Baroda Authorities Jail Art Student


The most recent blow to civil liberties and artistic expression in India occurred May 9 when S. Chandramohan, an art student at Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda in Gujarat, was arrested for displaying “obscene” work in his final year examination assessment. Members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the ultra-conservative Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (which forms the state government of Gujarat) entered the display accompanied by policemen, halting the examination process and arresting Chandramohan.

The Hindu activists objected to paintings depicting nude Hindu gods and goddesses. The police refused to accept arguments that the work was part of the internal examination process and not for public view. Chandramohan was released on bail on May 14 after spending five nights in prison. He still faces charges of “inciting religious enmity” and “hurting religious sensibility.” No trial date has been set. If convicted, the artist could face several years in prison.

The university’s vice chancellor, Manoj Soni, instead of condemning the actions of the mob and police, asked the fine arts faculty’s acting dean, Shivaji Pannikar, to issue an apology for offending public opinion. Pannikar, supported by staff and students, refused and organized a survey of reproductions of nude images of Hindu deities from the faculty archives at the department of art history in peaceful protest. University authorities suspended Pannikar and locked up the department.

India’s artist community (including professional artists, students, academics and social activist groups) has been vocal in its response to these events, organizing protest meetings in New Delhi, Baroda, Mumbai, Chennai and universities across the country.

This incident follows the sustained persecution of renowned artist MF Husain over the past year on charges of obscenity and disturbing the secular balance. The artist is now living in exile in Dubai after receiving death threats. While his lawyers contest the case in Haridwar district court in Uttarakhand state, the presiding judge ordered Mumbai police to confiscate the artist’s property after his failure to respond to summons. This order has been stayed by the Supreme Court in New Delhi. Ironically, MF Husain has been honored with the national Raja Ravi Varma Prize and is expected to attend a presentation ceremony in Kerala as a state guest later this year.