The impulse was political; religion a ruse, and MF Husain’s ‘controversial” sketches of Hindu deities easy cannon fodder in a right-wing gameplan, the ramifications of which were much wider. The script played out through the 1990s till the celebrated painter left India in 2006.
The assault on Husain had its genesis in a disputed 11th century complex Raja Bhoj built as a university at Dhar in Madhya Pradesh. The Bhojshala housed a mosque and a temple and was home once to an idol of Saraswati. It had also been the centrepiece of communal agitation in the area by Hindu zealots since 1994.
The spark that lit the fire was an article in 1996 in Vichar Mimansa, a journal published from MP in which the author referred to a Husain sketch as ‘a nude Saraswati’.
The article had the then Shiv Sena-BJP government in Maharashtra bring criminal charges against Husain for the painting done some 20 years before. Frontline magazine had then reported that the sketch was part of preparatory drawings for a ‘clothed Saraswati’ the artist drew for a business family.
That ‘outraged’ Hindu sentiments weren’t the guiding factor was obvious from some events. The provocative write-up came too close to the fourth anniversary of the Babri masjid demolition. Hindu hotheads used it as an opportunity to revive communal tensions over the complex at Dhar near Indore, where Husain had cut his teeth as an artist.
The bigger picture emerged with the elevation of the BJP’s MP strongman, Khushabhau Thakre, as the party’s national president before the 1998 assembly polls. The saffron party had to wait another five years to seize power in MP.
But the dispute over Husain’s images of Saraswati is a lesson on how the Hindu rightwing pursued its divisive agenda.