Moral police at work

Published : Mar 26, 2004 00:00 IST

The Bajrang Dal targets an organisation dedicated to the conservation and promotion of folk art and culture in Rajasthan for using posters that allegedly denigrate Hindu deities.

in Udaipur

AROUND 11-30 a.m on February 10, a team of the Rajasthan Police, accompanied by 50 Bajrang Dal members, raided the premises of the Udaipur-based Bhartiya Lok Kala Mandal. The police were acting on a complaint filed by Kamlendra Singh Panwar, regional convener of the Bajrang Dal, alleging that the more-than-50-year-old institute was in possession of obscene posters. The police later lodged a case of outraging religious sentiments (Section 295[a] of the Indian Penal Code) against Bhanu Bharti, the director of the institution, and Shail Choyal, the artist who created the allegedly obscene posters. A police team led by Deputy Superintendent of Police Yogesh Goyal "seized" seven of the posters from the room of Bharti, who was away in Delhi. Several mediapersons had been mobilised for a live coverage of the raid.

Shyam Maali, assistant director of the institute, who was present at the time of the raid, said: "I showed them the Krishna puppets [in the director's room] and said that we were doing things to keep alive Indian culture and tradition and were not involved in destroying it. But they were in no mood to listen. They ransacked the stores. If the police had not been there, they would have destroyed valuable material." Shail Choyal told Frontline: "I am a serious painter. For 13 years I have been on the executive board of the Lalit Kala Akademi. These groups have nothing to do with art."

The controversial posters had apparently denigrated Hindu gods and goddesses. They were, in fact, campaign material prepared to promote breast-feeding and stress the importance of pre-natal and post-natal care. The material had been prepared for a project of Care India, a non-governmental organisation (NGO). Shail Choyal had used popular motifs from the Hindu pantheon for the sole purpose of reaching out to the rural masses. There were in all seven sketches, though only a few of them were found "objectionable". One poster depicted a character resembling Ravana driving a scooter on a bumpy road with a pregnant Sita behind him, the message here being that a man who takes his pregnant wife on a bumpy road is like Ravana. A second sketch was that of a baby Ganesha lying in his crib with his legs bent and his trunk reaching out to his mother's breast. This was ostensibly aimed at promoting breast-feeding. A third poster, meant to convey the importance of immunisation for young children, depicted Ganesha trying to give an injection to a reluctant Krishna. A fourth poster, highlighting the importance of adequate nutrition for an expectant mother, depicted a pregnant Durga holding a glass of milk, an apple, a broom (signifying physical activity), a banana and a trishul in her multiple hands. A foodpipe leads to a healthy Krishna growing in her womb.

The posters had not yet been launched. "One main focus in all the paintings was to stress the importance of the first milk that contains colostrum, the secretion containing rich antibodies," said Shyam Maali. He said that misconceptions regarding the first milk of a lactating mother persisted in rural Rajasthan. "We have done projects for Care India in the past as well," Maali said. The project, he said, was to be launched in March and a final meeting was to take place before that. In fact, the posters were put on a trial run in parts of Jodhpur, Pali, Bharatpur and Udaipur, and were well received by the target audience. "We have been doing promotional campaigns for the last 15 years on subjects as varied as literacy and environment. We have collaborated with State and Central departments in such projects. But this is the first time we have suffered damage to our reputation," he said.

Kamlendra Panwar said: "We do not have anything against any individual. But our protest is a lesson to everyone who wishes to insult our culture." He said that about 50 Hindu organisations had been mobilised to protest against the institute. "We found out that Bhanu Bharti was arriving at Udaipur on that day and that is why we filed the complaint with the police and organised a protest. But he learnt about it and stayed away. There can be no compromise on this issue. It concerns Hindu samaj. They have to apologise and all the posters have to be destroyed," he said. A broad front called the Hindu Co-ordination Committee has been formed and pamphlets demanding the arrest of both Shail Choyal and Bhanu Bharti have been circulated.

TWO years ago, Rajasthan, which had been relatively free from communal tendencies, was witness to a similar case of moral policing. The place was again Udaipur, the Bajrang Dal was the culprit, and the Ashok Gehlot-led Congress(I) government was in power. The Bajrang Dal prevented acclaimed painter M.F. Hussain from entering Udaipur to receive the Maharana Mewar Foundation Award. The controversy was over Hussain's depiction of the Hindu goddess Saraswati in the nude. While in power, the Congress(I) succumbed to the pressure tactics of the Bajrang Dal. Now, out of power, its silence on the developments at the Bhartiya Lok Kala Mandal has been even more telling.

But others have not remained quiet. On February 15, in Jaipur, several people condemned the police action against Bhanu Bharti and Shail Choyal and demanded that the case against them be withdrawn. Said an artist: "These things are happening because the Congress(I), which was in power in these States, pandered to soft Hindutva." On February 21, artists and other concerned persons came together at a convention organised by SAHMAT to protest the growing attacks on their community. With the Lok Sabha elections just round the corner, it is believed that there might be political and communal motives behind such incidents.

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