I was sad to learn that MF Husain passed away, not so much because he died (the man was 95 after all) but because he died still in exile from India. It was a sad day for our country when one of its greatest artists and a free thinker felt so unsafe in his own home that he had to flee. Justice Kaul concluded his judgement quashing the cases against MF Husain thus: “I have penned down this judgment with this ‘favourent’ hope that it is a prologue to a broader thinking and greater tolerance for the creative field. A painter at 90 deserves to be in his home — painting his canvass.”


It is sadly not surprising that many even in our so-called educated and enlightened Facebook circles would not agree. Not surprising because we are the new macho India, ready to take “offense”, spoiling for a fight, quick to take on intolerance with intolerance.

Since it has now become the done thing to air vitriol against the Pakistan cricket team and crow over their defeat wishing blood and gore upon them and their families, since it has become polite dinner party conversation to say such things as “all those Muslim buggers should be shot”, why should one be surprised when you find people siding with the violent mob? Oh, they may not – though some of them will – come right out and say it was right to attack the galleries showing his work, destroy his property, harass an old man and threaten his family. They will say: “But he should not have hurt our feelings, no?”

I’m sorry your feelings were hurt. Even MF Husain was sorry and said so. That was not his intention. But he has the right to express himself, and you have the right to – and can very easily – ignore his expressions. He is not after all doing some Clockwork Orange scenario where you are bound down and forced to see his work and be indoctrinated by it. That your feelings were hurt, unfortunately for you, does not give you the right to be violent and should not give you the moral excuse to condone violence.

When we condone the suppression of freedom or thought and expression, we are shackling not just the “offending” artist but ourselves. Today it his him who has given offense, tomorrow it will be you, yes, you with your jeans and your t-shirt and your habit of stopping by at the pub on Friday and socializing with boys of (gasp!) different religions. Oh wait, that already happened. And then too we had those not-so-subtly siding with the violence, the aunty brigade who said “yeah, but, good girls shouldn’t be drinking no?”

How many times has history taught us this lesson that we, caught up in our hurt sentiments and frail feelings, ignore.

First they came for the Jews

and I did not speak out

because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Communists

and I did not speak out

because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists

and I did not speak out

because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me

and there was no one left

to speak out for me.

Why do we keep forgetting that when we hand over the key to our – yes ‘our’ ‘your’ ‘mine’ not ‘his’ – freedom to the mob, we are designing our own enslavement? Today it is MF Husain and you can smile smugly that he got his just desserts. Tomorrow it will be you.

We must also be careful not to turn into the very face of what we hate. You purport to hate Muslims because you say they are violent, they are terrorists, they are cruel to their women. Then you say let’s be violent, strike terror and be cruel to their women (and ironically our women too). How is any purpose served except a new cycle of violence and chaos?

I admit I am susceptible to this trap too. So disgusted am I by the vitriolic right wing, the religious fundamentalists and the women-haters that I sometimes wonder if the only solution for the liberal would be to toughen up, get armed and take on these people head on, fighting fire and with fire. But then what would be the difference between them and me? I have become what I am fighting against. I have to keep reminding myself of this when the rage takes over.

We have a powerful model for an alternative in Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence. We were warned of how violence begets only violence and of the much harder but more morally and philosophically sound path.

But because I am angry, I will go one step further and ask the ever increasing tribe of offendees. What exactly were you so offended about? Normally I hear two things:

1. That he painted Hindu goddesses nude. I’m not sure why that is offensive. In his judgment, Justice Kaul points to the long tradition of the nude in art and of the equally long and glorious tradition of nude and even sexualised representations of Indian gods and goddesses. This is the amazing thing about the Hindu tradition – that it does not obscure and pussyfoot around sex, it celebrates it. Now, of course, in every spiritual tradition there will be those who tend towards the belief that salvation/nirvana is to be attained by abstaining from sex and those people who are celibate are the truly pure. In fact, this is possibly the Muslim tradition and most definitely the Christian one – we are asked to believe that if a woman is really pure she can give birth to a child without having had sex. So that’s the way you want to play it? Back to the days where we pretend that women have no sexuality then? Okayyy. Forgive me if I find this new puritanism and the enthusiasm with which even young women are condoning it barf-worthy. Again, be careful when you hand the keys of your freedom to the mob that functions as the moral police.

Even as I fail to see what is so shameful and vulgar about the nude body or human sexuality, I also fail to see why religion is placed on this untouchable pedestal. It is almost as if religion is afraid. Rest assured your religion will remain and you can even believe in pure virginal women, even if the odd painter paints a nude. The singer Madonna has satirised the figure of the Virgin, and far from being offended as you’d think we would be and despite the best efforts of the more hard-core groups, her music has become a staple in Christian homes. We grew up dancing to Like a Virgin and Life a Prayer, in the video of which she seduces a priest. Partly, we didn’t pay much attention to the lyrics but even when I understood what she was about, I was just amused. In Western art, artists like Michelangelo have tried to push whatever boundaries they can in sexualising the Madonna. Dan Brown made some big insinuations in his Da Vinci Code and by and large people just took it in their stride. The general attitude was we will continue to believe Jesus was celibate and Mary Madgalen was a peripheral whore. Fine then. But Madonna is free to sing her songs and dress up as a whore while calling herself the name given to the Virgin Mary and Dan Brown is free to write his books.

2. The other thing I hear a lot is “Why doesn’t he paint Muslim Gods nude’?” Why indeed? Not that I think people must be forced to stick to their own religion or even their own culture in the subject matter of their painting. But Husain answers this question – even though it was not asked – in his interview with Tehelka: “Some conservative Muslims told me, why don’t you paint on Islamic themes? I said, does Islam have the same tolerance? If you get even the calligraphy wrong, they can tear down a screen.” He believed Hinduism to be more open, tolerant and flexible. His paintings were a tribute to that. For his daughter’s wedding invitation he painted Shiva with his hand on Parvati’s thigh. He believed Hindus were ready for a conversation that Muslims were not. Why is that not seen as a compliment? Why has tolerance become a byword for weakness?

3. The final thing I hear is “so Qatar is more free than India? Ha!” That is to miss the point. It is to not see the tragedy of a man at 95 having to take refuge in a totalitarian state because a democracy cannot ensure his safety.

Please read Tehelka’s interview with MF Husain which I think is the definitive interview with the man.

And read this article which summarises Justice Kaul’s enlightened judgement – and then read the judgement itself. It is an amazing document, citing the many precedents in case history in India and abroad dealing with the subject of freedom of expression, obscenity and offending people. You’ll be surprised to see the long tradition of the courts in India striking down the right of people to suppress the expression of others on the basis of being offended, the last being the Bandit Queen case.