Saturday, February 27, 2010

Hair-Trigger Hysteria

One glaring difference between India and a mature democracy is that in India, any group with a grudge and the goons to back it can resort to violence or the threat of violence to shut down free speech. Extremist Hindu groups attack shops selling Valentine’s Day cards, fundamentalist Muslim clerics urge their followers not to sing the national anthem, and Christians attempt to shut down screenings of the allegedly blasphemous The Da Vinci Code. In this kindergarten of religious communities, freedom of expression has been one of the first casualties.

Maqbool Fida Husain is a Maharastrian artist with middling talent who managed to gatecrash into the limelight on the back of his controversial paintings. Two days ago, it was made public that the Government of the Arab state of Qatar has offered him citizenship (which he may not have applied for) and which has been accepted. The Husain case is yet another example of the hypocrisy that the Government of India continues to practice - on the one hand, freedom of expression is proclaimed, but on the other, the state has done an abysmal job of defending it.

Husain is no stranger to controversies. His depiction of Hindu deities in the nude or performing sexual acts enraged Hindu nationalists in 1996 (though the paintings themselves were from the 1970s), while he had to redact his film, Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities (2004), owing to strong Muslim opposition to the song Noor-un-Ala-Noor (they claimed it was blasphemous as it contained lines from the Qur'an). Husain also found himself in hot water when he painted India as a nude woman (Mother India, 2006), the names of the states written on various parts of her body. Hindu nationalists have been behind many vicious campaigns against Husain, while some have petitioned that he be awarded the Bharat Ratna because "life and work are beginning to serve as an allegory for the changing modalities of the secular in modern India — and the challenges that the narrative of the nation holds for many."

Had this been the end of the matter, it could all have been chalked up to "crazy nationalists" and India's unique brand of two-faced democracy. Although he deeply regrets the way Husain was treated and forced into an exile because of mob culture, another Indian artist, Satish Gujral, has poignantly asked on the record whether [Husain] will be bold enough to treat icons of Islam in the same manner. Meenaxi was apologised for and withdrawn from the theatres the day after it was released, while Husain's paintings have gone on to sell for millions of dollars and breaking records at Christie's South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art sale.

In September 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a series of twelve cartoons depicting the Islamic Prophet Muhammad (salla Allaahu 'alayhi wa salaam) as a terrorist. Haji Mohammed Yaqoob Qureshi, a minister in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, publicly offered a US $11 million bounty for beheading the Danish cartoonists who had drawn the Prophet Mohammed. When Dinamalar, a leading daily in Tamil Nadu, reprinted the cartoons so that Tamilians can see what the brouhaha was all about, their office was stoned and four public buses were burned. The Government of India recalled their Ambassador to Copenhagen in protest. The following year, in the hi-tech city of Hyderabad, three legislators of a local Islamic party, the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), roughed up Taslima Nasreen, a Bangladeshi author critical of her country’s treatment of its Hindu minority and Islam’s treatment of women. Subsequently, the government of West Bengal state in eastern India had to call in the army to quell rioters in Calcutta, whose demands included Nasreen’s expulsion from the country. Again, the pusillanimous government made a feeble speech about hurting the sentiments of the public and requested the author to leave.

Just a few weeks ago, the Shiv Sena threatened to disrupt screenings of My Name is Khan because of Shah Rukh Khan's naive statements on Pakistan. In October 2009, faced with a similar threat from another political outfit, the same producer had to publicly apologise for a film in which characters used the anglicised name Bombay rather than the official Mumbai. The state government could not curb the activities of the rogue political party in either case. In another infamous incident in 2003, a mob ransacked a reputable research institute in the western city of Pune for helping an American scholar who wrote critically about Shivaji, a revered 17th century ruler. Neither the quest for greater historical accuracy nor freedom of expression curtailed their actions. In 1989, India became the first country in the world to ban Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses – Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against the author followed press reports of protests in India. It might be noteworthy to remember that Muslims are only about 13% of the country's total population. In an overwhelmingly Hindu country, it is intriguing why the government always bends over backwards to appease the Muslim vote.

Clearly, hair-trigger hysteria is not the monopoly of any one group in India. Like little brats, they threaten unpleasant consequences and demand attention and capitulation. However, it is of note that the government has acted against those "hurting the sentiments" of Christian and Muslim people but not against those acting against Hindu beliefs (on the issue of censorship itself, I have written previously - A Rudderless Party, August 25, 2009). Rushdie's book was banned, Nasreen asked to leave the country, and although a citizen filed a criminal case against UP Minister MY Qureshi's blatant lack of civilised behaviour, nothing came of the case. Nafisa Ali has been quite vocal about the rights of Husain, but she has nowhere been heard commenting on the Danish cartoons or Rushdie's unfair treatment. Hindu sensitivities are left to brigands to defend and clueless and unsophisticated retards that they are, outfits like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Bajrang Dal, and the Shiv Sena fall into the trap and obfuscate the issue with their very presence. So freedom of expression is not only an iffy proposition for successive Congress governments and the Indian intelligentsia, it is also an idea that is applied selectively.

Obviously, it would be better if Indian politicians were literate and understood the laws they are meant to uphold, but in the meantime, can we please just expect the violations of our civic rights to be consistent?