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Soft Targets

Sudhanva Deshpande ( is an actor and director with Jana Natya Manch and editor with LeftWord Books, New Delhi. 

Art Attacks: Violence and Offence-Taking in India by Malvika Maheshwari, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2018; pp x+372, ₹964, hardcover. 

In May 1991, the Delhi-based theatre group Jana Natya Manch (Janam) was performing street plays in Kanpur, in support of Subhashini Ali’s election campaign for a Lok Sabha seat, representing the Communist Party of India (Marxist). I was part of the team. We were taken to a middle-class locality. Some of us had performed in Kanpur in 1989, and we recognised the spot immediately. We had a memorable experience then, with the audience joining the protagonist of the play vocally, against the antagonist.

On this occasion, there was a bit of an eerie feeling. The spectators who started to gather kept a little aloof. One of the actors commented that even though it was less than two years since we had performed at that spot, it seemed like a decade ago. If previously we were feted as heroes, now we were looked upon with apprehension.

We were still taking out our play properties when a jeep arrived. It was decked up to look somewhat like the Toyota “rath” that had carried L K Advani on his bloody journey. A bunch of youngsters jumped out and, first of all, knocked down a couple of red flags we had propped up around the performance site. They wore saffron bandanas and chanted “Jai Shree Ram!”—but, this was no praise to a popular god, it was a battle cry. Using the foulest language, they started throwing our properties around, and threatened us with dire consequences if we did not leave immediately. The memory of Safdar Hashmi’s killing was still a raw wound; so we were not going to take these threats lightly. Even as we began withdrawing, trying to salvage our properties, one of the boys took out a country-made pistol and advanced towards a couple of us, brandishing it aggressively. Fortunately, we were able to make our getaway, bodies and limbs in place, though with a couple of pieces of properties missing.

In January 1989, Janam had been attacked on the outskirts of Delhi, while performing a play for industrial workers. In this attack, the artist Hashmi and a worker, Ram Bahadur, were killed. The attack, and Hashmi’s killing, had led to widespread condemnation across the country. Protest demonstrations of thousands had taken place all over the country. The ruling party, the Congress, was criticised for its involvement in the attack and the killing. Later that year, the Congress lost the Lok Sabha election, and V P Singh became the Prime Minister, with outside support from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the left. That untenable arrangement was bound to unravel, as it did soon enough, with the mandir and Mandal issues creating schisms. In 1990, Advani led the rath yatra, which left a trail of blood and destruction, till it was stopped by his arrest in Bihar. When we had performed in Kanpur in 1989, it had seemed to us as a centre of working-class militancy. Less than two years later, it had a communally charged feel in the air.

Change for the Worse

The attacks on Janam—the well-known attack in 1989 and the hardly known one in 1991—are, however, qualitatively different from the attacks other artists faced in subsequent years. In all these cases, it was the case of local goons flexing their muscle, claiming rights over territory and indulging in violence in order to terrify those watching for immediate political gains. The 1989 attack gained publicity because the person killed was Hashmi, but as is clear from Malvika Maheshwari’s interview with the chief accused in that killing, the attackers had no idea that this would blow up in their face. They were certainly not seeking publicity in the press.

All this was to change soon. For instance, in September 2003, I travelled with Habib Tanvir and his company Naya Theatre, as they performed Ponga Pandit through Madhya Pradesh (Deshpande 2003).In city after city, the play was attacked by outfits of the Sangh Parivar as being, predictably, “anti-Hindu.” The fact that this play had been performed throughout Chhattisgarh the previous month without any incident did not matter. The fact that the play is a traditional farce that dates from the 1930s, and has been, for decades, a part of the repertoire of Nacha companies throughout the region, mattered even less. What was striking about the attacks was the degree of centralised coordination—in every city, they were prepared in advance, having mobilised crowds of sloganeers and rabble-rousers. Also striking was that the whole thing was a performance for the media—the attackers were more than eager to have the press witness what they were doing, and happily gave sound bites to anyone who would have them.

Even more interestingly, in every city, the attackers purported to speak on behalf of the law. So, they would argue that the play was disrupting communal harmony, and that they, the attackers, wanted the play to be cancelled so that violence could be prevented. It is a classic fascist tactic—threaten violence and then speak as if in favour of peace. And, predictably, in every case, the police and the administration parroted the attackers’ line, pleading with Tanvir that he should voluntarily cancel the performance in the interests of peace. All this, mind you, when the Congress was in power in the state. The elections were a couple  of months away, and predictably, the Congress lost.

Maheshwari documents, chronicles and analyses many such attacks on artists. She captures the shift in the perspective of the attackers and argues that

a common theme, which defines the mic ro-political makeup of violence on artists, is in fact [a] search for glory, a desire for respectability and recognition, ... the “polity of fame,” and an epic collective imagination of translating an interiorised victimhood into self-aggrandisement. (p 14)

This was even more evident recently, when the film Padmaavat was objected to by the Karni Sena on the suspicion that it somehow insulted the “honour” of Rajputs. It made no difference to the attackers that the film was, in fact, full of anti-Muslim clichés and tropes and glorified the “honour” of Rajputs. Once they had achieved nationwide recognition and name, the Karni Sena was happy to withdraw and let the film be screened without any major hitch, with only a minor change in the title of the film.

This is, of course, censorship of the street. But, in law as well, things are not as sanguine as one might suppose. Maheshwari shows how the constituent assembly debates indicate that members were firm in their belief that India’s masses were not ready for free speech, particularly on religious issues. Even in the realm of art and performance, the overall mood in the assembly (with the exception of communist members like Somnath Lahiri) was conservative, keeping in place the colonial-era laws that regulated the freedom of artistic expression.

One of the earliest instances of legal measures to muzzle art in independent India occurred in 1954, when Akbar Padamsee’s series of paintings entitled “Lovers” in his first solo show in India was taken to court on charges of obscenity. Padamsee, and many artists, subsequently know that litigation itself is the penalty. Even if you are acquitted, the process itself is the punishment.

While the Hindu right must get the lion’s share of criticism for attacks on artists and free speech, the Congress’s role can hardly be ignored. Hashmi was killed by Congress goons, but the Congress’s authoritarian turn started much earlier, even predating the Emergency. In 1972, for example, when Shiv Sena attacked Vijay Tendulkar’s play Ghashiram Kotwal, and followed that with attacks on another Tendulkar play in the same year, Gidhade, not only did the Congress state government do little to put Shiv Sena in its place and ensure the continuation of performances, even in the Rajya Sabha, where Tanvir, then a member, raised the issue, it took 18 months for him to even receive a reply! Later, in 1980, when Ghashiram was to travel to Berlin and Shiv Sena again opposed it, no less a person than the union minister for information and broadcasting in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet, Vasant Sathe, described the play as “an insult to our own history.” Later still, India, with the young and modernising Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister, became the first country in the world to bow to revanchist Muslim organisations’ demand to ban Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, well before the fatwa on his life.

Maheshwari helps us understand why and how attackers decide to go after someone. In other words, what are their calculations, their cost–benefit analysis.

The occurrence of attacks, far from simply being triggered by the “offensive” content of the work, is ... dependent on numerous other factors like timing (with a tendency, though not necessarily, to occur around the time of elections), local leadership and initiative, support from those holding political office, monetary incentive, the popularity of the artist, changes in and access to media and communication technology, and location. (p 279)

Quite simply, artists are easy to attack, they pose no physical challenge to the attackers, and the pay-off, in terms of publicity and the resultant political mileage, is huge.

Lethal Vigilance

Maheshwari helps us understand the dialectic between the legal and the lethal. While earlier, till about the end-1980s, the state intervened legally to muzzle the freedom of artistic and intellectual expression, since the 1990s, it seems to have outsourced its controlling function to what appears like a “mob.” But, of course, it is not a loose and spontaneous collection of people out to express their sense of hurt and anger. It is a lethal, trained, organised set of non-state vigilante commandos, who operate with the confidence that they enjoy immunity, backed as they are by their political bosses, and they choreograph their morbid dance for the sake of an ever-obliging media and to achieve virality on social media.

Janam has continued performing through all these years, despite the 1989, 1991 and subsequent attacks. Tanvir kept performing till the end of his life, despite numerous attempts at intimidation. M F Husain, though, in the end, decided to quit the country he loved so dearly, because the bullying became just too much—and this, despite the legal cases being settled in his favour, and the Congress being in charge of the central government. Shiv Sena and others often act as unofficial censors of movies—clearing them upon payment, it is rumoured, of protection money by film producers. There are many cases of silent self-censorship by artists.

Today, the patrons of vigilante mobs occupy high government positions. When the present home minister of the country, in his first speech after the BJP’s spectacular election victory, invoked the ideology of the so-called “tukde-tukde gang” as an object of hate, it was a spine-chilling moment. It signalled that all secular and progressive artists and intellectuals were now potentially in the cross hairs of the Hindu right’s vision. Maheshwari’s book is more urgent now than ever before.


Deshpande, Sudhanva (2003): “Habib Tanvir under Attack,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 38, No 35, 30 August.

Updated On : 3rd Jan, 2020


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