Taslima And Hussian The Inconsistent Treatment
Two different stories with a common India link have been in the spotlight. One is related to Bangladeshi novelist Taslima Nasreen, who lives in exile partly in France but mostly in India. The other involves Maqbool Fida Husain, who until recently was arguably India’s most celebrated and richest painter.
Nasreen wants to be an Indian citizen, as she is perhaps the most hated person in Bangladesh due to her liberal views and moderate interpretation of Islam.
Husain, on the other hand, is in self-imposed exile from India over the last few years, shuttling between London, Riyadh and Dubai. Last week, his son Owais Husain said that his father had accepted Qatar’s offer of honorary citizenship.
The 95-year-old Husain, whose family members otherwise lead a very comfortable life in India, left the country when some people confronted him over controversial paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses. Several legal cases have also been filed against him.
However, the parallel ends here. Nasreen wants to settle in a plural, secular and democratic India while Husain has opted for an “Islamic monarchy.”
Second, Nasreen rose to name and fame outside her own country, while Husain earned his celebrated status and unimaginable wealth in India. It is doubtful if Bangladesh ever will welcome Nasreen back. But Husain has strong support in India. Indian Home Minister P Chidambaram has assured him not only of safety but of cooperation in fighting his legal cases.
However, Chidambaram has not explained how Husain will return to India now that he is no longer an Indian citizen. India does not have a dual-citizenship agreement with Qatar, but can offer him “person of Indian origin” status, which would enable him to travel and live in India without having to obtain a separate visa.
Third, Nasreen invited the wrath of conservative Muslims for her views on how women are ill-treated in the name of Islam, and for saying the forcible imposition of the veil or burqa is not mandatory under Islam.
So much so that when India was celebrating “Holi” or the Festival of Colors, Muslim extremists rioted in the southern Indian state of Karnataka over the publication of Nasreen’s article in some regional-language newspapers. Nasreen claims she never wrote the article for the newspapers. However, the timing was significant since it followed the government of India granting the writer a further six months’ extension of stay.
On the other hand, Husain’s paintings have hurt Hindu sentiments. Despite Hindu anguish from time to time, Hussain continued to paint Hindu gods and goddesses in the nude. For example, in one of his paintings he shows the Goddess Sita totally naked seated on the long tail of the Monkey God Hanuman.
Hindu religious texts contemplate a very pious relationship of mother and son between Sita and Hanuman. In another painting of Hussain, Sita is shown sitting naked on the thigh of a naked Ravana, the demon. Imagine a bull copulating with the Goddess Parvati and Lord Shankar watching the act on the
pious Shivratri festival day, or Goddess Durga in union with her lion. But that is what Hussain’s painting portrayed.
Husain’s countless liberal supporters say that by painting Hindu gods and goddesses he is expressing his artistic and creative freedom and that he has no anti-Hindu motive. They further argue that nudity in paintings and sculptures has been a part of Hindu culture and tradition, as displayed in magnificent temple sculptures in Konark, Khajuraho, Ellora and Bhubaneshwar.
But these supporters miss the point that nowhere in the mentioned temple sculptures are the main deities displayed as nude. The problem with Husain’s paintings is that he does not allow people much scope for imagination in his work. Invariably he wrote the names of the gods and goddesses like Sita, Laxmi, Parvati and Hanuman at the bottom of his paintings, which explicitly clarifies what he meant. And that is really offensive. In fact, in one of his “much acclaimed” paintings, he drew a naked woman in the shape of the map of India and titled it “Bharat Mata,” or Mother India.
Significantly, whenever Husain has painted celebrities that are Muslims or Christians, he has displayed utmost sensitivity and ensured that all of his figures are properly dressed.
Last but the most significant difference in India between Nasreen’s and Husain’s episodes is the sheer inconsistency displayed by the Indian government and the so-called liberal secularists.
While every attempt has been made to overplay the ominous implications of Nasreen’s stay in India, no stone has been left unturned to bemoan Husain’s departure and facilitate his return to the country. In fact, some have even gone to the ridiculous extent of suggesting amendments to the Indian Constitution that could pave the way for dual citizenship for Husain, as a special case.
That brings in the factor of politics behind such inconsistencies. No government in India would dare to annoy religious sentiments, even those based on flimsy grounds and unreasonable matters, as doing otherwise could adversely affect the so-called vote banks or “identity politics” of political parties. It is this “identity politics” that erodes liberty.
Fearing the loss of Muslim support, the West Bengal government led by Communists that are supposedly most secular and rational has banned all of Nasreen’s books and refused her permission to live in the state.
Worried over a backlash from Christians, who are extremely important in the politics of Kerala and the northeastern states, the government banned the screening of the religious thriller The Da Vinci Code, which was a highly successful film in the United States and Europe.
In India it is common to succumb to threats by protestors against creative persons, whether they are writers, artists or filmmakers. Books and plays questioning some of the thoughts and actions of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and BR Ambedkar have evoked passionate enquiry, while some others have been proscribed.
Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” and Arun Shourie’s “Worshipping False Gods” have been banned. A few years ago, the government decided to stop the BBC from filming Rushdie’s epic, “Midnight’s Children,” because somebody in power feared that the sentiments of some communities might be hurt.
It is therefore no wonder that there are double standards in political and intellectual circles over matters pertaining to Nasreen and Husain. If those who advocate restrictions are from the so-called right-wing, or “Hindutva” side, then the so-called liberals and secularists can go to any extent in condemning the move, as was evident in the case of Husain and the shooting of the film “Water,” which exposed the ill-treatment of widows in temples. But if there are demands for a ban against the creations of right wingers, like “Worshipping False Gods,” then they go to every extent to rationalise it.
However, it so happens that the secularists and leftists who dominate India’s educational and cultural infrastructure have tolerated more incidents of banning and restrictions on ideas than anyone else. In fact, they are more intolerant of others’ views. They can rewrite and reinterpret history books, as they did under the Congress Party regimes, particularly under education ministers like Nurul Hasan and Arjun Singh, but deny the same right to rightists as they did under the former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s regime.
Let us remember the words of the great philosopher-poet Rabindranath Tagore, whose magnificent vision of India was to make it a country “where the mind is without fear.”
Authors and artists have the right to express whatever they want, as long as it is not libelous. That is the best way to fight against intolerance, ignorance and the enemies of reason.
But the key here is a thing called consistency.
By Prakash Nanda