THE sharp disappointment in the Hindu community over the Delhi High Court'sdecision to quash three cases against painter Maqbool Fida Husain provides an ideal opportunity to all communities to debate the issue of mutual religious respect and the Vedic concept of sarvadharmasamabhav.
To my mind, there are two separate and overlapping issues involved, which must not be mixed up in a manner that promotes communal disharmony, when this is entirely avoidable. The first and most obvious is inter-religious disrespect, and the second related issue is intra-religious discourtesy to fellow believers.
Mr. M.F. Husain'sbehaviour falls obviously in the first category, of inter-religious indecency, and the gravity of his offence must be understood in its proper perspective without being unduly prurient. First, however, it must be pointed out to unhappy members of the Hindu community that Mr. Husain has been released in cases pertaining to a painting of ?Bharat Mata? alone, and that too, on technical grounds. Mr. Husain had painted a nude woman over the backdrop of the Indian subcontinent, and it was the art gallery that titled the painting as ?Bharat Mata?. Hence Mr. Husain'sclaim that it was an abstract nude was technically sound.
Some Hindus feel the Hon?ble judge was unduly kind to the nonagenarian painter, buying into his lawyers? argument that the painter was forced to live in self-imposed exile, and ?deserved to be at home and painting.? But Mr. Husain left the country of his own accord to evade the judicial system, and has since profited from the controversy to sell his paintings at startling prices. He was free to return at any time and face the charges against himself manfully, but he chose to cock a snook at Hindu sentiments and enjoy himself abroad.
The critical charge against Mr. Husain is that as a member of a non-Hindu faith (specifically, as a Muslim), he should not have dabbled with the powerful religious symbols, specially the female divinities, of another faith, with so much contempt and disrespect. As an artist, he did and does have the freedom to choose his themes from anywhere in the world. But he has chosen broadly to draw upon themes from Hindu dharma, and in the perception of the Hindu community, he has displayed uncalled for indecency in some of the portrayals.
Some paintings have been particularly offensive. The most controversial was that of a naked Sitaji clinging to the tail of Hanuman. Even in terms of mythology, this is taking liberties with the text of the Ramayana, as it is well-known that Sita refused Hanuman'soffer to rescue her, saying she could not be touched by another male. Then, the Goddesses Durga and Parvati are depicted nude in postures that are too obscene to be confused as art, except perhaps in a pornographic magazine. Even Saraswati has not been spared, and thus we can legitimately come to the conclusion that Mr. Husain has intentionally subjected all the major Hindu female divinities to a form of cultural iconoclasm that is vulgar beyond belief.
This view is not confined to Hindus alone, and no orthodox or secular Muslim has to date come to the defence of Mr. Husain in this matter. He has been openly condemned in television debates and the print media by his own co-religionists. Indeed, his only supporters and admirers are deracinated Hindus who have made a career out of baiting the Hindu community. Not one of these supporters would have defended him if he had subjected the sacred personalities of another faith, including his own, to such contempt. In sharp contrast, the late Dr. Rahi Masoom Raza wrote the screenplay of the tele-series Mahabharata with utmost respect and intellectual depth.
Hence, it needs to be emphasised that Hindus who believe in sarvadharma-samabhav cannot demand that Mr. Husain defame the sacred personalities of his own or another monotheistic faith if he claims artistic liberty and pretends he had no intention to defame the Hindu dharma. This is no way to ?balance the books;? it does not restore Hindu honour to dishonour another religion. For us, the best way forward is to ensure that the other cases are taken up seriously, with the judges concerned receiving clear copies of the impugned paintings with a graphic explanation of what is objectionable. It would then be incumbent upon the judge(s) to explain why the said divinity is not defamed, but actually honoured by Mr. Husain'sbrush-work. The distinction between liberty and license must be strictly upheld.
It may be added that the controversy over the Danish cartoons against Prophet Mohammad two years ago was a deliberate attempt to outrage Muslim sentiments in Europe in order to facilitate a backlash against Muslim immigration to the continent. Muslims saw through the ruse and remained largely peaceful, though they were naturally enraged. No sensible Hindu writer in India supported the cartoonists then, and the contention that the provocation was intentional is upheld by the fact that recently the cartoons were reprinted on some puerile pretext. Deracinated Hindus who are now citizens of United Kingdom and United States were delighted with the controversy, and one is at a loss to understand why, as they have no conflict with Islam or Muslims in their new countries. It is surely a case of being more loyal than the king!
This brings us to the issue of intra-religious misdemeanours. Author Salman Rushdie'sSatanic Verses comes readily to mind. The deliberate insult to the Prophet'swives earned Mr. Rushdie a fatwa and undying fame and wealth. But it needs to be added that he received an astronomical advance to write the book just ahead to the West'spre-planned assault on the Muslim world. Seen in this perspective it became, not an intra-Islamic conflict, but part of a larger intra-religious dispute between the Christian West and the world of the Prophet, with the London-based author striking a deal with well-paying infidels.