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August 14, 2000

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The Arts

Indian institute faces flak for toeing govt line

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Eugene Correia in Toronto

A storm is brewing over the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute's decision to withdraw funds for a seminar and to disassociate itself from an exhibition following protest by the Indian government.

The seminar, 'Accommodating Diversity: Learning from the Indian and Canadian Experiences', jointly sponsored by the University of Waterloo and the University of Guelph, both based in Ontario, was to take place between August 7 and 9. But a letter from Indian High Commissioner Rajnikanta Verma said the seminar was beyond the scope and mandate of the institute and demanded that it be cancelled. It is learnt that the letter also stated that human rights and good governance were not good subjects for discussion.

The Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute is a unique educational enterprise that promotes understanding between India and Canada, mainly through facilitating academic activities. The institute funds research, links institutions in the two countries, and organizes seminars and conferences. It is named after Lal Bahadur Shastri, the prime minister of India between 1964 and 1966.

Founded in 1968 with a grant from the Indian government, the institute began by encouraging Canadian teaching and research on India. Focussing on the humanities and the social sciences, it funded fellowships and distributed books and journals to libraries of its Canadian member institutions. The institute's success in sparking interest in India studies among Canadian academics led to a greater interest in Canada among Indian scholars. In the early 1980s, SICI began to promote Canadian studies in India and, in the late 1980s, it expanded its activities into development studies.

The institute's mandate covers holding of binational conferences, such as the one that was called off. The seminar was to be the preliminary one for a bigger conference planned in India during April next year.

The Indian high commissioner automatically gets a seat on the board of directors of the institute, just as the Canadian high commissioner in India seats on the Indian advisory board of its Delhi office.

In the case of the exhibition, currently on display at the York Quay Gallery, at the Harbourfront Centre in downtown Toronto, the Indian high commissioner objected to the exhibition stating it was "political propaganda". The exhibition is an initiative of Hoopoe Curatorial and features the work of Sahmat (Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust), a New Delhi-based organization whose critical work in support of secularism, social justice and human rights had had a wide impact in Indian since its formation in 1889, after the murder of Safdar Hashmi, a street theatre performer.

The title of the exhibition, 'Dust on the Road', has been borrowed from the writings of Bengali author Mahasweta Devi, also includes work by Canadian artistes such as Stephen Andrews, Shelly Bahl, Michael Belmore, Millie Chen, Carol Conde & Karl Beveridge, Stand Dinniston, Richard Fung, Amelia Jimenezz and Arthur Renwick, in dialogue with Sahmat. It will travel to London, Ontario, Montreal and Vancouver, incorporating works from artists in each Canadian community in which it is shown.

Lavina Moore, executive-director of the Shastri Institute, confirmed that the institute has withdrawn the $ 27,000 allocated for the seminar that was to be held at University of Waterloo. She noted that this is the first time that the Indian government has requested the cancellation of a seminar. The funds for the seminar came from the Canadian International Development Agency, she informed and not from the Indian government. CIDA comes under the Ministry of International Trade.

Moore said it took more than one and half years to plan the seminar. The institute received the high commissioner's letter on July 21 and a letter from the institute's president, Prof Hugh Johnston, of Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, went out on July 24 telling the organizers that the institute was withdrawing the money.

Moore said that in the absence of Verma, Deputy High Commissioner Debashish Chakravarty had attended the institute's meeting. She said that the deputy high commissioner had asked for further information on the seminar. But, at the board meeting held in June 1999, the Indian representative felt the subject of human rights was "inappropriate".

The chairman of the organizing committee, Prof James Walker, of the University of Waterloo, said that the seminar was not intended to do a "bang-up" job on the Indian government but to do comparative studies on diversity and human rights issues in Indian and Canadian contexts.

Prof. Walker, a director of the institute, has written to Prof Johnston questioning the decision to withdraw the funds at the last minute.

"I don't say the seminar is cancelled, merely postponed. It was too late to secure funds from other sources. Besides to have the seminar without the help of the institute would be expensive as some of the Indians were already in Canada to attend the International Political Association Conference in Quebec. Some scholars were about to leave for Canada when the institute informed us about its decision," Walker said.

There were nine Indian academics and 14 from Canada attending the seminar. The Indian scholars -- K L Kamal, vice-chancellor of Rajasthan University, R B Jain, professor emeritus of political science at Delhi Univeristy, and T N Chaturvedi, former comptroller general of India and current BJP Rajya Sabha member -- were in the country.

An historian on human rights and who has recently published a book, Race, Rights and the Law in the Supreme Court of Canada, Walker said he was worried at the political intervention of the Indian government in Canadian academic affairs.

"The scholars were to present draft papers and we were not going to poke into government secrets or other controversial issues. We are not Amnesty International," he said.

"One of CIDA's concerns are human rights and good governance," he said. Walker said he has written to CIDA regarding the institute's stand. CIDA has often tied its aid programmes to human rights issues in developing countries. The Canada-India government relations have been "on hold" since Pokhran II and Canada has stopped all aid with the exception in social, educational and humanitarian areas.

The four workshops were Regional and Economic Dissent, Human Rights: Gender and Social Issues, Cultural Pluralism, Governance and Human Security. Walker feels that if the academics can't talk about issues concerning both countries than it would be better for the Shastri Institute to fold up.

The organizers of the exhibition are also upset at what it calls Indian government interference in cultural affairs in Canada. The Toronto co-ordinator, Jamilee Hassan, an artist and cultural activist based in London, Ontario, said the University of Western Ontario, would be returning the grant of $ 5000 provided by Shastri Institute for six projects in protest against its decision. The exhibition is one of the projects.

She said that the Hoopoe Curatorial was supported by the South Asian Left Democratic Alliance, a loose organization of left-oriented academics, in challenging the decision of the institute. The two bodies, along with Harbourfront Centre, were preparing to issue a statement that would have statements of support from academics and cultural activists.

Hassan also mentioned that she has written a letter to Canadian Foreign Minister Llyod Axworthy on the conduct and behavour of Consul-General Chandra Mohan Bhandari at the opening ceremony. She said that Bhandari began videotaping the speech of keynote speaker Ram Rehman, an artist based in New Jersey, who has been closely associated with Sahmat. She said Bhandari also failed to identify himself when asked and his identity was revealed only after someone from the audience pointed it out.

Bhandari said that he went incognito and he had taken photos with a dual video-and-still digital camera.

"I saw someone else videotaping the show and I too did the same thing. I went there again and the person in charge gave me permission to videotape it. It's strange that at an exhibition on freedom of expression one was not allowed to take photos."

Harbourfront media relations person Shari-Lynn Sare said Bhandari had not obtained permission to shoot photos the first time, but that permission was granted the second time.

Bhandari said he asked Rehman why he was saying that freedom of expression was under seize in India when it isn't so.

"I wanted to challenge his statement," he said. Bhandari further noted that the Indian government has "serious concerns" regarding the work on display as it is supposed to be an attack on the BJP government.

He said some of the work displayed were posters distributed by Sahmat in Lucknow Prime Minister A B Vajpayee's constituency.

"These are no pieces of art," he said.

High Commissioner Verma too told the media that the exhibition lacked artistic credibility and not a realistic picture of India.

The exhibition has photos of the destruction of the Ayodha mosque, posters, paintings, artefacts, books and two short video films depicting attacks on secularism by Hindu fanatics. Hassan says that the goal of the exhibition is "to cut across differences in language and location and to present an active dialogue of global citizenship and civil society in a visual format".

She said that Sahmat was selected because of its commitment to human rights and democracy. The organizers hope the exhibition will help in building a cross-cultural dialogue between Canada and India on human rights issues.

Hoopoe Curatorial was formed by Hassan, who is of Libyan descent, and Montreal-based Peter White, in 1997 to develop cultural projects between Canada and India. Its Vancouver co-ordinator is Phider Dulai, a poet and journalist currently working as a media liaison person in the British Columbia Ministry of Multiculturalism.

In Hindi, Sahmat means agreement, but the Indian government and the cultural agencies seems to be in disagreement over what is right -- and wrong.

And thus has begun a battle for cultural and academic expression and freedom crossing national boundaries.

Next: The king of mix 'n' match

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