We, the undersigned, wish to voice our strong protest and condemnation of the continuing assault on academic and other forms of freedom of expression by members of the Sangh Parivar. In recent years, senior artists such as M.F. Husain have been targets of both violence and innumerable, scurrilous lawsuits whose intent is to browbeat and intimidate freedom of expression within the Sovereign Republic of India. Citizens’ right to legal redress is being misused to harass citizens; court proceedings are being used to punitively target whomever the Hindu right deems convenient in order to obtain cheap attention for its nefarious goals.
The recent attack on a graduate student at the prestigious Faculty of Fine Arts, M.S. University, Baroda, is the latest instance of this bludgeoning of public rights of expression. This was done with full state collusion. On Thursday, May 10, 2007,Mr. Neeraj Jain a known BJP activist, along with a group of Vishwa Hindu Parishad members, entered the premises of the Fine Arts Faculty where students’ artworks were on display as part of the process of annual student evaluation. They used violence against Mr. Chandramohan, a Master's candidate, and the police arrested him. Mr. Chandramohan has been in jail since then. The charge levelled against him is that of hurting religious sentiments.
Students in the Department of Art History at the University then mounted a ‘protest exhibition’ that attempted to show historical and pre-modern masterpieces from the history of art which could, in today’s charged atmosphere, be deemed ‘offensive’. The intention of the show was to question misconceptions about ‘art’, ‘tradition’, ‘obscenity’ and ‘transgression’. On May 11, the Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University
marched into the Department accompanied by four Syndicate members and ordered Prof. Shivaji Panikkar, the acting Dean, to shut down the exhibition. When Prof. Panikkar refused, the pro-VC had the exhibition brought down, and sealed the archive of the Art History Department. Prof. Panikkar, a highly respected academic with internationally recognized credentials, has since been suspended from his position and there is a demand to name him as co-accused in the case along with Mr. Chandramohan.
These kinds of attack on academics and artists not only represent the erosion of democratic freedoms, essential to the establishment of a vigorous and open society, but also destroy the very basis on which universities are founded. Let us make no mistake, the attack here is not merely on a particular artwork or form of expression, but on the very spirit of open-minded inquiry that is at the heart of the university’s functioning. It is clear that since the rise of the Hindu right in the last decade and a half, India is descending into a dark prison for the imagination. And that, in states where the Hindu right or its allies are in power, state and police officials openly collude with their lumpen party mobs.
We, artists and art-related professionals, members of university faculties and administrations, and Indian citizens foremost, find this loutish behaviour intolerable. From these “narrow domestic walls”, these “dreary desert sands of dead habit”, as Tagore put it, may the people of India awake.
We appeal to all secular parties/organizations and individuals to raise their voice against the misuse of the police, judicial system and the state machinery to muzzle freedom of expression through coercion and intimidation.