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