Freedom of Speechlessness

Since September 11th urgent questions of the current state of civil liberties in both the U.S. and India have been actively debated. In India, recent increased attacks on social and political activism, academic and artistic freedoms, and public displays of affection mostly prompted by right-wing religious groups resulting in censorship, bans, and unlawful arrests, have been justified with less and less resistance both in the name of religion and allegedly for the purposes of safeguarding national security.

It is from a context of social injustice/unrest and Hindu cultural, political, and social dominance, that the recent unlawful arrest of 23-year old senior art student, Chandramohan Srilamantula, must be interpreted. On May 9, 2007, Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Secretary and former Bajrang Dal activist, Niraj Jain, accompanied by fellow Vishwa Hindu Parishad activists, stormed into the art department of Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU), Gujarat's renowned state-run university in Vadodara. Jain brought with him television film crews and police officers. Accompanied with this entourage, Jain demanded that university administrators comply with the arrest of Chandramohan on the grounds that his religiously themed paintings (submitted for an internal private exhibition required for final exams) intentionally offended Hindu religious sentiments. One painting has been described as portraying the Hindu goddess Durga giving birth and the other is said to be of a Shiv Linga—but since the paintings were vandalized, the images have not been circulated, and their exact content is unknown and hotly debated. Hindu right wing activists were also able to garner the support of Christian groups because one of the paintings depicted Jesus Christ.

Balancing the rights of artists and protecting religious sentiment

The university complied with Jain's order and Chandramohan was promptly charged under Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC) sections 153 A, "promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion" and 295 A, "deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs." It is important to note that although these sections of the IPC protect religious freedom, distaste or offense cannot be the cause for limiting free expression unequivocally. Protected under Article 19 of India's constitution are the rights of artists, writers, scholars, journalists, filmmakers, etc., to create, circulate, publish, display, and perform their work. It is therefore the responsibility of the judicial system to intervene when freedom of speech is irresponsibly prohibited. We must not forget that the right to free speech is essential in maintaining public confidence in the judicial system and therefore the government must act responsibly when it is called to regulate expression. The failure of a secular democratic country to engage in negotiations between the rights of art and religion and between freedom of expression and the protection of religious sentiments calls for greater education, public awareness, mobilization and dissent for all that is at stake.

Abuse by the majority and protection of the minority

Artistic and academic freedom are essential to the social, cultural, and political welfare of society. It is imperative in a secular democracy that individual rights to free expression are protected under the law and that majority religious perspectives are not permitted to dominate political, cultural, and social practices. What is important to the foreground here is that the right to free speech should be implemented equally among citizens of all groups (religious, ethnic, racial, gender, class/caste), and not, as has become the pattern, used by dominant groups as a way to target non-dominant or disenfranchised groups in support of reductive (religious) nationalism or (uncritical) dogma (citing Edward Said). The relationship of power between groups needs to be considered in determining what constitutes the manufacturing of enmity. Hindutva, the ideology that drives this movement, directs the building of a society where "Hindu" values will dominate political and social structures where minorities, namely Muslims, can exist only if they assimilate. The Hindu Right has systematically over the last several decades promoted a campaign to turn India into a Hindu state. The Hindu Right is able to further its agenda by using the right to free expression while it continues to target the rights of anyone who they perceive to be threatening their agenda.

In this charged fundamentalist and censorious climate, groups comprising the Hindu Right have become some of the cruelest propagators of hate speech while simultaneously using hate laws to target the communities that legal provisions have historically sought to safeguard. A perfect example is Kailash Tiwari's exhibition in Bhopal. Tiwari's paintings went up on public display the same month that Chandramohan's not-for-public paintings were vandalized at MSU. The Hindutva agitators who claimed Chandramohan's paintings to be obscene and offensive dragged Chandramohan, his paintings, and Pannikar out of the private and into the public. Yet, Tiwari openly portrays Muslims as terrorists in his painting exhibition. He depicts Muslims attacking Hindus in several paintings; some paintings even include graphic images of Hindu women being gang-raped by Muslim men. The paintings are violent, obscene, and certainly can be categorized as hate speech. Tiwari's exhibition understandably met with objections from Muslim groups, but it was supported by Hindu right-wing groups who in this case employed freedom of expression as their defense. Tiwari, a self-identified Hindu, was not roughed up, imprisoned, nor did his art make headlines. He was merely asked to consider shortening the run of his exhibition and was encouraged to remove a few of the most violent paintings on public display. (To see some of the paintings go to

A history of attacks on artistic freedom and the example of Gujarat

Born to daily wage laborers in Andhra Pradesh, Chandramohan has interestingly not been identified publicly with any religious affiliation. He is known as an artist, and is celebrated in his village for being a Lalit Kala Akademi Awardee and for winning two scholarships that made his advanced education at MSU possible. BJP activists have claimed that they object to his work because they have interpreted it to be offensive to their version of Hinduism and therefore anti-Hindu. Mumbai protestors who have now organized a "Free Chandramohan Committee" suggest that Chandramohan was targeted as part of a long history of right-wing attacks on intellectual and artistic freedom in the name of religion and nationalism. In 1997, acclaimed artist M.F. Husain and architect B.V. Doshi's art gallery Amdavad ni Gufa was attacked by political/religious right-wing organizations in Gujarat that claimed the gallery was portraying "unpatriotic" paintings. The attack resulted in the closing of the gallery. It was reopened in 2006 only to be vandalized again by Hindu right-wing activists protesting another M.F. Husain painting. The religious, "cultural", and "moral" policing of forms of expression have a long history in India—a Hindu majoritarian history that grows less tolerant and more totalitarian day-by-day.

In 1996, Deepa Mehta's film Fire was banned for purported religious insensitivity because its content featured an onscreen middle-class lesbian relationship between two Hindu women. Mehta's next film Water was more than just banned; sets were burned, and death threats were lodged because emboldened right-wing Hindu religious groups claimed that the film portrayed (Hindu) India negatively. Hindu right-wing groups have successfully ordered bans on beauty pageants (2000), Valentine's Day celebrations (2001), and dance bars (2005) in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. In Punjab, movies such as Rahul Rawail's Jo Bole So Nihaal (2005) and The Da Vinci Code (2006) have led to prohibitions and cinema bombings because right-wing Sikh and Christian groups respectively opposed their contents, claiming the films hurt "religious sentiments." "Freedom of religion" is successfully being deployed (even when illegitimately claimed) to thwart freedom of speech, art, and scholarship. Freedom of religion is becoming synonymous with freedom to communalize. Laws meant to counter hate speech are creating polarized conditions that actually promote it.

Gujarat is the most obvious example. Following the 2002 communal carnage that resulted in the massacre of more than 2,000 Muslims, and the displacement of over 100,000, India's Central Board of Film Certification banned Rakesh Sharma's film, The Final Solution in 2004. The film documents how Gujarat Chief Minister Modi's government was directly implicated in the riots. The movie was not permitted to publicly screen because it was claimed it had the potential to jeopardize state/national security. But Modi's Hindu nationalist government was never held accountable for its blatant complicity in promoting social unrest in the first place by choreographing the 2002 genocide with deliberate intent to promote hatred between religious groups. In 2007, screenings of the film Parzania, a movie inspired by real events about a Parsi family impacted by the Gujarat 2002 bloodshed, was unofficially banned, also for reasons that it implicates Modi's government in the violence. Theater owners reported threats of violence from Hindu right-wing Bajrang Dal activists. The film has yet to be released in Gujarat. BJP/VHP activists blocked the screening of the Hindi Fanaa starring Aamir Khan not because of its content, but because actor Khan criticized Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi's government for their mishandling of rehabilitation of displaced villagers of Madhya Pradesh by the increased height of the Sardar Sarovar dam. These are just a few of countless examples.

The response and the public debate

In response to the unjust arrest of Chandramohan, several MSU art students organized a protest exhibition that showcased works pulled from the art history department's archive highlighting the point that Indian art throughout the centuries has abounded with erotic religious themed images. Acting dean Shivaji Panikkar called for a strike after the university's Vice Chancellor Manoj Soni refused to file a First Information Report against Niraj Jain for the physical abuse and arrest of the student artist. Chandramohan was released on bail five days later only after several protests broke out across cities in India in support of artistic and academic freedom that made national headlines. Panikkar was suspended for supporting Chandramohan and the student protest exhibition. It has been reported that both Chandramohan and Panikkar have temporarily gone into hiding.

For more than a week, the national media focused on the freedom of speech issue and raised questions about the effectiveness of law in cases invoking hate speech. The themes most debated were "art under siege," "freedom under attack," and "intolerance." Among progressive activists, the unwarranted and unjust criminalization of art and social activism were discussed. Chandramohan's intentions and character were argued. Long-term relationships of religion, art, and nudity were charted. Protests in Mumbai, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, and Kolkata set the foreground for concerns over increased practices of "moral" and "cultural" policing that warranted urgent mobilization and dissent. The issue of the "saffronization" of Gujarat over the past several decades was referenced, but not adequately engaged in the public.

In this way, the larger context that enables or disables law was not questioned sufficiently, raising concerns of what building a critically engaged citizenship needs to look like in order to effectively intervene on the communalization of censorship that is becoming commonplace in India. Activist Chayanika Shah, long-term member of Mumbai's Forum Against the Oppression of Women, emphasized that elections to the state and legislative assemblies in Gujarat are scheduled for this coming December, suggesting that the dramatic arrest of Chandramohan was part of a larger political strategy that had been underway for sometime. "It is an attack against the liberal progressive voice," she pressed. Shah was one of forty protestors who took a bus from Mumbai to Gujarat to participate in a locally-organized rally to support Chandramohan and MSU art students.

Shabnam Hashmi, activist with Act Now for Harmony and Democracy (Anhad), a Delhi-based social justice organization working in Gujarat, went much further. "I see it as a part of a bigger agenda of saffronizing the education in Gujarat. Not only Gujarat, but other places also. The right-wing network all over India is consistently working on this and if you look at MSU during the past few years, you see that a lot of appointments have been done of people who have really strong RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] backgrounds. The vice chancellor himself is a right-wing person who does not qualify to be a vice chancellor."

Hashmi went on to emphasize that Chandramohan's paintings were submitted for an internal examination. "How does it suddenly start hurting the sentiments of the people? Who brings it out?" Hashmi's point is important. How can any group's sensibilities, religious or otherwise, be disturbed by a private internal exam? Whose intent was it really to hurt the religious sentiments of others? Again, the question remains: Which groups were the ones promoting social and public disorder and enmity between religious groups at MSU?

Hashmi responds further, explaining that the RSS via the BJP/VHP have formed a systematic network across India and pushed their way into educational institutions such as MSU. The university is internationally renowned for its high academic standards, but over the past few years, Senate members with known RSS affiliations have slowly replaced its leadership. "They are looking for things like this, things they can blow out of proportion, things they can use to communalize the issue further," Hashmi said.

The power of mobilization and the ongoing threat

Though the national media widely covered Chandramohan's arrest as a freedom of speech issue, the media in Gujarat either ignored the issue altogether or remained partisan, defending the actions of Niraj Jain. Social scientist and media observer Achyut Yagnik responded in the May 16, 2007 issue of The Hindustan Times: "The vernacular media completely ignored the Constitutional issue of freedom of expression and autonomy of educational institution." The Hindustan Times went on to report that RSS activists organized around rumors that protestors would be coming to Gujarat from outside cities. Activist Chayanika Shah explained that the BJP and Bajrang Dal advocates appeared on local television channels to warn that a bus full of activists was coming from Mumbai. They openly declared they would lodge an attack upon its arrival. Hashmi elaborated, "You see, this has always been used in Gujarat. The concept of the "other" is constantly used. It is mostly Muslim and Christian, but it is also the non-Gujarati maligning the Gujarati." Hashmi said the organized attacks by the BJP, VHP, and Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, were not very effective. They mobilized about a hundred activists, but organizations like Anhad and Sahmat were able to mobilize more than five hundred artists and liberal activists who built a human chain around MSU. Hashmi said, "They were not able to mobilize a lot of people, but they are a nuisance. They are hoodlums that get down to violence immediately, and the whole administration is with them."

The outside support did make a difference and the pressure of national and international groups has proved urgently necessary in bringing attention to the situation in Gujarat and the Hindu nationalist publicly declared agenda in other states across India. Marginalized in Gujarat, those engaged in resistance and dissent seek allies. Hashmi makes the point clearer. "It is not that these kinds of incidents are not happening in other states, but the difference in Gujarat is that it has become so communalized over the years. It was used as the laboratory of the Hindutva Rashtra and they perfected the means and ways of spreading hatred so more people got communalized and as a result of that the people who are resisting has reduced tremendously," she said. "Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Orissa, and Karnataka are also going that way, but still you find the secular forces are stronger there and they are able to put up a fight whenever there are attacks." Yet, she added, such resistance is also now receding. This is what brought Anhad to Gujarat. In the last five years they have been working with youth and young activists to build a culture of critically engaged resistance.

This work is urgent, evidenced by the fact that the situation persists two months after Chandramohan's arrest. Pannikar (now former dean) was attacked in Ahmedabad by 30 RSS activists, (See: The Hindu while on his way to an Anhad-sponsored painting exhibition. It has been reported that the attack was likely a response to Pannikar's role in continuing to advocate student protests against the unjust actions of BJP leader Niraj Jain and the irresponsible cooperation by MSU's vice chancellor. The persistent targeting of Chandramohan and Pannikar is an indication of the seriousness of the situation. The use of bats and stones to gang up on Pannikar (and Anhad volunteers) for speaking out, for publicly dissenting, is disconcerting especially since this case was milder than more severe practices of communal violence that go unrecognized daily in Gujarat and elsewhere— which raises urgent questions.

What does it take to keep a culture diverse and tolerant? Should dominant political, religious, or social groups, through police support, be empowered to target students, artists, writers, filmmakers, and the like on such grounds? Should works of expression be destroyed, restricted, or blocked? Who is entitled to set standards for ethical action and behavior? Who is authorized to determine what is "moral" and reasonable? Who regularly imposes the standards? Who are they meant for? When do forms of policing jeopardize our rights as citizens of a secular democracy? When law is suspended in the name of national security, the question of security for whom, by whom, and from what, needs to inform how law is interpreted. How do we challenge the larger social and political context in which hateful perspectives of extreme Hindu Right groups are gaining greater legitimacy?

The reach of the Hindu Right to diasporic communities

Let us also not forget that censorship by Hindu right groups is not a remote issue to South Asian diasporic communities. Right-wing Hindu-American groups have consistently targeted several American scholars of India, including University of Chicago's Wendy Doniger and Emory University's Paul Courtright. The American Academy of Religions October 2006 issue of Religious Studies News featured articles that detailed methods used to attack and silence several academics writing about Hinduism, including Cynthia Ann Humes of Claremont McKenna College and Jack Hawley of Barnard College and Columbia University. Humes writes, "I was contacted by sources in India advising me that my essay had become known there. It was clearly conveyed to me that any further publications describing the violence or questionable economic activities would occasion an undesirable response." Hawley's article in the same issue reiterated similar dynamics raising questions between knowledge and power, funding and the academy. Hindu nationalism and censorship clearly warrants an international response. It is from this context that diasporic Hindu nationalism must be interrogated so that dissent can be mobilized here that acts in alliance with dissent in India. What must we fight for so that freedom cannot be rendered speechless?


"ADDENDUM: This article was abridged for space constraints. I would like to add some notes about the large-scale targeting by Hindu nationalist organizations against scholars, artists, intellectuals, and students in the diaspora who have spoken out against Hindutva, individually or collectively because academic and artistic spaces are of the few sites left in the U.S. where dissent might be cultivated. Professors Angana Chatterji (California Institute of Integral Studies), Biju Matthew (Rider University), Vijay Prashad (Trinity College) were all publicly attacked on several occasions for their work in relation to a 2002 report, ""The Foreign Exchange of Hate"", exposing the India Development and Relief Fund as a Sangh Parivar-affiliated charity (see the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate website for more details). In 2003, Hindu right-wing groups established an online petition defaming Romila Thapar, renowned historian of India, after her appointment by the Library of Congress as first holder of the Kluge Chair of Countries and Cultures of the South. In 2005, militant Hindu activists targeted Professor Chatterji for her participation in a campaign that resulted in the denial of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi's visa to the U.S. and for her work in India with the Indian People’s Tribunal on the Environment and Human Rights in Orissa. The attacks followed Chatterji to the U.S. where websites and petitions were launched calling for her resignation. In 2006, Professor Vinay Lal (UCLA) was singled out along with Chatterji for outspokenness in the California Textbook Campaign (see my article in Samar issue 22 for more on this campaign.) Others, such as Professors Madhav Deshpande (University of Michigan) and Sangeeta Kamat (University of Massachusetts, Amherst) have been put on Hindu nationalist watch lists (along with Chatterji, Matthew, and Prasad) for their participation in organizations such as Forum of Indian Leftists or Coalition Against Communalism. Such systematic and persistent forms of assaulting academic freedom and free speech in the diaspora by Hindu Right organizations have kept many from researching, writing, and speaking against Hindu nationalism and its effects in India and its abroads; or otherwise the histories of raids on those that dissent has required the use of pen names."

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