M.F. Husain, Swami Ramdev and the world’s largest democracy

June 9, 2011

M.F. Husain, India’s most famous modern artist, died at the age of 95 this morning, not in Maharashtra, his home state, nor New Delhi, where many of his ground-breaking works were exhibited, but in London, where he lived in exile with Qatari citizenship. The ‘Picasso of India’ has for five years felt unable to live and work in his country of birth.

Husain fled India in 2006, leaving behind court cases and death threats against him, and continued vandalism of his works from right-wing Hindu groups that accused him of insulting their religion by painting deities in the nude.

Husain, a Muslim, felt unsafe and unable to practice his particular art form in the world’s largest democracy. And he’s not the only one. Salman Rushdie, who was born in Mumbai but lives in the UK, saw New Delhi ban his Satanic Verses for its perceived depiction of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

And Husain’s death presents a timely reminder to India of the multi-faceted obligations of an open, secular democracy, as anti-graft movements swell against the government.

On Thursday morning, India’s news channels cut to the breaking news of Husain’s death from pictures of Swami Ramdev, the yoga guru turned social activist being treated by doctors monitoring his health during a hunger fast that entered its sixth day on Thursday.

The country’s Home Minister P. Chidambaram, in an effort to undermine Ramdev’s stand against corruption, sought on Wednesday to paint the guru as an agent of the Hindu-nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) organisation, and raise his worries of an upsurge in far-right extremism against the government – currently headed by his secular Congress party – to discredit the wider anti-graft movement.

Chidambaram’s allegations may prove to be correct, and as political columnist Sagarika Ghose wrote this week, Ramdev’s fast represents something of a “rightwing nationalist revolution”. Husain, who felt the full force of the Hindu right, would likely share the home minister’s worries.

But democracy works both ways, and the violent crackdown of Ramdev’s fast in New Delhi last weekend, which saw armed police injure dozens of peaceful protesters, has drawn fierce condemnation from across the political spectrum.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who described Husain’s death as a “national loss” on Thursday, has described the Ramdev crackdown as “unfortunate but unavoidable”.

As criticism of the government mounts, and anti-corruption movements gain traction, Husain’s death in exile raises a mirror up to India’s much-vaunted democracy, and raises timely questions of how it upholds freedom of expression, across art, politics and beyond.

11 comments

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Democracy provides for rights of the citizens; democracy provides for freedom of expression. However, Democracy should not be mistaken for uninhibited and infinite exercise of rights and freedom. Responsibility and sensibility is wanted in each and every action of a citizen of a democratic society. Whether, its blasphemy (as in case of MF Hussain) or a case of mistaken identity and misplaced virtues (as in case of Ramdev), are nemesis for any Society or Culture, whether its’ political structure is democratic or authoritarian.
Can any Tom-dick or Harry, without any credentials or value system, portray themselves as leader for over 1.3 billions, just because people has seen him on TV preaching Yoga for so long, just because lots of ‘ignorant’ people have bought medicines from his trust- the medicines which may be grown freely in the backyard but have been bought at thousands of rupees, as the neighbors say that they are effective. Can somebody who has fooled and duped handful of people in the past, be allowed to do the same thing over entire society.
Can anybody’s wild imagination and fantasies be showcased and put in National Museum, even if they hurt the sentiments of billions of others and is simply blasphemy.
Laws are to tackle criminals, for everybody else there are society norms and value system. If you can not adopt them, you can also not refute them and go unnoticed.

Posted by AVj | Report as abusive

Is Congress really secular? People forgot what Congress did with Sikhs in operation Blue star? They are actually the champions of playing religion card at the apt moment!!
If this moment is supported by RSS… what’s wrong in it? The agenda and demands are for everybody’s good!!
isn’t it?

Posted by goutams7 | Report as abusive

I do not understand why the Government is sidetracking on the main issue of corruption and focusing on Swamy Ramdev. Is the Government trying to shield corrupt people? This problem would not have arose if the Government had taken initiative to curb corruption and bring back black money.

Posted by venkoba | Report as abusive

It is tragic that the whole debate on corruption has been hijacked by the Anna Hazare(s) and Baba Ramdev(s). There is no doubt that there is rampant corruption and it needs to be controlled. But the current debate and its media coverage misses the point entirely. I would only like each individual to just sit back and answer the following three questions:
a) is the corruption rampant because of lack of laws, rules and regulations – If so, then the answer has to be more laws, rules and regulations, or
b) is the corruption rampant because there are no agencies to enforce current laws, rules and regulations – If so then creating another agency like Lokpal is the right answer.
c) is the corruption rampant because we have too much Government involvement in daily life of the people – if so the answer has to be lesser government and reform of the outdated laws and regulations.

My argument would be that the answer lies in the third option. We already have too many laws, rules, regulations and enforcement agencies to stop corruption and it is not working. Making another law or another enforcement agency is not going to solve the problem. What we need is better laws, lesser government and greater transparency in government. Look at the example of Lokayuktha at State level – has it stopped corruption in the states? Why would something that has not worked at the state level work at the national level. Why would a Santosh Hegde who has not been able to stop corruption in Karnataka be able to stop it at the National level? How would the sound bites of a Advani or Swaraj who completely overlook corruption in their own backyard in Karnataka work to reform the government at the Center.

Instead of the current debate, should India not focus on reforming and liberalizing legislation and expediting the pace of economic reforms. Why are bills like GST, Direct Tax Code etc. not being pushed through. Is there any reason other than the politicians at state level will have much lower opportunities to indulge in corruption and generate black money if bills like GST become a reality? Are not the property markets one of the largest sources of black money generation? Why can’t we just abolish stamp duties across the country so that no one has an incentive to under-declare property values or pay a portion of the purchase price in black. The Government can easily cover the revenue loss by increasing the income tax by a notch. Would eliminating stamp duties not take away the largest incentive for under-declaring of property values?

Lastly, media can also and should act more responsibly. Can we have media to just host one industrialist each day and publicly ask them for their views on implementation of laws like GST/DTC etc. to build pressure on politicians. Similarly, can media also host one politician from both Congress and BJP and ask them for their views on actual corruption. How about hosting Advani and asking him about Karnataka and hosting Chidambaram and ask him about 2G. Make them defend the indefensible.

Posted by WiktorR | Report as abusive

Ignoring the on the ground reality of a Muslim painting Hindu Goddesses in the Nude, in a country like India, is just strange. His acts are similar to yelling ‘fire’ in a theater. The real problem lies in the psychology that pretends cultural and spiritual things do not matter. They do. Laws are made to protect people from being coerced voting for someone or saying a public prayer. In the same way people’s sense of the sacred must be respected and protected. Also painting India’s only truly indigenous political leaders as ‘right wing’ straight-jackets a western outlook upon a very ancient socio-political model. The so-called right wing Hindu Nationalists are more accurately the ‘traditionlists’ as seen in the Native American struggle. A battle was waged between those that attempted to adopt and amalgamate into the western paradigm. The traditionlists favored the ancient ways and methodologies of the ancestors, specifically in terms of the socio-political and religious aspects of life. They also adopted the best of those technologies that were of benefit, like horses and guns, but they always did their way. Baba Ramdev is a modern day traditionalist similar to Tecumseh.

Posted by Alexpm | Report as abusive

WHAT CONGRESS HAS DONE PAST 60 ODD YEARS IN INDIA IS PURE DIVISION OF INDIA AND ENOUGH IS ENOUGH,CONGRESS PARTY IS ACTUALLY A PARTY OF MODERN DAY EDUCATED GOONS AND DACOITS ,THERE MUSLIM POLITICS ALONGWITH POLICIES ON KASHMIR,BANGLADESH,ARUNANCHAL,LADAKH HAS PUT INDIA IN A POT HOLE…MUSLIMS MUST UNDERSTAND THAT CONGRESS TREATS THEM AS OUTCASTS AND THEY ACTUALLY WANT THEM TO BE POOR EVEN POORER JUST TO KEEP THERE VOTE GOING…IF MUSLIMS CAN LIVE UNDER PROPER COUNTRY LAWS IN AMERICA ,EUROPE AND EVEN SAUDI ARAB WHY CANT THEY LIVE LIKE THAT IN INDIA WHY DO THEY NEED RESERVATIONS GRANTS SPECIAL BANKS WHY?? WHY WHY”?? GOVERNMENT’S JOB IS TO LOOK TO ITS CITIZENS WITH ONE EYE BASED ON ECONOMICS AND NOT RELIGION.INFACT MUSLIMS R IN BETTER SHAPE IN TODAYS BIHAR,GUJARAT STATES RULED BY BJP….THERE IS NO DENYING WHT HAPPENED IN GUJARAT WAS BAD BUT WHY DID IT HAPPENED …IT DID NOT HAPPEN IN ONE DAY WHEN PPL SUDDENLY GOT UP AND STARTED THE RIOTS IT HAPPENED AFTER A PROVOCATION INDIA HAS SUCH A PAST…SO BEST WAY IS TO MOVE FORWARD AND MOVE BY FORGETTING AND FORGIVING…CONGRESS HAS A VERY VERY DANGEROUS AGENDA OF KEEPING THE OCUNTRY DIVIDED WTH THERE PETTY RELIGIOUS POLITICS UNDER A HEADLESS LEADERSHIP AND THE WEAKEST PM EVER…INDIA DESPERATELY NEEDS A LEADER LIKE NARENDRA MODI IN 2014 TO TAKE CHARGE OF THE FASTEST GROWING ECONOMY IN THE WORLD IN 2014

Posted by prashant07us | Report as abusive

BABA RAMDEV IS AN IKON….HE HAS GIVEN INDIA A BRAND YOG AND YOGA THAT WAS THEER FOR CENTURIES BUT NEER TAPPED…THE UNEDUCATED SANYASI HAS DONE IT WHAT NOT EVEN RELIANCE OR TATAS OR BIRLAS COULD GIE TO INDIA THAT IS A TRULY GLOBAL BRAND…INDIA IS KNOWN BY YOG TODAY …TODAY EVERY GRADUATE …IIM OR IITIAN HAS ONE AGENDA TO PASS OUT FIND A JOB,GOOD HOUSE WIFE,BRANDED CARS AND LUXURY HOW MUCH PERCENTAGE OF US CONTRIBUTE TO OUR COUNTRY’S BRANDING AND ECONOMY..? NONE…OF US…HE IS ACTUALLY TRUE IKON IN CONTEXT OF THE AUSTERITY AMERICANS HAVE HIJACKED…LIKE BUFFET AND BILL GATES…THEY COME TO INDIA AND MEDIA GOES GAGA OVER IT …BUT INDIAN MEDIA IS BUNCH OF FOOLS WHO CANT LOOK INTO THERE OWN COUNTRY AND FND A BABA RAMDEV WHO HAS ACTUALLY DONE MUCH MUCH GREATER CAUSE TO HIS COUNTRY THEN ANY BUFFET OR GATES TO AMERICA…WHT HARM HAS HE DONE …BY TEACHING A NON MEDICAL AND ANCIENT INDIAN LEGACY TO THE WORLD,…WHT HARM HAS HE DONE BY OPENING ASHRAMS AND DHARAMSHALAS ALL OVER HOLI PLACES WHERE PPL WHO CANT AFFORD TO STAY IN THE TAJ CAN STAY IN HYGEINE AND EAT HYGENIC FOOD…AND WHT HARM IN FMCG PROUCTS AND SCHOOLS WHOSE FOODS IS TOTALLY FREE OF CHEMICALS AND SCHOOLS NOT FOR THE WEALTHY …AND ALL EARNINGS OUT OF THESE INVESTED AGAIN IN THESE ACTIVITIES…AND WHT HARM IN RAISING VOICE AGAINST A COBRA OF CORRUPTION …ACTUALLY THIS IS JUST A BEGINNING INDIA IS GETTING READY FOR AN EGYPT IF THE GOERNMENT KEEPS ON PUTTIN THE LID ON THE STEAMED HOPES OF PEOPLE OF THIS COUNTRY …IT COULD GET WORSE

Posted by prashant07us | Report as abusive

1. That Hussain was only doing business, and not Art, when he painted actresses nude, and went on to strip Hindu goddesses; is being ignored by the author.

2. Nevertheless, it showed his confidence in the great Hindu tradition of tolerance. He dared not draw Prophet Mohammed, or a nude pic of any Biblical character like the Mary-s. That he was financially goaded into the Hindu pics by the ISI’s culture arm is also conveniently forgotten.

3. He used the issue of stray opposition of a few from among the 850 million Indian Hindus, to cry persecution and go away to Qatar, where he had been offered a two-year mega-project. He did not feel any art-expressionistic urge to paint Prophet Mohammed in Qatar either.

4. It is known that there is an international anti-India media enterprise financed by some Moslem and fanatic Christian outfits. Hussain and the likes are boosted by them. They have paid media-men and pseudo Human Rights activists working in India also.

5. If I remember right, a Hindu woman working in a Christian conversion centre in Orissa had succumbed to burns during the Khandmal riots, a few years ago. Reuters flashed it all over Australia that she was a Catholic nun that had been first raped and then burnt alive! Radio Vatican carried the Reuters news.

6. Nobody expects a foreign news agency to find anything good at all about the oldest civilisation on Earth and the largest democracy on Earth. Ridiculing Ayurveda and Yoga are therefore, only welcome. Yet, ‘unto thyself be true’ might at times be good?

Posted by R.Sajan | Report as abusive

For the last 27 years, I assumed that Congress is secular but the reality they are NOT. This party is a bunch of Goons and selfish people. Some interesting facts:
# The facts that DMK had contacts with LTTE(Sri Lanka) and LTTe had direct involvement in assassination of Late Rajiv Gandhi. And now to get political benefits they are going to be ally.
# 1984 Sikh genocide was planned.(please refer 1984 Sikh genocide wikipedia- the most trusted website)
#The Late Indira Gandhi who imposed Emergency 1982 for the sake of her own position
#None of the family member of Gandhi family has yet declare their Assets
#This is the most surprising thing that nobody in India knows that what is the source of income of Gandhi Family?
#Postmortem report of Late Lal Bahadur Shastri has been concealed since his death at Tashkanth
# The one and the last question- what is the problem to publicise the name of the bank account holders at Switzerland?
# More questions and the answer is a question!!
#

Posted by goldaj | Report as abusive

1.INDIAN people lack fire inside their sole to stand against any odd in society instead we are cold blooded and always wish SOMEONE will come and make thing right.
2. most of us are oppurnistic and want to cash oppourtunites. when we get power we become corrupt and maintain status on blood and tears of other.
3.there are people who cannot tolerate to see smthing happening gud for all people they always divide people and say yes they need it more, and ultemately it goes on their own pocket.

Posted by jaikumar | Report as abusive

4. corruption is gift of nehru_gandhi party. in more than 60 yr congress has done nothing for it. certainly most of congress neta wud have swiss account thats why they are restless on this issue.
5. freedom of expression does not mean expressing anything it must be for greater wellbeing of people. why always sm kind of vulgarity is advocated by saying these lines.

Posted by jaikumar | Report as abusive