Right-wing Hindu vigilante groups in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh have forced the cancellation of an annual theater festival, after threatening violence over satirical plays that they accused of being “anti-national.”
The annual theater festival organized by the Indian People’s Theater Association in the small town of Chhatarpur was subjected to abuse and violent threats by Bajrang Dal, a hard-line Hindu group linked to the ruling Hindu nationalist party Bharatiya Janata ( BJP).
The festival has been running since 2015, with theater groups from across India participating in plays and workshops for five days. However, this year Bajrang Dal launched a campaign accusing organizers of scheduling “anti-national” and “anti-Hindu” plays, even though they only knew the titles.
His anger was directed at a production of the well-known satire Jati Hi Poocho Sadhu Ki, which translates as “ask only the caste of [Hindu] holy man ”, written by the playwright Vijay Tendulkar, and another more recent work with the satirical title Besharammev Jayate, translated as Shamelessness Alone Triumphs, a play on India’s national motto Satyameva jayate, Truth alone triumphs.
After Bajrang Dal threatened “violent agitation,” festival organizers, who say police did not offer them protection, were forced to cancel two days before the festival started on February 26.
Since the BJP came to power in 2014, cultural organizations have been increasingly targeted by hardline religious groups. This was the second recent cultural event in Madhya Pradesh that the Bajrang Dal vigilantes had shut down: a Muslim comedian Munawar Faruqui spent nearly a month in jail in January for “anti-national” jokes that he said he had never counted, after members from Bajrang Dal broke into his standup show, falsely accused him of insulting Hinduism and had him arrested.
Shivendra Shukla, general secretary of the Indian People’s Theater Association, said the group had started receiving unknown phone calls from Bajrang Dal after they put up posters for the event in early February.
“They were angry asking why we were putting on plays with anti-Hindu, anti-national and anti-cultural titles,” Shukla said. “They hadn’t even seen the play or read the script, they had only seen the name. I tried to explain to them that it was a satire, these works are not against Hinduism or against India. But they didn’t want to listen and said it shouldn’t be allowed. “
The work of Tendulkar Jati Hi Poocho Sadhu Ki, Written in 1978, it is a dark satire on the educational system of post-independence India, about a man from the lower castes of India who obtains a master’s degree and takes on society, the state and the government in his attempt to get a job.
Bajrang Dal sent a letter to the Chhatarpur magistrate, declaring that the play was “against Hindu culture and religion” and threatening violent action if it was not closed.
Shukla went to the police, but they only suggested that the organizers change the names of the works and then remove them from the program. Shukla said that, although “surprised”, he agreed to remove the works “to avoid problems and violence for everyone.” However, he was still unable to obtain guarantees from the police that they would protect the festival from Bajrang Dal violence, he said, and the police superintendent suggested that the organizers and Bajrang Dal negotiate. Since the police allegedly refused to give the official go-ahead, Shukla “had no choice but to cancel or endanger people’s lives.”
The police have denied receiving the request for a permit for the festival.
Surendra Shivharay, head of Chhatarpur’s Bajrang Dal section, defended the group’s threats against the festival. “People like this want to divide India,” he said. “These game titles were very disrespectful to the Indian flag and our holy men. How long should Hindus have to tolerate this? Why are you organizing plays directed at Hindus? Why not put on a play about the Muslim autocracy or about the Christians?
He said that “I hadn’t read the works and I don’t need to. Their titles are objectionable, that’s all we need to know. ” He added: “Free speech does not mean that you can do what you want and we will not tolerate it, at least not in my district.”
Shukla said that despite the threats, and although the cancellation had cost the theater organization more than 150,000 rupees (£ 1,500), he still intended to hold the festival at a later date and present all the plays.
“We will get the Bajrang Dal members to sit and watch to show them that there is nothing controversial, anti-Indian or anti-national,” he said. “The cultural movement will not stop because we are afraid of them and their violence.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism