand
To the soil with your hands
You should bury me with your hands
To the soil with your hands
The flower will rise in the sun
Rye Bella, Rye Bella, Rye Bella, Rye, Rye, Rye

Hello those who come and go will say hello
Hello beautiful flower
Hello those who come and go will say hello
Hello beautiful flower
Hello those who come and go will say hello
Hello beautiful flower

Ciao Bella, Helin Boker ! You are a rare daffodil whose fragrance of sacrifice to liberate Turkey will forever stimulate the oppressed of the world!

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Apr 9, 2020

Varanasi Subrahmanyam

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