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Fighting for their freedom of expression
Binoy Valsan in Baroda | May 15, 2007 22:49 IST
The students of Maharaja Sayajirao University's Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda convened an urgent meeting at their campus on Tuesday afternoon to chalk out a counter-strategy against the brutal onslaught of the city's moral brigade against their freedom of expression.
However, a cloud of anxiety and fear looms large over the student community and faculty members on campus.
"In this state, there's no-one who questions anything and people's whims are almost law," said a first year, MA Graphics student, who wished to remain anonymous and whose senior Chandra Mohan bore the brunt of the local Vishwa Hindu Parishad activists for his work displayed at an internal evaluation session at the college last week.
These students (most of whom did not want to be named) cannot accept the fact that the university authorities -- who are supposed to be on their side -- have not acted in their interest.
Vice-Chancellor Manoj Soni and Pro-Vice Chancellor, S M Joshi suspended Dean-In-Charge Shivaji Panikker last week, a move that generated a lot of flak against the prestigious university from various quarters.
"This is unacceptable. We are going to launch an intense strike from June 15, when the department re-opens after the vacation. We have the full support of our faculty and we have also requested the support of the non teaching staff members in the matter," said a Ph D student of the Art History Department.
Sources at the campus told rediff.com of a truce that is allegedly being formulated by the university authorities, which would require Panikker to accept the University's allegations against him and also apologise to the Vice-Chancellor.
"This is not going to happen, especially with a man like Shivaji Panikker, who is like a guide and mentor to all of us. And we all have decided to support him," said Anil, a second year MA student.
The rift within the authorities apparently dates back to early May this year.
Jitho George, a third year BA, Art History, student who stayed in hostel to help a friend, was manhandled by the hostel security, allegedly on the instruction of assistant chief warden Jeetendra Wadhva.
Though Jitho was known to the security guard, when asked for clarification he stated that he thought Jitho was an outsider.
The matter reached Panikker who immediately asked Joshi to take stringent action against the warden and the security guard.
"Shivaji sir took up that issue very strongly. Finally a committee was to be formed to look into the matter but nothing has been done so far," said Abhiram, a final year Art History student.
This had created a rift between Panikkar, Joshi and Soni.
In fact, the issue took a turn for worse when Chandra Mohan was arrested for his 'obscene' artworks.
The day after Chandra Mohan was taken into custody, the students at the fine arts faculty -- with the support and encouragement of Panikker -- organised a unique protest exhibition showcasing works that point out that eroticism has always been present in traditional Indian art practices.
"All the artwork on display were prescribed in our syllabus and we wanted to convey the fact that such material need not be considered obscene and vulgar," said a student.
According to the students of Art History department, three people from the Pro-Vice Chancellor's office were sent to the art history auditorium to demand the immediate closure of the exhibition.
Panikker demanded a written request and emphasised that the exhibition would not be called off on verbal orders.
Some time later, as many as 50 VHP activists were on campus, creating a fuss about the content of the exhibition.
The students and the teaching faculty were locked inside the room and when the Pro-Vice-Chancellor demanded to see Panikker, the latter refused.
Subsequently, the University suspended Panikker without any show cause notice and pasted the order on the front door of his flat in Aryan apartments in Pratapgunj.
"This was extremely shameful behaviour on part of the university authorities with Panikker, who is highly regarded in art circles," said Satish, a local artist who is closely associated with MS University.
The events of the past few days is being widely seen as an attempt to saffronise the Faculty of Fine Arts of MS University.
"What has happened is just a part of a deep-rooted conspiracy to take over the autonomy of the Fine Art Department by certain highly placed individuals in the state machinery. We have received clear information from certain sources that the police and the communal elements are acting on the basis of instructions dispatched from Gandhinagar," said a final year student of the Graphics Department.
Meanwhile Panikker has temporarily shifted from his residence and is lying low for the moment.
The students present on the campus are in a state of fear as they claim that they are being followed by VHP activists.
"What is happening here is no secret. The fear and panic that has spread across the campus is justified to a large extent. After all, anything could happen to anyone," said Jayakumar, a member of the faculty of the Graphics Department.
The university authorities, meanwhile, have barred entry for anyone who does not have an identity card.
"Most of the students have gone home for the vacations. There are very few of us left behind. Artists and other individuals from outside were lending us support and motivating us to be strong at this hour of crisis. Now, they cannot come visit us, but the moral police squad barges in whenever it wants to," observed another student.