"Since Husain has left the country, the government doesn't face the same pressures as in the Taslima Nasreen case."
- Arundhati Roy, Writer
"His penchant for the limelight has made Husain a target. But what's the State waiting for? Someone to kill him?"
- Krishen Khanna, Painter
"Whereas we could appeal to the executive for Taslima, Husain's case is with the judiciary, making it difficult to act."
- Shyam Benegal, Filmmaker
"Taslima's threats were from fringe extremists while those defending Husain would be up against VHP and its affiliates."
- Girish Karnad, Playwright
"We try to keep signs of solidarity with Husain alive, but any such expression leads to threats from the Hindu Right."
- Vivan Sundaram, Artist
In sharp contrast to Taslima Nasreen, whose plea to be allowed to stay in India evoked a groundswell of support cutting across the political, intellectual and artistic spectrum, a strange silence surrounds the plight of M.F. Husain. Even as Taslima's case dominated media headlines, a Shiv Sena attack on a Husain exhibition at Delhi's venerable India International Centre a few weeks ago barely generated a few lines of newsprint, buried in the inside pages.
The destruction of a collection of Husain's paintings in an Ahmedabad gallery in 1996 by Bajrang Dal activists, followed by an attack on his house in Bombay, forced the painter into exile 10 years ago. But the vicious and sustained campaign against him continues unchecked. In Gujarat, a local leader has offered a kilo of gold to anybody willing to gouge out Husain's eyes. In 2006, a fringe organisation calling itself the Hindu Personal Law Board offered Rs 51 crore for his head. Shortly after that, Madhya Pradesh Congress minority cell vice-chairman Akhtar Baig offered Rs 11 lakh to anybody who would chop off Husain's hands. More recently, ABN-Amro Bank was forced to withdraw a credit card featuring a design by the painter. So, unlike in Taslima's case, why has there been no public campaign in defence of Husain and his right to freedom of expression?
"The government only responded in Taslima's case," says writer/activist Arundhati Roy, "because it would otherwise face international embarrassment. But because Husain has left the country, the government doesn't face the same kind of pressure." Filmmaker Shyam Benegal says the fact that "Husain's case is with the judiciary makes it difficult for us to act. It's totally different in that respect from Taslima, about whom we could appeal to the executive." According to playwright Girish Karnad, the artistic community rallied around Taslima "because she was a foreigner and threatened with expulsion. There was a deadline to meet." Moreover, he points out, while the threats to Taslima were from fringe group extremists, those defending Husain would be up against the vhp and its affiliated groups, whose reach is more widespread and capacity for violence more threatening. "They've made it into an issue of a Muslim painting Hindu goddesses in the nude and hurting Hindu sentiments."
"But why should paintings of nude goddesses hurt Hindu sentiments?" asks art critic Gayatri Sinha. "The tradition of painting goddesses in the nude has been part of Indian culture for thousands of years. Many more 'explicit' paintings of Hindu goddesses exist, and they are regarded as holy. Husain's nude paintings are being attacked because he happens to be Muslim." Husain himself, pleading to be allowed to return home, has tried to explain the place of nudity in Indian art, asked that his work be judged by a panel of experts, and declared, "Whatever I have painted, I have done with conviction and sincerity. If feelings were hurt, I apologise." Nevertheless, he continues to be widely perceived as a deliberately provocative figure, looking for notoriety. Part of the problem, feels artist Ghulam Sheikh, is that visual art is not understood by the media or the public at large, "except in terms of its prices—they don't really understand what Husain's art is about, only the price he commands. In the increasingly intolerant society we have become over the last 20 years, it's easy to whip up sentiments against Husain's art." Playwright Habib Tanvir too explains the wide media coverage for Taslima and the lack of it for Husain in a similar vein: "The media is much better able to understand Taslima—she writes, they write. The issue for them is much easier to understand than Husain's problem."
Eminent painter Ram Kumar has a simpler explanation for the lack of public support for Husain: "Husain has done more than anybody else to bring art to the common man, but people don't speak up for him because they're scared...." Artist Vivan Sundaram, however, is one member of the artistic community who is not scared, even though, as he says, "any expression of support for Husain leads to threats of violence from the Hindu right wing". He has created an interactive, evolving work titled 'Barefoot with Husain' which splices together footage of people participating in the exhibition where the work is displayed, with images of Husain barefoot in Dubai. "In such small ways, we try to keep signs of solidarity with Husain alive," says Sundaram.
Husain, now 92, moving between Dubai, London, New York and Qatar over the past decade, says he is "extremely homesick" for India. "I long to walk through the streets of Grant Road and Byculla, where I have spent some of the best years of my life." But can anything be done now to help Husain end his exile and return home to India? "There's no legal hurdle in his returning to India," says his lawyer, Akhil Sibal, "it's his physical safety that's threatened. I don't understand why the government cannot move against these people who are threatening to kill or maim him." Perhaps, remarks Tanvir, it's the fact that Husain, despite having been a Rajya Sabha MP, is a resolutely apolitical figure, if not politically naive—unlike Taslima, who was offered sanctuary by BJP-ruled states Gujarat and Rajasthan, not exactly known for supporting freedom of expression. "Husain is not safe in India until the Bajrang Dal stops targeting him," says Ram Kumar. "Maybe, as Husain says, only a BJP government can call them off."
Artist Krishen Khanna has the last word. While he feels Husain's penchant for seeking the limelight and turning himself into an icon "has helped make him become the target of dangerous people with stupid causes", he is furious with the state's utter failure to offer him protection. "What are they waiting for? For someone to kill him?"