Maqbool Fida Husain and Salman Rushdie are a telling comparison and contrast to capture the true character of secular India. Both are Muslims by birth. Both were born in colonial India’s Bombay Presidency. Husain, some 32 years when Rushdie was a child, died last year. Husain was an artist. Rushdie is a writer. Both had become famous, globally — Husain through his paintings and Rushdie through his writings. Husain lived all his life in India before he exiled and became a Qatari in 2006. But Rushdie lives in the UK as a British citizen. While Rushdie excited the highly sensitive Muslims to turn against him, Husain managed to irritate the not-so-sensitive Hindus. Take Husain first.
This is how Husain annoyed the soft Hindus. He used his fertile imagination and painting skills to undress all well-dressed Hindu gods, goddesses, depict them naked and used his popularity to market them. He drew a naked Goddess Lakshmi sitting on Lord Ganesha’s head. He painted Durga in sexual union with a tiger. He portrayed a naked Goddess Saraswati holding a veena. He painted a naked Parvati with her son Ganesha. He depicted a naked Hanuman, seeing a naked Sita sitting on the thigh of naked Ravana. He painted a naked Bharatmata twice — once in the shape of India with names of the states of India on her naked body, alongside a naked sadhu in the Bay of Bengal. But his art on Muslims was a telling contrast. He drew a fully clad Muslim king alongside a naked Brahmin. He completely covered, even with purdah, the Muslim women he drew, which of course included his mother and daughter. He fully attired the Muslim poets he painted.
Some Hindus, who saw his perverted art demeaning the Hindu divinities, began protesting at his exhibitions and filing criminal cases. Seeing mounting protests and cases, Husain moved out of India. The government of India, judiciary, political parties and, of course, the media, all rushed to defend Husain’s right to freedom — his right to offend Hindus and demean their gods. There were protests against Husain. But no one issued an order to kill him. No one was injured, no one was hurt and none was killed. Yet, the protests were labelled by ‘seculars’ as ‘saffron terror’.
Now come to Rushdie, a contrast. His life is living hell since he wrote his controversial book The Satanic Verses. Though living, he has, by now, died a million times since February 4, 1989 when Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fiat (fatwa) to Muslims to kill him. But, why should Khomeini order the killing of a fellow Muslim? With almost a generation gone since 1988 when Rushdie wrote the infamous book, it is time to recall some history. Rushdie’s book was about a disputed tradition in Islam. According to it, Mohammed (depicted in Rushdie’s book as Mahound) had first added three verses (Sura) in the Quran, accepting three goddesses that used to be worshipped in Mecca as divine beings, but later revoked the verses saying that Devil (Satan) had tempted him to utter the verses to appease the Meccans — so the title ‘Satanic Verses’ for the disputed verses. The Rushdie book set off violent reaction from Muslims.
Mustafa Mahmoud Mazeh blew himself up in a central London hotel while making a bomb intended to kill Rushdie in 1989. Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of Rushdie’s book was stabbed to death in July 1991. Ettore Capriolo, the Italian translator, was stabbed and seriously injured in the same month. And Aziz Nesin, the Turkish language translator, was the target in the events that led to massacre of 37 people in July 1993. William Nygaard, a Norway publisher, was almost killed in Oslo in October 1993. In Belgium, two Muslim leaders who had opposed Khomeini’s ‘Kill Rushdie’ fiat, were killed. Two bookstores in California, and five in England, were fire-bombed. Twelve people died during rioting in Mumbai. This list does not exhaust the violence.
Starting from then and till now, Rushdie has been hitting headlines for the wrong reasons. Now again Rushdie is in the news. Rushdie had been invited to the Jaipur Literature Festival 2012, Asia’s largest, a week back. Muslims threatened agitations and Rushdie’s presence would have meant violence. So the Indian Intelligence Bureau invented an input saying that four hired assassins were roaming around to kill Rushdie. This was proved fake, calculated to prevent Rushdie from coming to India. The four participants who had read out from The Satanic Verses at the meet ran away from India to escape arrest. William Dalrymple, the festival director, got death threats. Finally, Rushdie’s video address to the Jaipur festival was dropped as, according to organisers, it risked the lives of the participants from the Muslim protesters outside.
The contrast is self-evident. Rushdie, who just wrote about a disputed tradition in Islam, was hounded for decades and is on a death threat even now, and people who had nothing to do with either the book or Rushdie have been butchered. Even today the fear of slaughter in his name haunts the world, as the Jaipur meet shows. But, all that Husain, who, in the name of freedom hurt the Hindus — “considered as the gentlest and most civilised on the earth” according to Mahatma Gandhi — faced were normal protests. The protests by Hindus against Husain were ant-bite compared to the scale of violence against Rushdie’s book, even though the hurt to the Hindu sentiments by the perverted paintings of Husain were explicit and undeniably monumental.
But what is distressingly shameful is the politics of contrast. See how the secular media, parties, leaders and state glorified Husain’s right to abuse Hindu gods and goddesses to wound Hindus and how the same secular actors repeatedly decried Rushdie’s similar right to hurt Muslims. Now something even more shameful. The ‘seculars’, including the media, had ceaselessly condemned the normal protests against shows displaying Husain’s painting and pontificated to Hindus about the need for tolerance. But they wouldn’t utter a word against the violence by Muslims nor ask them to be tolerant. The reason is obvious. They are dishonest.
Muslims rightly felt offended by Rushdie’s reckless literary work. And Hindus were justly hurt by Husain’s perverted art. Muslims, highly excitable, however reacted violently. Instead of holding both Rushdie and Husain wrong, the seculars faulted Rushdie and praised Husain. Why? Because, being insensitive to Hindus and pretending to be sensitive to Muslims is enough to make one secular. QED: Such secularism is perversion — and a dangerous one.
(Views expressed in the column are the author’s own)
S Gurumurthy is a well-known commentator on political and economic issues.