Today, 8 March 2010—94 years and 6 months after he was born in Pandharpur, a Marathi manoos gave up the citizenship of his motherland, by returning his passport in Doha.
M.F. Husain has class. And the magnetism to bring every TV channel to his doorstep when he so decides.
One of the many astonishing things about him is that at 95 he knows what he needs to do and articulates it with amazing energy and self-assurance.
In a few sentences he shows the attributes that make him exceptional—his creativity (“ I cannot work without disturbance in India”), his maturity (“I do not feel betrayed by anyone”), his supremacy (“A few people don’t understand art, that’s all”), his sense of history (“Civilisations disappear, only culture lasts”), and his patriotism (“Wherever I am, I am an Indian painter”).
What Mark Antony said of Caesar applies here: “His life is gentle, and the elements so mixed in him that Nature might stand up and say to all the world, ‘This is a man’!”.
TV discussions as usual revolved around the fatuous and the moronic: The man is free to live anywhere, his decision to accept Qatar nationality is of his own free will, why is it important to get him back to India, why Qatar which is not a democracy, and so on.
The real issue in the Husain controversy is none of these. It is, and has always been, aggressive communalism and the Indian State’s failure to protect a citizen from it.
To see this in perspective and to understand the bankruptcy of Home Minister P.Chidambaram’s statement that India would extend all protection to the artist, we have only to recall how the British government handled a similar situation when Salman Rushdie came under the threat of a fatwa in 1989.
That Rushdie happened to be a British citizen was enough for the State to pull out all stops and extend 24/7 protection to its citizen.
Margaret Thatcher was the Prime Minister then and she had reasons to adopt an Indian-style policy of platitude without action. In his writings, Rushdie had referred to Thatcher as “Mrs Torture” and as “Maggie the Bitch”. He had also described the British police as “neofascist”.
Yet when the call of duty came, Mrs Torture and the neofascists heeded it for the honour of Britain. The protection provided to Rushdie was so efficient that he could continue writing, travel and, in one defiant challenge to his detractors, appear on the stage at London’s Wembley Stadium during a packed music concert.
Diplomatic relations broke between UK and Iran, but the UK establishment kept its citizen safe for nine years until the fatwa eased.
Chidambaram talks as if he doesn’t know of these things, and Chidambaram is an honourable man.
Perhaps, it is all to the good because Husain has won.
By underlining the primacy of art, by asserting the artist’s status as a citizen of the world and, above all, by pointing to major projects he has to execute irrespective of his age, Husain has placed himself unreachably above the hypocrisy of his communal detractors. He has won also because his decision to accept Qatar nationality has spread a sense of loss across India.
As Sharmila Tagore said, “We recognise our national treasures only when they are gone.”
If India being a democracy has not helped Husain, Qatar not being a democracy is a non-issue. Qatar has been liberal enough to make Al Jazeera TV respected around the world for its independence. The Qatar Foundation has been sponsoring the BBC’s Doha Debate programme anchored by Tim Sebastian.
The ruling Emir’s American-educated wife, Sheikha Moza, is the force behind the Qatar Foundation. She is a personal friend of Husain and has bought more than ninety Husains for the Qatar International Islamic Museum. Evidently, Sheikha Moza has the will to give Husain the undisturbed atmosphere he needs while P. Chidambaram only pontificates for India.
And Chidambaram is an honourable man.
Photograph: courtesy The Indian Express