Commentary

Attack on Artistic Freedom Is Our Shame

We Indians have done a thousand lousy things. But near the top of the list is the hounding out of Maqbool Fida Husain, our greatest painter, who died abroad last week, aged 95. This was not an isolated incident: author Taslima Nasreen was also hounded out by communalists. These will remain terrible blots on a country claiming to have secular foundations.

Husain had humble origins. In his youth, he scraped together a living by painting film advertisements on hoardings. He and others broke from the traditional Bengal school of painting to form the Progressive Artists’ Group. This aimed at modern art that nevertheless had deep roots in Indian culture and religion. Husain painted hundreds of paintings based on epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata. He constantly took inspiration from rural India, tribal art and Bollywood films. His muses included Madhuri Dixit, Vidya Balan and Anushka Sharma.

But the very multiculturalism of his paintings was unacceptable to Hindu communalists, especially Shiv Sainiks. They objected to his depiction of goddesses in the nude, claiming this was an insult to Hinduism. They threatened to rip his paintings apart, making it difficult to exhibit his paintings without fear of damage.

Now, anybody visiting ancient Hindu temples at Khajuraho or Konark can seen dozens of nude sculptures of goddesses and apsaras, which are intrinsic to Indian art. Husain’s style was one of skilful distortion and smudging, so his nudes had no erotic detail or prurience. Why then did his paintings create such an uproar and not Khajuraho?

Because he was a Muslim. Had he been a Hindu, there would have been no protest. The anti-Husain campaign was always an anti-Muslim campaign, and not about art or justice.

Dozens of criminal cases were launched against Husain for his paintings, making it risky for him to stay in India. Eventually the Supreme Court bundled all the cases together and acquitted him handsomely. Yet he feared physical violence if he returned to India. The government assured him of police protection. But Husain hated the idea of spending the rest of his life surrounded by security guards. So he reluctantly settled abroad and eventually took up Qatari citizenship. India lost one of its greatest sons.

There is a silver lining. Art should have no religious barriers, and Indian art has done a great job in this. The list of top painters in independent India is utterly secular. It includes a Christian (FN Souza), four Muslims (MF Husain, Tyeb Mehta, SH Raza, Akbar Padamsee), a Sikh (Manjit Bawa) and a Parsi (Jehangir Sabavala). Hindus in the top list include Ram Kumar, Satish Gujral and Ganesh Pyne.

The Sachar Committee some years ago depicted a sad picture of the low status of Indian Muslims in general. But it could not say the same about the world of art. Whether in painting, music or literature, Muslims and other minorities held their own, and India could proudly claim that its living arts were entirely secular.

Alas, these arts have now witnessed the hounding out of Husain and Taslima Nasreen. The latter, a Bangladeshi, was first hounded out her country because she graphically depicted the sufferings of Hindus in Bangladesh. But this did not ensure an unambiguous welcome for her in Kolkata.

Her writings were critical of Sharia laws and also displayed sexual liberation, making her completely unacceptable to Indian mullahs. Muslim communalists falsely accused her of defaming the Koran. She was assaulted by Muslim communalists (including legislators) at a literary event in Hyderabad in 2007, but no action was taken against the assaulters (viewed as too politically important to touch). Nor was action taken against mullahs who issued a fatwa offering huge sums for her murder in 2009.

She wanted to live in Kolkata, the home of Bengali literature. But Mamata Banerjee, to her eternal disgrace, teamed up with the Jamaat-e-Islami for a joint agitation to simultaneously remove the Tatas from Singur and Taslima from Bengal.

The CPM was historically at the very forefront of secularism. It played a heroic role in Punjab against Sikh communalism in the 1980s, at the cost of hundreds of lives of its cadres. But in Taslima’s case, the CPM decided that the Muslim vote bank was more important than artistic freedom or secularism. The Congress was equally cowardly and unprincipled. And this political consensus obliged Taslima to leave India.

Our leaders succumbed to Hindu communalism in Husain’s case, and to Muslim communalism in Taslima’s case. A political system claiming to be secular preferred to see communal groups as valuable vote banks rather than odious oppressors. For that, we need to hang our heads in shame.

Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar is a research fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.