Stand up to the Musclemen

The thugs are taking over in the name of religion. For decades I have told foreign friends that MF Husain epitomises India’s essential secularism. Here is a Muslim painter who has delved deep into Hindu mythology and folklore analysed these as some of the main themes running through his work.This has made Husain not just India’s top painter but a secular success that is why he is under attack today.

The Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal accuse him of hurting Hindu sentiment by portraying Indian goddesses in the nude.So, they say, they have a right to ransack his house and attack his paintings. Really?

The Bajrang Dal and Shiv Sena say Hindus are hurt by Husain’s paintings. But since when do they represent Hindu opinion? In the last election, the BJP got barely 25 per cent of the vote in a country that is 82 per cent Hindu. The top leader of the Bajrang Dal, Vinay Katiyar lost in Faizabad seat which contains Ayodhya) even though his party swept the state overall.

Clearly Hindus have given no mandate to the Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal to speak on their behalf. Muscle does not make a mandate.

I, and many other secular Hindus, find Husain perfectly acceptable but the Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal offensive. The sentiments of secular Hindus have been hurt by the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque, by the Bombay riots that followed, and now by the attack on Husain. Is this good enough reason for secular Hindus to beat up Bal Thackeray and Vinay Katiyar, or stop publication of their speeches?

I doubt if the BJP or Shiv Sena will agree. They seem to think that communal Hindus using violence represent the community but no secular Hindus advocating tolerance. By this yardstick, Mahatma Gandhi had no right to speak for Hindus but Nathuram Godse did.

Oh stop all this nitpicking, say some critics, even ordinary Hindus who disapprove of the Shiv Sena are hurt by Husain’s depiction of Hindu goddesses in the nude. I have asked some such critics whether they have seen the impugned painting. None of them has. I doubt if even 0.001 per cent of Hindus have seen the painting. Given Husain’s abstract style, his paintings will be incomprehensible to most villagers. So, for the vast majority of Hindus, Husain is unknown, unseen and a non-issue.

Just take a look at the people who have expressed shock at the Husain incident.The vast majority are Hindus. Artist Jatin Das, who was beaten up for defending Husain, is a Hindu.Yet those who do the beating up claim to be the only true representatives of the community. They want to hang Husain, evidence unseen.

Such fundamentalism afflicts Muslims no less than Hindus.Some years ago there was a story in a newspaper about somebody called “mad Mohammed”. Mullahs who had not even read the article claimed the reference was to the prophet (simply untrue), and sparked a riot.

Husain’s style of painting blurs rather than highlights a woman’s curves. He is not a natural painter, he uses abstract strokes to distort and simplify. He paints people green, blue and in other non-natural colours. He uses streaks and daubs of colour with broken line-drawings to represent figures, so it can be difficult to make out whom or what he is painting. There is no rounded flesh, none of the voluptuous contours common in calender pictures of goddesses. His very style blurs rather than exposes. To call such abstractions “nude paintings” is misleading, and often plain dishonest.

In TV programmes, censors can digitally blur nude scenes. Husain is no censor, but his technique has something in common with digital blurring. The aim is the very opposite of titillation.

India is the country of Konarak and Khajuraho. These are Hindu temples, not temples designed by M F Husain or Harold Robbins. They are part and parcel of Hindu culture. They differ greatly in tradition from the middle class urban morality which characterises the Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal today. But this simply shows how that these organisations can claim to speak for all Hindus.

“Maybe so” say critics, “but it is against the Hindus’ tradition to show goddesses naked or semi-nude.” Not so. Shops are full of thousands of statues of Parvati with her breasts exposed, and no offence is caused. Tantric paintings show gods and goddesses not merely naked but actually copulating.

Why then is there such a fuss over Husain? Because he is a Muslim. Had he been a Hindu, there would have been no outcry.

India is enormously diverse because Hinduism has no tradition of any central authority laying down rules for all. So Hinduism has evolved into a thousand different sects, ranging from monastic self-denial to worship of Lakshmi, from chastity to Tantric sexual orgies, from non-violence to human sacrifice.

These apparently enormous contradictions have proved sustainable only because of the essential tolerance of Hinduism. Otherwise Hindus would be slaughtering one another over religious, moral and sexual differences in tradition. Seen in this light, the musclemen of the Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal are lousy Hindus trying to pummel uniform values into a community that historically has prided itself on diversity.

Deliberate causing of offence to stoke communal disharmony is always deplorable. But differences in values, even deep differences, must not be resolved by violence. The Manu Smriti is highly offensive to Dalits, so should we burn all copies of the Manu Smriti? Should tribals attack shops selling the Mahabharata because of the story of Eklavya? Dalits must resent the story in the Ramayana of an untouchable being executed for reciting the scriptures. So should they bum the Ramayana?

Muslims are taught to view Hindus as kaffirs, Christians view Hindus and Muslims as heathen. Hindus regards others as mlechhas, untouchables. Should all three faiths declare themselves insulted and attack one another?

No, in every case the only way out is tolerance of the other’s viewpoint. By all means take action against deliberate abuse intended to provoke communal conflict. But do not allow fundamentalists of any community to declare outrage on behalf of their community and take to violence. Whether this relates to a painter, an author or film-maker, let not the goons take on the mantle of defenders of the faith.

Above all, let us not shirk the task of standing up to fundamentalists on the ground that it may lead to some violence. If we give the slightest encouragement to people to believe that any group can legitimately use muscle on the ground that it is offended by another group’s values, it will be the beginning of the end for a country as diverse as India. The cost of appeasing fundamentalists will ultimately prove infinitely higher than the cost of standing up to them.

What do you think?