Indian Army and Mahasweta Devi: It's possible to celebrate and question both

Nishtha Gautam
Nishtha GautamSep 30, 2016 | 14:50

Indian Army and Mahasweta Devi: It's possible to celebrate and question both

“Surgical strikes” has become the latest catchphrase in the aftermath of the Indian Army’s meticulously executed cross-border operation. Political parties are at least offering a semblance of unity, however temporary.

There is a mood upswing suddenly. This is what wars do. They unite. The accrued cost can be calculated later. However, let us take a step back in time.

Three days after the terrorist attack on an Army camp in Uri, J&K, a play depicting atrocities committed by Indian soldiers was performed in a central university. Jnanpith, Magsaysay and Padma Vibhushan awardee Mahasweta Devi’s Draupadi was performed as a play in Haryana Central University in an event organised by its Department of English and Foreign Languages.


This was to commemorate Devi’s death in July this year. Shortly after the performance, the organisers got into trouble when the university administration sought an explanation for “sensitive statements” made against the soldiers of Indian Army.

The vice-chancellor constituted a committee to look into the matter and it is said to have included an army personnel. Protests have been going on across the state against this deliberate act to vilify the soldiers.

ABVP and INSO, student wings of BJP and INLD respectively, have claimed the play to be seditious and police complaints have been filed over the same.

What does this solidarity mean to the bunch of soldiers who went behind the treacherous enemy lines, did their job and made it back home unscathed? Nothing. What did the alleged seditious content of the play mean to them? Nothing.

Let us dig a bit deeper on how the military operates in a democracy like India. It helps to remember that the Army had opposed a deployment plan to participate in anti-Naxalite operations a few years back. It would have meant a blanket crushing of own countrymen.

Jnanpith, Magsaysay and Padma Vibhushan awardee Mahasweta Devi’s Draupadi was performed as a play in Haryana Central University. (Photo credit: India today) 

The propagandists will have us believe that this is what the soldiers have been doing anyway. The counter-propaganda is that all soldiers have untarnished integrity, personal and political.


On one hand there is wilful ignorance on how the Indian Army conducts itself, on the other there is instinctive defensiveness coupled with jingoistic glorification. The worst fallout of approaching the military through these binaries is the insurmountable built up of falsities and mistrust on both sides.

Using Devi’s story to drive home a point on custodial atrocities and violence against women was a commendable act on the part of the organisers. Yes, some soldiers have perpetrated violence against men and women in conflict areas. Some have been brought to justice, some have gone scot free.

To use the same story for furthering an agenda of castigating the entire army is malicious as well as dangerous. In most cases, a dangerous conflation of all security agencies is made. Those who cannot tell their BSF from CRPF apart suddenly emerge as experts on all matters military. No security personnel are mandated to rape but there is vast difference in how different agencies carry out their duties.

Reading DraupadiI had a problem with the setting, like anybody remotely exposed to how the army works, would have. Who is Mr Senanayak? Who is this retired Captain Arjan Singh? While one bled with Dopdi and saluted her courage in asserting herself after being debased and dehumanised, the constant references to the Army stuck as a sore thumb.


What did that "Army Handbook" say after all? When and where was the “Army” killing Majhis? However, all of this is taken care of by poetic licence and rightly so. Nothing is beyond interpretation and this applies to both the Army and Devi equally. It is possible to celebrate and question both.

A misplaced sense of solidarity causes more damage than outright vilification. What the chest beaters in this case have displayed is their own insecurities. The Army did not really require a string of protests to validate it. It has not even registered the play and epilogue as an affront. It does not see the academic space as necessarily adversarial. Why, then, are these binaries being created? Who does such a construct suit?

The university and the barrack are sites of training. There are convergences and divergences in how the two spaces live and breathe. Community living and camaraderie, for example, are common to both. Traditional Indian warriors were also expected to be well-versed in the Shastras and the learned knew how to fight.

When the US Army decided to intervene in Vietnam, it was the students at University of Berkeley that began urging soldiers to not participate. Hundreds of banners fluttering across Berkeley and other universities in the 1960s exemplified that academia cared for their soldiers’ lives.

Intellectuals and soldiers work towards achieving the same goal: to ensure their countrymen live better. To pitch one against the other is treacherous. It damages the way a nation identifies itself by creating fissures where they don’t exist and deepening the existing fault-lines.

Containing the miscreants on both sides is necessary. Attack phoney arguments from both sides, such as the organiser raising “I’m being singled out for being a woman” bogey. Punish the cold blooded perpetrators of atrocities. Nothing more, nothing less.

It is not Devi’s story that is seditious: how it has got appropriated indeed is.

Last updated: September 30, 2016 | 14:50
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