On 15 February, three days after Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Student Union, was arrested on charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy, the Delhi police submitted a report to the ministry of home affairs. As The Hindu reported on 18 February, this report alleged that various “hidden groups” of JNU students were “indulging in anti-national activities” because they “mourned the death of Afzal Guru,” “demanded beef” and “worshipped Mahishasur in place of Goddess Durga,” among other actions.
News outlets across the country puzzled over the Mahishasur line in particular. Mint cited it as proof of the police’s “moral panic”; the Bangalore Mirror called it evidence of the report’s focus on the “bizarre to innocuous.” Those bemused dismissals, however, sidestepped a large part of the story of Mahishasur’s recent revival at JNU, and also elsewhere in India. Commonly portrayed as a demon in Hindu mythology, Mahishasur is at the heart of a growing, country-wide movement of marginalised people defying prejudice and asserting their cultural histories.
In October, at the height of the autumn festival season, Hindus across India celebrated the slaughter of Mahishasur—who, according to legend, was half-man and half-buffalo, and could not be killed at the hands of any man. So, the belief goes, the deities Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva combined forces to create the goddess Durga, who came to earth specifically to kill Mahishasur. Durga Puja, Navratri and Dussehra all commemorate a variant of this myth, often with idol displays depicting the killing itself. Typically, these show a fair-skinned, decadently dressed Durga, armed with a long spear, stabbing a dark-skinned, half-nude Mahishasur.