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UK too failed Husain

Public memory can be short, so while we are still dredging recent history in the aftermath of MF Husain's death in London it's worth reminding ourselves that not only India failed him. The UK did too.

world Updated: Jun 14, 2011 01:47 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar

Public memory can be short, so while we are still dredging recent history in the aftermath of MF Husain's death in London it's worth reminding ourselves that not only India failed him. The UK did too.

In the summer of 2006, Hindu groups in Britain decided to follow the protests in Mumbai when Asia House - a place for pan-Asian cultural interaction - announced an exhibition of Husain's paintings.

No one gave it another thought until these groups started their campaign, petitioning Asia House, the high commission and threatening to boycott Hitachi for promising to provide giant plasma screens for the exhibition.

Unlike in India, however, these groups did not threaten anyone physically, for doing so could land them in jail. Nevertheless, Asia House cancelled the exhibition citing "security reasons."

The economist and Labour peer Meghnad Desai protested at the time, "What we are witnessing is the import into the UK of a fanatical political group…"

It's not clear if Asia House sought police protection in order to allow the exhibition to go ahead, but the withdrawal signified a clear failure of Britain to protect its centuries-old freedoms.

It was an early milestone in a debate that has now been launched by Prime Minister David Cameron on what he has called the failure of multiculturalism in Britain.

His supporters say that under the guise of multiculturalism, a variety of immigrant groups have been allowed to force their own worldview upon that of the host community's.

Cameron has sparked off one of the most important and timely debates in Europe today - one that could redefine relations between communities, races and religions, as also the boundaries between them and the modern state across the continent.

One idea that has surfaced following Husain's death is that there should be a major public exhibition of his paintings in London. Husain has never had a one-man exhibition in a major public gallery such as the Hayward or the Tate.

Such an exhibition, say supporters, would be a handsome tribute to a seminal artist who spent his last years living and working in a nation of art lovers.