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Islam and Pluralism ( 5 March 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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By Jyotirmaya Sharma

5 march, 2010

Husain’s workis rooted in the pauranik tradition which celebrates interpretation and improvisation

THE M. F. Husain controversy can be viewed at various levels. At one level, it is one of the uneducated literates and the uneducated illiterates of the sangh parivar making a public display of bad taste.

They have been caught in a time warp that compels them to think of Hindu gods and goddesses only in the artless, yet stylised, form that Raja Ravi Varma gave them.

Most of them can hardly distinguish between a kirana- shop new- year calendar and a canvas: they are to art what Bal Thackeray is to democracy, namely, a pestilence and a running sore. Despite their nationalist and Hindu rhetoric, there is scarcely anyone who can convince them that they are prisoners of Victorian tastes and morality, and what they impose in the name of moral policing through their unchecked thuggery is neither national nor Hindu.

The sangh parivar also has a few English- speaking Oxbridge types who, perhaps, privately collect and possess a Husain painting or two, but make a show of public condemnation of the artist. They are ready to question Husain’s acceptance of Qatari citizenship, but are more than willing to embrace an ill- informed and megalomaniac individual like V. S. Naipaul as Indian, Hindu and as one of their own just because he repeats their mindless platitudes and universalises their deep- seated prejudices.

While political expediency has led the RSS, the BJP and their other excitable affiliates to take unusual positions with regard to the Shah Rukh Khan controversy, it represents no paradigm shift as far as their core ideology is concerned. Having flogged the rhetoric of nationalism for so long, they can scarcely take on the likes of Mukesh Ambani, Sachin Tendulkar, Shah Rukh Khan and Asha Bhonsle.

In taking divergent positions, for instance, on Shah Rukh Khan as contrasted with the Husain controversy, the sangh parivar has sought to confuse those elements within what they perceive as the Hindu community who remain disenchanted with their brand of intolerant and threatening Hindutva.


Their political strategy is to present not one unified face of Hindutva, but a proliferation of various masks that would, in the end, be successful in hiding the true tenets of their ideology.

The sangh parivar has realised that for the Indian middle class, there is no single idea of the sacred but a plurality of choices, some of them secular, that an individual might consider sacred and impart equal value.

If this argument is plausible, the question remains why the sangh parivar has one set of positions in relation to Taslima Nasreen and Shah Rukh Khan and another stance in relation to M. F. Husain. On the face of it, they are all Muslims.

The Hindutva votaries see Taslima Nasreen as someone who speaks against the hardened and fanatical aspects of Islam and Islamic clergy.

Shah Rukh Khan speaks about being an ardent nationalist, wears his and his family’s nationalism on the sleeve and speaks of a soft humanism that forms the very stuff that the middle class and the new- age gurus espouse. On the contrary, Husain dares to interpret the great epics and the gods and goddesses that inhabit these texts in the manner of a grand pauranik commentator. The freedom that a pauranik has to interpret, interpolate and improvise a classical tradition and keep it alive is the very antithesis of what Hindutva stands for and seeks in the name of religion.

In other words, Husain is guilty in the eyes of the Hindutva fanatics of two cardinal sins. The first is to claim the right to partake of the common heritage of this country by not seeking permission from the selfappointed guardians of faith, but exercising this right as a free citizen of a free country.

The second, and more serious misdemeanour in the eyes of the lunatic mainstream of the sangh parivar, is to don the traditional mantle of a pauranik at a time when the Hindutva votaries themselves are seeking to abandon the dazzling plurality of the pauranik tradition in favour of a misunderstood and faulty notion of oneness. This manifests itself in a notion of advaita and its more contemporary pop variants in the service of arguments for national unity within the nationalist discourse.

It is no one’s business to question the taboo on the idea of representation in Islam, but Husain’s appropriation and celebration of the freedom to represent within the Hindu traditions, classical and folk, is a way also of intervening and questioning the hijacking of Islam by those who represent the al- Qaeda’s brand of intolerant Islam, which prohibits all forms of creativity, whether it is art, music or cinema. Questioning Husain’s right to interpret and represent Hindu gods and goddesses is symptomatic of the confusion that has existed within Hindu nationalism since the nineteenth century.

The Hindu nationalist attempt to paint the entity called Hinduism in monochromatic colours and to compel compliance on the basis of a distorted version of a unified faith makes its family resemblance to more fanatical versions of Islam more evident than it realises or is ready to admit.

Husain on the other hand has the best of both worlds.


He remains a Muslim in the sense that would make every civilised and reasonable Muslim proud, and he has fashioned himself also as an illustrious pauranik in the best sense that can be conveyed by that term.

The sangh parivar, on the other hand, lives in this vast sea of confusion, mouthing platitudes that are foreign, colonial and, worst still, Victorian.

Their vilification of Husain is a symptom of their own confusion and disarray; their only way of finding a solution, given their intellectual and moral bankruptcy, is to bully and intimidate. This is also one reason why the political affiliates of the Sangh are always ready to capture political power, which they see as the only way to impose their agenda.

Characteristically, the Indian state too has failed to protect the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Indian Constitution. In its actual functioning, the Indian state is secular on certain days of the week, indifferent on some other days, and aids and abets mindlessness on other days, and there are days when it actively colludes with the malcontents of society.

Even if the reasons are different, there is no explanation why the same state that can protect Shah Rukh Khan and the screening of his film cannot prevent the vandalism of Husain’s home or his exhibitions.

The Indian state too mirrors in many ways the confusion that has claimed the sangh parivar.


It tries hard to be democratic, secular and fair on most days, but it lapses into populism, expediency and electoral calculations more often than it is desirable.

It is only a piece of useless legalism to claim that the state is different from the regime, and that the sins of the regime in power ought not to be interpolated on to the formal structures of the state.

This is nothing but pious intent, a dream that may someday fructify. But by the time it happens, the barbarians within would have driven many artists and other creative individuals out into self- imposed exile.

We will be left with our own mediocre crumbs and live in the smug satisfaction of at least having the dregs to contend with.

The writer teaches politics at University of Hyderabad

Source: Mail Today, New Delhi.

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