As tensions simmer between India and Pakistan, groups of citizens, activists, students and artists came together on March 2 to campaign for peace and tolerance. They held parades, street plays, poetry recitals, film screenings and musical performances in Delhi and Mumbai to convey their message.

In Delhi, a collective of 200 artists and filmmakers in the Capital called Artists Unite started a two-day cultural event outside the Red Fort, featuring art installations and posters with slogans like “Say no to war” and “Say no to hate”.

In Mumbai, a march for peace was attended by hundreds of artists, filmmakers and common people. The march, which began from Mahim and ended at Carter Road in Bandra, was organised by 2020 Group, a “coalition of artists, architects, filmmakers, cultural administrators and live art practitioners”.

Tensions between India and Pakistan have been running high since a suicide bomber killed at least 40 paramilitary personnel in Pulwama, Kashmir, on February 14. India blamed the attack on the Jaish-e-Mohammad and launched an air strike on the terror group’s suspected camp in Balakot, Pakistan, on February 26. The next day, Pakistani forces reportedly bombed military installations on this side of the border. They also shot down an Indian fighter aircraft and captured the pilot Abhinandan Varthaman, who has since been freed. spoke to the artists who organised the cultural event in Delhi and to some of those who attended the march in Mumbai. Here is what they had to say.

Fouzia Dastango and Firoz Khan, performance artists

Firoz Khan and Fouzia Dastango perform in Delhi. Photo credit: Vijayta Lalwani

They did Dastangoi, a form of oral storytelling, on Mahatma Gandhi’s life and work at the Red Fort event. “My uncle was shot in the riots that followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992,” said Dastango. “I have grown up witnessing violence and as an artist it is my duty to communicate peace. This is the only way I know to protest. It’s so easy to say yes to war on social media but dialogue is the only solution.”

Khan said it was necessary to remind Indians of what Gandhi preached. “Anything away from peace will terribly affect the public,” he said. “We don’t want war, that’s why we are here.”

Sabika Abbas Naqvi, poet and educator

Sabika Abbas Naqvi at the event in Delhi. Photo credit: Vijayta Lalwani

For Naqvi, poetry is an effective tool to engage with citizens about a range of issues such as women’s rights, communal amity and choosing peace over war. She was one of the artists who performed at the Delhi event.

“When we look back at history and read of the big incidents that took place, the first question that comes up is about the poets of that time,” she said. “We cannot let down the legacy of the poets because of whom we enjoy our freedom. But it isn’t just artists that must unite, everyone needs to come together at such a time. Such events help us make a point by reclaiming the public space to send out our messages.”

Aadit Basu, artist

Aadit Basu stands next to his art installation in Delhi. Photo credit: Vijayta Lalwani

Basu’s installation was a dummy in regular clothing but with a mirror instead of a head. “I wanted something introspective,” he said. “The bottom line is that nobody wants war. And we need independent spaces such as this to get that message across without any hindrance. In recent weeks we saw a manipulation of words which were used to further a political narrative.”

He also handed out pamphlets on what it means to be a common man.

Smita Urmila Ragmane, artist

Smita Urmila Ragmane stands next to her installation representing the caste hierarchy. Photo credit: Vijayta Lalwani

Ragmane’s installation was constantly crowded. On a table, she had piled pieces of earthenware on top of the other to represent the caste hierarchy. The visitors were asked to take a piece from the pile and smash it on the ground. “It is necessary to smash Brahmanical patriarchy,” Ragmane said. “People respond to this differently as they see at it with a very narrow gaze. We are against oppressive ideas like caste and war and there needs to be a discussion on this on a wider scale.”

Ishamudin Khan Madari, performance artist

Ishamudin Khan Madari is a magician. Photo credit: Vijayta Lalwani

While performing his magic tricks, Madari depicted the various rights enshrined in the Indian Constitution. But he also played some tricks that showed what happened to citizens when their rights were snatched from them. “It is our duty as performers to speak against any wrongdoings happening in the country,” he said. “There is so much politics being done when it comes to food and religion. We can believe in the religion we want because the Constitution allows that, but it is wrong to play politics on it. My vote will go to anyone who is willing to maintain peace. That is the most important at this time and this message should go across the country to all voters.”

Sharad Raj, filmmaker

Sharad Raj during the march in Mumbai. Photo credit: Sruthi Ganapathy Raman

“There is such a vicious atmosphere in the country and bigotry that it is time for artists to communicate to the people in power that we will not take it lying down,” said Raj, who held up a placard while marching in Mumbai. “The placard speaks about people from different communities. We are one and that is the idea of India. We cannot dig prehistoric stuff and malign it to suit our narrative. This placard represents that. And Gauri Lankesh’s picture her represents that you cannot suppress voices that question. There will be millions of Gauris in the country.”

Michaela Talwar, artist

Michaela Talwar marches in Mumbai. Photo credit: Sruthi Ganapathy Raman

Talwar, who runs an “art space” in Mumbai’s Versova, said she was marching for tolerance and against censorship. “We know how hard it is to keep art away from censorship and do something that is not instilled by hate,” she said. “We have seen it first hand and want to support that. Posters here speak to different kinds of people with different kinds of takes on the whole march. I have picked Martin Luther King’s quote and I completely feel it.”

Karan Talwar, artist and filmmaker

Karan Talwar with his placard at the march. Photo credit: Sruthi Ganapathy Raman

“This is just a show of strength that we will not stay on the sidelines,” Talwar said. “We are out in the mainstream. The online space, which dictates a large part of the narrative nowadays is clouded by those who control it, and that is extremely problematic in a lot of ways. I come from a technical background myself and I know how you can easily play manipulative games in an online space. But I feel there is no substitute for a group of people congregating for a cause in a public space.”

Sheeba Chaddha, actor

Sheeba Chaddha at the march in Mumbai. Photo credit: Sruthi Ganapathy Raman

“We are all very impacted and moved by what is going on,” Chaddha said. “I am not somebody who can call herself a political person, but there is this general fear as an ordinary citizen. I feel fearful to say what I want to say and there is a lot of second guessing, backtracking and self-censorship that is happening and I am feeling it all around me.”

Rajkumari Asthana, filmmaker

Rajkumari Asthana at the march in Mumbai. Photo credit: Sruthi Ganapathy Raman

“I don’t believe it is right what has been done in connection with the bombing of Pakistan,” said Asthana, who came for the march all the way from Uttarakhand. “Not only that but a whole lot of things are being done keeping just the elections in mind. I get really depressed thinking to what extent people can go to gain power. I am holding up a poster that says be my date against hate and this dog is my date.”

Also read: Balakot, LoC and Budgam: What we still don’t know about the Indian and Pakistani strikes

‘Don’t politicise this’: How people from across India reacted to the IAF strike on Pakistan