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M F Husain’s death and India’s shameful surrender to violence that cites religion as its pretext

12 June 2011

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The Telegraph, 11 June 2011



The need to mourn an artist’s death springs from the need to remember his special contribution to his country’s, even to the world’s, cultural history. In this sphere, there is much to recall with M.F. Husain’s passing. He lived long, and could have enriched his country further with his vibrant presence, his love of life and the dynamic syncretism of his ceaseless work. That this did not happen is because Husain died far from home, forced into self-imposed exile to protect himself and his art from the violence of boors who savaged his home and art in the name of Hinduism.

Husain’s death has left India face-to-face with one of its greatest shames — its cowardly surrender to violence that cites religion as its pretext. When politicians mouth banalities about the “national loss”, they conveniently gloss over the disgraceful fact that the nation did nothing for Husain except hound him out. The persecution of the artist was a direct attack on his right to freedom of expression. His nude paintings of Saraswati and Bharat Mata were the source of Hindutva-soaked nationalist anger, and gave rise to a series of criminal cases against him. But organized thugs have never waited for the law, and they attacked his home, his exhibitions here and abroad, vandalized his paintings and threatened his person. The cases against Husain remain; the thugs go free.

By not coming down heavily and unforgettably on the hordes of criminals who organized the attacks on Husain and his work time after time, two successive Indian governments, one of which claims a ‘secular’ tradition, have demonstrated a compliance with deep-seated religious intolerance and divisiveness that makes nonsense of India’s ‘inclusive’, ‘tolerant’ culture. Even a hint of religious ire can tear rights and values to shreds, be it the freedom of thought or expression, the value of an artist’s work and contribution, or even the fundamental right to live. What happened to Husain can happen again; there has not been a peep from the government — it made no effort to bring him back and let him live and work in safety — to suggest that things will be different. Social pressure may have changed that, but Indian society revels in its own prejudices. In complete irrationality, it would rather see a ‘Muslim’ artist penalized for painting a nude Hindu deity than feel shame at the violent suppression of guaranteed rights. It is no wonder that intolerance and persecution have become institutionalized in India. No one is allowed the courage to express himself in ways or speak truths that cause discomfort to those in power, whether socially or politically. So Binayak Sen had to languish in jail for months at the behest of a government that wished to silence him, and M.F. Husain must die abroad because pseudo-religion and false patriotism must be appeased. What is ominous is that such an ethos perverts all institutions: law and religion become handmaidens to the agents of oppression.