MUMBAI: From painters and poets to dancers, film-makers, students, actors, journalists, bloggers, trade unionists, lawyers, bureaucrats, and even the President of the Bombay Rotary, it was a rainbow coalition of over 200 liberals who came together on the pavement outside the city's oldest public artspace, the Jehangir Art Gallery, to protest the way in which the Baroda police had arrested Chandramohan, a student at the M S University, on grounds of "promoting enmity between different groups".
As part of his final examination, Chandramohan had put up three religious-themed prints. The exhibition was meant for only examiners and students. On Wednesday, VHP members, led by Nitish Jain, attacked the installations and demanded Chandramohan's arrest. He was immediately arrested and released on bail on Monday after five nights in jail.
Organised by the Free Chandramohan Committee, the Jehangir demonstration was informally moderated by Kekoo Gandhi, the eminence grise of the Mumbai art scene, and art critic Ranjit Hoskote.
The steps served as an impromptu stage to which speaker after speaker stepped up to make their statements. Seated right in front was Tyeb Mehta, who despite his fragile health, had travelled all the way from Lokhandwala Complex, to register solidarity. M F Husain also sent a painting. Many in the audience wore placards which read 'Don't Sing, Dance, Paint, Write, Love. Live in Fear.'
Another poster, in a nod to Gandhigiri, read, "Nitish Jain, Get Well Soon."
A number of speakers condemned the "fascist state of Narendra Modi" and drew comparisons with the Nazis whose rise to power was marked by the burning of books and clamping down on art. Quoting Martin Neimoller's 'First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak up...' poem, former civic chief Jamshed Kanga said one should strike out against "this moral policing that is totally immoral".
Journalist Anil Dharker spoke out against Manoj Soni, the vice-chancellor of the MS University, who had failed to stand up for his student. Dharker said one could expect little from a vice-chancellor "whose only claim to fame is that he wrote a book about the Gujarat carnage and endeared himself to Narendra Modi".
Sudha Varde, the veteran socialist, said writers and artists had often been at the receiving end of political censorship, and cited the example of Vijay Tendulkar who was targeted by the Shiv Sena.
Senior artist Jehangir Sabavala made the point that in a democracy there were many ways to tackle issues but "not in this savage way where you storm a university, a sanctified space. This whole fascist tendency must be put down".
"I am speaking as a Gujarati," said writer Prabodh Parikh to applause. "I am proud to be a Gujarati and I wish to say there is another Gujarati identity that is not Narendra Modi and not Mahatma Gandhi. It is the modern-minded Gujarati who lives in Bombay."
Among those present were artists Mehli Gobai, Jaideep Mehrotra and Julius Mcwan; poets Arjun Dangle, Imtiaz Dharker and Anand Thakore; mill unionist Datta Ishwalkar; Tasneem Mehta of heritage group Intach, publisher Bina Sarkar Ellias; film-makers Saeed Mirza and Chitra Palekar; actress Konkona Sen, dancer Jhelum Paranjape; theatre director Pratap Sharma; and free software advocate Vickram Crishna who even broadcast the meeting on 96 FM.