The Indian High Commissioner, Kamalesh Sharma, claimed at the opening that Husain was India’s greatest modern artist. The exhibition was to run until August, to allow visitors to decide for themselves if he was right.
They won’t be able to now. Asia House closed the show on Monday after threats of violence from anonymous Hindu fundamentalists. Arjun Malik of the Hindu Human Rights campaign assured me they had nothing to do with him, but said his group had been willing to do everything short of violence to stop the public seeing two of Husain’s works.
His supporters had already deluged the gallery with letters, phone calls and emails complaining that Husain’s ‘so-called art’ offended the ‘sentiments of the Hindu community of the UK’. (Whether it did is debatable, as no one has elected the Hindu Human Rights campaign to represent the Hindu or any other community.) The protesters also went for Hitachi, which had given Asia House plasma TV screens, and demanded public apologies from everyone involved, including the Indian High Commissioner.
They called off a planned demonstration in London yesterday because, like the managers of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre who closed Behzti after the demonstrations by conservative Sikhs and the national newspaper editors who refused to publish the Danish cartoons, Asia House buckled under the pressure to censor.
The apparently separate protests from different faiths are connected. What we are seeing is rival fundamentalists egging each other on in a politics of competitive grievance. Every time one secures a victory, the others realise they can’t be left behind. If satirists are frightened of having a go at Islam because they believe they may be killed – and they are – why shouldn’t Christian fundamentalists decide to become more menacing?
A comedian who takes a pop at the Pope sends the subliminal message: ‘We can deride your religion as despicable because we know you are not so despicable you will resort to violence.’ There is a limit to how long the ultras for any religion will put up with that before they change the ground rules.
After abusive Sikh men closed Behzti, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play about the abuse of Sikh women by Sikh men, Christian Voice upped the ante against Jerry Springer: The Opera. It had previously run at the National Theatre for months without attracting protest. But when BBC2 came to broadcast it, London Christians imitated Birmingham Sikhs and BBC executives suddenly needed the protection of private security guards.
You can see the same pattern in the hounding of MF Husain. The paintings the demonstrators targeted were nudes of the Hindu goddesses Draupadi and Durga. Arjun Malik went into all kinds of verbal convolutions when I asked what he had against them, before coming out with the explanation that ‘according to tradition, they should not be disrobed’. The reason for the tongue-twisting is that nude gods and goddesses have been a part of the Indian tradition for 5,000 years. As Husain said: ‘Here, the nudity is not nakedness; it is a form of innocence and maturity.’
It is no longer innocent because, after the state-sponsored violence of the Danish cartoon protests, Hindus from the religious Indian right looked around for a grievance of their own. They picked on Husain – the fact that he was born a Muslim made him a natural target – and began a confessional arms race. In February, a Muslim politician in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh offered a large reward to anyone who beheaded the Danish cartoonists. A Hindu politician responded by saying he would pay the same to anyone who would kill Husain.
What is depressing is that, apart from a letter to the Guardian, from Lord Meghnad Desai, the closure of a major exhibition by fanatics has passed without comment. British troops are fighting against forces motivated by the religious fervour of the ultra right. British police officers arrest suspects they claim are inspired to kill because they, too, have a psychotic religious mission. Yet every week, comedians, art gallery owners, TV producers, newspaper editors and Home Office ministers give in to religious extremists. This is no way to win a war.
Nick Cohen, The Observer, May 28, 2006