A nation that calls itself free should hang its head in shame if it cannot be home to people who harbor and express unpopular ideas and opinions, however controversial or egregious those opinions are. MF Husain, a famous artist born in India, died in exile in London as a Qatari citizen. Hounded and targeted by the new generation of Indian Hindus who could not fathom why we are a proud nation, MF Husain left his home country never to return again.
A basic requirement of a free nation is that it should allow expression of conflicting and dissenting ideas. And those who express those ideas should be protected from persecution, even when the targets are sacred symbols of majority or minority groups. A nation can be considered to be free only when it allows its strongest dissenters and critics to live within enjoying the freedom like any other. A country like United States shall remain a great free nation as long as Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore continue living there without fear of persecution. But even the most free of the nations succumb to the pressures of the majority and turn tyrannical.
History is fraught with victories of tyrannical intolerance where individuals were targeted for an expression that did not conform to the mores and standards of the majority. Galileo Galilei was house arrested, and was asked to shut up and renounce his belief in the Copernican Solar System, just because the majority Christians led by the Vatican found his ideas disagreeable. He escaped being burnt at stake by a whisker.
Many nations, insecure and intolerant, continue to expel artists, authors and scientists from their countries for expressing views which are inconsistent with the majoritarian view. These insecure nations have laws that try to protect the state or a group from the onslaught of a puny individual, whereas the modern nation is founded on the idea to protect the individual from the tyranny of a group or a state.
Some such laws continue to persist in India thereby questioning the legitimacy of India’s much touted democratic credentials. Is India really a free nation, one can ask. And the answer is ‘it is not’. Sedition laws which try to protect the nation from ‘feelings’ of hatred or anger of an individual expressed against the government, or the Section 295A which tries to protect a religion from its sentiments getting hurt, continue to be used by the powerful groups and Indian states to clamp down on individual freedoms in this country. Existence of such laws is an anathema to the idea of a free nation.
Witch-hunting was carried out by powerful religious groups in Europe with the behest of the monarch or the state against vulnerable and powerless individuals and put nearly 100,000 women to death over 300 years. What these women did was not anything wrong, but their mere existence embracing independent thinking was considered to be in conflict with the majoritarian view of the prevailing times. These women had to give up their lives so that the insecure majority groups can feel satisfied that they have now forcefully conformed everyone to their ideas and opinions. Such is the lust of majority which seeks a conformance from the deviants that they can torture them, impale them, disembowel them or burn them at stake.
In the 21st century India, we hound them, harass them, and use arcane laws to prosecute them. We even use the mainstream media to build up intolerance amongst the masses. The alleged crime of MF Husain is that he depicted Hindu goddesses in nude, which is in fact considered intrinsic part of glorious Indian tradition, where many gods and goddesses are depicted in nude across many temples and museums, sometimes performing sexual acts. In one of the museums in Trivandrum, a statue depicts Shiva with a nude Parvati on his lap while his arm goes around her to tweak her prominent nipple. In my hometown in Telangana, a male god stands proud at the entrance of the temple displaying his penis to everyone.
And yet, the idea of MF Husain painting nude Hindu goddesses was deemed intolerable by the majority conservative Hindus who had a parochial view of their own traditions and religion. These Hindus are selective in choosing their targets. Some Hindus living in London protested against showcasing MF Husain’s paintings but did not bother to stop an exhibition that came up just few days later of Chola dynasty statues showcasing nude gods and goddesses.
Nonconformance in practices or opinions or expressions should not be treated as unpatriotic; and yet we continue to indulge in measuring one’s loyalty towards a nation by how much he/she conforms to the standards of the majority. It is not necessary to agree with the opinions and expressions of Arundhati Roy or MF Husain, but it is necessary to allow them to articulate and express their opinions and ideas without fear of persecution. Instead, Indians have hounded these people for being nonconformists. Using some arcane and insane colonial laws that continue to languor in India though British have already left, these intolerant brigands armed with bigotry and blind belief, representing the powerful majority group called Hindus, took up arms to fight a powerless individual. Though acquitted by a High Court in India, these Hindu zealots were allowed to harass MF Husain, while the police gleefully allowed people to file hundreds of cases against him in India. Unable to cope with so much harassment, the artist had to leave his motherland.
21st Century India exiled one of its great artists. And that great artist died in a foreign land pining for his home country. With his death in exile, the intolerance has won, and the idea of a free India has lost out.