CHENNAI, India — Indians have always taken pride in being a tolerant and understanding society, and the country’s predominant religion, Hinduism, has often been described as a way of life that never relies on conversions, force or violence. These virtues, however, appear to be fading.
Twenty-first century India seems to have become more dogmatic than ever, and the worst sufferers are artists and writers. Nobody has drawn the kind of attention that Indian painter M.F. Husain has in recent years. This came to a head recently when the 90-something artist — who has lived in exile in Dubai — was granted Qatari citizenship.
Amid the hue and cry in India’s artistic circles, fingers point at the government for failing to provide security and solace to Husain, who left the country years ago following threats to his life by fanatical Hindu groups. Although this Muslim has been honored with some of the nation’s highest civilian awards and was once nominated to Parliament’s Upper House, Rajya Sabha, his paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses have evoked the wrath of extreme politico-religious groups.
In India, where nude figures are magnificently carved out of rock in old Hindu temples, Husain’s art appears to have been singled out merely because of his Muslim faith.
It is not just Hindus who seem to be resorting to violence at the slightest pretext. Just last week there was news of arson and looting in the southern Indian state of Karnataka after a newspaper article purportedly written by Bangladesh’s Taslima Nasrin on the burqa provoked the ire of Islamic fundamentalists.
In 2008, Nasrin, who had taken refuge in India after being forced to flee her homeland, was hounded out of her host country as well. She now lives in Sweden.
Recently, when Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan commented publicly that the Indian Premier League could have been “nicer” in its handling of the controversy over franchisees’ not selecting Pakistani cricketers at an auction, fanatics rose in anger. They warned that they would not let theaters in Mumbai (where Khan lives) screen his latest film, “My Name is Khan.” The actor was asked to go away to Pakistan.
Sadly, Muslims in India are not only called upon, time and again, to prove their national loyalty, but are also increasingly identified with terror. In Khan’s movie, therefore, it comes as no surprise that Khan’s character, suffering from Asperger syndrome, keeps repeating “My name is Khan, but I am not a terrorist.”
In 2003, when the Oxford University Press in India published James W. Laine’s book “Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India,” rightwingers became so furious over a few paragraphs that they blackened the face of a Sanskrit scholar who had helped the author.
It’s enough to make one wonder how much Indians really differ from nations like Iran, which at least does not pretend to be secular. The other day, award-winning Iranian cinema director Jafar Panahi and his family were arrested and taken to an undisclosed location. A favorite of art-house critics and fans, his pictures are socially relevant. Despite his international fame, much of his work is banned in Iran, and many Iranian artists suffer a similar fate under Tehran’s authoritarian regime.
India is far from that — it is a democracy where elections are free and fair, and where governments change peacefully. Yet, narrow, parochial views have been given free rein.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is a journalist based in Chennai, India.
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