May 08, 2007

MF Hussain, Hindu right and the courts of law- 2 editorials

The Hindu
May 8, 2007


Of Husain, hate and harassment

There is something terribly amiss about a social order that coerces a law-abiding 91-year-old artist — India's most celebrated painter — into leaving the country because of harassment by rank communalists and moral vigilantes. There is also something lopsided about the priorities of a criminal justice system that orders the attachment of his properties when cases against hardened criminals drag on interminably. Formally, the circumstances that led the Mumbai police to paste an attachment notice outside M.F. Husain's Cuffe Parade residence have the stamp of due legal process — a petition before a Haridwar court, the issue of summons and non-bailable warrants, proclaiming the accused as an `absconder,' and an order to attach his property under Section 83 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973. The outrageousness of all this becomes plain when one considers the nature of the painter's so-called offence. The case in Haridwar relates to a tired and hollow controversy — the alleged `obscenity' of a couple of his works. Now that the police have discovered that the house is no more in Mr. Husain's name, the elements of tragic-comedy seem complete.

It is astonishing that an artist of the stature, integrity, and secular spirit of Mr. Husain continues to be harassed by malicious litigation. These cases, usually filed under Sections 153-A (promoting enmity) and 295-A (outraging religious feelings) of the Indian Penal Code, are but the legal face of a violent and orchestrated campaign waged by fundamentalist elements against creativity. Over the last few years, these fanatics have threatened the artist, ransacked his house, and defaced his paintings. Surprisingly, instead of upholding the fundamental right to freedom of expression, some lower courts have been extraordinarily tolerant in entertaining the vexatious complaints. By doing so, they have unwittingly provided a handle to the enemies of cultural freedom and liberal thought. There is little doubt that the criminal cases against Mr. Husain will fail. But the mischief-makers may have already succeeded — because the process has become the punishment, especially for a nonagenarian free spirit.

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The Telegraph
May 8, 2007


The meaningfulness of law resides in the appropriateness of its application. But this set of rules — founded on ideals of reason and fairness — that is intended to protect the innocent and the powerless, can be turned on its head in a jiffy if the wielder of law so wishes. Applied in areas that do not fall strictly within its purview, or applied in anger, the process of law appears trivial, while delaying the delivery of justice in urgent cases by distracting attention from the main work of the courts. The justice system is hardly dignified, for example, by its unremitting pursuit of Maqbool Fida Husain, an artist who has brought honour to India, and who now, at over ninety, is unable to return to his country because he drew Hindu goddesses without clothes. His failure to respond to court summons has culminated in an order from a Hardwar court to attach his property in Mumbai.

It is not just a question of confusing aesthetics with morality or religion. What is disconcerting is the repeated reflection of Indian society’s most retrogressive and divisive sentiments in some of the decisions of the courts. Artistic freedom is not the only ideal that is in danger, but all kinds of behaviour perceived as non-conformist can and do become legally vulnerable. At these moments, it would seem that there is no distinction between disapproval from certain sections of society and the law. There are warrants against Richard Gere and Shilpa Shetty for a public kiss, because a magistrate in Jaipur decided that the kiss was “sexually erotic”. Nothing can better represent the institutional articulation of the country’s nervously eager muddle-headedness regarding sex and the ‘evil’ Western influence. A plural society which is out of its depth in its own plurality is a sorry sight, but the law going beyond its purview by presupposing rules of conduct argues a graver lack of balance. That lack is visible not just among aggressive culture police, or hyper-sensitive community leaders, or fire-breathing ‘nationalists’, but elsewhere as well. The driver and guard of a local train can now be penalized for having asked for the credentials of a magistrate who decided to ride in the driver’s cabin. It is not reason or fairness, but the hurt sensibilities of an individual or group, that can prick the law into action. Perhaps it is time the chief justice of India put in a word to remind everyone what the law represents.