Statement on Attack on Habib Tanvir

On September 1, Habib Tanveer turns 80. For the many hundred thousand of those who have over the years watched and loved his plays, this is an occasion to celebrate and salute an extraordinarily creative career. It is also, however, a time to reflect on the dangers faced by artists in our dark times. For  Habib Tanvir and his band of rural actors have been under vicious attack from the Sangh Parivar for the last fortnight or so.

The attacks began a day after Independence Day, when Tanveer's  Naya Theatre was performing in Gwalior. The plays being performed were Jis Lahore Nai Dekhya Vo Janmya Hi Nai and Ponga Pandit. Naya Theatre had been commissioned by the Department of Culture, Government of Madhya Pradesh, to perform the two plays. Activists of the RSS-VHP-Bajrang Dal-BJP combine have followed the plays in several cities, and disrupted its performances. The plays were attacked at Hoshangabad on 18 August, at Seoni on the 19th, at Balaghat on the 20th, and Mandla on the 21st. According to newspaper reports, the performance at Narsinghpur was cancelled.A protest march to the Bhopal BJP office by intellectuals, artists, and organizations was stoned by Sangh Parivar activists. The attacks, then, have been sustained, pinpointed, and coordinated - proof, if any was required, that the attacks are not a spontaneous outburst of 'peoples' emotions'.

The Deccan Herald reported on 20 August: 'Led by the [Itarsi] BJP MLA itasharan Sharma, Sangh Parivar's storm troopers threw rotten eggs and chairs on the dais minutes after the performance of "Ponga Pandit-Jamadarin" began at an auditorium in Hoshangabad. . . . When the police forced the miscreants out, some of them climbed on a electricity pole and snapped power supply to the auditorium, forcing abandonment of the performance. On August 16 (at Gwalior] even the presence of the district collector and SP in the auditorium could not deter the miscreants. After the collector's warning had no effect on the slogan-shouting disrupters, cops, present in sizeable strength, Lathicharged the trouble makers and drove them out.'

As in most such cases of cultural vandalism, those attacking the plays had not even seen them.The Indian Express of the same day reported: 'When asked what was objectionable [about the play], he [BJP organizing General Secretary for MP, Kaptan Singh Solanki], while admitting that he had not seen the play, said he had been told "a man is shown entering a temple with his shoes on. A jamadarin is shown striking a Brahmin. This is a direct attack on our sanskriti [culture]". Former leader of Opposition Gauri Shankar Shejwar, a Dalit, again admitting he had not seen the play said: "I object to the name. It clearly shows a desire to drive a wedge based on caste. Panditon ko ponga nahin kehna chahiye (pandits should


not be called ponga [fraud])." BJP MLA S.C. Sharma, who spearheaded the opposition to a performance yesterday, said: "We had opposed the staging of the play. The SDM said if we found anything objectionable he would stop the play. Then the play Lahore was staged. When Tanveer said kattarwadi rajneta (political extremists) were responsible for the communal riots in the state.

While defending Tanveer and his actors' freedom of expression, it is also important to be aware of the facts of the case. Ironically, neither of the two plays has been authored by Tanveer himself. Lahore is written by the noted Hindi writer Asghar Wajahat, and Jamadarin/Ponga Pandit was first composed in the 1930s by two Chhattisgarhi rural actors, Sukhram and Sitaram. Several generations of folk players of Chhattisgarh have been performing the play for the last seventy years. Tanveer's Naya Theatre has inherited the play from the rural actors who joined

Ponga Pandit is an excellent example of rural creativity in which there is a robust intermingling of the sacred and the profane, of pure fun and social incisiveness. Naya Theatre has been staging the play since the 1960s for diverse audiences all over the country. All these years no one found it objectionable or called it anti-Hindu. Significantly, it was only in 1992 following the demolition of Babri asjid, that the play first came under attack  from the BJP-RSS-VHP cadre. Since then it has been systematically targeted by these forces, who attacked it even in England.

The Sangh Parivar alleges that the play attacks Hinduism. This is not true. It does not attack the spiritual or philosophical aspects of Hinduism. What it does attack is the caste system, superstition, priestcraft, brahmanism and untouchability. To claim that the play attacks the Hindu faith, as the Sangh Parivar does, is to argue that all this is what constitutes Hinduism.

The other play, Lahore, is the story of an old Punjabi Hindu woman who is left behind in a big haveli in Lahore when her family flees the city at the time of Partition. It shows both the blood thirsty fanaticism of some vested interests as well as the ability of others to reach out with love and compassion to fellow beings regardless of his or her creed. In visualizing Asghar Wajahat's script for the stage, Habib Tanvir has given an added appeal and interest by incorporating, by way of the chorus, a whole selection of anti-communal and anti-Partition poetry from several poets, including Rahi Masoom Raza, Sahir Ludhianvi and Amrita Pritam.

It is obvious that main message or thrust of these two plays is social amity and harmony. In other words, those spreading communal tensions are not Habib Tanveer and his actors, but the forces of Hindutva who are attacking them.

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