Canvas of intolerance, frame of freedom

If democracy is a shared value among many of the world’s states today, they still differ substantially in the tolerance of civil freedoms often granted to the citizens by their respective Constitutions. Let me pick up three out of numerous instances.
In the late 1970s, M.F. Husain paints the Hindu goddess Saraswati in the nude. Nothing unusual.

Twenty years on, some members of the Sangh Parivar get to hear of it, though they have never seen the painting. Some 20-odd lumpen boys vandalise the painter’s house, destroy several of his paintings and threaten to disrupt any exhibition depicting any of his paintings even in a group show. The mighty Indian state crumbles and cannot assure security for such exhibitions. Encouraged, the Sangh Parivar raises the stridency of threats to the legendary artist, extending to his very life.
In 2006, the Union home minister, Shivraj Patil, sends out an advisory to the police commissioners of Delhi and Mumbai cautioning against possible communal tension created by the presence of Husain. Husain, at the end of his tether, goes into exile, never to come back to his beloved country and for ever sad for it. Though, like a true gentleman, he shared the sadness only with a few close friends.
In 2009, some six Muslim men float an outfit and under its banner hold a protest against controversial Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen in Kolkata. The country’s most secular (Left Front) government throws the writer out of the country even as she fervently pleads to be allowed to stay on in what she had begun to consider her “home”. She has not come back either, even as she hopes to, with the change of government.
Some three decades ago, Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran had “sentenced” Salman Rushdie to death for writing Satanic Verses. Rushdie found shelter in England where the state spent millions to give him protection even as he remained a vocal critic of the various governments there.
Both India and the UK are democracies — yet they couldn’t be further apart in their respect for civil liberties. Ironically, while India’s Constitution announces it as a “secular” state, the UK is formally an Anglican Christian state.
The crux of the difference is that India, especially its polity, equates its secularism with multi-communalisms in which the equilibrium keeps altering with the stridency of the assertion of self-assumed representation of one or the other community, even if all it takes is to mobilise some half a dozen to two dozen individuals on any occasion to lay such claim, with the media glare inflating their presence manifold.
Our secularism is indeed very fragile and our civil rights most vulnerable.
Husain’s instance is particularly tragic for several reasons. His calibre as an artist would have made him a prized citizen for any country. He redefined all the basic features of his craft: the grandeur of vision of his themes, the drawing of lines, the colours and the very deep roots in Indian, especially Hindu, culture and mythology. In some ways, he was the ideal candidate for what the Sangh Parivar envisages as a perfect Indian Muslim — committed to his own religious rituals like the namaz, almost all his paintings draw inspiration from Hindu mythology. He drew numerous pictures of Ganesha, Gandhari, birth of Lord Buddha, Saraswati and of course, the quintessential Indian womanhood.
The Sangh Parivar’s charges about nude pictures of goddesses etc. — which drove Husain into exile — demonstrates how little it knows or cares about Hindu mythology and art. Implicit in the charge is the assumption that nudity is sinful and reprehensible because of its association with sexuality. The association of nudity (and sex) with sin and of sin with Eve is Christian in origin, which led to the fall of Adam from the Garden of Eden; there is not even a hint of such association in Hinduism.
Indeed, there is a constant celebration of nudity and sexuality as an act of piety in mythological stories, temples, literature and painting. In an 18th-century Kangra painting of Radha and Krishna, a completely nude Radha is depicted on top of a totally nude Krishna, in copulation. Clearly, the meaning of nudity and sex here is unadulterated purity and ecstasy, even religious ecstasy. And dharma, artha, kama, moksha are the four requisites of life fulfilled.
It is to this tradition that Husain belonged. The sadness is not only that the Sangh Parivar could not understand and tolerate him, it is that the state yielded ever so easily to this intolerance.
The suggestion that Husain should have drawn nude female figures from Islamic mythology to balance it out is pathetic, for it looks at artistic creativity as a sort of Cabinet formation in which various communities, castes, regions, genders etc should find adequate representation. This is characteristic of small
minds adjudicating grand phenomena.

Harbans Mukhia is a former professor of history at the Jawaharlal Nehru University

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