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Who framed Maqbool?

Do we want to live in an India where street mobs determine the framework of creative freedom, asks Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Dec 09, 2006 02:24 IST

He’s an auctioneer’s delight, a style statement for the elite and a genuine inspiration for those who love ‘Art’.

The country’s rich and famous trip over themselves to buy his work; countless international magazines have eulogised him as the single most influential artist from India and while his cinematic prowess may be somewhat dodgy, even Bollywood ripples with excitement each time he unveils his latest female fixation.

MF Husain is a national treasure. So, what in the world is he doing living like a fugitive in London, pushed into virtual exile by the same country that has breathlessly feted him in the past?

And why has there been such muted public debate over his forced absence from India?

Should we not be ashamed that the country’s most celebrated artist — an ageing 91-year-old man — is left wandering the world even though, as he told this paper, he is “extremely homesick and yearning for Mumbai”.

Controversy is an old companion on MF Husain’s journey through life. But the turning point came this May after the Home Ministry advised the police chiefs of Delhi and Mumbai to take “appropriate action” against the artist. His crime — India symbolically captured as a nude woman in the shape of the map of the country. The painting’s caption — Bharatmata — was the final trigger for volatile protests across the country. Effigies of the artist were burnt, an art show was disrupted and death threats were issued with unnerving alacrity.

The painting was meant to go on auction to raise funds for victims of the Kashmir earthquake. But gallery owners were eventually forced to withdraw it from the bidding process. Husain apologised if he had hurt religious feelings and his lawyers clarified that he had not, in fact, christened the painting, and that the name Bharatmata had been given by the gallery, and without his knowledge. But the goons leading the brigade of professional protestors were in no mood to listen.

Ironically, the Husain controversy coincided with another debate over artistic freedom. Cartoons of the Prophet by a little-known Danish artist had propelled extreme violence on the Muslim street. In India, members of the loony Right used the occasion to slam the orthodoxy and intolerance of Islam but failed to see the obvious contradiction of their own response. Bizarre justifications were found for why the mobs hounding Husain were legitimate, but the street protests against the cartoons were somehow barbaric and foolish.

I said it then, and I will say it again: it’s dangerous and dishonest to be selective about creative freedom. Yes, we are all entitled to our religious sensitivities, but equally, a strong, democratic society must allow space for satire, irony and personal interpretation of religious beliefs.

So, if Husain really offends you that deeply, don’t buy his art, boycott the galleries that display his work and stop dining at the homes of the important people who can’t stop preening about his work on their walls. But, he has just as much a right to paint Hindu deities in the nude, if that’s his artistic vision, as the Danish cartoonist has to poke fun at Islam in his comic strip. Surely, we don’t believe either religion to be so fragile that it can’t take a joke or two about itself?

In India, Haji Yaqoob Qureshi, a minister in the UP government, horrified us when he offered a reward of Rs 51 crore for anyone who beheaded the Danish cartoonist (in this column, I argued that he should be arrested and sent to jail). But did you know that a self-appointed chief of the Hindu Personal Law Board offered exactly the same prize money for ‘eliminating’ MF Husain? And, are you aware that a member of the Congress minority cell in Madhya Pradesh was willing to part with the more modest amount of Rs 11 lakh for “a patriot” who chopped off the artist’s hands? These were public statements carried prominently by the media. Surely, legal action should be taken against these gentlemen (the income tax department may want to investigate from where they get this kind of cash to spare), instead of dragging Husain to court?

You may argue that these men represent a lunatic fringe that deserves only to be ignored. In saner times, that would have been true. But the tragedy is that if we, the moderate majority, remain silent, then a handful of loonies will succeed in dictating government policy.

And that brings me to the least commented on, and most disappointing dimension of the Husain controversy — the role of the so-called secularists. In all these years, the debate around Husain’s art has been pitched as a battle between the extreme Right-wing (VHP, Bajrang Dal and assorted other saffronites) and the liberal elite. The more crass critics of Husain have even questioned the right of a Muslim man to interpret their religion.

But, this is no longer a predictable Hindu-Muslim debate nor is it only about the orthodoxy of the BJP. The Congress party is just as accountable.

After all, it’s the UPA government at the Centre, and the NCP-Congress government in Maharashtra who have issued the notices against Husain and ordered criminal investigations.Where does this fit in with the much-touted liberal and secular ideology of the Congress? Should this government not be standing up for a man who has been bestowed with almost all the top national honours, instead of instructing cops to clamp down on his work? The government can’t claim to respect Husain and simultaneously take no action against those who use brute force against him.

Even his voluntary exile provides no immunity against these goons. London’s Asia House gallery had to shut down a major exhibition by Husain after three men forced their way into the gallery and defaced two of his paintings. But, how can Indians protest when their own government does not defend him?

And what does this entire debate say about you and me? Do we want to live in an India where rioters and street mobs determine the framework of creative freedom? Every time we remain silent, we only strengthen the blackmailers.

So, speak up and choose. Otherwise, we will just further our reputation as a nation of hypocrites. We have become the sort of people who love to boast about MF Husain or Salman Rushdie’s India connection when we meet foreigners, but when it comes to the crunch — the time to defend their work in the land of their birth — we are content to watch quietly as the mob takes over.

In 1988, India was the first country in the world to ban The Satanic Verses, just nine days after it was published.

Two decades later, history seems to be repeating itself.

As Salman Rushdie might have said: Shame!

Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7.

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First Published: Dec 09, 2006 01:31 IST