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India: Bloggers on art, morality, government and freedom of expression

In what looks like more than mild disagreement between the moral police and the artists, a student from a university in Baroda was arrested for displaying “obscene” works of art. The student, Chandramohan at Maharaja Sayajirao University was first assaulted by “goons” and then arrested. Chapati Mystery reminds us that Baroda is in a state that suffered the wrath of communal violence. Zigzackly has an extensive set of links, and has information on the protests through the country, even as news comes in that the student has been released on bail.

By now, you would have read, heard or seen the news of the arrest of a student, Chandra Mohan, and the suspension of the dean of Maharaja Sayajirao University's Fine Arts faculty in Baroda, Prof. Shivaji Panikker. (For those who haven't, please catch up through the press links below.)

More links to the protest in various cities in India.

Every time something like this happens, my first reaction is a mix of disbelief and laughter. It would be easy to brush off these things with an Obelix-like toc, toc, toc and a ‘These Hindutvavadis are crazy’, were it not for the fact that these events occur more and more frequently, and people suffer imprisonment, exile, suspension and years of legal battles as a consequence.

Falstaff comments on the political agenda of those who assaulted the artist.

The hooligans attacking the MSU Fine Arts faculty aren't, after all, motivated by any genuine moral outrage. They're motivated by a cynical calculation which tells them that attacking a group of artists in the name of tradition and culture will get them more support in the next elections.

They may, of course, be wrong about this. But assuming they're not, it frightens me to think that there are actually people out there who are MORE likely to vote for a party because its hoodlums attack students and act as if they're above the law.

A blog called the Fine Arts Faculty MSU has updates on the issue, including notes on taking the protest to international academic circles. People find various ways to protest, and India Uncut also raises a fascism alert.

The artist community obviously rises up, and organises an exhibition documenting erotica in Indian and Western art. It is a peaceful way of showing their protest. The pro-vice-chancellor of the university arrives and demands that the exhibition be terminated. The dean of the faculty, Dr Shivaji Panikkar, takes a stand and refuses to do so. He is suspended. As I type these words, he is in hiding, worried about what the ruffians could do to him.

Artconcerns.com has updates on the issue, with details on how the student was arrested without a warrant, and how political parties are involved.

Instead of a response to these demands the Vice-Chancellor wanted an unconditional apology from the staff and the students of the Faculty of Fine Arts, for offending their sentiments tendered to the public. It was rejected by the staff/students body on the grounds that it would be tantamount to accepting that they have committed a wrong, whereas that was patently not the case.

Kafila, with biting sarcasm puts forward what it calls a “modest proposal to end all controversies on Freedom of Expression in India”. The arrest of the student is not an isolated event, and is linked to various cases of freedom of expression in India being seriously compromised because of threats to personal safety and professional security.

Actually, all that people need to do is to insist that only the self appointed guardians of public morality (of all stripes and shades) have the right to appear in any broadcast, exhibition, film or other forms of mediated communication. We need every channel to broadcast morally cleansed reality TV all the time. How else will this nation boldly venture where none other has gone before – into that heaven of bliss and freedom known as ennui for the billions.

Note – The thumbnail image is of the painting Mother India by MF Hussain, which is apparently nude, and has angered the right wing Hindutva forces in India.

6 comments

  • Anon

    THE DEATH THROES OF MSU?

    Once a reputed centre of tertiary education with countless number of alumni from all faculties strewn across the world, is now a pariah. It is on the verge of being disowned not only by the UGC, but shunned by past students and teachers who are shocked and shamed at the latest debacle unfolding globally, unfortunately for university administrators, across the internet. It is bad enough to witness the academic demise of one’s alma mater across the last two decades, but watching political fanaticism mocking the very tenets of democracy, of which all Indians are supposedly proud of, is positively blood curdling.

    The university is an institution, which needs to be properly administered and protected by those empowered to do so, including the Vice Chancellor, Syndicate/Senate Members, etc. Instead we are witnessing a debacle where the highest authority turns on his institute, sanctioning the violation of free expression and education on the flimsy excuse of immorality, that too in a land steeped and proud of its heritage such as Khajurao, Kama Sutra and the likes. Vibrant Gujarat indeed!!! The Mahatma and Sardar Patel would most certainly cringe wherever they in their heavenly abodes. The question begs to be asked whether the institute should shelter and tolerate these people. Therein lies the root of evil that has been plaguing MSU over the last few decades. Instead of a focus on academic excellence, mediocrity in all spheres has ruled the roost. Academic excellence dipped, national grants disappeared, dependence on the state government increased, thus allowing any ruling party to exert extraordinary influence on the university’s governance, including the appointment of vice chancellors of their choice, irrespective of their credentials and standing, and most importantly their ability to enhance the organisation’s stature. We have a situation where syndicate/senate members are either political stooges or have been muzzled to rubber-stamp critical decisions that could undermine the university’s credibility and standing. There used to be a time when academic luminaries were syndicate/senate members, but not any more, as political inclination is a preferable prerequisite.

    More disturbing is the rise in religious political fanaticism in what should be the tranquil surroundings of a flourishing university. Ishwar, Allah, Ram, does it really matter where education is concerned. One suspects that there is more to just immorality than meets the eye about the current fracas.

    Students, teachers, deans of faculties, syndicate/senate members, the PVC and VC are all party for the above debacle which represents some of the murkiest depths an educational organization can dip to. MSU is now a laughing stock. One used to take pride in being a MSU degree holder. Not any more, thanks to a crescendo of mediocrity, breeding acceptance of all that is anathema to true democracy, freedom of expression and education. The manner in which this incident has unfolded reminds us of the Taleban in Afghanistan. Are we fostering and encouraging our own “talebans’ who run amuck protecting the society’s ‘morals’, while flagrantly thumbing their noses at fundamental societal rights and law? If this is so, are we encouraging a ‘superior race’ (shades of Nazism) who are irreproachable and not answerable to common law and societal norms.

    Citizens of Baroda, students and teachers of MSU, show some spine and courage and stand up for all that is fair, truthful, legal and most importantly, what is necessary to reverse this downward vortex of destruction the organization is speeding through. March through the streets, express your feelings to the VC, syndicate/senate members, harangue the State Education Minister and Chief Minister, clog the internet and daily press. Remember, state elections are approaching and in 1974, MSU students were at the forefront of overthrowing the then state government. We are a proud state and have been prosperous too, but this needs to be bolstered by a robust educational system. While MSU is in the news, other universities in Gujarat will certainly have their own horror stories to tell. Mediocrity is like a delicate exotic fruit, one does pay dearly for scarcity. Why should Gujarat put up with mediocrity, as it breeds all sorts of evils.

  • bglsehunter

    I wonder if you’d be arguing for “freedom of expression” if the same had been cartoons of the pedophile mohammed, the prophet of Islam. No, I can tell you wouldn’t. Instead, you’d be criticizing the cartoonist for “disrupting communal harmony”. I’m glad this idiot got arrested. There is no need to peddle off indecency and immorality in the name of modernity, progress, and freedom of expression.

  • msr

    I have a painting on my foyer visible from the street of a women from kujraho..topless and wearing just a cloth around her waist.. that is my freedom of expression, she sure does look god like , so if i’m living in vadodra is it justifyable for Mr jain to come after me? BTW – i’m a religious hindu women, but also know that way may be obscene to you may not be to be. and in such cases all you have to do is turn away..Mr jain i heard loves to watch movies and there’s nothing obscene there ??? Hmm shouldn’t he be put behind bars for patronizing such sleeze :)

  • […] The thing about mobs is that most of the individuals are card-carrying cowards. They will act only in the safety and the anonymity of the mob and would not have the chutzpah to take responsibility for any of this on their own. There’s a whole extra level of cowardly anonymity on-line when you are only known by the charming moniker JarJarKicksFrodosAss23, but the anonymity factor works just as well out side the electronic frontier. In recent days India has been abuzz with the story of an art student arrested for displaying “obscene art” – As a side note, India is always abuzz with something or the other, as is the USA, or the UK, or Digg.com. The one thing you can depend on democracies to do well is to be in a constant state of shock and offence. We in India are proud in our solidarity with our fellow democratic brothers and sisters from around the world in being offended by absolutely anything frivolous that we don’t really know about or actually care about. We have raised our offence to an art form. — But to get back to the topic at hand, an anonymous mob walked into a private exhibition in an art college in Vadodara in India and proceeded to administer tender loving care on to one of the student artists for his supposedly obscene depiction of religious icons or something of the sort. The police then came in and saved the now truly suffering artist by arresting him and throwing him into jail. The exhibition of paintings in question was not open to the public. The “offended” actually happened to be one man who simply happened to have enough clout (or money) to gather the Angry Mob™ and also possibly the police. The religious zealots are now offended by the imminent demise of their millennia old culture (which they know nothing about) being caused single-handedly by a bunch of paintings they have never seen. The art community is offended by the offensive offence of the religious zealots. We are all offended together and proud of it! Thankfully the artist has since been released from custody to suffer in freedom instead. […]

  • Harish Duggirala

    “and in such cases all you have to do is turn away.”

    oops then where was all this turning away in the case of the Danish cartoons, Salman Rushdie’s book and Taslima Nasreen’s Lajja?

    I also didn’t quite get why the hero MF Hussain withdrew Meenaxi from theatres as soon as Muslims complained that it offended them.

    I don’t remember all this hoopla about “freedom of expression” when Muslims were marching against the Danish cartoons and everyone knows why, because most of you are first rate cowards hiding behind your PC’s (cyber cowards would be the apt term) and know what would have happened if you dared to do something against Islam.

  • bonglesehunter

    We never hear of the “art” community being offended when Satanic verses was banned in India or when there were violent protests against the Mohammad cartoons or when Da Vinci code wasn’t released or when the Nathuram Godse play was banned. Let media attention focus on the Bhopal muslims who were recently offended by cartoons that made muslims look like terrorists (which they are).

    It’s quit evident that this is a one-sided turd flinging contest to paint Hinduism and Hindus in a bad light.

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