Different standards

March.05 : Where was the secular pack, which carries a regular crusade in defence of controversial painter M.F. Husain, when fanatic Muslim mobs were holding Karnataka to ransom? Buckling under pressure, the Karnataka Police has registered cases against Kannada daily Kannada Prabha and Urdu daily Siasat for “hurting religious sentiments” though unidentified goons ransacked the offices of Kannada Prabha and an evening newspaper and threw petrol bombs late on Tuesday night in Mangalore. Can a debate on this issue be considered an insult to Islam?

The article, entitled Purdah hai Purdah, is allegedly a translation of a piece Taslima Nasreen had written in 2007. It deals with the practice of wearing a veil (purdah) by Muslim women. It was Urdu daily Siasat which had carried a report alleging that Kannda Prabha had published derogatory remarks against Muslims. The Karnataka edition of Siasat is managed by Congress leader Roshan Baig!
Ms Nasreen, the exiled Bangladesh writer, in hiding in Delhi, is in the eye of the storm. A terrified Ms Nasreen, on the run to escape the ire of Islamic fundamentalists, has been quick to deny the authorship of the said article, which has triggered off the current chain of violent incidents in Karnataka.
Where are the champions of press freedom? Imagine the nationwide uproar that would have followed if the culprits were even remotely connected to a Hindu organisation. Can such double standards of our civil society help us sustain the pluralistic value system of which we all are proud?
Can India tolerate such intolerance and still remain India? India is known for its tolerance — there are a host of sects and groups in this country, ranging from the spiritual to the absurd and bizarre. Who does not know that the temple walls of Khajuraho and some other places are adorned with a whole spectrum of representations of the art of lovemaking, one that Vatsyayana described in his famous work and that the author is hailed as a sage. There cannot be one version of truth because many people see it differently. That exactly is Hinduism and we should be proud of our freedom of belief.
One may be tempted to ask Husain and his “secular” advocates whether it is simply the harassment meted out to him that was responsible for his long self-exile from India and then seeking refuge in a Gulf emirate. However, Husain should have realised that just as he has freedom as an artist, others too have their freedom to protest against him as long as that protest is without violence or force of any kind.
The choice of Husain’s refuge throws further doubt on his intentions. If he was seeking a safe harbour for his artistic freedom, was Qatar the right place? In not a single Gulf country will he or anyone else be allowed to paint religious imagery. News reports about Husain being given the citizenship of Qatar say that he is very close to the Qatar royal family. But these reports do not reveal whether Husain would be free to paint as he likes. Choosing Qatar over India itself is a revelation of the inner working of this artist who, perhaps, is as much influenced by the current Islamic fundamentalism backlash as several others.
Ms Nasreen’s case in India is different. Almost every Muslim group has opposed her seeking to live in India. In Kolkata, home to India’s liberal great she was forced to slink out to save her life. In Hyderabad, she was all but killed by Muslim demonstrators and then told that if she attempts to return, her life would be in danger. What happened in Shimoga is another example of what to expect if even a wisp of criticism is written or heard against one particular religion. In effect, India is sought to be converted into a Taliban country without being a Muslim majority by groups of determined Islamic fundamentalists in cahoots with “secularists” of various hues.
The blame for this state of affairs, in fact, should go to the so-called secular political leaders who pander to the retrograde sections of Muslim community and promote outdated orthodox practices and traditions. They are ready to rush to defend Husain painting goddesses in the nude, but they are silent when a writer of international repute like Ms Nasreen faces protests for an article or a book that appears critical of Islam. Not one self-styled secular and liberal leader has come out in her defence.
Just as none had condemned the violent demonstrations by sections of Muslims against a Danish cartoonist for depicting the Prophet of Islam. Not one of them even disapproved of a Muslim minister of Uttar Pradesh then calling for a huge fund to reward those who would murder the Danish cartoonist.
In Hindu-majority India, many events connected with the Ramayana, especially the abandoning of Sita, have been critically examined by scholars and laymen from different angles. The original Ramayana itself has several criticisms against the divinity of Lord Rama embedded in it. The Upanishads are mostly written in the form of critical questions and answers that again are questioned.
The entire Bhagvad Gita is in the form of questions and answers and at the end of it Lord Krishna’s protégé Arjuna, the warrior, is asked to exercise his reason in accepting or rejecting what has been said in the earlier 18 chapters. This environment of free debate ensures that extremism, even if practised by some, is not backed by many. Can that be said of the Gulf countries?
The artist who rejects the free air of democratic India and prefers a dogmatic and dictatorial monarchy to practice his art in “freedom” is not far removed from the clerics who drill into their followers that even a hint of criticism of their religion or its practices must be punished with death.

Balbir K. Punj can be contacted at punjbk@gmail.com

Balbir K. Punj

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