Contemporary artists raise key questions about freedom of speech and expression

Artists Poojan Sahil and Vijay Pandey talk about protest culture, current government and dissent in India.

freedom of speech

“Protesters are more well-behaved than our Parliamentarians at least,” joked protest musician Poojan Sahil when asked to comment on the notion ‘protests are violent.’

Performers like Sahil and independent photojournalist Vijay Pandey have observed and lived the reality of Indian protests.  

“It’s like protests have become anti-government. A democracy must allow people to come, protest and leave,” said Pandey.

Although their artistic expressions differ, both artists have a common goal of inspiring discourse on social issues. Sahil sings songs (original and parody) during protests that challenge the narrative provided by mainstream media while Pandey’s photos capture some of the most hard-hitting realities of Indian society.



Sahil gained popularity in 2018 after he released a parody song on the Nirav Modi incident. Since then he has performed many songs that focus on political themes.

“I wanted my work to have some political relevance,” he said.

The teacher-and-musician was inspired to adopt a parody-style of singing after working in street theatre. His songs often address government officials or other authority figures with a tongue-in-cheek humour.

“I want to convey from the songs that this establishment is something that can be joked about. Basically, I want to bring them down from that pedestal,” he said.


When asked about his opinion on the Central government, he said, “I wish they were open to opinions. I’m really annoyed with the government.”

His frustration with the administration was such that when asked if the current government seems fascist, he asked, “Is there a doubt anymore that the government is fascist?”

Part of this angst stems from the number of issues that have come up in recent times. When asked about these issues he said that the multiplicity of problems brings “Chaos comes to my mind. There are times when I’m not sure which issue to focus on. It seems ridiculous but it’s there.”

As an example, Sahil narrated how he and his colleagues had planned to bring up the issue of activist imprisonment on October 2. However, once the Hathras incident came to light, the group was unsure on how to proceed. Moreover, media organisations did not help.

“Mainstream is to blame for this to some extent,” he said, although he agreed that even the media would be hard-pressed to properly highlight all issues at this point in time.

In that respect, he felt art had a firm place in voicing dissent. While not everyone could create music, or art, they carried the music with them to other protests along with the perspective within those artworks.

“For every social revolution art and literature has to be a catalyst. Of course, on-ground work is important but artists have to do their part,” he said.

Sahil also acknowledged a need for online activism because he felt there is a need to address the “counter-narrative” on social media. However, he insisted that ground-level activism took precedence to its virtual counterpart.

Going back to protests, Sahil said he often tried to take his peers to protests to show the ground-reality. He firmly believed, “If people-on-the-fence went to protests they would not say these things about protests.”

He also pointed out that the ruling party has held protests as well. Thus, protests for Sahil, deal with expression.

“And we’re at a point where we’re trying to redefine expression,” he said.

Perhaps, Pandey felt a similar sentiment when he decided to continue his profession independently. With 20 years of experience in the field of journalism, Pandey has long worked with and observed people on the ground-level.

One of his proudest works is a photo series about a manual scavenger from the Valmiki community – a section of society that has recently made the news for most unfortunate reasons.

His photos convey the horrid reality of people suffering at the grassroot-level. His Instagram feed sports moments from the Covid-19 labourer’s migration to the recent farmers protests.

He vividly remembers one protest in Tamil Nadu where farmers had hung human-skulls around their neck, claiming they were the remains of their fellow workers who had died due to indebtedness.

“It was a very unique protest that has left a deep impression in my mind,” he said.



#fromthearchives Tamil Nadu farmers displays the skulls of fellow farmers who have allegedly committed suicide due to agrarian woes, during a farmers march in New Delhi, India on Nov 30, 2018. Tens of thousands of farmers march towards parliament demanding debt waivers and remunerative prices for crops. In the last two decades, three lakh farmers committed suicide. The statistics vividly show that most of the farmers end their lives due to indebtedness. #archives #agriculture #farmbill #storiesofindia #agrariancrisisinindia #farmersprotest #farmersucide #farmersofindia #india #photojournalism #farmers #standwithfarmers #documentaryphotography #natgeo #india_gram #everydayeverywhere #reportagespotlight #tamilnadufarmers #photographersforfarmers #photooftheday #vijaypandeyphotography #photojournalism #jaikissan #nofarmernofood #farmersprotest #aikscc #standwithfarmers #standwithfarmerschallenge #annadaata

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Comparing past and present, Pandey felt the protest environment had changed in recent times. He remembered farmers were injured by police in Ghaziabad during recent protests and certain places did not even allow protests to take place. Agitators are treated harshly than ever before, he said.

Pandey’s striking images have attracted both praise and abuse from people. He reports and forgets about the abuse, choosing to focus on the praise that comes in the form of ‘Shares’ of his artwork by prominent Instagram personalities.

The positive feedback reinforces his faith in his work. Pandey firmly believes that photographs can have a great impact in today’s techno-savvy world because, after all, a photo “portrays whole issues in one shot.”

He said that Instagram is a useful tool in this regard. On the other hand, when asked about mainstream media, Pandey said it has “completely changed” from when he started his profession.

“There are no ground reports now. Even social issues are not taken up when they need to be covered,” he said.

Pandey worried that mainstream media shifts the focus from relevant issues. To illustrate his point, he talked about a recent protest at Jantar Mantar where people expressed solidarity with the Hathras victim. Nearby, another protest demanded justice for Sushant Singh Rajput which was covered by five reporters including journalists from Republic TV.

However, over the years, Pandey realised that other news channels are no better. The last organisation he worked with also shied away from Indian politics despite being an international organisation. Dismayed by this behaviour, he finally decided to work independently.

“As a photojournalist, I feel there are not enough photographers working on such [socio-political] issues. They are scared of the ‘label’ [that will come with such work]” said Pandey.

He accepted that even if a person does attempt such work, organisations often refuse to show their work. However, he still insisted that such work is required in current times.

“Even if one photographer takes a photo on such issues it can have a good impact. It can change the mindset of people. A picture is a powerful tool,” he said.

Accordingly, he also encouraged photographers to stick to journalistic ethics. He discouraged photo manipulation and the illegal act of identifying a sexual assault victim or a child involved in any incident. He also mentioned that Indian media rarely bothered to adhere to ethics.

Similarly, he laughed bitterly when asked about his views on the current government. He conceded that every government does what it wants however, before the current regime people used to come forward and say something. Nowadays even that does not happen. Like Sahil he talked about the many activists who were imprisoned in recent months. He wondered about them, who could not be saved despite their status and connections. Overall, he worried about voices of dissent in the current regime.

Pandey also added that he was thoroughly offended by the “vulture comment” made when thousands of labourers were migrating back to their states – an incident that he had covered as well.

“We [Photojournalists] are risking our lives as well. People probably don’t remember this now but at the time Covid-19 meant death,” said Pandey adding that the government had a big role to play in the incident.

“If the government wanted, they could’ve done something for the migrants,” he said, who largely only saw other citizens helping out the helpless workers.

Interestingly both Sahil and Pandey chose to answer the question on free speech with a counter-question, “Is there free speech?”

Both these artists have faced criticism for their work. Pandey was even asked by a friend “Why are you doing this?” Nonetheless, keeping faith in their work, the two continue to post artworks that ask for accountability from the current regime.


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