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Saffron nightmares: in Gujarat, Indian theatre artists face death threats, house arrest and violence. South Asians in the U.S. are feeling the heat of anti-Muslim fundamentalism, too.

WHILE 'BOMBAY DREAMS' CAPTIVATES THE AMERICAN theatregoing public on Broadway, the lives of some performing artists in India have more closely resembled a nightmare. Internationally acclaimed actress, dancer and choreographer Mallika Sarabhai never imagined she would one day have to flee her home in the dead of night, hidden under a blanket in the back of her car. "How did I become a stranger in my own country?" the actress laments. Her country is the independent India conceived by its founders as a secular democracy where the rule of law affords every citizen equal protection. Unfortunately, as the militant Hindu right rose to greater power in India, it put the values of secular democracy under siege. Sarabhai, an artist who never separated her work from her life or her fight against injustice, found herself on the front lines of the battle. For the moment, Sarabhai's side seems to be winning, but the battle is far from over.



Her nightmare began on Feb. 27, 2002, when a train carrying Hindu militants pulled into the station of the small town of Godhra, near Ahmedabad, in the western Indian state of Gujarat. The militants had been to Ayodhya to agitate for the construction of a Hindu temple on the site of the Babri Masjid mosque, destroyed by Hindu extremists a decade earlier. They believe Ayodhya is the birthplace of the god Rama, and that the mosque was built over the site of a more ancient temple to the Hindu god. Goaded by taunts from people on the train, and perhaps inflamed by a rumor that swept the platform that a Muslim girl had been abducted, someone, reportedly Muslim vendors, set fire to some of the carriages. Fifty-eight people were burnt alive, most of them women and children, all of them Hindus.

As the news of this incident spread, everyone braced themselves for some kind of a backlash against local Muslims. After all, sporadic violence between Hindus and Muslims has been a feature of life in India for centuries; it has been a growing problem in Gujarat at least since the spectacularly violent riots of 1969 in Ahmedabad. These riots were provoked in no small part by the collapse of the textile industry, mass unemployment and the sudden decline of the labor unions which had united Hindus and Muslim laborers in a common cause. In the aftermath of Godhra, people even feared that Hindu-Muslim violence might sweep the whole of India, as happened following the destruction of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya in 1992. But no one was prepared for what happened next.


Over the following days and weeks, well-organized groups of armed Hindus, mostly young men, simultaneously and systematically attacked Muslim homes and businesses across the eastern part of the state of Gujarat. It was a veritable pogrom--ethnic cleansing in all its symptomatic glory. The savage attacks included gang rapes, dismemberments and beheadings, fetuses ripped from living wombs, and men, women and children burnt alive.

It was apparent, as detailed in a 2002 Human Rights Watch account and other reports on state participation and complicity in violence, that the Gujarat government, under the leadership of Hindu militant Narendra Modi, had been aiding and abetting the attackers. Supplied with government computer printouts of the precise addresses of Muslim homes and businesses, the aggressors were in communication with government functionaries via walkie-talkie and had clearly been prepped long before the incident at Godhra. Before it was over more than 2,000 people had been killed and more than 100,000 had been made homeless, the vast majority of them Muslims.

No city suffered more than the state capital, Ahmedabad, Mallika Sarabhai's hometown. The activist daughter of Vikram Sarabhai, founder of India's nuclear program, Mallika naturally swept into action, documenting the carnage, helping displaced persons in refugee camps and filing formal complaints against the police and the Gujarat government.

The government's response against Sarabhai was equally swift. Angry mobs suddenly appeared outside her home and dance academy, Darpana. The Gujarati-language press, widely believed to be in the pocket of extremist Hindu forces, including Narendra Modi, began to skewer her with headlines such as "Mallika Has Ruined Dr. Vikram Sarabhai's Reputation," "Mallika's New Ploy to Subvert the Judicial System." (Later, these stories would be proven false, and the papers were forced to publish apologies.) A former Darpana academy student was helped by a local agitator to file charges claiming Sarabhai had promised to help smuggle her and other students into the United States. Ostensibly on the basis of these charges, the government of Gujarat confiscated Mallika Sarabhai's passport, placing her effectively under house arrest and threatening grave damage to her livelihood as an artist by preventing her from traveling internationally.

For the next several months, Mallika Sarabhai was forced to spend her time off stage, fighting to save her career, her dance academy, her international tour bookings and sponsors and her reputation. Her court hearings were put off for months, and the government of Gujarat threatened to audit all the financial records of Darpana Dance Academy. State officials resorted to summoning Sarabhai, her aged mother and other trustees of the academy to meetings where verbal abuse, threats and accusations of all stripes were rained down upon them.


The Gujarat government of Narendra Modi was not acting in a political or cultural vacuum. For the past couple of decades, the secular, multireligious democracy conceived by India's founders has been increasingly threatened by the rise of militant Hindu nationalism. The Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP--the official party of Narendra Modi in Gujarat, which dominated India's ruling coalition government until elections last May threw it out of power in a stunning surprise verdict from India's voters--is the most moderate of a handful of militant Hindu parties grouped under an umbrella known as the sangh parivar, or "family brotherhood." Other, more radical groups include the RSS, or Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (the group to which Mahatma Gandhi's assassin, Nathuram Godse, belonged); the Bajrang Dal, made up of rough-and-tumble street-level enforcers; and the VHP, or Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which dominates what could be called the propaganda wing. These parties are committed to nothing less than the "saffronization" (in reference to the Hindu holy color of deep yellow) of India. They want to transform India into a religious state dominated by a religious and political ideology they call Hindutva. They are now deeply divided over what lost them the May election. Ousted prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, an old RSS adherent, puts the blame on the BJP for not removing Narendra Modi from power following the 2002 massacres. The more radical elements take a contrary view and vow to radicalize their militant agenda as a way to win back power. Many India observers fear a rise in hate crimes and attacks on artists and others not to the militants' liking.

The ideology of Hindutva holds that Hindus have too long been disempowered by foreign invaders, especially Muslims, and that it is high time that India's Hindu majority reclaim its ancient historical potency and shake off the weakness of recent centuries. The rhetoric of militant Hindu nationalism informs a narrative of emasculation avenged--of the conquering "other" brought finally to his knees--and worse. Women are often special targets of militant Hindu rage, particularly prominent women artists and activists like Sarabhai who dare challenge the monolithic character of phallic exultation that characterizes so much of militant Hindu rhetoric and ideology.

These groups keep good track of any challenge to their ideological mission, be it political, cultural or artistic. If an exhibition of paintings is deemed not to their liking, thugs are sent to rampage through the gallery and rip up the paintings, as happened in the city of Surat in western India last February. If a scholar publishes work they feel insults a Hindu god, a gang is sent to destroy the archives of a local institute that may have sponsored research by that scholar, as happened in the city of Pune, the cultural capital of the affluent state of Maharashtra, where irreplaceable historical manuscripts were cavalierly destroyed earlier this year. And if a theatre director puts on a play that offends their sense of what can be represented, then the performance is disrupted, the spectators threatened and the theatre shut down. Acclaimed director Habib Tanvir, for instance, has been charged by Hindutva firebrand and now chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Uma Bharati, with "spreading communalism" through his stage productions. Gangs of goons have disrupted his shows and attacked his actors. One of the plays for which he has been attacked, Jamadarin, was originally composed by a pair of Chhattisgarhi folk playwrights and had been performed in peace for over 70 years. It only began to be attacked by Hindu extremists after the Babri Masjid was destroyed in Ayodhya in 1992. These same elements clearly wish to incite passions by implying that Tanvir, whose name is recognizably Muslim, is somehow defiling Hindus in his plays.

Mallika Sarabhai is by no means the only person who has bravely challenged the government of Gujarat on its role in the post-Godhra massacres, and she is not the only person to have paid a high price for it. Activists such as Father Cedric Prakash, a Christian leader in Gujarat; Nafisa Ali, a roving ambassador for Action Aid; and Dr. Ahmed Shakhil, who stepped in to run relief camps for refugees from the violence when the government did nothing, have also felt the government of Gujarat's ire. The Indian Express, the Gujarat daily Divya Bhaskar and Hindi news television Aaj Tak have all been subject to legal cases filed against them by the Modi government after they ran stories that offended the government. Mallika Sarabhai's case, however, is a prime example of the machinations of a state that is intent on teaching high-profile celebrities and artists a lesson.

Sarabhai comes from one of Ahmedabad's most illustrious families. The Sarabhai family made a fortune in the textile industry and used its money and its status to endow Ahmedabad with scores of cultural, educational and scientific institutions. She also comes from a long line of social and political activists. Her grandfather, Ambalal Sarabhai, used some of his considerable textile fortune to save Mahatma Gandhi's ashram from bankruptcy. Her aunt, Mridula Sarabhai, worked to restore communal peace between Hindus and Muslims in the Indian state of Bihar and, as a young, single woman, lost no time the moment she learned of the carnage to rush to the Punjab during the partition of India and Pakistan. Because of the enormous stature of her family name and her own international reputation, Mallika Sarabhai had been the target of a particularly assiduous campaign of defamation by the Modi government. Its bet was that people would think: "My God, if they can take down Mallika Sarabhai, I'd better keep my mouth shut."



In the United States, where the Indian diaspora population now numbers close to two million, harassment of scholars, writers and performing artists by Hindu militants is on the rise. These militants are actively seeking to increase their influence among the Indian-American community. Intimidation by Hindu militants is a reality for theatrical and other artists and intellectuals in the U.S. One of their latest targets is filmmaker Ismail Merchant, who has outraged them by daring to do his own casting, choosing Tina Turner for the lead role in a new film featuring a Hindu goddess. (See Shankar Vedantam's "Wrath Over a Hindu God" in the April 10, 2004 edition of the Washington Post.) Respected American scholars of India, such as the University of Chicago's Wendy Doniger, have had their work skewered and their lives threatened by right-wing Hindu extremists. A cursory visit to the web-sites of groups active in the U.S., such as Hindu Unity (, gives something of the flavor of these groups. Hindu Unity's site features a "black list" of targeted individuals, including actors and directors.

Far from India in New York City, Geeta Citygirl had no idea that she would receive death threats for naming her innovative new theatre company SALAAM. Born to Indian parents in Queens and raised on Long Island, Geeta--whose name means "sacred song" in Sanskrit--founded in 2000 a "multidisciplinary theatre company celebrating South Asian American artistic excellence through creative risk-taking." She named her new company SALAAM in part because she could get an acronym out of it: South Asian League of Artists in AMerica.

"Salaam" was also a greeting so familiar to Geeta as a person of South Asian heritage that it didn't even occur to her that it might automatically be understood by some people as a "Muslim-only" term. Indian-American filmmaker Mira Nair, after all, had called her early, celebrated movie Salaam Bombay, meaning (with no Muslim connotations) "I Salute You Bombay." And "Salaam Bombay" is the recurring theme song of the current Broadway hit Bombay Dreams.

When I spoke with Geeta recently from her home in New York, she recalled the first shocking moment when she realized that the name SALAAM might be a problem. "I was on a live, call-in television show on the ethnic station ITV, and the first caller was this man who starts with 'I'm confused. Why would a good, pure, Hindu girl named "Geeta" create a theatre company called SALAAM?' He just went into a tirade. The camera was focused on my face, and I just couldn't believe it was happening."

He might have been the first person offended by the name SALAAM, but he was not the last. "After 9/11," Geeta went on, her voice rising a little as she remembered, "I started to get death threats from Hindu militants on my voicemail, and I got some threatening letters, too. I got a little freaked out--I mean, here the community was under siege, and I had to deal with hate coming from within the community. A local ethnic paper did a totally unauthorized cover story on me entitled 'Pro-Muslim Geeta Citygirl Gets Death Threats' with my picture."

It's not just the name of her company that's gotten Geeta Citygirl into trouble. In response to the Gujarat massacres in 2002, SALAAM Theatre presented a performance of Delhi-based playwright Manjula Padmanabhan's Hidden Fires, five monologues reflecting on the violence. As Geeta recalls: "A guy stood up and demanded, 'Why are you doing this for Muslims?' He ranted on and on and one of my guys had to escort him out. People were pretty nervous."

Aroon Shivdasani, director of the Indo-American Arts Council, which regularly sponsors theatrical events in New York, is another person who felt moved to respond to the Gujarat massacres with an artistic performance. She organized a dramatic reading in May 2002 of excerpts of Shashi Tharoor's novel Riot, which takes place leading up to and during a fictitious Hindu-Muslim riot in India. The reading, hosted by the World Policy Institute at New School University, was directed by Michael Johnson-Chase and performed by Indian actress Shabana Azmi, actress and author Madhur Jaffrey (currently performing on Broadway in Bombay Dreams), Wall Street Journal reporter Tunku Varadarajan and Shashi Tharoor himself.

Virulent Hindu militant Narain Kataria got wind of the performance and circulated a hate-filled e-mail, under the auspices of the implausibly named "Indian Americans for Truth and Fairness in Media," slandering actress Shabana Azmi in the most outrageous terms and exhorting fellow travelers to demonstrate outside the New School's auditorium on West 12th Street. Faced with the kind of threats made in the e-mail, university officials had no choice but to impose tight security and hire extra New York City police protection.

Speaking from his office at the United Nations, Shashi Tharoor recalled

that after the reading, he received a phone call from Shekhar Tiwari, founder of the Overseas Friends of the BJP. "It was a very interesting phone call," Tharoor mused. "Tiwari was calling, in effect, to apologize. He said: 'You shouldn't have been attacked that way. The fellow behind it, his family suffered a lot during Partition [of India and Pakistan].'" Tiwari's call was likely more the result of the recognition, at a higher level of Hindu militant leadership, of Tharoor's standing--he now holds the rank of Undersecretary General at the United Nations and is the author of several acclaimed books--than of any substantive difference of view over the Riot performance.

When the Indo-American Arts Council sponsored performances of Feroz Khan's play Mahatma vs. Gandhi and Pradeep Dalvi's Nathuram Godse, Aroon Shivdasani again found herself at the receiving end of telephone threats, accused of being a traitor to her "homeland" and actually spat upon before the Godse play commenced. After the performance, a man got up on a chair shouting that he knew "the truth" and warned that the producers of this "indecent" play would be "punished for their lies." The show, needless to say, went on.

When freedom is under siege, one of the most powerful forms of political resistance has always been the arts. Hindu militants are no different from other self-designated custodians of ideological purity who hate freedom of expression. Democratic values and freedoms are under attack by fundamentalists and extremists the world over. In the face of this threat, India's voters recently reaffirmed their commitment to a plurality of beliefs, of views and of taste. India's newly elected Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a Sikh, is a member of a religious minority. His government has vowed to break with the policies of the outgoing BJP government and proclaimed a renewed commitment to the values of secular democracy. This triumph for Indian democracy was made possible in no small part by the resistance of brave artists such as Mallika Sarabhai, artists who use the power of the theatre and other artistic media to challenge those who would stifle the wonderfully multivalent, chaotic creativity of democratic societies.

It would be a mistake, however, to consider India's secular democracy secure. The new government, dominated by the Congress Party, is made up of a shaky coalition of different parties united in their determination to stop the Hindu right but divided over many other issues. Militant Hindus are not happy to be marginalized from power at the national level, and, though they have lost ground in most cities and regions, they retain a stronghold in some areas, such as in India's hi-tech city Bangalore. Many fear that anger and frustration over the recent election results could trigger a spate of ugly incidents as the Hindu militant right tries to reassert its agenda.

We live in a world made small by globalization. The Internet, satellite television, jet travel--these are but some of the ties that bind us in a complex global web of humanity. When an artist anywhere in the world is hounded for standing up for truth and justice in her life and work, we must be alarmed, for it is our own freedom that is on the line.


I WAS BORN IN FREE INDIA. I WAS BROUGHT up in the glow of an independence that was bravely and non-violently won. Here at last was the democratic republic that my family, among thousands of others, had worked and strived for, a country where plurality shone like a jewel, where people of varied languages, cultures, colors and beliefs could speak as Indians. Where democratic principles meant the right of each one of us to voice our opinions and express our dissent of policies when elections came around.

In my family, in particular, we took our secularism for granted; we presumed that the right of religious belief that was promised in our constitution was indelible. All of us were constantly encouraged to think of larger issues--of the nation--to have opinions and be able to defend them. My mother, one of the country's greatest classical dancers, had already broken with tradition by using an ancient language of gesture and mime to speak of issues of women's abuse and harassment, rather than of the love for God to which the classical idiom had hitherto been married. My father, the founder of India's space research program and a pioneering scientist, told me, at age 12, that walking one's own path, at odds with society, was hard, very hard, but that it was a path that he and my mother had both chosen. I must decide, my parents said, whether to keep quiet and be a lamb or to be prepared to take abuse and derision as a result of independent thinking about values and truths which might disturb the complacency of a tradition-bound and class-ridden society. I made my choice. It was to be prescient.


In 1984 I joined Peter Brook in his production of The Mahabharata, the only Indian in the cast, and the only one who was not a professional theatre actor. I played my favorite woman of all time, Draupadi, the essential 21st-century icon--proud to have a womb and a brain, and revelling in both. My art seemed to me the best path for my activism. My life, however, took a different direction after the five years of portraying Draupadi around the world.

In the last 13 years many of my performances have broached taboo issues, subjects which often meet a wall of non-acceptance. My one-woman show, Sita's Daughters, for instance, reinterprets the model Hindu wife of the Ramayana epic as a thinking heroine who questions her husband, Rama (considered to be god/ideal man by the Hindu right), and forces him to prove his real worth as a man. In Sita's name and (mis)representation as a submissive wife (the admonition "Sitajaisi ban na" equals "be passive, be a doormat to be stamped upon"), millions of Indian women have been mistreated and beaten into silence. In my piece, Sita bemoans the universal acceptance of male rules in the game of life and vows to rewrite her own story the next time around.

Sita's Daughter is deemed a sacrilege among the fundamentalists; it is considered tantamount to inciting women against the ideal god. In another show, In Search of the Goddess, I reinterpret Savitri, the sacred woman of the Mahabharata. In Savitri's name, the sacrifice of widows, or sati, was justified. My Savitri calls those men who worship her--and burn widows at their dead husband's funeral pyres--liars and manipulators. Sacrilege again! Fundamentalists of every hue screamed and threatened. Male chauvinists castigated me.

My work, nevertheless, has made some inroads. The police and Supreme Court justices use Sita's Daughters as part of their gender-sensitization programs. Universities have made some of my work compulsory viewing for students. And there have been segments of society that have been applauding and supportive.

Except this time around. In 2002 there was a state-sponsored and government-encouraged anti-Muslim genocide in my home state of Gujarat. Civil society joined in the rampage and brutality. A 10-year effort at building hatred toward this community paid rich dividends for the right-wing fundamentalists. People were silenced and became accomplices in this attempt at ethnic cleansing. Within three days I started writing, petitioning, going to the central leadership, generally making a noise. With two other activists, I filed a public-interest litigation statement in the country's highest court against the state and the police.

The state government and civil society turned against me. Instantly I was branded an "anti-national" and a "traitor" for questioning the brutality and mayhem, as "anti-state" for "defaming" Gujarat nationally and internationally; I was called a "whore" for raising a voice against the collective wisdom that Muslims had no place in India. The state government issued a silent fatwa: I was good game for anything from violent to verbal assaults. Police inquiries were constituted; the newspapers printed filth; the people who had once held me up as the pride of the nation stood by and watched. False cases were brought against my institution and me. An arrest warrant was issued, and I was forced to go into hiding. Even today, when the recent national election has thrown out the right-wing government in parliament, in Gujarat, under the same fundamentalist government as earlier, I fight censorship, constant harassment by the income-tax department, the charity commissioner's office, the police, the local goon squads and more.

How did India become this? How did it allow one of its foremost states to get away with this? And how does it continue letting injustice prevail, voices be silenced, the cancer of intolerance grow? India is a country where traditionally the role of all the arts was that of teaching, guiding, passing on ethics and values, and critiquing society's injustices. How then did we in the arts get sidelined into being the frosting on the cake, rather than the bread that nourishes life? If artists are silenced, who will be the last remaining voice of conscience? And if this can happen in India, the world's largest democracy, can Americans, with your growing culture of moral guardianship, be far behind?


Mallika Sarabhai is an actor, classical dancer and the director of India's Darpana Academy of the Performing Arts, which was founded in 1949 by her mother, the esteemed Mrinalini Sarabhai. She is involved in social change in India through Jagruti, a project for environmental empowerment; the Value Project, which deals with violence caused by gender bias, communal hatred and religious intolerance; Parivartan, a grassroots organization for tribal women and children (Adivasis) in Kerala; and the Center for Non-Violence Through the Arts.

Mira Kamdar is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute at New School University in New York City and the author of Motiba's Tattoos: A Granddaughter's Journey from America into Her Indian Family's Past (Plume 2001).
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Author:Kamdar, Mira
Publication:American Theatre
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2004
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