Chhattisgarh Government’s Cultural Fascism

True to its character, the Chhattisgarh Government on July 8 banned Habib Tanvir’s internationally reputed play Charandas Chor, which had been running since 1974. This play, based on a Rajasthani folk tale, was written by Vijaydan Detha, and was initially called Phitrati Chor. Habib Tanvir, in the process of adapting the play to suit the Chhattisgarhi language, culture and dramatic and musical traditions, introduced considerable changes in the script and dramatisation.

Charandas Chor is a contemporary classic in many ways. A petty thief makes four pledges to his guru – that he will never eat out of a gold plate; never sit on an elephant in a procession in his own honour; never become a king; and never marry a princess (pledges he thinks are far too unlikely ever to be tested). His guru imposes a fifth pledge – that he will never tell a lie. He eventually loses his life upholding these five pledges. Charandas knows all the ploys to cheat the laws and the system. He makes the powerful the target of his thieving. Charandas Chor, through its main character, playfully exposes the double standards of the power-structure, dominant classes and society. A thief turns out to be more true, honest and just than the establishment.

It is true that this play is based on folk tales and not on contemporary struggles in Chhattisgarh. Why, then, do those in power feel so threatened by this play? This play was first performed in 1974 when there was not even a remote possibility of the formation of a Chhattisgarh state. Neither could the footfalls of today’s movements in Chhattisgarh be heard then. The play was translated and performed in innumerable languages in the country and abroad. In 1975, Shyam Benegal made a film based on this play. The quality of a classic is such that is conveys meanings far beyond its literal words. Reaching across its immediate words, its characters and its time and place, it becomes relevant in entirely new contexts and eras. Why do the Mahabharat’s contradictions become relevant time and again in different eras and contexts? And of course, Charandas Chor, in the hands of Habib sahib, became entirely a part of Chhattisgarhi folk culture. Could it be that after the formation of the Chhattisgarh state, the play has begun to resonate with the character of the power-structure which is waging war against the adivasi people in favour of the corporations that are intent on looting the natural resources of the state, and jailing those like Dr. Binayak Sen, who dare protest? Is this play, by any chance, giving voice to the anti-establishment values and aspirations buried in the subconscious of readers and audience? Could it be that this play, thanks to its classicality, has in an entirely unexpected way, begun to reflect the ongoing war between Chhattisgarh’s rulers and its people? With the ban on the play, it is inevitable for all these questions to be asked.

Those who believe the Chhattisgarh government’s assertion that the ban has been imposed in the light of Satnami guru Baldas’ objections are naive. One should recall how some years ago an organisation calling itself the ‘Dalit Sanstha’ burnt copies of Premchand’s Rangbhumi. Most Dalit writers condemned this act and exposed that it was sponsored by the Sangh Parivar. Manipulating religious and caste identities as a pretext for repression and violence is a well-known tactic of the Sangh and BJP. It is notable that the Satnami community and its representatives never had any objection to this play before 2004, though it had been played for four decades and most of its actors were in fact from the Satnami community.

The Chhattisgarh Government is playing a devious double game. Through the ‘Pramod Verma Memorial Conference,’ it recently gathered a range of progressive and democratic cultural personalities on the same platform as the Chief Minister and Minister for Culture. Then, within a month of this event, it imposed a ban on Charandas Chor. The letter written by Satnami guru Baldas against the play was prior to the Memorial Conference, and the Government had clearly made up its mind to ban the play well before the Conference. But that event had the immediate utility of putting many of those voices which would naturally protest the ban, on the defensive, and of undermining the credibility of their protest.

Attacks on Habib Tanvir’s plays by the Sangh-BJP are nothing new. Even in is lifetime he faced such assaults bravely. There are many versions of the ban announcement in the media. One claim is that the play has not been banned – the book has been banned from being read during the 'Book reading week' in schools (3-9 August), while according to other versions the book as well as staging of the play has been banned. The Chhattisgarh Government is yet to offer any clarification. However, whatever be the nature of ban, there can be no excuse or explanation except that the ban is part and parcel of the RSS-BJP’s agenda of cultural nationalism, which Habib Tanvir himself called “another name for fascism.”

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