It’s a shame and a tragedy that this vaunted “liberal” state of ours showed no sense of loss and expressed no regret or lament, except for a few words of bureaucratic propriety, as one of its most famous painters surrendered his passport and became a foreign citizen under circumstances that no democratic nation would be proud of.
“We would be very happy if M F Husain returns to India,” said Home Minister P Chidambaram, with a stiff bureaucratic insensitivity that’s his wont. “The government is ready to provide security to the artist if he plans to return,” said Home Secretary G K Pillai, glibly forgetting that there was no security for Husain while he still lived in India. “Husain is the pride of India,” chimed Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, making a bland statement that only bureaucrats are capable of.
It’s as if Husain is the one to blame for his choosing to leave India. There’s no recognition in these comments of the criminalities that forced him into exile in the first place, no atonement or apology or acknowledgment of failure, no anxiousness to bring the “pride of India” back with honour and respect. Even from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh we haven’t heard a word, as if he has nothing to say on a matter that touches on India’s image as a liberal democratic entity.
We aren’t dealing here with the matter of an individual Indian deciding to relinquish his citizenship. Thousands of other Indians have done that before Husain. We aren’t bothered also by what many see as Husain’s selfish motives, including his alleged desire to evade Indian tax authorities. These may or may not be true. More disturbing for us is the fact that a creative Indian — of Husain’s fame and stature at that — was hounded for years by political wolves, attacked and humiliated at every opportunity, till he was forced to leave home to pursue his art in peace at the fag end of his life. But the state of India didn’t come to his rescue and take a firm stand in favour of what constitutes the very spirit of our democracy — the freedom of thought and expression.
Of course, there’s a counter-argument and it’s well-known: If Husain has the freedom of thought and expression, so do his opponents. Yes, but the language of his opponents is violence, and violence can’t be a democratic right. We’d have loved if they had engaged in a philosophical debate, exchanging arguments. That would have been democratic. But they chose to attack his shows, vandalise his works, raid even his home and museum, cast upon him a religious slur, and slam him with scores of politically-motivated court cases, enough to rob anybody’s mind of peace.
These were acts of naked cultural jingoism, an open defiance of the very ideals that India is supposed to stand for. Yet, the state of India stood silently. Nobody thought it was essential for a democracy to keep creativity, as distinct from motivated calumny, beyond the pale of law courts. The society at large simply turned the other way as the issue degenerated brazenly into one of Islam and Hinduism, a Muslim artist painting Hindu goddesses in the nude, thereby, in the Hindu point of view, committing a cardinal sin. Mobs took over; vote-bank politics eclipsed moral issues and the authorities thought it was safer to do nothing.
An ideal was thus murdered in the open while the nation watched. What good is Chidambaram’s promise to Husain when we can’t even protect our own belief? Salman Rushdie’s is a bad example. Rushdie’s enemies were from outside his country; Husain’s are from within his. How good even a prison would be — that’s what round-the-clock security would mean for Husain — in an intolerant, unsympathetic society red in bigotry and hatred, where culture is increasingly “talibanised”, and the authorities are hesitant to do anything even as the fundamental rights of citizens are openly violated by criminals and hoodlums?
This brings me to another aspect of the Husain controversy that even many of our so-called liberals would like to flaunt. Freedom to express is fine, it’s argued, but stoking or hurting communal feelings is not. I agree. But I fail to understand how a nude Saraswati can hurt Hindu feelings when the subject is only a concept and we have many ancient temples lavishly sculpted with nude gods and goddesses. Even that’s beside the point. In an open, pluralist, democratic society, there’s no such thing as absolute truth. There’ll always be a differencse of opinion and clashes of views. That’s how a democratic society finds its way and corrects itself to stay alive. Do we now propose to stop expressing lest someone somewhere should feel offended? Is it our intention that we should shut our windows and entomb our mind?