Fascist Assault on Freedom

The dust on the sordid Fake Encounter saga had just begun to blow when came another instance of fascist overdrive in Gujarat. Earlier this month, goons affiliated to the ruling BJP-RSS-VHP combine barged into the Fine Arts Department of the MS University, Baroda, vandalizing the art work displayed by the post-graduate student, Chandra Mohan. The Vice Chancellor, M.S. Soni, a known RSS stooge, responded swiftly by first handing over the student to the police, then suspending the Dean of the Fine Arts Department, Shivaji Panniker, who had refused to be cowed down by the combined might of the Hindutva brigade, and then finally ordering the sealing of the department itself!
 At the center of the storm were Chandra Mohan’s paintings depicting Sita and other goddesses. The saffron brigade charged that his paintings—which were not even on public display—were immoral and obscene. Their fragile sensibilities violated, vandalism became their incumbent duty. Earlier, M.F. Hussain has earned the ire of these groups for his paintings of Hindu Goddesses.
Unfortunately for the sham defenders of the faith, there exist numerous examples of the coupling of erotica, aesthetics and spirituality in the arts and literature for the past two and a half millennia for them now to turn their prurient noses at any one artist’s depiction and interpretation of mythology. The Siva Linga for instance. Or the yoni, the object of awe and reverence in the tantric sects. The widespread worship of lajja gowri (the shy goddess) who was typically represented with her feet held back and the vagina prominently displayed. The sculptures of Khujarao have appeared far too many times on the publicity brochures of the various tourism departments for even the Sanghis to feign ignorance. But for the purveyors of “One Nation, One Culture, One People”, all signs of multiple and alternative traditions must be erased. Thus an exhibition portraying the Jataka tale of Ram and Sita as a brother-sister duo was attacked in Ayodhya a few years ago. Thus too, the mazaar of Wali Dakhani, a symbol of syncreticism and plurality needed to be razed. As must now, the occlusion of the erotic from all art that evokes mythology. 
Unfortunately the Sangh Parivar is not the only group that assaults freedom of artistic and political expression. The CPI(M) was full of virtuous indignation over the Sangh violence on artists at Gujarat, but seem to have conveniently forgotten that storm troopers from their own party had, less than ten days ago, attacked Shaonli Mitra eminent artists and intellectuals in Calcutta for speaking out against the Nandigram massacre. In CPI (M)-ruled Kerala, five students of a film and television college had been expelled last month for producing and directing a film on homosexuality – and neither the CPI(M) not the State Government did anything in their defence.
Next door to Gujarat, in Congress-ruled Maharashtra, in October 2006, a play on the working class culture of Bombay mills, “Cotton 56 Polyester 84”, was disrupted by the Maharashtra police and its performance prohibited in Nagpur. In the same month, police in Chandrapur (Maharashtra again), raided a book stall at Deekshabhoomi, where the golden jubilee of B.R. Ambedkar’s conversion was being commemorated. The publisher’s crime was selling books of Bhagat Singh (whose birth centenary the Congress is celebrating), Clara Zetkin and Che Guevera among others! Days after television channels beamed live the beating up of a Christain priest in Jaipur by BJP-Sangh workers, VHP goons emulated the same in Kohlapur. In true Modi style, the two Christian priests were arrested for inducing conversions through allurements and fraud. The VHP activists—caught on camera strutting their act—were let off for lack of a formal complaint against them!
Vigilante violence against Christians and Muslims has received legal crutches in the form of anti-conversion laws, which require extensive paper work and fees for converting to religions other than Hinduism. The law is routinely employed by the rightist goons to justify their own violence and to claim legal immunity. It is a sign of our times perhaps that the very law which is intended to curb the constitutional right to practice and propagate religion should be titled, “Freedom of Religion Bill”. This law operates in seven states: the most recent entrant to this illustrious club is Congress-ruled Himachal Pradesh. Though there were no express demands for an anti-conversion law, the state government decided to take pro-active measures to “infuse confidence among the people of the state”. The Principal Home Secretary conceded that the law was not based on any study or statistics indicating the presence or proliferation of forced conversions. Buoyed by the passage of the bill in Himachal, demands for a similar legislation are echoing elsewhere too: VHP’s Ashok Singhal welcomed the Himachal Government’s move and demanded the extension of this law to the entire country; the new Chief Minister of Uttarakhand Khanduri promised the (un)Freedom Bill to a   congregation of Hindu priests in Haridwar.     
Even as competitive communalism masquerades as a struggle between communalism and secularism, the battle lines are clearly drawn. The real pitched battles will be fought for extending and deepening democracy and defeating fascism.

- Manisha Sethi