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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 23

Beauty And the Beast: Baroda episode underscores threat to creative expression

Thursday 31 May 2007, by Anil Dharker


Who is Chandramohan Srilamantula? Is he such a famous artist that the entire art community is staging protests against his arrest? Actually, Chandramohan is only 23 and still a student, and it is his project work that’s made an impact far beyond his wildest imagination.

A few details in case you missed them. The Baroda University’s Fine Arts faculty is acknowledged as one of the finest art schools in the country. It has a tradition of asking its final year students to mount an exhibition of their submissions, a display meant for other students and staff to see, assess and discuss. It was this show that a group of VHP activists, led by Niraj Jain, a small-time local advocate, barged into, vandalised and then manhandled Chandramohan. The policemen present acted only after the damage was done, and then arrested not the ransackers but the artist.

Even though Chandramohan has since been released, what is pertinent is that this skewed view of justice was shared by the Vice-Chancellor. He urged Chandramohan to stay in jail and asked the Head of the Department, Shivraj Panikkar, to close down the exhibition (and when he refused, promptly suspended him).

What has made the artists come together in protest is that this attack isn’t an isolated one, but one more in a series now increasing in both frequency and wantonness. Chandramohan is the straw that broke the camel’s back.

This particular attack raises more than the usual questions. To start with, there’s the university administration taking on the role of predator when we had assumed that educational institutions are liberal in their outlook and encourage the free flow of ideas and the dissenting view. That certainly was the case at the MS University which has had distinguished Vice-Chancellors like Bhikhu Parekh, and earlier, Syndicate members of the standing of former President of India, S. Radhakrishnan.

Gujarat’s CM, Narendra Modi, has systemati-cally changed that. Nothing exemplifies that more than the elevation of Manoj Soni to the VC’s post at the age of 40, while he was a mere Reader. Apparently, what impressed Modi was Soni’s brand of scholarship, particularly the book, In Search of Third Space, on the Gujarat carnage of 2002, in which he took a stong Hindutva line. Soni is said to allow the RSS and BJP members of the University Senate to wield so much influence that he is called Chhote Modi on the campus.

Then there’s the role of the police, whom we, out of force of habit, call law enforcers. The Gujarat police’s record in this field is a tragic joke, but then other States have not distinguished themselves either. The Mumbai Police stood by when Shiv Sainiks attacked cinema theatres showing a Deepa Mehta film, while the Pune Police did nothing when a mob destroyed priceless original documents in the Bhandarkar Institute (because Richard Laing had done some research for his Shivaji book there). Recently, the Mumbai cops did some moral policing of their own, arresting young couples found in “compromising position” (policespeak for young men and women having their arms around each other).

Leading these attacks are religious groups of many colours: Muslim groups (Satanic Verses), Christian groups (Da Vinci Code), but most of all Hindutva groups (everything). They are led by people like Niraj Jain, apparently a leading light in the Vadodara BJP, who has been known to brandish a revolver, and throw eggs at the Gujarat Educa-tion Minister for including them in school mid-day meals.

Or people like Babu Bajrangi, a key suspect in the Naroda Patia massacre of Muslims, wo stopped the screening of Parzania recently. Or Amit Thaker who launched a campaign against all Aamir Khan films because the actor expressed support for Medha Patkar.

Which brings us to the question of the media’s role. We have been brought up to believe that its primary role is to report. But what happens when reporting becomes a spotlight? A few goons enter a museum, destroy what’s on display and claim that it’s done to protect the interest of the general morality or whatever. The group is generally small (say 15 people) and represents nobody, yet its impact is far larger than it should be because the media gives it prominence. To take the Baroda

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