The attack on a student artist at M.S. University is roundly condemned as an attempt by communal forces to stifle freedom of expression.
IN April, the Tate Modern art gallery in London had an exhibition of works by well-known artists Gilbert and George. Some of the works were sexually explicit in the extreme. The show, which was open for public viewing, closed with rave reviews early this month.
In stark contrast, Chandramohan, a young student artist at the reputed Maharaja Sayajirao (M.S.) University of Baroda in Vadodara, was beaten by Hindu communal forces and arrested by the police for "offending" religious sentiments through his "vulgar" depiction of gods and goddesses. Further, the exhibition, which was not open to the public in any case, is now closed indefinitely.
Perhaps the exhibition at the Tate Modern did not deal with what has now become a sensitive topic in India - religious iconography. The issue here, says the artist fraternity, is that artists can exercise their freedom of expression elsewhere but not in India; Hindutva forces continue to rear their intolerant communal heads, and without the establishment taking a strong stand, academic and cultural freedom in this country is in peril.
On May 9, a group of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) activists led by a local leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Niraj Jain, stormed into the final year student exhibition at M.S. University's Faculty of Fine Arts. They attacked Chandramohan on the grounds that his work hurt the religious sentiments of two communities. The police who followed the activists then arrested the artist. When Acting Fine Arts Dean Shivaji K. Panikkar attempted to intervene, the police threatened to arrest him as well. Following nationwide protests, Chandramohan was released several days later on bail.
In spite of demands from students and witnesses, university Vice-Chancellor Manoj Soni refused to file a first information report (FIR) or extend any support to Chandramohan. Instead, Soni met Niraj Jain, listened to his demands and then asked Chandramohan and Panikkar to apologise. Both refused. Panikkar was subsequently issued a suspension notice. He went into hiding as the police and Sangh Parivar groups threatened him. The police refused to file an FIR when the students went to them directly.
Not many people have seen the "objectionable" paintings. According to Tushar Joag, an M.S. University student, one of the paintings shows the goddess Durga sitting in a birthing position with rakshasas emerging from within her. Another is of a cross floating above a commode. The third is of a phallic symbol with erotic sculptures floating around it.
Some Christian priests teamed up with Jain and the VHP activists to take on Chandramohan and Panikkar. This despite the fact that Gujarat's Hindu fundamentalists are known to attack Christian missionaries on the slightest pretext.
"What happened is absolutely outrageous," said Bina Srinivasan, a student from M.S. University. The exhibition was not open to the public. Jain had no right to enter. As part of the examination procedure, students are expected to put up their works, which are assessed by external examiners. "What is of grave concern in this entire unfolding of events is the fascist agenda that underlies the actions of the likes of Niraj Jain, " she said, adding that the nexus between the police and the Sangh Parivar in Gujarat was clear for all to see (as it was in 2002). "We are completely helpless here. Forget justice. There is no place to appeal for it either."
"Another example of how the university has buckled under pressure from the authorities is that they scuttled our demonstration," said Rohit Prajapati, of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) in Gujarat. "We had planned a protest on campus on May 12, but the police requested us to cancel it as they feared violence from the locals.
The next day the university said only those with identity cards would be allowed into the campus. Even us alumni were not permitted entry. We stood outside the campus in a peaceful protest when about 150 VHP workers began to disrupt the meeting by abusing us and trying to scuffle with us. The police just stood by and watched," he said.
Speaking to Frontline, Niraj Jain said that the exhibition was open to the public for two days of the week. "Someone told us about the paintings, and I thought it was unacceptable to have such things on display. When I saw the paintings my religious sentiments were hurt and I had to take action," he said. Jain has not been arrested as the police say there is no FIR filed against him.
"We demand that Chandramohan and Panikkar apologise to the whole country. If they do not, we will shut down Baroda [Vadodara] and cause more problems," he said.
There are murmurs that the incident was politically motivated. Jain once contested corporation elections but lost. With the Assembly elections approaching, Jain's rabble-rousing seems to have an obvious aim. It is unlikely that his superiors sitting in Ahmedabad would have a problem with his Hindutva plan.
In a massive show of strength, artists, writers, actors, journalists, film-makers and civil liberties activists across the country held demonstrations protesting against the episode.
In Mumbai, protesters included several top contemporary artists such as Tyeb Mehta and Jehangir Sabavala. Expressing his dismay, Sabavala pointed out that this kind of moral policing appeared to be growing across the country and the tendency was almost fascist in nature. This could trigger a fear psychosis in students and professionals alike, who would not have the freedom to express what they felt, he said.
In New Delhi, well-known artist Anjali Ela Menon and activists Arundhati Roy and Nandita Das got together with SAHMAT (Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust) to lead a protest against the attacks on artists, including seniors such as M.F. Husain, by the self-appointed guardians of culture. Addressing the group, Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Sitaram Yechury said, "This is not merely an attack on a single person but, in the larger framework, an attack on diversity and goes against the fundamental rights of an individual."
In Bangalore, film-maker Girish Kasaravalli and painters S.G. Vasudev and Ravi Kumar Kashi led a demonstration against moral policing.
The protests appear to have had some effect - Union Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh has asked the University Grants Commission to intervene and possibly derecognise M.S. University.
"I think everyone has had enough. Rather than let fear set in, artists have realised that we have to take a stand," said painter Chintan Upadhyaya, who is an M.S. University alumnus. "Of course, they can get away with it in Gujarat because of what Gujarat is today. It is a law unto itself. Maybe they will not do it Mumbai now. But if they get away with it so easily here, it will be Mumbai or Delhi next. We cannot sit back and let this continue," he said.
"Art is sometimes created to provoke, to stimulate debate and for people to interpret in different ways," said Meera Devidayal, an artist in Mumbai. "Most artists would not mind people objecting to their work, but it should be done in the right manner. There are peaceful platforms for debate and those could be used," she said.
A gallery owner who participated in the protests said, "Now do we [need to] rethink or closely examine what we put up? This amounts to censorship, which is totally against the rules of art."
According to a civil rights lawyer who did not want to be named, the police do have the right to arrest anyone who they believe might injure religious sentiments and therefore threaten public order. He said, however, that courts are careful to differentiate between vulgarity, obscenity and blasphemy. The last one was the most serious crime and rarely did judgments on creative pursuits get this tag, he said.
The M.S. University Fine Arts Department has been at the forefront of the Indian contemporary art movement. It is known in the art world for inspiring and encouraging students to expand their creativity and produce original work. Some of India's best-known artists from various genres, such as K.G. Subramanyam and Rekha Rodwittiya, have graduated from this illustrious institution.
"So the disappointment with the university not standing by its students is huge," says Upadhyaya.