“When I joined college in 2022, I believed I will have the freedom to think and express… But now I feel like my thoughts have been caged, and my creativity has been killed,” said 23-year-old Kundan Kumar Mahato.
Mahato is pursuing his Masters in Sculpture at Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda (MSU) in Gujarat’s Vadodara, and was debarred from there after his artwork on Hindu goddesses stirred a controversy in May 2022.
Things got out of hand quickly and Mahato was arrested and jailed in Baroda on 4 June 2022, after the Gujarat police filed an FIR against him for “outraging religious feelings.”
On 10 February, Mahato returned to the classroom after a gap of almost nine months after the Gujarat High Court ruled that he can start attending classes.
But all’s still not well. Mahato spoke to The Quint about the nine months he lost, uncertainty around attendance, and battling depression.
'Expected A Warm Welcome'
Over a phone call, Mahato – who hails from Bihar's Muzaffarpur – alleged that while he has resumed attending classes, he’s not being treated like a “normal” student.
He claimed, “I am attending classes but I’m not allowed to take part in practicals yet. My attendance is not being taken either.” After the 10-month ordeal, Mahato said that he expected a warm welcome. On day-four of college this month, he told The Quint, “My friends welcomed me with hugs, a garland, and a cake… But my teachers did not greet me properly. They have not given me any clarity yet.”
He said that since he only attended four months of the first year of his Master’s course, he’s unsure if he should attend classes with first-year students or second-year students.
“My teachers told me that they will get back to me soon,” said Mahato, with a hint of dejection in his voice.
Meanwhile, Ajay Kanwal, Assistant Professor, Department of Sculpture, MSU, told The Quint, “It is not in our hands. Once the university gets a hard copy of the court order, authorities will form a committee to take a decision on the matter. As of now, there are no restrictions against Mahato and he is attending college.”
The Quint reached out to the Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts with questions about which year he would study in, and the way forward for Kundan, but has not received a comment yet.
'Art Not Intended to Hurt Sentiments,' Said Kundan
On 2 May, Mahato’s artwork, meant for an exhibition, was shown to an internal jury at MCU. Mahato created an installation out of newspaper clippings of rape and murder of women, in the form of Hindu goddesses.
While it was not cleared for display, photos of the artwork were circulated among students. It was not clear who circulated these photos.
A week later, a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) registered a complaint against Mahato to the Gujarat police, after which he was arrested under Sections 295A (deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class) and 298 (uttering words with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings of any person) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
In June 2022, Mahato had told The Quint,
I never wanted to hurt anyone’s feelings… Society says that women are goddesses but in reality, women are attacked every day. I wanted to bring out the irony. It was an attempt to protect women. Is that wrong?Kundan Kumar Mahato
On 13 May, he received a notice from MCU stating that he had been permanently debarred from there, and that he had not replied to the show-cause notice dated 12 May.
His lawyer Hitesh Gupta told The Quint that Mahato had written to the University that he was on a train back to his home in Bihar. “He was not feeling safe on campus,” said his lawyer.
On 4 June, he was arrested but was granted bail in four days.
The judgment granting him bail, read, “He submitted that the artwork in question was not made for public consumption… (but) for the jury of the Fine Arts Faculty of the MS University, Vadodara, to examine the said work. After jury advised (him) to remove the said piece of work, the applicant has removed it… and has not further transmitted the said artwork… so, no intention can be attributed to the present applicant for deliberate and malicious attempt to outrage the religious feelings of any class.”
Interestingly, Mahato was granted bail on the condition that he “would not indulge himself in identical or any other offences.”
Now that he’s back in college, Mahato wonders, “How to create anything at all!”
“Art is not merely pretty. It is supposed to mean something… But how do I create anything now? I’m afraid that someone will take offence.”Kundan Kumar Mahato
‘Expected to Make My Career but Got Anxiety, Depression Instead’
The last nine months have been hard on Mahato, who is a first-generation learner from Muzaffarpur in Bihar. His father is a daily-wage labourer and his mother is a homemaker.
In 2022, Mahato had told The Quint,” I come from a village where people take up jobs as daily wagers after school. I dreamt of coming to this University for a long time and reaching new heights in Indian art but I ended up in jail just four months into my course.”
MSU was Mahato’s dream college. In 2021, he received a gold medal during his Bachelors’ programme in Visual Arts from Banaras Hindu University. “I had joined MSU for my Master’s with the hope of becoming a renowned sculptor,” said Mahato.
Now, anxiety and trauma have sidelined his plans.
For the first few months, I was drowning in court work and paperwork. After that, I started feeling hopeless. I was very depressed and even had suicidal thoughts. Even if I wanted to apply to other colleges, I wouldn’t get admission because I had an FIR filed against me...Kundan Kumar Mahato
Mahato said that in the last few months, he has found support in a few alumni members and friends, who let him stay at their homes. “They also helped me financially but this time that I lost… I could have made my career. While I am grateful to all who helped, I don’t know how to recover and get back on track without MSU’s support.”