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Silly spokespersons

The question I want to ask the PM and Mrs Gandhi is this: what steps have you taken to enable M.F. Husain to return home? asks Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Oct 04, 2009 02:25 IST

I wonder how often our politicians think before they speak? I’m not talking of their long and tiresome speeches or the crafty answers they offer in formal interviews. I assume those must be thought out. Although when they’re not, it’s painfully obvious — it just cannot be hidden.

No, I’m referring to the ceaseless small comments they make on a vast assortment of subjects, which the rest of us accept as oracular pronouncements and television calls sound bytes. And, before I proceed further, let me add that television both entices and encourages them, as well as provides an easy and always available platform.

Not so long ago, on the occasion of M.F. Husain’s 94th birthday, a Congress spokesperson was asked what the government was doing about protecting the artist against the many ‘Hindutva’ threats he faces that have forced him to live in exile. This was the reply:

“I don’t think it’s the highest thing on our list of priorities at the moment given the act of terror against our country (and) given (the) particular situation we find ourselves (in). It’s simply not the job of the government in my view.”

When I heard that delivered on the nine o’clock news I almost fell out of my chair. I was dumbfounded. Why? Because, I can’t think of a more disastrous answer. It’s not only insensitive and callous, it’s ignorant of the duty of government and it fails to realise that what Husain faces is also a form of terror. To put it in a nutshell, it’s downright wrong.

I’d say the first duty of government is to protect the life and property of each citizen. From Plato to Hobbes and down to Dworkin — and let’s not forget our own Chanakya — there’s not a political philosopher who has thought differently. So when the Congress spokesperson pronounces “it’s simply not the job of the government”, it’s a strange, if not ludicrous, thing to say. And if this is what the government actually believes then, pray, what are its duties? And to whom devolves the task of protecting the citizenry? Or are we to protect ourselves and “sarkar jaye bhaad mein”?

But that’s not all. If you look carefully at that answer it also contains a bizarre interpretation of terror. The victimisation of M.F. Husain, the spokesperson suggests, is not part of this subject. But what then would you call the carefully planned vandalisation of his paintings, the attacks on his home, the public burning of his effigies and the orchestrated pressure on museums and galleries not to exhibit his work? Terror by another name is still terror. Indeed, even the deliberate attempt to ensnare him in a web of court cases is a form of terror.

However, beyond the foolishness of the answer, I’m also perplexed by the attitude to M.F. Husain that I suspect lies behind it. Politicians usually don’t wash their hands of people who need help. Even more so when they are members of a minority community and the politician is a Congress person. So why, then, was this spokesperson willing to appear insensitive and callous when it comes to protecting M.F. Husain? I’d really like to know.

Finally, the question I want to ask the Prime Minister and Mrs Gandhi is simple and direct: during the five years you’ve been in power what steps have you taken to enable Husain to return home with confidence?

I eagerly await their answer.

The views expressed by the author are personal