Srishti Art Attack: Love, Art and Dissent in New India

It was 9 pm on a cold January night when thousands of people assembled at Ram Leela Maidan to witness one of India’s finest statesmen – Atal Bihari Vajpayee – speak.

“Baad muddat ke mile hain deewane
Kehne sunne ko bahut hain afsane
Khuli hawa mein zara saans to le lein, kab tak rahegi aazadi kaun jaane?”

The crowd broke into frantic cheers.

That night, Vajpayee spoke of freedom, democratic rights and fundamental rights to disagree with those who rule us. Today, the very party he represented has turned the narrative on its head by launching a new-age ‘saffron democracy’ where love is censored, art lies dispatched and dissent is being mercilessly crushed.

On January 14, Bengaluru’s Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology became the centre of one such controversy over graffiti depicting Prime Minister Narendra Modi and decrying the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC).

The graffiti showed PM Modi with a finger on his lips. The caption read “sab changa si” (all is well).

This attracted the ire of BJP’s Yelahanka MLA S.R. Vishwanath. The MLA visited the site on Tuesday with his supporters, after reportedly receiving a complaint about defacement of public property, and allegedly threatened students.

Anjana, one of the students, said, “They wanted us to identify the person who drew the Modi graffiti.”

For students at Srishti, what unfolded that evening was horrifying – women students were harassed and objectified, many two-wheelers were towed away arbitrarily and artworks were erased from the walls using saffron paint.

Two-wheelers being towed away from outside the campus, where students have parked for years.

According to Sayan, “It was around mid-afternoon, we were in class when our security person barged in saying that the police were towing away vehicles parked outside the college. We all rushed there to free our bikes. The security guard was threatened, and then people in civil clothes approached our administration to ask who had painted the graffiti.”

As another student told LiveWire, students have been parking there two-wheelers outside college for years in the same spot. Yet, just before the fracas on campus, a complaint was lodged on the BBMP Sahaya app claiming that these “illegally parked bikes were inconveniencing pedestrians”.

When Vishal approached the police about the incident, one officer told him: “If you want to collect the bike, come to the police station and mention your college name. No fine will be charged.”

It appears that most of the two-wheelers taken by the police that day were given back to their owners, and that no fine was charged.

This incident comes just a week after the verbal clash between BJP supporters and the students of Jyoti Nivas College Autonomous in Bangalore over a pro-CAA banner that has been hung on the walls of the private college, and less than a week after some students at Srishti tried to organise a 48-hour satyagraha at Freedom Park in the city.

The institute decided to remain shut for two days after a group of BJP workers wiped out graffiti on its outer walls.

Savan said, “They simply wanted to harass us. One of the officers took my phone and started browsing the gallery and messages. I snatched it away. He even called me skinny and body-shamed me. A healthy dialogue is critical for the youth of today, which they want to snatch away from us. If I don’t support BJP, why do I need to be labeled as a Communist or a Congressi?”

Also read: ‘We Only Asked Them to Talk to Us Politely – They Were Screaming at the Top of Their Lungs’

The incident is reminiscent of an incident where Vajpayee had found that a portrait of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, been taken down from his office. Vajpayee ordered that it be put back up.

As I spoke to more students, it became clear that cat-calling and harassment has been a problem for a while. “Finding people masturbating on the streets near the college is a day-to-day thing. One day as I was walking on the street, two men slapped my butt and drove away,” Shalija said.

“If you ask any student, if not them, they will at least have a friend who has faced such issues. The police don’t like us because we drink and smoke, wear ‘skimpy clothes’ and come home late at night. There are CCTV cameras installed at public places nearby to monitor our ‘inappropriate’ and ‘anti-Hindu behaviours’,” she said.

Blank canvases

“They covered almost all the artworks on the wall, around 10-15 of them – even the ones that were not political,” Dhiraj fumed. Among the students who painted some of the wall art, he added: “When I see my artwork has been removed, it shatters the artistic and the stable socio-politically motivated environment that we are striving for. The fact that I saw them painting them saffron, it felt like they were making a statement – a statement that will remain.”

Over centuries, art has played a role in reflecting the oppressive and repulsive, often pushing people to react emotionally. With Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, and various other protest sites across India using art as a mobilising force, the attack on Srishti is hardly surprising – it appears that those donning saffron today picked their adversary carefully.

A screenshot of one threatening message.

Since then, students have allegedly received threatening messages from anonymous accounts on social media. One such message reads: “You Shrishti people should be burnt alive like communist dogs. Paint one more and you see. You don’t know BJP.”

“If a small graffiti can lead to such a big trigger, we are frightened of what’s to come. If this peaceful way leads to no development, I am scared there will be nothing but violence in the end. The country will be in a state of carnage and confusion. I do not think we are prepared for that. The entire student community feels intimidated today, yet Modi-Shah taught us how to be one, across the nation and in Shaheen Bagh,” Dhiraj said.

All names have been changed for the safety of the students. 

Souptik Datta is a student, a photojournalist, and a storyteller, who believes in bringing truth to people through new media, often in long-form. He is interested in issues related to human rights, politics, and the environment. When not working or studying, he likes solo-traveling.

All images have been provided by the author.