The Gujarat High Court on Thursday, 9 February, quashed a MS University of Vadodara (MSU) order debarring Kundan Kumar Mahato, a student of Masters of Visual Arts of the Faculty of Fine Arts, for “objectionable” artworks in May last year.
The court said that the faculty of Fine Arts (FFA) of the university is known for its "open mindedness" in fine arts since "the era of MF Hussain" and pulled up the university for conducting a “hasty and slipshod inquiry”, without “taking the onus” of the incident that had led to a ruckus in the FFA campus in May 2022.
Justice Bhargav Karia said:
"He (Mahato) can appear for his classes from tomorrow. Ultimately, they (the faculty) are more responsible. What is the role of a guru? In a school, if some student misbehaves, does the teacher shut her eyes? Your faculty members should be more open-minded…In Fine Arts, such things (artworks) are so common. You (MSU) would know this better as your university is well known since MF Husain’s time. In my knowledge, this was the best Fine Arts University with an open mind. If such an incident occurs, the university should take onus for it. The petition is allowed.”
How did this start? On 9 May, an Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) member registered a complaint with the Gujarat Police. Mahato was booked under section 295A (deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class) and section 298 (uttering words with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings of any person) of the Indian Penal Code.
Mahato's response: Emphasising that his intention was "not to hurt anyone’s sentiments," Mahato said his artwork was an attempt to make a statement about women's safety.
Mahato has issued apologies to the university on multiple occasions, hoping that he could continue the course, but to no avail.
Timeline of Events
The events began to unfold on 2 May when Mahato showed his artwork to the internal jury. The photos were purportedly circulated soon after, leading to protests by right-wing groups on 5 May.
Mahato had returned to his village in Bihar as he felt he was not safe on campus. The annual exhibition had been scheduled for 6 May.
A fact-finding committee was formed and had written to Mahato on 7 May, asking him to remain present before the committee on 8 May.
On 13 May, Mahato received a notice stating that he had been permanently debarred from the university. It said he had not replied to the show-cause notice dated 12 May. It further asked him for a reason why he should not be debarred for "adversely damaging religious sentiments," "creating disharmony" and "damaging the prestige and peace of the university campus."
His lawyer told The Quint that Mahato had written to the university, stating that he was on a train back home. However, by the time he could return, he had been permanently debarred.
In the meantime, the judgment, granting him bail, stated that no deliberate or malicious attempt to hurt religious feelings could be proved.
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