The Husain-Taslima controversy: Philistinism in the guise of liberalism

I have closely followed the discussion in the media in the wake of the M.F.Husain-Taslima Nasreen controversy. First, I wanted to know how the Indian system (the courts and the executive together) has failed M.F.Husain that he had to seek refuge in a foreign country. None of the commentators helped me to understand this. So, I had to do my own research to bring out the truth in the latest Frontline (Artist’s alienation)

My second interest was in understanding whether the commentators were correct in equating M.F.Husain with others who are similarly placed at the receiving end of the free speech debate. While I found varying degrees of support among the commentators to Husain, I noticed that there was one attribute which all of them shared, again in varying degrees: philistinism. This explains why Pratap Bhanu Mehta could not explain the boundaries of artistic freedom, even while refraining from commenting whether Husain crossed those boundaries. I am equally a philistine, insofar as I don’t understand the intricacies of art or painting. But I have been able to understand why our yardsticks to evaluate the limits of freedom applicable to the Danish cartoonist or Taslima Nasreen cannot be identical to those we can adopt to evaluate the paintings of Husain. I am not suggesting that the opposition to the Danish cartoon or Taslima’s article is rational; obviously, it is not. But my grievance is with the commentators who insist or suggest that Husain cannot claim any extra privilege by virtue of his being an artist or a painter.

PBM’s plea for compliance with absolute principle of free speech is, for me, difficult to accept. Those who are aggrieved with Husain’s paintings have a right to be aggrieved, but don’t have the right to abuse the law, and threaten him with violence or court cases, in order to distract him from his primary obsession. Primacy to absolute principle of free speech will unwittingly legitimise the illegitimate litigation against Husain, and the system’s failure to restrain those who threaten violence against him. Delhi High Court’s 2008 judgment in the Husain case (by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul) had recommended specific legal reforms to protect artists like Husain from frivolous litigation.

For convenience, I am giving below the relevant contemporary links.

Vir Sanghvi’s piece

Many shades of grey

Vinod Mehta’s piece

Sandeep Dougal’s Q&A:

Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s 2006 piece and his March 4 piece this year in the wake of Husain-Taslima controversy.

Swapan Dasgupta’s piece in Telegraph

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