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Christians, Hindus join to oppose 'offensive' paintings in Gujarat

Christians, Hindus join to oppose 'offensive' paintings in Gujarat

Publication: The Indian Catholic
Date: May 14, 2007
URL: http://www.theindiancatholic.com/newsread.asp?nid=7557

Christians recently joined Hindu right-wing activists in the western Indian state of Gujarat to oppose paintings they found religiously offensive.

They jointly held a rally May 9 in Vadodara, the state's cultural capital some 900 kilometers southwest of New Delhi. The rally made headlines since Hindu groups in the state are usually blamed for attacks against Christians.

"We feel highly pained by irreverence shown toward Jesus Christ in the paintings," said Mariam S. Dhabi, a Catholic lawyer who led the Christians together with Reverend Emmanuel Kant, a Methodist pastor.

Niraj Jain, a rightwing Hindu activist, led the Hindu group, who complained that the art of Chandra Mohan, a student of fine arts in Vadodara's Maharaja Sayajirao University, had offended their religious sentiments too. The Hindu activists reportedly manhandled Mohan.

Christian groups refrained from any physical assault, but demonstrated outside the venue where Mohan's works were displayed. They also submitted a memorandum to government authorities demanding stern action against the painter.

Mohan, 23, painted the controversial pictures as part of his bachelor's degree final examination. He displayed the paintings on the university campus.

Police arrested Mohan on May 11 on charges of hurting the religious sentiments of Hindus and Christians. On May 14, art lovers and human rights activists bailed out the son of a poor carpenter from a remote village in Andhra Pradesh, a southern Indian state.

Reverend Kant said Mohan's works include a cross with fluid flowing from a male genital. An adjoining painting showed Hindu goddess Durga delivering a baby.

"I have seen these pictures. They are quite offensive and vulgar," the Methodist pastor told UCA News May 11. He wondered if Mohan would depict "his father and mother" in similar fashion.

Christian groups, Reverend Kant added, are now planning a prayer meeting to oppose artists who "misuse religious symbols," as Mohan did.

However, that does not mean Christians oppose freedom of expression, he clarified. "We strongly believe in freedom of expression guaranteed in the Indian constitution," he asserted, but stressed that freedom is not a license to abuse someone's religion. "One cannot be allowed to make fun of the cross, or the person of Jesus Christ, held in high esteem by millions of Christians all over the globe," he said.

Jain shared the Methodist pastor's views. "This is not art. We can't tolerate disrespect for our religion," he told UCA News. He said his group wants Mohan suspended from the university. The Hindu leader was former head of the district unit of Bajrang Dal (party of the strong and stout), which was accused of engineering attacks on Christians.

P.C. Thakur, the highest-ranking police official in Vadodara district, justified Mohan's arrest. He said, "people got offended by his art works," which made a "mockery of religious personalities."

Gujarat state has a history of sectarian violence. It has witnessed several Hindu-Muslim riots and several cases of attacks on Christians, particularity in tribal areas, since 1999.

On May 11, the university vice chancellor, reportedly under pressure from Hindu groups, suspended Mohan's lecturer. Shivaji Panikkar, who judged the paintings, was asked not to enter the university campus until further notice.

Some people, however, said they find the protests undemocratic.

Father Jolly Nadukudiyil, who manages a school for the poor in Vadodara, said it was "unfortunate" that Jain's views are "being projected as the opinion of the common people." According to the Catholic priest, the protest was held by "vested interests" to gain political mileage.

Elections to the state assembly legislative assembly are scheduled in December.

The priest also questioned why the Hindu radicals do not oppose nudity and sexually explicit scenes in some ancient paintings displayed in some parts of the country.

Juzair S. Bandukwala, who had taught physics in the university, said that the protest was "an anti-democratic" way to "gag the right to freedom of expression." He said such trends threaten India's democracy.

Gujarat is now ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian peoples' party), the political unit of Hindu groups striving to make India a theocratic nation.

Bandukwala now works with the Peoples' Union for Civil Liberties. His associate, Bina Srinivasan, dismissed the protest as "bigotry of the first order." She told UCA News the protests reflected the "increasing intolerance toward freedom of expression in Gujarat."

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