Cultural Resistance in Times of Rising Authoritarianism in India: A Dossier

ANHAD: Carrying the Torch of Resistance for Two Decades

, by KUMAR Madhuresh

Anhad is synonymous with the cultural resistance to communalism [1] and fascism. For more than two decades it has given platform to new artists, actors and cultural performers and used cultural expressions to spread awareness on constitutional values and challenge the rising right-wing narrative.

Act Now for Peace and Democracy (ANHAD, meaning without limits) was formed in early March 2003 to respond to the Gujarat riots. The infamous riots in February 2002 claimed the lives of an estimated 2000 people in several instances of violence, which continued for days. The violence and attacks against the Muslims were deliberately allowed to spread in the cities of Gujarat, for which then Chief Minister and current Prime Minister Narendra Modi were accused of condoning the violence. Shabnam Hashmi and Harsh Mander, two founding members of Anhad, had worked extensively in Gujarat, documenting the losses, crimes, filing cases, organising relief camps, assisting in rehabilitation, etc. For them it was shocking to see the level of hatred and prejudice and very soon, realisation dawned that unless hatred was countered as an ideology and at an intellectual and emotional level, there was no way one could keep the idea of India intact, recounts Shabnam Hashmi in an online conversation on Anhad’s journey.

The realisation was that facts alone would not take away the hate ingrained in the people’s psyche. To make them start thinking again is going to be a long-term task. Thus, they began organising seminars, workshops, youth conventions, publishing easy-to-understand leaflets and booklets, and using culture as a big part of their activities. Cultural expressions touched people emotionally and made them speak up and be empathetic. Though Anhad has been known for its struggle against religious fundamentalism, it has intervened and talked about the environment, patriarchy, caste, human rights violation, autonomy, freedom and democracy. Over the years, it has intervened in the cases of natural disasters, like floods in Kashmir, or constituted fact-finding missions in the wake of false encounters, riots, violence against women, stood up for an attack against the rights activists, artists and so on.

Cultural intervention and expressions have been central to many of these activities, making their work stand out in Indian civil society. There is a reason behind this, Shabnam ran with others for 15 years SAHMAT (Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust) set up in the aftermath of the murder of her brother Safdar Hashmi on January 1st, 1989, by the political goons. Safdar Hashmi was a well-known theatre artist, poet, writer and left activist. His murder caused massive widespread outrage and led to the foundation of SAHMAT, (meaning, in agreement), which led a valiant struggle against the rising wave of the Hindutva in the early 90s and mobilised cultural artists, historians, academics, activists, lawyers, students and other professionals to rally against attempts at rewriting history with a Hindutva agenda.

Nation wide women’s peace caravan route, Baatein Aman ki 2018

ANHAD has used various forms of cultural expressions, music, street theatre, poetry, posters, exhibitions, paintings etc., for its campaigns and activities. Short explanatory videos distributed through various means have also become an educational source. It has also often used mainstream films like Dor, Final Solution, Parzania, Khuda Ke Liye, Naseem, and others. Popular Films and engaging documentaries leave a much more profound impact than just talking since it manages to connect with the audience.

Over the years, the efforts have been to work with young emerging artists and established artists looking for platforms to contribute to the plan of peace and harmony. Anhad has given that platform, and it has been a conscious choice to experiment with different forms. For example, noted classical singer Shubha Mudgal’s whole repertoire around peace and harmony evolved over the years with SAHMAT and ANHAD. Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Ratna Pathak, Mahesh Bhatt and other established actors and directors of Bollywood have a much longer history of association with them. Over the years, the relationship has been cultivated through regular correspondence and now using social media, which keeps Anhad and its wider artist fraternity connected.

The early years also saw nurturing new and young artists and hitting the road in artists caravan, one such being in 2012. An Artist Caravan, Us Subah Ki Khatir (for that dawn), with musicians, dancers, poets, writers, designers, filmmakers, travelled across Gujarat between October 30th and November 8th, 2012. Performing artists included: Siddi Goma Tribal Dance Group, Avni Sethi- a classical dancer, a designer from Ahmadabad, Sufi singer- Dhruv Sangari from Delhi and Namrata Pamnani -a Kathak dancer of international repute, Gauhar Raza- poet and filmmaker.

Ram Puniyani, a former doctor, academic and prominent anti-Hindu fundamentalism voice, has been an integral part of many workshops, lectures and interactions with the youth over the years. He has woven these discourses with the other academic discussions around caste, inequality, globalisation and other concerns. The care has been taken to not focus only on dominant Brahminical cultural forms but also on bringing out Sufi, folk, Dalit and Adivasi/tribal cultural forms, making it more syncretic and representative.


On the question, if cultural interventions were always planned, Shabnam says, the entry point in different regions has not always been planned as a cultural intervention. Anhad team first went to Kashmir after the massive earthquake in 2005 to undertake relief and rehabilitation work. They received support for developing livelihood programmes, which they used to establish training centres and other activities. However, since their primary work is democracy and secularism, Anhad reached out to the village level artists, painters and provided resources to them, bought them equipment, and created a platform for them to perform. Perhaps it was for the first time after the years of militancy that theatre and film festivals for students and young filmmakers from across Kashmir were organised between 2007-09. Nasiruddin Shah was part of several theatre workshops in Kashmir, which were must appreciated. Though the theatre and film festivals faced attacks and criticism from the hardened Muslim religious leaders in the Valley. Despite that, these activities continued since they were necessary to expand the democratic spaces, breaking the silence.

In another such episode, in 2007, after two years of bureaucratic delay, the Bollywood film Parzania based on the Gujarat riots was released. Due to fear of political backlash in Gujarat, no cinema hall was willing to screen the movie. In such a situation, Anhad organised its first public screening in Ahmedabad in April 2007. The film broke the silence. It made the young students and others realise the horrors of the Gujarat riots in their cities, which was not part of their everyday discourse. They followed it with more screenings. The idea was to begin conversations even at the risk of being attacked. Anhad may not be a movement, but indeed, they have reached a broad community over the years and have continued to keep in touch with them.


Everything comes at a cost. Anhad has faced direct physical attacks, court cases, income tax notices, and finally cancelling their FCRA (Foreign Contribution Regulation Act), the permission to receive money from foreign sources, thereby squeezing them financially.

In April 2004, Anhad’s Youth Aman (peace) Caravan was attackedin Baroda. In 2007 following the disruption of an exhibition at Vadodara’s Maharaja Sayajirao University’s fine arts department, a major conflict broke out between students’ groups and also ruling Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) got into overdrive to target Shivaji Panikkar, the dean of Arts department of the University. He was suspended in 2007 from the University and denied his financial dues and benefits following a Magisterial enquiry for standing with his students. In response, civil society groups in Delhi organised protests at Gujarat Bhawan, and Anhad responded by organising a student’s peace festival in Gujarat, which was again attacked by the BJP goons. That year, Anhad travelled inside Gujarat to organise theatre workshops, and three teams were travelling; several court cases were slapped against them, including sedition. On October 2nd, Mahatama Gandhi’s birthday, they were attacked in Chief Minister Modi’s legislative constituency in Gujarat. They were stoned for organising a performance by Mallika Sarabhai, a noted classical dancer and performer. Shabnam Hashmi was attacked again in April 2014 in Rae Bareli, Uttar Pradesh, by BJP workers, which received widespread condemnation.

A concerted smear campaign followed these threats by the BJP members and leaders. BJP Upper House MP Purushottam Rupala wrote in May 2013 to then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asking him to revoke the FCRA license of Anhad for violating the law and not declaring receipt and utilisation of funds from Christian Aid, Hivos and other funding agencies. It was followed by several right-wing websites and portals circulating that news widely and creating a campaign to cancel their license. However, things changed drastically with the coming of the Prime Minister Modi in 2014 and BJP’s increasing hold over the Indian politics and targeting of the progressive voices. Initially, following the ministry of home affairs enquiry in June 2014 and again in November 2015, its FCRA was renewed in March 2016, but less than nine months later, it was cancelled in December 2016. Anhad wore this as a ‘badge of honour’ and declared that it would continue its work without foreign funding. Unfortunately, the harassment didn’t stop here; even their Indian donors have received income tax notices and enquiries.

The Ministry of Home Affairs suggested these organisations were working against ‘national interest’ and tarnishing the government’s image abroad. It was nothing but an abuse of power and suppressing of dissent. FCRA license of several critical voices has been cancelled since 2014. The FCRA law has been further amended in 2020 to restrict activities critical of government policies, several challenges to these amendments are pending in the courts at the moment.


With dwindling financial resources and shrinking spaces for democratic dissent, Anhad’s work has been impacted severely. To act at a scale large enough, which can’t go unnoticed, was their strength. When there was a silence, they would organise a national conference, energise people, travel in a caravan, and reach out to people. Their community work has collapsed, 11 villages in Bihar, 40 villages in Kashmir, and seven villages in Mewat, Haryana. The community work gave them strength and rooted them within the masses. This is the story of many critical voices today; the plot is clear, restrict their finances and take them away from the people.

But this has not stopped them from raising their voice against the oppression and injustices. Things have moved online, but also, a new form of citizen’s collective organising has emerged. This attempt to break the silence led to an immediate calling of meeting in Delhi and a convention in Lucknow after the Supreme Court’s judgment in the Ayodhya dispute case in November 2019. This was followed by a review plea by 40 prominent citizens in Supreme Court against the verdict.

Similarly, when article 370, giving special status to Jammu & Kashmir, was revoked by the Union government in August 2019, several programmes were organised jointly with people’s movements, women’s groups, and progressive organisations against the continued curfew, internet shutdown, and the incarceration of key political leaders in Kashmir. Bringing together Kashmiri students for Eid at Jantar Mantar within a week or organising cultural programmes and discussions in universities has been jointly organised.

As the politics of hate took root, targeted attacks and mob lynching in the name of religion grew in the country, Anhad together with the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW) and many others launched Battein Aman ki (peace conversations) women’s caravan. The five women caravans crisscrossed the country from Jammu and Kashmir to Kanyakumari, from Kerala to Rajasthan to Jorhat - from all the corners of the country travelled to different places with just one message—that the people who attack the Constitution, who incite anger in the name of castes are anti-women. It received widespread support and reception from several organisations on the way and reached hundreds of thousands of people. They formed local level organising committees, raised resources and organised everything. Each caravan had women from ten states, and in the course of a month in September-October 2018, they travelled through 200 cities and managed 500 programmes.

This was followed by the women’s march for change campaign in April 2019, where 30,000 women marched in 20 states to protest government policies and the prevailing atmosphere of hate and violence. When the pandemic restricted coming together in September 2020, a follow up programme was organised online. Hum agar utthe nahin toh… (If we do not rise…) campaign was launched on September 5th to unite voices against the targeted attack on the constitutional rights of the people of India. The campaign, a collective effort of more than 500 women’s groups, LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual) collectives and human rights organisations from 28 states, came together for a day of resistance online to highlight the urgent need to safeguard the Indian Constitution and its values. Nearly 1.5 million people joined online, including several prominent artists, writers, academics, retired bureaucrats, jurists, lawyers and so on.


In all this, Shabnam has used social media effectively and power to convene and bring people together. Her belief in collective power gives hope and energy. She feels enthused by the explosion of cultural creativity and energy today, as witnessed in the anti-CAA-NRC protests or farmer’s protests in the past few years. She believes that the spontaneity of the anti-CAA movement managed to involve a much broader section of the population. The way Muslim women came out, was phenomenal. The new songs, poetry, installations, graffiti, wall writing were all exemplary. The movement was crushed, but it did catch the imagination of the people and women across the country.

The farmer’s protests in that way are feeding on the energy generated from the women’s marches. Culture is part of daily life practices beyond the performance part or writing songs. A visit at the protest site, with farmers from Haryana who have never cooked, to see them cooking, washing, cutting vegetables and so on is changing the cultural practices and challenging the gender norms.

She believes that there has been creative energy always, but perhaps it’s coming out now more prominently in times of struggle. People in the struggle feel the need to express themselves, guiding them to sing, write, and say something. There is a lot more happening on the ground at protest sites, away from the stage. That’s giving hope. But the challenge is still enormous.

She believes there is a need to attack this narrative that there is no alternative to BJP or PM Modi. We need to project many voices and many ideas. We know the problem with the Right, but then we need to build a narrative that anyone else would be better than this. People’s movements can’t be a political party, but one must push for alternative voices and faces, despite our differences. We will not sell ourselves to those parties, but any other is better than the current dispensation, and we have to make an effort. We can’t leave this job only to the parties, but it’s everyone’s job. Anhad is precisely doing that through their new campaign ‘reimagining India’ public lecture series with key political leaders, academics, activists giving voice to their idea of India. The struggle continues.


[1Communalism, or communal: A South Asian term for sectarianism, which is seen as a force separating different communities on social or sectarian grounds and a stimulant for violence among those groups. In contemporary India the word communalism has taken the more specific sense of discrimination against religious minorities, with many politicians labelling their opponents communal. Equally, civil activists often accuse political parties of being communal. For example, in India the BJP (Bhartiya Janta Party) is always labelled communal by its opponents and critics, such as the Congress, the communist parties, and civil organisations fighting for communal harmony, because it targets religious minorities, particularly Muslims, to consolidate its Hindu vote. The corresponding antonym for communalism is secularism, which means no bias against any religious community.


Madhuresh Kumar is an activist with NAPM India and Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity at LSE.