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Why Husain had to die in London

Tathagata Bhattacharya

Updated: June 9, 2011, 6:13 PM IST
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Indian-origin painter MF Husain breathed his last in London on the morning of June 9, 2011. As the enormity of his departure trickles down in the world of art, it is a disgrace that the biggest democracy on earth, so often cited as a beacon of tolerance, cannot mourn the death of the artist as that of one of its own citizens.

Why did Husain leave India? It is different than the reason why Charles Chaplin had to leave the US. The US establishment was not happy with the politics of Chaplin's content. The blame on our country, or the government to be specific, is not in terms of restricting Husain in his pursuit of creativity; his expression was never hindered by government interventions and bans.

Some of Husain's paintings, like his depiction of a Hindu Goddess, enraged a group of right-wing Hindu activists. Like Husain was entitled to his artistic freedom of expression, so were the people enraged by it to their freedom to protest. But rabidly communal forces like Bajrang Dal used that freedom as a licence to destroy Husain's paintings and storm his Mumbai home. Our government failed to protect the artist, his artworks and by extension, his artistic freedom of speech. Our artists and intellectuals failed to come out in his support.

He could not exhibit his works. Every gallery that announced his exhibition was forced to cancel the programme under threat from communal forces. The government failed to create a secure atmosphere where a painter could reach out to his admirers and buyers.

It shows the respect for authors, artists and intellectuals we have in India, the level of importance our government accords to them. They are good riddance when they make things inconvenient. There was no offer of any security when Husain went on exile. There were numerous cases slapped against him in various courts of the country, fundamentalists were baying for his blood and not a single government functionary or politician said a word.

Things took a different turn when he was offered Qatari citizenship. It had become a national embarrassment. Union Home minister P Chidambaram said, "Cases in the lower courts should not deter Mr Husain from returning to the country of his birth. We would be happy to receive Mr Husain in India. There were a couple of cases pending in the lower courts. The judgment of the high court and Supreme Court in the six cases makes it clear that there is no basis for a case against Husain. Our system is such that courts take time to grind cases." He added that there "was no threat to his security".

A tearful and deeply pained Husain replied, "India is my motherland. I can't hate my motherland. But India rejected me. Then, why should I stay in India? When Sangh Parivar outfits targeted me, everyone kept silent. No one, including political leadership, artists or intellectuals came forward to speak for me. How can I trust a political leadership that refused to protect me? Is there any surety that I would be given protection in India?"

Compare this to the situation involving the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten after it published cartoons which offended Muslim sensibilities. Their situation is more precarious - letter bombs, busting of al-Qaeda rackets targeting both the paper and the cartoonist, numerous radical Islamist plots uncovered in many parts of Europe to target Copenhagen. But yet Denmark states openly that they will protect the cartoonist and their ideal of freedom of press at all cost.

One can be justifiably curious as to why MF Husain, revered all over the world as one of the greatest painters, could not be given security when Priyanka Gandhi enjoys one of the highest levels of security by virtue of hailing from the Gandhi family.

While centrist regimes in France in the 1950s treated anti-establishment and avid Left-wing intellectuals like Sartre, Eluard, Aragon as national treasures, the Indian government in the 21st century seems to just value the lives of politicians.

Even, next door in Pakistan, the great poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz did not have to leave Pakistan because of his adherence to Communism. Faiz scared successive Pakistani regimes so much that he was jailed. But upon his release, he continued to live and write in Pakistan. He died in Pakistan.

If that is not enough, another note should help the Hindu revanchists responsible for hounding Husain out of the country. Many of these elements have taken to frequenting news Websites nowadays. Rockwell Kent, the famous Communist American painter, donated his entire sales money to the then Soviet Union. He was a recipient of the Order of Lenin, the highest Soviet honour. It was the 1960s and Cold War was at its peak. Kent was never threatened or harmed though 99.99 per cent of the Americans were virulently anti-Communist. People place artists, intellectuals, writers on a different pedestal. At least, that's what people in a true and mature democracy do.
First Published: June 9, 2011, 6:13 PM IST

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