MEHBOOB Fida Husain has been granted Qatar nationality and he has apparently accepted it with, it would appear, deep regrets. Husain in a statement says that India is his motherland, he loves it deeply, but when he was in trouble, no one came to his help. According to him India rejected him.
India did nothing of that sort. It was he who invited it. If he had the grace to admit that he might have inadvertently hurt sentiments of many Hindus and apologised, it would have been a different world. Nobody has questioned Husain’s patriotism or his standing as a great artist. His paintings sell for crores of rupees and his being an Indian is a major asset to his homeland.
What started the angst against him was his pictorialisation of certain religious figures in a very offensive way. Even the most secular Indian would have felt embarrassed at seeing them. Husain probably did not realise that he had given needless offense to Hindus. A major industrial organisation even had the paintings brought out in a calender. There are times when freedom of expression is unconsciously misused. Husain surely did not intend to offend.
Born in the holy city of Pandharpur, Husain is known for his respect for Hinduism. We all err sometimes. An early apology would have helped reduce communal tensions and raised Husain’s standing. For reasons best known to him, no efforts at making amends were noticeable. Matters thereafter went out of control. It is a sad story. Husain says that in Qatar he has complete freedom to function as an artist. Would he dare to use that freedom even to draw a sketch of the Prophet, let alone a cartoon as did a Danish cartoonist in Jyllands Posten in Spetember 2005? That brought the wrath of the Islamic world.
We are rightly or wrongly living in a highly sensitive society. To argue that an artist’s sensibilities should be respected is to state the obvious. But there are certain Laxman rekhas that even a great artist should not cross. The Government of India has promised the utmost security to Husain and the Home Minister has said that there are no valid legal cases against him. Even the RSS would like Husain to return home. If he still does not care to accept these assurances, he is welcome to stay in Qatar. One wishes him well. But meanwhile, what should we say of the stone-throwing and arson indulged in by fanatic Muslims in Shimoga and Hasan protesting against the publication in a Kannada daily of a translation of an article purportedly written by Tasleema Nasreen on wearing the burqa?
Muslim crowds went on a terror rampage, not only attacking the newspaper offices but also indiscriminately destroying public and private property. There have been no condemnation of this violence from our liberal intellectuals who are quick to support Husain but are scared to take on Muslim law-breakers. It is a crying shame. The issue, as one editorial comment has pointed out, is not the authenticity of the article or its authorship but the right to freedom of expression, it embodies. No insult to the Prophet was intended. What was questioned was the relevance of the burqa in contemporary times. This is a matter of social reform. There have been occasions when reformers-call them rebels, if one likes-have got into trouble because of their views and their public stance. Raja Ram Mohan Roy had to face opposition from some Hindu sections for opposing Sati. Martin Luther in his time faced opposition for his views on the power of the established church. Even Mahatma Gandhi had to reckon with Hindu orthodoxy over the issue of dalit rights. His car was stoned in Pune. Abraham Lincoln had to fight a war to liberate Blacks from their serfdom in the United States. There are many – and not just Jains – who are opposed to animal sacrifice as a religious ritual, but the practice prevails and there are no street riots. Life goes on. Changes don’t take place overnight. They take place when they become inevitable. Presently we are at a stage when a newspaper cannot even publish an article questioning the use of the burqa. Even if the Prophet has been misquoted, there is no need for the Muslim community to resort to violence and stoning. A civilised dialogue with the newspaper publishers can put things right.
As Maulana Wahid-ud-din Khan has rightly said. Efforts to promote peace must necessarily mean that Muslims should reach out to people of other faiths in a spirit of constructive dialogue. The Maulana is one of the few Indian ulemas to have seriously engaged in inter-religious dialogue initiatives. Recommended reading is the Maulana’s work on jihad, peace and Islam, edited and translated by Yoginder Sikand. To the best of one’s knowledge, the translation has not been challenged. The Maulana has been quoted as saying “Who, then, are really responsible for creating a storm of hatred and violence in the name of Islam today?” Identified are the so-called ‘Islamic ideologues’.
What should be a matter of concern is that in the last few years certain religious sections have been showing over-sensitivity in religious matters and a marked tendency towards taking to violence. It reflects a lack of proper leadership in each community. Is it the business of the Hindu community to question the right of Muslim women to wear burqa? That is for the Muslim community itself to think over. What it probably needs is an Indian variant of Kemal Ataturk who revolutioned Turkish society and even rejected the Caliphate. It is no business of Hindus to lecture to Muslims. By that same token artists like MF Husain would do well to stay away from depicting Hindu gods and goddesses in their work. We have had enough of tension. The great American Supreme Court Judge, Oliver Wendell Holmes in a classic judgment (Abrams vs United States) made a telling point. He said: “When men have realised that time has upset many fighting faiths they may come to believe…that the ultimate good desired is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market…” Meanwhile, let it be known that violence is a forbidden tactic and will not be tolerated, that anyone who takes recourse to violence and desecrates a church, a mosque or a temple, for whatever reason, will get the severest of punishments. And that should apply to anyone who takes to violence in the streets and destroys both public and private property. What sort of government do we have that allows mindless violence right under the nose of the police? Or the desecration of places of worship?