Husain slur on Bharat Mata

In its second major overture to Hindu opinion after CPM MP Brinda Karat publicly targetted Ayurveda and yoga guru Swami Ramdev, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) has booked the controversial artist, M.F. Hussain, for hurting the sentiments of the people. The NCP action comes in the wake of pressure from activists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, who managed to get Maharashtra Governor S.M. Krishna to back out of a function on February 2, 2006, where he was slated to be chief guest, in which Hussain was to be honoured for his oeuvre. Though the organizers hastily dis-invited the artist in a bid to salvage the function, the Governor refused to change his mind, resulting in its cancellation.

Now, in the wake of pressure from Hindus over Hussain’s continued offensive against Hindu goddesses, an art gallery in Mumbai has withdrawn a picture depicting a nude Bharat Mata. The picture was put up for auction for victims of the Kashmir earthquake, and while auction organizer and Hindu–baiter Nafisa Ali said the controversy was because the Shiv Sena had no other issues, the gallery owner said that devoted Hindus had expressed anguish over the picture. Hussain later apologized and claimed that he had withdrawn the picture himself.

NCP has realized that it may be politically remunerative to honour Hindu sentiments on issues that can excite and mobilize people. Maharashtra deputy chief minister and home minister R.R. Patil ordered that a case be registered against the painter on 4 February 2006. BJP state unit president Nitin Gadkari has supported the demand for Hussain’s arrest.

There are a number of lessons to be learnt from these two episodes. The first is that if Hindus take the trouble to raise their voices against all deliberate insults to the community, they will be heard. What is more, the political class will act with greater alacrity against issues of cultural assault against Hindus. This was noticed in the case of the widespread and spontaneous public anger when the popular Swami Ramdev was targetted by the CPM; the party was forced to beat a retreat as politicians across party lines did not dare incur the wrath of the majority of their constituents by siding with the communists.

The second is the sheer hypocrisy of so-called secular Muslim intellectuals, who routinely gang up against the Hindu community on a number of issues, but do not dare or care to speak up against Hussain’s deliberate act of religious disrespect to the Hindus. Yet in a refreshing contrast, believing Muslims like actor Farooq Sheikh and AIMPLB member Kamal Faruqi condemned the nude Saraswati saying that Saraswati was never depicted nude and that the picture shocked even Muslims, so it certainly offended Hindu sentiments. Sheikh said artists have no license to trample over people’s sentiments in the name of creativity. They were reacting to worldwide Muslim anger over the blasphemous cartoons of Prophet Mohammad, published in several European newspapers, at a programme on NDTV. It is to be hoped that their attitude will have a salutary effect upon Hussain’s proclivity to repeatedly show Hindu goddesses in demeaning postures.

Indeed, orthodox and sensitive Muslims should come forward and negotiate the thin line between tolerance and dissent on the issue of portraiture by fellow Muslims. Islam, like Judaism, forbids portraiture, and Muslims do not make portraits of the Prophet or Allah at all. This is theoretically true of Christianity as well, and Christians do not draw portraits of God, the Father, or the Holy Spirit. However, in order to extend its appeal among the people, Christianity compromised early in its innings, and idols of Christ and his mother, Mary, are an established part of Christian reliquary. The Jews tolerated some amount of Christian depiction of their Prophets.

Some Indian writers have claimed that in previous centuries when Islam had powerful empires, Turk rulers patronized art forms regarding the Prophet that would be considered blasphemous today. I have no personal knowledge on this score, but it is true that the Mughal Emperors encouraged portraits of themselves and their royal consorts. In the contemporary world, Muslim despots like Saddam Hussain have revelled in erecting huge statues of themselves, while Muslims keep photographs of popular leaders like Yasser Arafat, Osama bin Laden, Ayatollah Khomeini and so on. To that extent, Islam has compromised on the issue of drawing the human likeness.

In this context, Muslims must decide what is tolerable and what is unacceptable, to themselves and to others. They have called upon Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to condemn the caricatures of Prophet Mohammad in some European countries, and to recall the envoy to Denmark. Now they must make up for a two-decade long silence on the offensive portraitures by co-religionist M.F. Hussain. Former MP Prafull Goradia has meticulously documented (Anti Hindus, Contemporary Targett, 2003) how Hussain always paints figures from monotheistic traditions with respect (eg Mother Teresa) and almost always singles out Hindus for demeaning portraitures of Durga, Saraswati, Sita. Secular Muslim intellectuals are far too bigoted to care for Hindu sensitivities, but sensible and pious Muslims are beginning to understand and empathize with the Hindu sense of outrage. They must make themselves heard. There is no such thing as the freedom to offend.

Organiser, 19 February 2006 

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