Forget the (unresolvable) debate about what is obscene and what isn’t for a moment. Also hold on to all that intricate talk of putting things — works of art or otherwise — in the right context. Chandramohan, an art student from Maharaja Sayajirao University at Baroda, was held in police custody for six days for painting allegedly obscene works as part of an examination. And who was it that decided that Chandramohan was guilty of ‘offending sensibilities’? Not the university officials or teachers. Not the police. It was a self-appointed arbiter of aesthetics, Niraj Jain, a BJP leader whom very few people had heard of until last Sunday when he led a mob inside the university premises to attack the exhibited works. Instead of charging Mr Jain with trespassing and disrupting the peace of the university, the police arrested Chandramohan who was released on bail only on Monday. Moral policing is no longer only about hunting down ‘degenerates’; it is now also about breaking down the precious divide between the private and the public.
It is ironic that the BJP and the VHP activists responsible for the Kafkaesque situation that Chandramohan finds himself in are being protected by a state government machinery that, one would have thought, finds it reprehensible to be compared to Taliban mullahs. But it isn’t the lumpen rightwing activists alone who are responsible for destroying a citizen’s private space. The Maharaja Sayajirao University authorities have readily crawled when they were asked to bend. The Vice-Chancellor not only complied with Mr Jain’s ‘objections’, but actually apologised to him for allowing ‘such paintings’ to be put up in the university. To add insult to injury, the dean of the fine arts faculty was suspended for lending support to the students. This is much more than a case of institutions buckling under state-sanctioned bullying. It is more an example of the rights of institutional privacy crumpling after someone has rushed in and said, ‘Boo!’
There has been much disquiet of late because of moralists scurrying about. But despite the presence of the publicity-seeking self-righteous, we thankfully don’t have our very own Spanish Inquisition. As a nation, we may not be completely chalta hai when it comes to various kinds of culture or behaviour, but we are also not the kind to invade private spaces and start searching under people’s mattresses. Our problem lies elsewhere: not having the courage to tell the complete stranger that what is under people’s mattresses is none of his business. In other words, we must start asserting — and thereby valuing — our individualities.