Updated: Mar 10
New Delhi: Threats from Hindu vigilante groups over the titles of two satirical plays led to the cancellation of an annual five-day theatre festival in a Madhya Pradesh town, even though the organisers offered to drop the plays and truncate the event by two days.
The police delayed permission, the organisers said, and instead of acting against vigilante groups, tried to get the organisers—from a storied, 78-year-old national theatre association, whose golden jubilee the government honoured with a postage stamp—to talk to those threatening violence.
The organisers decided to cancel the festival, notwithstanding the losses involved, than to obey the police and negotiate with the Bajrang Dal, the Hindu militia that threatened an ugr andolan (ferocious protest).
“This (negotiation) would have meant sitting with a goon who was giving violent threats,” said Shivendra Shukla, general secretary of the the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA), which has been holding a national theatre festival since 2015 in Ambedkar Bhavan in Chhatarpur, a town famed for its cultural heritage.
Preparations began a month in advance—as they did every year for the last six years—for the five-day theatre festival. There were to be five plays, poetry, story telling, painting exhibitions and musical concerts.
Two days before the scheduled start on 24 February 2021, the IPTA cancelled the festival when it became apparent the police were not going to act against the Bajrang Dal, youth-wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), both linked to MP’s and India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Uncontroversial, Satirical Plays—Until Now
The plays in question—one written by a playwright honoured with a Padma Bhushan, one of India’s highest civilian awards—have been staged nationwide for many years until the Chattarpur unit of the Bajrang Dal decided to make an example of them.
Jati Hi Poocho Sadhu Ki (Ask only the caste of the sadhu), the satirical tale of a poor Indian whose success is restrained by his low caste, is the Hindi translation of a Marathi play by Vijay Tendulkar, acclaimed playwright and Padma Bhushan awardee. Besharammev jayate (Shamelessness alone triumphs) is a collage of plays dealing with corruption and selfishness, the title a play on the national slogan of Satyameva jayate (Truth alone triumphs).
“How can we tolerate this?” Surendra Shivharay of the Bajrang Dal told Article 14. “In the name of freedom of expression, we can not allow anti-national and anti-religion activities in our city. We opposed the festival because it was going to stage anti-religion plays.”
“Why should they ask what is the caste of a sadhu (saint)?” Shivharay said. “It is shamelessness that they even fiddled with Satyamev Jayate, which is part of our national emblem.”
Asked if he or anyone had watched the play or read the scripts, Shivharay said that they meant to offend was “evident from the names of the plays”.
“There was no need to read the script,” said Shivharay.
The Explanations That Failed
Organisers and artistes said the plays had never disrespected any religion or ever hurt anyone’s feelings.
“We have staged these plays many times across India and there was never any trouble anywhere,” said Shukla, the IPTA general secretary. “In fact, we staged these plays in Chattarpur last November only.”
Shantanu Pandey, who was to direct and act in Jati Hi Poocho Sadhu Ki, pointed to the satirical title, a play on a couplet written in the 15th century by poet and saint Kabir Das. “The title is a tweak of what Kabir said, Jati na Poocho Sadhu ki, pooch lijiye gyaan (Ask not the caste of the sadhu, ask his knowledge).”
Sadhu in the play refers to a low-caste man named Mahipat who attains a master’s degree and portrays in comedic style the situations he faces as he wanders through villages looking for a job.
This was the fourth time they were going to stage the play in MP, but the moment the first announcements about the festival were made in first week of February, Pandey said, “They (the Hindutva groups ) started targeting us by making threatening calls, asking why we were doing plays about caste and sadhus.”
The organisers tried to explain that the word sadhu in the title of the play did not refer to a saint or ascetic. “We asked them whether they have read or seen the play,” said Pandey. “But they were not ready to hear (us) and labelled the IPTA as anti-national, anti-religion and anti- Hindu leftists.”
Indeed, while talking to Article 14, the Bajrang Dal’s Shivharay called IPTA a “communist organisation that has always done wrong”.
“Why is it that only our (Hindu) endurance is tested all the time?” said Shivharay. “Have they ever made a play on burqa or halala (a reference to Muslim divorce practices) or issues like these?”
The Munawar-Faruqui Fallout
In a letter to Avinash Rawat, sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) of Chhatarpur, Hindu groups threatened “protests and violent agitation” if the IPTA theatre festival was not banned.
“The programme would be against Hindu culture and religion, hence we demand that [festival] be stopped, so that public sentiment is respected,” reads the letter, written on a VHP letterhead.
A local campaign against the festival and the intimidating letter sparked worry among IPTA organisers that mobs might storm the festival and attack participants.
Those fears were accentuated by the arrest about two months of Munawar Faruqui, a Muslim standup comic, whose performance was stormed by Hindu vigilantes; police ignored the intimidation and arrested him instead, even though they acknowledged he had committed no crime.
The organisers said they had written a letter to the SDM two weeks before the festival and were told they would receive permission by 19 February, five days before its scheduled start.
But officials started avoiding the organisers, as rightwing groups intensified their campaign. “The officials told us that they have sent our letter to the concerned police station,” said IPTA’s Shukla, “But we did not get the written permission.”
When the organisers called the superintendent of police (SP) on 23 February, Chattarpur, he suggested they change the title of the plays, according to Shukla. Though Shukla argued they had staged the same plays with the same titles before in Chattarpur, he agreed to drop the plays and reduce the festival to three instead of five days “to avoid any nuisance”.
The SP then told Shukla that he would get back soon, but when both met the next day, “this time the SP suggested we sit and negotiate with Bajrang Dal”, said Shukla, who refused.
‘We Do Not Want To Take Any Risk’
When Article 14 asked Chattarpur SP Sachin Sharma why permission for the festival was withheld, he said: “They did not file any written application. If they had done so, then we would have given them permission. It is irresponsible of them to play the blame game when there is nothing on record.”
The organisers had indeed written on 12 February to Sharma's colleague, the SDM, who is responsible for granting permission. When Article 14 pointed this out, Sharma said he had no knowledge of the IPTA’s application to the SDM.
SDM Rawat told Article 14 on 8 March that he had been transferred from Chattarpur and said he “cannot comment on this issue now”.
Shukla argued that had they gone ahead anyway, local officials would have stopped the festival, if there was violence.
“We did not want to take any risk,” said Shukla.
According to Pandey, the actor, Hindu vigilantes said they would negotiate only after the festival was cancelled. “We were even ready to drop the name of IPTA (from the festival), but what was the point of talks after cancelling the festival?” he said.
The cancellation of the festival at the “11th hour” after a month of preparation caused a loss of Rs 150,000, said Shukla. The organisers had made bookings for hotels, lights, sound, banners, flags and train tickets for guests from Chandigarh. Local artists had been rehearsing for months.
“We are in debt and we have to pay this from our pockets because we cannot ask for help from our supporters, since we did not show them anything,” said Shukla, who expressed “shock and dismay” at how an environment of intimidation was created.
“Previously we would not even demand security,” said Shukla. “Collectors and police officers would be guests on our shows and, sometimes, they would even showcase their talent,” said Shukla, who frequently writes newspaper opinion pieces critical of the government.
Shukla said he believed the opposition of Hindu groups to the IPTA festival stemmed from his stand “on issues like CAA-NRC (the new citizenship act) and the farmer protests”.
“Tendulkar’s plays sought to bring into the open nuances relating to social issues that are often concealed under a cloak of silence,” said Anushka Mohite, grand-daughter of Tendulkar, the playwright. “It saddens me to see that the staging of his play is being opposed in this way, decades after it was first published, by forces that are ignorant of the play’s content as well as its benevolent intent.”
An online petition of support from eminent artistes, such as Shabana Azmi, Sharmila Tagora, M K Raina and Bhanu Bharti, to restore the festival has, so far, fetched nearly 5,000 signatures.
“It’s such a shame that an iconic, timeless play by one of India’s greatest playwrights has been stopped from being performed at the IPTA Theatre Festival,” said the petition, describing the cancellation “a huge loss to all theatre lovers and the people of India”.
(Zafar Aafaq is a journalist based in New Delhi.)