Portraits of the artist as a Qatari citizen
So, it looks like it is goodbye to India for MF Husain. His son Owais has confirmed that Husain will surrender his Indian passport and accept citizenship of Qatar. The other stories have yet to be confirmed: that Husain has already begun travelling on a Qatari passport; that the Qatar royal family will spend millions on a museum for him, etc.
All of us who like and admire Husain, both as an artist and as a human being, will be saddened by the turn that events have taken. There is no doubt that self-proclaimed defenders of Hinduism have behaved like the Taliban in persecuting this great artist. In Ahmedabad, a gallery dedicated to his work was vandalised. In other cities, those who dare organise exhibitions of Husain’s art have been subjected to threats of violence.
And then, there are the legal cases. According to some estimates, 900 cases were filed against Husain all over the country so that he would have to spend his time going from court to court, fighting off the nuisance litigators.
What is more worrying is that even after the Congress took office six years ago, the harassment continued. You would have expected a political party that says that it is committed to secularism and freedom of expression to have declared that it would bring Husain back from his self-imposed exile in Dubai and make sure that he gets the protection he deserves in his homeland. Instead, till a few months ago, the government turned a blind eye to the persecution of our greatest living artist.
But Husain’s decision to become a citizen of Qatar also saddens me for many other reasons. Most of us in the media have looked at the Husain case through the prism of freedom of expression. As far as we are concerned, the issue is one of artistic liberty.
But there are also other ways of looking at the case. Forget, for a minute about the Hindu Taliban or the vandals who drove Husain out of India. Try looking at the Husain saga through the prism of secular double standards.
Our position as liberals is that an artist has the freedom to paint what he likes. If some Hindus are offended by Husain’s nude Saraswatis, then they can simply look away. They have no right to restrict his creativity or to deny the rest of us the opportunity to view Husain’s work.
But sceptics (all of whom are not necessarily Muslim-haters or communalists) frequently ask the obvious follow-up question: how would we have responded if Husain had painted Muslim religious figures in the nude?
The answer is an uncomfortable one. Even if he had painted the Prophet, fully clothed and portrayed with respect, we would not have risen to Husain’s defence with the same vigour. We would have said “Islam prohibits visual representations of the Prophet so Husain should not have offended Muslims”.
That answer weakens our claims about artistic freedom. Why should Husain’s creative abilities be hampered by some Quranic injunction? Why should non-believers be bound by the dictates of believers? Why do we campaign so hard for Husain and yet condemn the Danish cartoonist who offended Islamists?