India has a chance to stem the slide down to the pit of illiberalism
M F Hussain painted Hindu goddesses in the nude in the early 1970s. The paintings did not become controversial until 1996. It took some people 26 years to take offence. That’s unusually long as far as the business of taking offence—spontaneous or organised—goes. Hussain, into his 80s, was already a public figure, and his works were famous long before they became offensive. That his paintings should provoke police complaints and criminal proceedings so long after the offence begs the question what happened in those 26 years to change the way people viewed his art.
In a breath: Salman Rushdie. When India, under the Rajiv Gandhi government, became the first country to ban his Satanic Verses, it breathed life into the demon of competitive intolerance that now haunts contemporary Indian society. No artist, no writer, no actor and no scholar, no matter how obscure, is free from the risk that someone or the other would take offence. Not only does the offending artist risk being put behind bars, he also risks being subject to physical violence by self-appointed defenders of public morality. To be sure, the statutes that allow the government to ban books and movies have existed since British times—and indeed, are a relic of the British raj which sought to impose both Victorian mores and colonial rule to suppress its Indian subjects. But before Satanic Verses, they were largely used to hide the government’s and politicians’ dirty linen. Now they are even being used to ban the Santa and Banta Joke Book.
The banning of Satanic Verses sent a clear signal to all that religion could be used, very conveniently, to suppress freedom of expression. In India’s political culture—since dominated by weak and infirm governments—the power to deny fast became the currency of power (ergo, the common minimum programme). What better way to demonstrate political clout than by gathering up a mob organised around chauvinisms of various kinds? Competitive intolerance has reached a head under the current UPA government which has one the one hand routinely succumbed to the intolerant, thereby increasingly their numbers. On the other, it has failed miserably to ensure the security of the victims of intolerance, such as Taslima Nasreen, M F Hussain and Chandramohan Srilamantula. (Victims they are, even if they are no saints. They need not be. And if the charge against them is that they court controversy to sell their wares, then isn’t it better we prevent our taxes from being used as marketing expenses?)
Yet, Taslima Nasreen presents India with an opportunity to exorcise the demons of two decades of intolerance and begin the process of laying them to rest. Giving her citizenship is a different matter, one of due process. But it is in India’s interests to remain (yes, remain) a bastion of tolerance in the region. Ensuring her physical protection, for the duration of her stay in India, is thus of utmost and immediate importance. For if the Indian government demonstrates that it is willing to unequivocally and unapologetically protect her, it is possible to stem the secular (pardon the pun) slide down into the pit of illiberalism. If the UPA government creates a precedent by sparing no expense in protecting her, it might be possible to stop the race to the bottom. M F Hussain should then have no cause stay in self-imposed exile, should he?
Related Links: Read Atanu Dey’s view.