Under Modi, Hindu hardliners turn Indian theater into a battleground

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A man takes a picture of an art installation at an event titled "Artists Unite", during which various artists signed to register their concern against hate and intolerance, at a public park in New Delhi on March 2, 2019. — Reuters

By Anuja Jaiman

NEW DELHI — Five days after a suicide bomber killed 40 Indian policemen in February in the Kashmir Valley, playwright and director Abhishek Majumdar was forced to cancel a play looking at the behavior of Indian security forces in the disputed region.

The play, which was scheduled to be staged on Feb. 19 in the western city of Jaipur, was stopped by police but if they hadn't stepped in, hardline Hindu activists had made it clear they would have physically forced it off the stage. The activists said Majumdar was "anti-national" or unpatriotic.

Hours before the show was due to start, the crew said they were forced to escape the venue as a mob had gathered. They said they ran down back alleys and had to take side roads to avoid being attacked on a main road.

"It wasn't that people didn't like our play, expressed their dismay and left. No. We were being hunted across the city," said Ashwath Bhatt, an actor in the play.

Several playwrights, filmmakers, musicians, and comedians say their work has been censored or cancelled following pressure, sometimes backed up by physical threats, from Hindu hardline groups that have multiplied since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014.

Many of these artists say they fear that if Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are elected to a second term in the current general election it will lead to further restraints on freedom of expression. Most political strategists say they expect Modi to be in a position to form the next government when votes are counted on May 23.

Reuters interviewed 21 actors, playwrights, musicians and comedians for this story and found out that at least 15 of them have been subjected to questioning by event organizers or the authorities if their works explored contentious issues, such as secularism and religious intolerance, or ridiculed Modi's decisions.

BJP leaders have dismissed allegations that the party is intolerant of dissent.

In Jaipur, Reuters spoke to three police officers who went to the venue, and all three said they just didn't feel the timing was right to show Majumdar's play, which deals with the mental state of civilians and security forces after years of unrest in Kashmir. None of the three had read the script.

"We were informed of possible violence. So to avoid any violence and any harm from happening, we took action," said sub-inspector Mukesh Kumar.

"WHAT A LIAR"

Hindu activist Suraj Soni said he filed a police complaint against the play and joined the protests because it was "mocking" and "insulting" the nation's armed forces at a time when India was mourning those killed in the suicide attack.

"We told them the evening before to not go ahead with it since the country's sentiments are on a boil. Majumdar ji didn't want to listen to us," Soni said, using an honorific to describe the playwright.

Majumdar said he had never met Soni. "What a liar," the 38-year-old playwright said. "He is part of a larger nexus of the disease that the BJP has spread in our country."

Lalitha Kumaramangalam, a BJP leader, said the allegations by artists that the government and the ruling party were clamping down on free speech were "all in their mind".

The number of verbal attacks on the BJP and its allies was illustrative of how much freedom the critics had, she said. Kumaramangalam compared it with India's 21-month state of emergency in 1975-77 when then prime minister Indira Gandhi suspended civil liberties. Hundreds of journalists, artists and intellectuals were among those arrested at the time.

"That was real censorship. I don't think anyone has come anywhere near that. You wouldn't even be talking to me about it if there was real curtailment right now," Kumaramangalam said.

Clearly the Hindu groups aren't the only restraint on freedom of expression in often ultra-conservative India. Hardly a month goes by without a movie being challenged because a plotline offends one religion, ethnic group, caste, or another.

But it is the intensity of the attacks on anything that challenges the Modi government or the Indian military's view of the world that is frightening artists. And more direct involvement of local police in deciding whether a performance can continue is adding to those concerns.

"There is a kind of legitimacy this government has provided to violence. It is okay to attack artists these days, only because their work does not suit the narrative being peddled for electoral gains," said Majumdar.

MUSIC STOPPED

In January when a Tamil-language band "The Casteless Collective" sang in the southern city of Chennai, a police officer stopped the band soon after it started playing.

"In the first line of the song the words 'Modi Mastan' were heard, and a panicked cop came running to me to stop the show," said Carnatic singer T.M. Krishna, an organizer of the festival. The words roughly mean 'mystical fraudster' in Tamil language slang and do not necessarily refer to the prime minister.

Police Sub-Inspector A. Selvakumar, who was on duty at the beach festival, denied in a phone interview that the band was interrupted because of the lyrics, saying his superior had told him the performance had exceeded its time limit and had to be stopped.

Actor-director Amol Palekar was interrupted during a speech at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in Mumbai in February this year by the institution's officials. He was speaking about government interference in art and attacks on freedom of expression and had to wind up abruptly.

"The NGMA episode was despicable and was representative of the gagging that has spread over all fields of expression," Palekar said in an e-mail response to questions.

Soon after that, more than 800 writers and artists from across the country protested and signed the "Artists Unite" declaration to register concern against hate and intolerance.

Moloyashree Hashmi, an actor for more than four decades, says while groups have been physically attacked, there was also a hidden clampdown on dissent.

"It is the unstated, not being able to perform ... that is far more insidious and all pervasive," she said.

Her husband Safdar Hashmi, a playwright and a member of the Communist Party (Marxist), was killed while performing a street play in a village outside Delhi in 1989. Ten people, including a member of the then ruling Congress party, were convicted for the killing.

"It has increased over the years. Continuously increased," Moloyashree Hashmi said of the attacks. "They let loose goons. And the authorities will just not do anything." — Reuters


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