Wednesday 16 May 2007

From Hyderabad

Statement

Condemning the arrest of Chandramohan, art student, on 9th May 2007 and the suspension of Shivaji Panikkar, Dean of Faculty of Fine Arts on 10th May 2007 at Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda.

Issued by Anveshi Research Centre for Women’s Studies
And Vidyasagar’s Art Centre, Hyderabad

Released at a protest meeting supported by Shrishti Art Gallery, Hyderabad
On Sunday, 13th May 2007

Background:

On 9th of May, the final year display assessment of artwork by students of the fine arts faculty of MS University Baroda was interrupted. Niraj Jain, a VHP activist, stormed into the faculty building accompanied by the media and followed by the police. One young student Chandramohan was manhandled because his pictures allegedly offended religious sensibilities, and was whisked away by the police without an FIR or a warrant. No permission was taken from the in-charge Dean, Dr. Shivaji Panikkar or the Vice-Chancellor of the University. Even though the Dean informed the Vice-Chancellor and other authorities of the events taking place on campus, no help or sympathy was forthcoming.
As Niraj Jain and his associates roamed freely across the campus threatening staff and students alike, the police ACP, T. R. Parmar ordered that the offending five works be taken down and sealed
Chandramohan was produced at court at about 10:30 a.m. on the 10th May, along with a representative of the student body posting bail, and a PUCL lawyer. A large contingent of VHP-related or associated activists were also present, who jostled and intimidated him. They effectively stalled the proceedings. The judge asked him to be removed to the Baroda Central Jail, where he has been lodged ever since. His bail plea will be heard on Monday, 14th May.
Students and staff submitted a memorandum to the Vice-Chancellor asking, a) that the University must file an FIR against Niraj Jain for disrupting the exams; b) that all legal help must be extended to the student in custody. Instead of responding to these demands the Vice-Chancellor wanted an unconditional apology from the staff and the students of the Faculty of Fine Arts to the public, for offending their sentiments.
It was decided by the students that an exhibition dealing with the long history of Erotica in both Indian and Western art would be put up in order to educate the press and the public. Many came and visited the exhibition. At around 4:00 p.m the Deputy Registrar issued a verbal request that the exhibition be closed down, which the Dean refused to accede to, as it was a peaceful protest by the students drawing material from the academic curriculum. A written order followed and was received by the Dean and Faculty members, but the exhibition continued. The Pro Vice Chancellor then arrived at the venue, accompanied by some members of the Syndicate of the University. They requested Dr Panikkar to close down the exhibition and then ordered him to do so. When the Dean would not comply they had the exhibition locked.
The argument put forward by the Dean was that the students had invoked the help of the University authorities a number of times. So far as no help had been extended to them. How could he, as the Dean, be sure that the authorities’ actions were for the good of the University? The Dean reiterated that he would stand by the students and staff. The authorities sealed the exhibition and the Regional Documentation Center.
A suspension order was pasted on the Dean’s Residence door at 10:00 p.m. No reason has been given for his suspension. As per the local media, the Dean of Management Faculty, professor Maheshwari, has been given charge of the Fine Arts Faculty. Teachers have gone on mass casual leave in protest of the University’s decision.
This sequence of events shows clearly the highhanded conduct of the authorities, the police and the state machinery. Protesting against this is important in the context of the recent attacks on film, art and literary works. Our stand is not that art should be removed from the sphere of politics. We only contend that terror should not be deployed in lieu of politics. For several reasons:

What are the issues at stake here?
1. The space of the university: The University is a space that is designed to help students grow and mature in their thought and conduct through debate, criticism and discussion. Thus, the institution is expected to provide guardianship and custodial responsibility to the student in most positive ways imaginable. The failure of the university administration to provide this environment of critical support is a serious collapse of an educational institution’s primary objective. More, the manner in which the student has been abandoned by the administration demonstrates a deplorable failure to perform its duty.
2. The university’s responsibility: The current administration of MS University, Baroda has failed to maintain the customary high standards of the institution, which has had a history of being a prime mover in the development of modern Indian art since the freedom movement. The Vice Chancellor of the university represents the ideals of the institution. Previous Vice Chancellors such as Hansa Mehta and Bhikhu Parekh have been legendary for their vision, liberal thinking and progressive stances towards art. The current regime represents an abysmal decline from these past standards. The in-charge Dean of the Fine Arts Faculty, Dr. Shivaji Panikkar represents a diminishing trend of administrative integrity and commitment to education in India.
3. Legal questions: The entry of the VHP operatives, the arbitrariness of the police actions and the conduct of the administration raise serious legal problems. What gives a group of outsiders the right to enter the university premises without the permission of the administration? How can a party functionary act as the moral police deciding to terminate an exhibition? Under what authority does the police enter an educational premises unbidden, and how can they whisk a student away without an arrest warrant? How was the display of artwork that had been exhibited for assessment equated to a public exhibition?
4. Excesses of state machinery: The behavior of the state machinery in this case is puzzling in its excess. Why is a boy, who has probably barely crossed 20 years of age, and is in any case a student--by definition not yet a fully developed intellect—first manhandled, then unceremoniously whisked away by the police and then detained in state custody for not less than five days? Is there some measure or wisdom in the state’s eagerness to punish this child? The dismaying conclusion here is that the student is nothing more than an excuse for other agendas.
5. The student and his potential: It is important to look at the student in his special nature. Chandramohan, a fine arts student, is the son of a carpenter. It is truly remarkable that the Baroda fine arts faculty is able to teach and nurture students who come from such underprivileged backgrounds in an elite academic and cultural tradition of fine art. Chandramohan represents the best potential for democratic functioning of our institutions of education – he holds out the hope for a more egalitarian future of our caste-ridden society. The state machinery and the university administration have in one fell swoop forced him to submit to an incarceration that will mark his memory for life. To what purpose is such terror inflicted on such tender life?
6. Terror or politics? It is not our contention that art should be insulated from political pressures. Art has always questioned and been confronted by political pressures over several centuries. We welcome political argument, debate, criticism and yes, even uncompromising denunciation. Our protest is that politics cannot be replaced by terror. Terror annuls the difficult gains democratic politics makes painfully over decades. Terror moves us on to the easy downhill track of modern authoritarian despotism.

Demands:
1. We demand the immediate release and unconditional withdrawal of cases against Chandramohan.
2. We demand that the suspension order against the Dean be revoked immediately.

Signed/-
A. Suneetha
Coordinator,

Anveshi Research Centre for Women’s Studies
And
Rasna Bhushan,
curator,

Vidyasagar’s Art Centre

Faked Cultural Encounters in Gujarat - Dilip Chitre

Faked Cultural Encounters in Gujarat

Dilip Chitre

We have heard of faked police encounters with alleged terrorists in Gujarat and elsewhere. Power vested in the police is abused in such cases and they act in contempt of the Constitution of India and sometimes violate even the (outdated) criminal procedure code and the (outmoded) Indian Penal Code designed by the British to deal with a subject people and not with citizens of a free country.

The case of art student Chandramohan of the M.S.University of Baroda falls in the category of faked cultural encounters of the sort ‘popularized’ by organizations such as the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad who, in their zeal to for a Semitized Hindutva fundamentalizing and hegemonizing Indian culture and society, now invade university campuses, art galleries, film clubs, libraries, research centres and so on seemingly without impunity. Gujarat is supposedly Hindutva’s premier social and cultural laboratory setting a blazing example for the rest of India.

The Gujarat formula for faked cultural encounters is simple and would appeal to the latent reserves of power among culturally illiterate masses. Politicized student organizations (such as the ABVP) will provide them the lead in violent demonstrations of protest on the basis of ‘hurt sentiments’, an ailment that threatens to assume epidemic proportions because the virus for it seems to have been successfully developed in Hindutva’s laboratory.

It is a virus that selectively attacks all but fundamentalist Hindus. It was reportedly developed to eliminate ‘the three ‘M’s from Gujarat: the Muslims, the Mahatma, and the Macauleyans (meaning those educated since Macaulay introduced his Minute on Indian Education in 1835 according to modern Western ideas). Humanism, liberalism, rationalism, secularism, artistic expression, dissenting opinion, scientific research are some of the soft targets of this virus.

The Fine Arts Faculty of the M.S. University is only a symbolic target. But so was Babri Masjid. We are not discussing art or religion here. We are considering the right to pursue alternatives according to our own faith and beliefs. We are also expressing concern over coercion, suppression, and threats to public order and peace who threaten riots because their ‘sentiments are hurt’. We will soon become a republic governed by majority sentiment rather than legislative rationality and judicial wisdom, political far-sightedness and the guarantee of cultural freedom and plurality.

Will the Gujarat ‘laboratory’ succeed once again? For the sake of the Constitution of India and the future of the republic founded on it, one hopes the entire nation will condemn the perpetrators of such barbaric and fanatical interventions in the evolution of democracy in India and its autonomous institutions.

Let us turn to history to understand the gravity of the threat the ultra rightist fronts pose to our Constitution itself. On May 10, 1933 student groups in universities across Germany carried out book burnings to destroy works they considered ‘un-German’ in spirit. Six years later, Adolph Hitler invaded Poland and launched what became the Second World War.

What has commenced in Gujarat may spread to the rest of India if not checked in time. In the Chandramohan case, while the national media have reported the wide sympathy and support to the Fine Arts Faculty of the M.S.University, the victimised student and the Dean of the faculty, the Gujarati press has been either silent or has given only one-sided coverage of the entire sordid affair.

This silence is ominous. It is like Germany’s silence during the holocaust. Or, to take a historically and geographically closer example, it is like the silence of Afghanistan during the Taliban regime.

In this, the sixtieth year of our independence, is intolerance all that we have learnt to tolerate? Do we want to lock up our artists and writers for not conforming to the ideology of fanatics? Do we want hoodlums to enter our universities and dictate terms to the faculty and the students? Do we want public libraries and museums to be the next targets of organized vigilantes and vandals?

(ENDS)

Editorial - Dilip Chitre

Editorial

Who is Afraid of Fundamental Rights?

An expected, but bizarre, public response in Maharashtra to the recent lifting of a ban on James Laine’s book Shivaji---Hindu King in Muslim India---provokes me to write this. Author Laine’s effigies were burnt in several places and his publisher, Oxford University Press were warned against selling the book. The Chief of the Shiv Sena urged the public to burn copies of the book. Other political parties joined him in the demand.

Then, on May 9, 2007 The Times of India shockingly reported that the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute that had been vandalized purportedly by people offended by a passage in Laine’s book, has now decided to support a ban on Laine’s book. (A research institute seeking ban on a book? That is unheard of! )--- The B.O.R.I. was reportedly seeking a ban on Laine’s book in view of a recent ruling by the Supreme Court rejecting an appeal challenging the Karnataka government’s banning the book Dharmakarana that allegedly hurts the sentiments of the followers of saint Basaveshvara and the Veerashaiva community.

‘Hurt sentiments’ now threaten to become a judicially acceptable ground for banning works of scholarship, literature, and art---some of them alleged to be maliciously motivated. Most of the people ---who claim to be ‘hurt’--- claim so on religious and sectarian grounds. They also take the law in their hands as they did in vandalizing the B.O.R.I. and got away without any punishment from the government of Maharashtra.

Then there was the ‘public outcry’ against the Hollywood actor, Richard Gere’s
mock-erotic on-stage foreplay with Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty at an AIDS-awareness show. This is supposed to have ‘hurt public sentiments’. A PIL was filed against Gere and an overenthusiastic magistrate promptly issued an arrest warrant against the American actor. The magistrate has been transferred since. The frivolity of such complaints ought to be prevented by law. There has to be legislative protection, for instance, for artists such as M.F.Hussain who has been harassed by known vigilante organization with no respect for the values of civil society.

These various instances of ‘public outcry’ seem unrelated; but they are not. They point to the fact that though 57 years have passed since this nation embraced its Constitution, few Indians have grasped the implications of the fundamental rights it enshrines. These rights are the foundation of a liberal, democratic, secular and civil society respectful of its own plurality. They are not the legacy of the British Empire, as some believe; they are the foundation of a new and modern secular nation-state, where all citizens are equally empowered, and where the state and an individual are also equal in the eyes of the law. Also, it has to be understood that secularism is a commitment to neutrality towards all religious and sectarian beliefs and practices; and not equal sensitivity to every religious sentiment. By the way, what is religious sentiment? What is cultural tradition? In a multicultural and multireligious society, can such sentiments be used to tyrannise dissent, prevent debate and discussion, and ultimately to make a mockery of fundamental rights? Will government actions and judicial decisions be dictated by threats from rioters, vandals, arsonists, and their extra-legal armies?

Our founding fathers bitterly argued its many features before ratifying our Constitution. What they did not realize, then, was how the Indian polity and its many constituent factions would translate it into practice. They did not realize, for instance, that caste Hindu politics would become stronger rather than melt away. They did not realize that Hindu revivalism and Muslim fundamentalism would temporarily lie low only to explode into communal riots, pogroms, and state-abetted genocide just fifty years later. They did not realize that adult franchise would not automatically result in cleaner electoral politics. The did not foresee the slow and steady rise of populism, linguistic and cultural chauvinism, waves of xenophobia, and a decline in civil order.

They also failed to see that the British Empire’s real legacy would be its bureaucratic apparatus and the police that were intended to rule a subject people and not citizens with their rights in place.

In these, they left what has now become the foundation of corruption and abuse of power. It is an intriguing point whether the elected representatives of people corrupt the bureaucrat or vice versa. It is just as hard to tell whether money is translated into electoral power or it is the other way round. The apparent wealth of newly risen politicians and political parties, as well as vigilante groups that go on a rampage when their ‘sentiments are hurt’ goes unnoticed by internal revenue officials, themselves under pressure from politicians.

When the judiciary defends the Constitution that is found variously inconvenient by people with anti-Constitutional interests, judicial activism is seriously discussed by those who believe that Parliament is above the Constitution. They do not pause to ask whether judicious legislation is not the real answer to judicial activism or intervention.

It is assumed by most people in India that the electoral system is for laundering the character of any contestant. Most Indians see democracy as rule by the majority and values as something that popularity polls decide. People with criminal records believe that if they could become legislators, they could themselves be the law that they already think they are. This absurd logic seems to have a lot of support, too.

Banning any book is restricting citizens’ right to read. Banning a controversial book is to shroud in secrecy the alleged controversial elements in it without reasonable public discussion and debate. A section of the public, or even a majority of public opinion, cannot claim that what hurts its sentiments should therefore be hidden from everyone else. As for burning books, Adolph Hitler---Mr. Thackeray’s hero---tried to create a fascist culture out of the smoke of burnt books. He failed. However, some Indians still feel they will succeed by making illiteracy and uncivil behaviour the ideals of their followers.

Our Constitution treats us all as equals regardless of our gender, religion, caste, and creed. However, it does not ban the Manusmriti, the Holy Koran, the Old and the New Testament, and other sacred books that make all those discriminations. It simply empowers us to make a choice of faith and belief. Our Constitution does not tell men and women what to wear, or what to eat, or what to see, or what to read, or what to think. We are a secular state that draws no lines between the sacred and the profane. Our state is concerned solely with this-worldly good governance and common public interest.

Lord Acton, the great 19th century English historian of liberty, observed, “It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority. For there is a reserve of latent power in the masses which, if it is called into play, the minority can seldom resist.” He, then, goes on to warn us, “But from the absolute will of an entire people there is no appeal, no redemption, no refuge but treason.”
Our electoral system is based on universal adult franchise. It threatened caste Hindus with the prospect of facing empowered dalits, scheduled castes, and tribes. It unsettled Hindu revivalists by raising the spectre of the power of collective Muslim votes. It is now making men fear women voters.

None of these fragments of the nation’s polity, at any level, want a secular national mainstream to emerge. They do not even want to think about it. They have been forced into alliances with their traditional enemies. What they share in common is not the love of democracy but its fear. They prefer populist protest, violent demonstration, and public exercise of majority muscle to discussion, debate, or any other rational response to what they do not agree with.

“Hurt sentiments’ is a euphemism for ‘justified anger’ whose violent public expression is considered lawful.

Threatening a riot over any self-expression a group of people disagrees with has become a political tool that hides behind existing laws.

Take the recent case of Chandramohan, a fine arts student of the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. A local lawyer, Niraj Jain, invaded the university campus with a bunch of goons to disrupt the young artist’s in-faculty and on-campus exhibition which was not meant for the public. He demanded that the exhibition be immediately closed. He also had the art student arrested.

The Dean of the Fine Arts Faculty, who stood firmly behind the student, has since been suspended by the Vice Chancellor of the University. This is obviously a case of political orchestration and a threat to incite the public against a minority---in this case an academic institution, its faculty, and its student community. The Bajrang Dal, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the B.J.P. and their invisible mentors the R.S.S. are obviously involved in this ugly affair. The Vice Chancellor is a political appointee and a B.J.P. government is in power in Gujarat.

Politicians and leaders of every ilk are afraid that the Constitution has made India increasingly unpredictable in the last 57 years. They find that the wrong people are empowered by the Constitution: the dalit, women, or even the dissenting intellectual, scholar, writer, or the avant garde artist. So most of them direct their rage and desperation against the very book they take an oath of allegiance to, namely the Constitution of India. However, they do this cleverly by misusing and frivolously interpreting certain sections of the Indian Penal Code.

We are fortunate to be over one billion people ruled by a Constitution that does not allow any minority or majority to oppress the individual. We are fortunate to speak many languages, practice different religions, and have regional traditions that vary. We are lucky to be recognized as individuals equal before one law.

However, how many democracies can a single nation-state hold? The individual, from whose rights our state itself derives its sanctity, is in a permanent minority of one. From that minority of one emerge smaller or larger consensual groups, whether they are religious, ethnic, linguistic, or sectarian. The right to express oneself, the right to debate with others and to argue against them, the right to publicize opinion and to criticize it, the right to question beliefs, the right to propagate views---all these are interrelated and inseparable.

Are we in a state of social, cultural, and political anarchy not apprehended by our founding fathers 57 years ago? Is our system beginning to crumble under the weight of our massive population and its variegated constituents? Why do so many people in the ruling class find our Constitution increasingly inconvenient? Why is everybody afraid of fundamental rights?

The rights of the individual are the cornerstone of our Constitution. Those who seek to curtail those rights by demanding bans on books, paintings, plays, films, or public shows that ‘hurt their sentiments’ should openly say that the Constitution of India hurts their sentiments most. They should also openly confess that they would not hesitate to resort to inciting public feelings, causing riots, and provoking arson and looting should the law not bend in their favour.

Dilip Chitre