“Artists are an opportunity, a big chance.”

— Muqtada Afsar Khan (2010)

The Shiv Sena’s chief in Delhi, Jai Bhagwan Goyal, said in an interview that its attack on filmmaker Deepa Mehta’s Fire created such publicity for the party that it had got many new members since then. Media attention on the attack at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU) in Vadodara made Niraj Jain, the attacker, “so famous” that “for the first time in [his] life” he felt he had “achieved something”.

When I met a young Shiv Sena activist in Mumbai, he mentioned nonchalantly, “It is fun to take part in these things since the police does nothing. It cannot do anything because our leader’s (Bal Thackeray’s) hand is on our heads. If they do something to us, the entire Mumbai will come to a standstill.” At the Sena Bhavan, the party’s headquarters in Dadar, an old-timer explained that being a party worker itself meant that “[y]ou are not a coward [darpok]...people know we can use force when we want’.

A VHP member in Ahmedabad who had taken part in attacks narrated his experience: “When earlier I was not with the VHP and I had to go to the police station I used to suffer, but now I can speak with authority equal to that of the police because I am with the VHP...I am also someone [hum bhi kuch hain]. What can the police do to us?”

These and other responses of a similar ilk imply that to answer the question of what the violent regulation of artistic liberties conveys about India’s liberal democracy, we need to take into account the personal experiences and motivations of actual attackers – to put macro institutional-ideological factors and micro individual pursuits at a more equal footing than what the current literature suggests.

The last three chapters provided the political context in which the rise of criminalisation and the decline of state neutrality in matters of religious conflict, as a practice if not as a norm, especially since the 1990s, lent extraordinary support to the advancement of the use of violence to regulate the liberties of artists. However, using these macro-political dynamics to explain the widespread popularity of vandalising art, and the relative ease and attraction of targeting artists, is not sufficient as it does not take into account the relevance of the individuals at the forefront of these attacks.

Neglect of this aspect is widespread in commentaries on the issue, but this does not imply that these foot soldiers, and party workers are of no consequence in the determination of the limits of artistic freedom – quite the opposite. The present chapter turns attention to these assailants, the lesser-known and often “unidentified” members of the “mob”. An examination of their personal incentives belies a generally unquestioned aspect of vandalism and attacks on artists: that these attackers simply carry out commands given from the higher-ups. Though widely accepted, this is only a partial account.

Individual narratives are critical because they draw our attention to the relationship between liberalism and democratic restraints on violence. For most observers, this relationship is mutually supportive: for the assertion of liberal values, restraints on violence have to be strengthened. This is logical, but it is not always the case, and it is certainly not the rationale of the attackers.

Loyal followers do indeed reproduce the attitudes of their leaders and organisational beliefs, as much as their associations can create obligations to fulfil managerial and ideological commitments, which, one might argue, involves targeting artists. However, rather than submissively obeying, the pursuit of personal advantage is also crucial to attackers because, as this chapter shows, these actions hold out possibilities that would otherwise lie beyond their reach.

Their personal enthusiasm to attack artists can thus be framed in different terms as well, wherein liberal constitutionalism emerges as more than a set of ideas; it becomes a way to measure historically the success (and failure) of political institutions, and to evaluate promises made by the liberal state to its citizens.

Instead of considering violence to be in opposition to constitutionalism, attackers conceptualise it as a way to precisely refer back to its guarantees, even as their understanding of it remains highly selective and problematic.

The language of the Indian Constitution – assuring its citizens dignity, respect, and equality – emerges here as an enabling technique for attackers to indulge their violent rage. To reiterate the central argument of the present book, a close reading of the motivations and experiences of individual attackers once again emphasises the conflict inherent in liberalism, that is the complex arrangement of its competing values – the right to freedom of speech and expression being but one such value. This conflict, the negotiation of the arrangement of values, takes on a particularly perverse form in a state that already suffers from weak enforcement of the law.

Excerpted with permission from Art Attacks: Violence And Offence-Taking In India, Malvika Maheshwari, Oxford University Press.