Assault on art

Published : May 09, 1998 00:00 IST

The bizarre attack by Hindutva forces at the home of M.F. Husain in Mumbai has once again brought the issue of freedom of artistic expression into focus.

HINDUTVAVADI organisations in Maharashtra appear to have resumed their old game of whipping up anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan sentiments after a short-lived show of peaceful co-existence prior to the Lok Sabha elections.

On May 1, Bajrang Dal activists forced their way into the South Mumbai home of artist M.F. Husain and created mayhem. Husain, who had left his apartment shortly before the Bajrang Dal raid, told Frontline that he had spotted a crowd outside the compound when he was about to leave but thought that it had something to do with Maharashtra Day celebrations.

According to eyewitnesses, the police arrived just as the activists were beginning to warm up to their bizarre task. The eyewitnesses told Frontline that the miscreants took to their heels when they heard the siren of a police vehicle. The police gave chase and arrested 26 persons. (They were released on May 2 after they furnished a surety of Rs.1,000 each.) A case of trespassing and unlawful assembly has been registered.

According to the police, only 26 people were involved in the "demonstration" that was ostensibly provoked by one of Husain's works that were exhibited in New Delhi recently. The painting depicted Sita perched on the tail of a flying Hanuman, both in the nude. However, according to one of the witnesses to the Bajrang Dal raid, around 90 people, some with flags and banners, came to the building - the 22-floor, 110-flat Jolly Maker Apartments III in the posh Cuffe Parade area. A few of them rushed up to Husain's first-floor flat, shouting slogans. Meanwhile, one of Husain's neighbours apparently contacted the police control room. A full complement of officers were present at that time at the Cuffe Parade police station, which is a short distance from the apartment block. (The police personnel were awaiting orders in connection with Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee's programme in the city that day.)

Until the afternoon of May 4, Husain had not returned to his flat. He, however, visited the office of an afternoon daily in the city on May 2. When contacted over his cell phone by Frontline, Husain sounded weary but philosophical. "It is better for me not to say anything," he said. When it was pointed out that he had given the daily a statement, he said: "Yes, I have offered to face an agni pariksha. I have made the suggestion earlier." His suggestion envisages the setting up of a committee of three persons - an art critic, a lawyer and a representative of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad - which could go through his entire collection. Husain said that he was prepared to destroy immediately any work that the committee found objectionable.

This suggestion seems to be a bigger concession to the bunch of his critics when compared to the offer he made during the course of an interview he gave Frontline in the wake of the destruction of his paintings by Bajrang Dal activists in Ahmedabad in October 1996 (Frontline, November 15, 1996). Husain had then suggested that a panel of national and international experts, including scholars, historians and "people who are experts in this", could pronounce a judgment on whether his paintings were objectionable. "If it is possible that such a panel... finds my paintings objectionable, I will be the first person to light a bonfire and burn everything," he said.

The internationally-acclaimed artist added: "I believe in my country, and I am a painter. I only know the seven colours."

Husain, who recalled the support extended to him by artists in the wake of the Ahmedabad incident, expressed confidence that he would continue to enjoy their support.

IN contrast to its prompt action vis-a-vis the attack on Husain's apartment, the police, according to news reports, merely stood by and watched when on April 26, about 100 Shiv Sainiks barged into Centaur Hotel in Mumbai and disrupted a concert by Pakistani ghazal singer Ghulam Ali Khan. According to these reports, police personnel were present both inside the hall where the concert was being held and outside the hotel.

The miscreants grabbed the mike and shouted anti-Pakistan slogans and told the audience that they would not allow any Pakistani singer to perform in India because no Indian singer was welcomed in Pakistan. They then sang "Jai jai Maharashtra majha" (Hail Maharashtra).

ACCORDING to Prabhakar Sanzgiri, secretary of the Maharashtra State Committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the incidents involving Ghulam Ali and Husain were designed by the Hindutva forces to whip up anti-Muslim sentiments in order to win back their traditional supporters who voted against the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party combine in the recent elections, presumably because of Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray's seemingly softening attitude towards Muslims before the elections. According to Sanzgiri, Bal Thackeray was showing his true colours again.

Sanzgiri said that although the BJP was not going along with the Shiv Sena's line since Prime Minister Vajpayee wanted to project a sober image, the Bajrang Dal was an essential part of the Sangh Parivar. He said: "Whatever the BJP may parade as the national agenda, the hidden agenda is shown by the Parivar's activities."

Both the BJP and the Shiv Sena had wooed Muslim voters before the elections. In fact, Thackeray had proposed that at the site of the demolished Babri Masjid in Ayodhya a national monument be created and dedicated to Mangal Pandey, who provided the spark for the Indian uprising of 1857. He had also suggested that land be allocated at the disputed site for the construction of a mosque and a temple. Moreover, during the run-up to the elections, the Sena chief received Pakistan's High Commissioner Ashraf Jehangir Qazi at his residence and assured him that his (Thackeray's) objection to Pakistani cricketers playing in Mumbai was a thing of the past.

Things have, however, changed now. Shiv Sena leader and Bal Thackeray's son Uddhav Thackeray has justified the disruption of the concert and declared that the Sena would not allow any Pakistani artist or sportsperson to perform or play in Mumbai. "It is pointless to play a test match with Pakistan when the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) keeps adding to the score of Hindu casualties in different parts of India," he said. His statement has reportedly prompted Pakistani squash player Jansher Khan to cancel his scheduled trip to Mumbai this month. The Indian Squash Professionals' Association had invited Khan to conduct a squash clinic in Mumbai.

For its part, the Shiv Sena has endorsed the Bajrang Dal's attack on Husain's home. Addressing a function on May 2 to mark the conclusion of Marathi film-maker Bhalji Pendharkar's birth centenary celebrations, Bal Thackeray said: "If Husain can step into Hindustan, what is wrong if we enter his house?"

The stand taken by the BJP's State unit as spelt out to this correspondent by a spokesperson was that the disruption of the Ghulam Ali concert and the attack on Husain's home represented ways of registering protest that were "not proper". The spokesperson, however, made it clear that his party sympathised with and shared the Bajrang Dal's sentiments on the controversial Husain work. Meanwhile, at a press conference in Mumbai, Vajpayee expressed his disapproval of the disruption of the concert.

Speaking to Frontline, Milind Parande, joint organising secretary of the State unit of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, of which the Bajrang Dal is a wing, said: "It is not art, it is perversion." He said that plans were afoot to initiate prosecution against Husain under Section 153 (A) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Section 153A relates to promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race and so on, and acting in a manner prejudicial to harmony. Mangal Prabhat Lodha, BJP member of the State Assembly, said that he had formally approached Ronald Mendonca, Mumbai's Commissioner of Police, for initiating the prosecution process.

A few days before Hindutva fundamentalists vandalised Husain's paintings in Ahmedabad, the Mumbai Police had registered a case against Husain under Sections 153-A and 295-A of the IPC. (Section 295A is concerned with deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.) The case, which was registered by the Mumbai Police following a letter written by Sena leader Pramod Navalkar in his capacity as the State Minister for Culture to the Mumbai Police Commissioner, is still pending.

IN the October 11, 1996 incident, a group of Bajrang Dal activists forced their way into the Herwitz Gallery in Ahmedabad's Husain-Doshi gufa, the well-known art complex. Armed with tridents and wearing saffron scarves, they intimidated a lone guard and destroyed about 23 tapestry items and 28 paintings which were on display there. The work destroyed included Husain's series on Hanuman, a depiction of the Last Supper and the famous Madhuri Dixit series.

Commenting on the Ahmedabad outrage, writer Mulk Raj Anand wrote in Frontline: "Ashok Singhal and Hindutvavadis of his ilk only display their crass ignorance of India's creative heritage and the modern resurgence in the arts... Hindutva protagonists stand condemned for their ignorance, blind communal prejudices and hate."

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