India makes M.F. Husain a foreigner

And so it happens – Maqbool Fida Husain has had enough. I wrote a piece in Mint, outlining my thoughts about what it means to freedoms in India, which you can read here.


Here, There, Everywhere | Salil Tripathi

How an artist was shorn

Husain sees through an idol, giving it a form that may outrage some, but is not inconsistent with India’s aesthetic

And this is how it ends. This is how India loses one of its own.

Maqbool Fida Husain, born in Pandharpur, Maharashtra, before there was an independent India, is no longer ours. After a decade in which he faced arrest warrants and was threatened, his canvases defaced, his family harassed, his property attached, his personality ridiculed, art galleries showing his art attacked, and his art deliberately and disingenuously mischaracterized, he has decided that it is enough.

Husain is 94. He can no longer identify with what has become of his India.

Husain’s art has captured India’s ethos. As the nation’s chronicler, he has been a laureate, portraying the stark agony of a cyclone; a court jester, like when he painted Indira Gandhi as Durga astride a tiger; a cheerleader, celebrating the centuries of Sunil Gavaskar; an inventive exhibitionist, painting as Bhimsen Joshi sang, painting with Shah Rukh Khan, painting on the body of a woman. He revels in India’s gaudiness, its zeitgeist. He understands the philosophy of nirakara (formlessness), seeing through an idol, glimpsing what he thinks of as divine, and giving it a form that may outrage some, but which is hardly inconsistent with the Indian aesthetic.

He has now embraced Qatar—the Gulf sheikhdom floating in oil. Some self-righteous folks remind us that Qatar is not a democracy, nor does it guarantee freedom of expression. But Qatar’s record on free speech is not relevant; India’s is. And it is for Indians to reflect on why India’s most widely known painter feels safer in Doha than in Mumbai.

Did India’s robust democracy guarantee Husain’s freedom of expression? Did India protect a vulnerable, fragile, nonagenarian artist, who wanted to live in peace and paint? Did the Indian system protect him when Hindu nationalists attacked an art gallery in Ahmedabad, filed hundreds of cases against him, forced a foreign bank to withdraw credit cards displaying his art and defaced his paintings, and when a cartoonist-turned-politician threatened him?

It is useful to remember that it took decades for his paintings to offend Hindu nationalists—after the government acquiesced with leaders claiming to represent all Muslims, and acceded to their outrageous demands over the Shah Bano case by passing a law that effectively made Muslim women second-class citizens, denying them access to maintenance under Indian laws, and later by banning Salman Rushdie’s great novel, The Satanic Verses, giving India the dubious honour of being the first country in the world to do so.

Drawing the wrong lesson, some Hindu leaders decided that if the state could kowtow to bullying by Muslim leadership, Hindus mustn’t be far behind. If Muslims can be intolerant, why not Hindus, too? And so began the game of competitive intolerance, with cases filed under section 295 of the Indian Penal Code, which outlaws insulting religions, and section 153A, which deals with promoting enmity between groups. Those were colonial-era provisions, and Britain wrote those laws soon after the rebellion of 1857 to keep communities separate and segregated. India kept those laws on the books, permitting bullies to terrorize artists and writers, while cowardly governments forced artists into silence, and some, to seek refuge elsewhere.

Husain felt unsafe: He spent his summers in London, winters in Dubai. He apologized; he explained; he clarified. But nothing was enough for his detractors. Indian ambassadors abroad praised him, while police officers at home prepared arrest warrants. Courts threw the cases out and defended art, but the state dragged its feet. Some officials said the state would protect him, but Husain did not feel safe—to think, imagine and create, in peace.

And so he left.

This is no longer about Husain. Last week, there were protests in Andhra Pradesh against Yarlagadda Lakshmi Prasad, who was honoured for his Telugu novel, Draupadi. Not a week passes before somebody, somewhere, claims being offended and seeks a ban of some sort. Artists are free, but must not offend. So India allows Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen, who offends fundamentalists in Bangladesh for writing about persecution of Hindus, but once objections are raised, the government sets conditions, telling her to behave. Barbers force Shah Rukh Khan to change the name of a film; the Shiv Sena takes on Sachin Tendulkar and Mukesh Ambani, who say Mumbai belongs to all Indians; and the paper tigers in Mumbai threaten to disrupt Shah Rukh Khan’s new film, My Name Is Khan.

How would Rabindranath Tagore write that poem today?

“Where the mind is filled with fear and the head is kept low

Where vandals are free

Where the world is broken into fragments of narrow domestic walls

Where the clear stream of reason has lost its way in the dreary desert sand of dead habit

Where tireless striving stretching its arms towards perfection faces obstruction

Into that hell of serfdom, my country lies: we hold the wake.”

Maqbool Fida Husain was Indian. India made him a foreigner.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at


8 comments on “India makes M.F. Husain a foreigner

  1. Peter Haddad says:

    The most recent glaring obnoxious ignorance of same progressive intellectuals is banning Hijaab/veil of covering the faces of women at public places in France. The Concept flips when it travels from France to India; what France says as SECULARISM becomes COMMUNAL in India. It is pertinent to recall that India’s secularism is adopted by visionary like Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru and he personally had admitted that his concept of SECULARISM is influenced by secularism practiced in western countries and France is essential and integral part of it. No editorials have been written, no panel discussions has happened, no ink and place are spent on mint e-paper.

    I think expressing the fickle views and absence of conviction often resulted in desultory writing like this blog. If the only inference you have from Shahbano Case and Tasleema Nasreen’s episode that it led to competitive intolerance to Hindus; I am afraid Indian History is never been commented by you or atleast insulated from your analysis. I wonder if you continue the same way probably Mangal Pandey being the architect of first freedom struggle and National Hero would have been reduced to religious fanatic who refused to pull the bullet cartridges greased with cow’s fat precisely has religious reasons but no patriotism.

    It may be apt for you to advise in next blog that how Hindu society should have responded on Shahbano case, keeping surreal silence on Tasleema but ferociously vocal for MF Hussein staying back in Qatar, don’t speak of France Secularism but do speak of India’s secularism, keep advocating to respect the Muslim psyche for Satanic Versage but callousness towards Hindus psyche in Amaranth Land acquisition row, talk of Gujarat riots but ignoring the 1500 other communal riots in the same Gujarat including Godhara.

    Therefore I exhort you not to shed crocodile tears for MF Hussein because he is happy where he is and law will take its own course if he ever dares to come to India. Artists are also human beings and they may commit crime under IPC 153(A) & 295(A) (obscene paintings, indecent representation of women, deliberate malicious acts intends to outrage religious feelings, insulting religion or religious feelings). MF Hussein is no exception; no extra-constitutional authority and law should and would be equal to everyone.

    • salil61 says:

      * If you look at Mint’s website, you will be able to find out what I feel about the hijaab/veil.

      * If you don’t think that Hindus are engaging in competitive intolerance, that’s your opinion. You have the right to hold that; I disagree with you.

      * Mangal Pandey as a religious fanatic: that’s an interesting thought-experiment. He was certainly not informed about his own faith, assuming he was a Hindu, since as D.N. Jha’s book shows, ancient Hindus ate beef, and there was no ban on eating cow’s meat.

      * Re: Nasreen and other cases. Please see my piece in WSJ, posted elsewhere on this blog.

      * Finally, as regards IPC 153(A) and 295(A): those were laws the British imposed on India, to “tame” the masses after 1857. It is deeply ironical that those who shout the loudest by claiming to be nationalists, want to take recourse to a colonial-era law, to defend their right to silence others.

      * The Supreme Court ruled in Husain’s favor; so it isn’t Husain who is acting against the constitution, but his critics.

      Thanks for writing.


  2. Peter Haddad says:

    This blog appears an unsuccessful attempt to convince that it is great injustice to MF Hussein who has opted for Qatar citizenship and all blames squarely to Hindu Nationalists or so-called Fundamentalists (if they ever exist).

    May I submit with all dignity that at places you were factually incorrect, frugal with truth, used prevarication extravagantly and specious at times.

    The most recent TIMES NOW exclusive interview of MF Hussein with Arnab Goswami contradicts your view points and Mr. Hussein is candid in saying that he has no issues going back to India and his present engagement on working various lucrative projects is the only reason to extend his stay in Qatar. Mr. Hussein categorically said in that interview that if he wishes he may go to India even the very next day and his safety and security in India is never been the concern for himself but may be for you.
    This is the first but significant reason for writing another 1.1 or 2.0 (whatever you like) of your blog and you please correct the misrepresented facts.

    If the God or Goddess are being insulted in one faith; the alacrity of response from progressive intellectuals is FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION but the privilege of naming the same BLASPHEMY rests with others; disgusting manifestation of another sincere hypocrisy. Giving subsidy to exercise religious practices is called AFFIRMATIVE ACTION, without having honest debate on Satanic Versage the book is being proscribed to respect the PSYCHE OF MINORITIES, the modesty of Tasleema Nasreen is being encroached and attacked because she had DISRESPECTED THE SENTIMENTS of minorities, the parliament had made the amendment in Muslim Personal Law in Shahbano case and Govt responded by buckling down under the pressure of radical elements, giving reservation to Muslims on religious ground in a secular country is for INCLUSIVE DEVELOPMENT and the list goes on …

    • salil61 says:

      Thanks for writing, Peter. Mr Husain has said different things at different times to different people; there are times when he has said he feels unsafe, and safety lies in the perception of the person himself, not others.

      Since religion is an idea, it can be criticized, condemned, praised, attacked, and defended. Hinduism hasn’t known the notion of blasphemy; in fact, there are traditions within the faith that permit the denial of God, and permit atheism. You are drawing on an idea from Abrahamic religions, and imposing it on Hinduism. I have repeatedly defended both Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen; I have spoken out for Mr Rushdie since 1988. Please look it up. If you read my book, you will also see that I criticized the state’s reaction to the Shah Bano judgment.

  3. swati says:

    really sometimes being an indian puts me to shame… some times being a hindu also … but being human has never put me to shame.As human i might react… but even the strongest of tempests has to subside… its the law of nature…hoping still for hope … waiting still for not just a nation but a world of tagores dreams… i visualize world where humanity is the religion and every one protected by not laws but by pure conscience.My conscience tells me to be tolerant but not patient with things happening around.i really wish hussain saab to hav a peaceful life beyond borders.

  4. […] India makes M.F. Husain a foreigner March 20106 comments Published in: […]

  5. Naomi Craster-Chambers says:

    Personal Response To Death of An Indian Artist: M F HUSSAIN

    A nation that does not allow writers & artists expression is a nation that is closer to Saudi Arabia than Western Civilisation; closer to The dark ages than Enlightenment.
    Banning Salman Rushdie’s work is like saying only extreeme Muslims are allowed to air their extreeme objections but a moderate gentle Muslim is not allowed to laugh at himself or comment on the blind worship that above all forgets to be Godly, loving and humane first. It means we are being threatened to not have our right to self expression
    Because we will be met with extreeme outrage & violence. Sounds like we living in Tyrant’s Regime than in Democracy. How many of you in your daily lives let your mind do exactly what Rushdie expressed? I think we all have… sometime or other and including moderate gentle Muslims who are more like gentle Hindus & Gentle Christians & gentle Jews would but it is a crime apparently to have such thoughts. All of you who have should be thrown out of India too for having thoughts like Rushdie or M F Hussain. Oh but you did not express them loudly… So those without sin cast first stones. You might find you are as guilty or as criminal as these two artists. A nation that bans it’s poets artists and writers is a nation who has lost it’s soul and becoming as intolerant as Saudi Arabia.
    I praise those few Artists in India who have the courage to write what they feel artistically and express their emotions and personal expression in art or poetry. They have a basic human right to interact and express their feelings too as equally to those who object about their Gods and religion. It is then the right of these artists and poets and writers to equally have the right to comment on their reactions to THEIR Gods Their Religion too, as equally they have that right as those who object.
    Those who ban expression are banning others basic human right to have a view and especially when their views are just as valid as humanbeings they are affected by these Gods Religions and people directly and personally. They too then have a basic human right to express their personal feelings reactions and reflections through their artistic mediums at the very least. If not then it means only Govt approved ideas should circulate? What does that sound like? Is that the India you want? Are we Indians to become like Saudi Arabia that bans free thought and personal expression?
    It does not matter where he died or lived his heart was Indian and no Govt or People can change that. He was Indian and will remain Indian in everylifetime.
    …Patloon Englistaani Phir bhi Dil Hai Hindustaani.
    He will never be English or Arabian only: Hindustaani!!! Madhuri Dixit will miss him no doubt as will all Madhuri’s Fans & all Writers Artists & Poets too.

    By Naomi Craster-Chambers
    B.A. (Hons) M. A. PGCE

    Teacher, Novelist, Children’s Poet, Historian & Mummy of Harry who is turned 3.

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