GREEN AND SAFFRON: Hindu Nationalism and Indian Environmental Politicsby Mukul Sharma. Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2012.
FOR those interested in environmental conflicts, struggles and movements, Mukul Sharma is a familiar name. His numerous reports, in both English and Hindi, some of which were elaborated and brought together in a fascinating collection, Landscapes and Lives (OUP, 2001) as also the coauthored book, Contested Coastlines: Fisherfolk, Nations and Borders in South Asia (OUP, 2008) demonstrated a fine-grained and nuanced understanding of the different kinds of conflicts, in their specific settings, over the access to, control over, and use of natural resources. Together, these writings have helped the interested reader develop a richer understanding of the evolution of green politics in India.
Yet, as Ramachandra Guha points out in a perceptive preface, even as environmental scholarship has explored the social bases, ideologies, strategies of protest and styles of leadership of various movements, it has, in the main, ignored the interlinkages of green movements with party politics and religion, more specifically the later. Darryl D’Monte’s book though, on the Silent Valley agitation in the early 1970s, (Temples vs Tombs) for instance, explicated in some detail the relationship between the protest/campaign against the proposed dam in Silent Valley spearheaded by the Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad and the CPI(M), highlighting both the ideological unease of the Marxists as also their fear about the possible negative electoral fallouts of stopping the project. And, one could list a few others.
It is the relationship of green movements with faith-based and religious traditions that is far less understood. At one level, it can be argued that natural landscapes – rivers, mountains, forests – particularly in agrarian/pastoral civilizations, have often been infused with sacral qualities. In many ways, this has also helped preserve/conserve these resources, constraining human intervention for secular use. Just think of the role of sacred groves in helping preserve biodiversity, or the ban on hunting specified animal/bird species held as sacred in saving our threatened wildlife. The recent furore over the proposed mining for alumina in the Niyamgiri hills was in no small measure occasioned by the resistance of the Kondh tribals who hold the hill as sacred. It is thus not surprising that those resisting certain uses of natural resources deploy faith-based arguments to bolster support for their struggle. The long struggle against damming the Narmada river, alongside vigorous debates on displacement, devastation, loss of livelihoods and questionable benefits, repeatedly talked of the centrality of the parikrama around the river, and how this tradition would be devastated if the dams were permitted to come up.
Mukul Sharma’s book, through a detailed examination of three cases – Anna Hazare’s work in Ralegan Siddhi, the anti-Tehri Dam movement spearheaded by Sunderlal Bahuguna, and the Vrindavan Forest Revival and Conservation Project in Mathura – forces readers to more critically examine the relationship between green politics and faith-based assertions. In each of the cases, he demonstrates the pervasive influence of Hinduism – and specific understanding of the traditions – on the environmental campaigns. In examining how religion shapes and structures social action, motivating people to act in certain ways and inhibiting other paths of action, the movements go beyond the discourse of resistance/renewal to shape the use of contested natural resources. The movements, thus, are not an unqualified good, requiring support, but rather complex strategic impulses resulting in creating new gainers and losers, valorizing certain kinds of interventions and preventing others. Above all, a feature that is rarely theorised, the deployment of religious idiom and ideology in a green agenda often feeds into a conservative construction of nationalism which breeds a restrictive and authoritarian politics.
Take Ralegan Siddhi and Anna Hazare’s work on not just watershed development but village reconstruction. At one level, there is little denying the positive and dramatic impact of Hazare’s work – the regeneration of water and green cover, the growth of farm productivity and incomes, the reduction of outmigration due to distress and so on – which has made the village an icon of green literature. The more troubling part is the accompanying social ideology and its role in the attempts to govern social and private lives under the leadership of Hazare. This, many feel, is both patriarchal and authoritarian, as also deeply restrictive of personal freedoms. Far more disturbing than a complete prohibition on the consumption of alcohol, tobacco, or meat products or on viewing television serials seen as promoting undesirable values, is the insidious denigration of party politics and elections by the leader. It is instructive that the village has witnessed no elections to any post, preferring instead to anoint its ‘leaders’ through consensus under the overall direction of Hazare. Even as the village has registered impressive gains, the benefits are unequally shared, particularly by the landless and petty landholders. Yet, so dominant is the presence of Hazare and his worldview that dissent, even if justified, gets short shrift, with alternative accounts sought to be exorcised. And since the worldview is formed by Hazare’s understanding of the Gita, his selective deployment of Shivaji and Vivekananda, an uncritical acceptance of the use of force for disciplining errant villagers, and so on, the image of Ralegan Siddhi that emerges is one akin to a controlled school, and of the villagers as children who need perpetual guidance, not autonomous actors.
Equally troubling is Mukul Sharma’s account of the anti-Tehri Dam struggle, which over time started increasingly relying on right-wing Hindu organizations, as the earlier ‘secular’ protest failed to acquire the needed political and social purchase. Not unexpectedly, the rhetoric and symbols foregrounded by the struggle served to alienate all those uncomfortable with a strident, overly Hindu ideology. Even as the characterization of the Ganga as holy and Uttarakhand as dev bhumi is not surprising, the use of an anti-China and Pakistan rhetoric fed into an aggressive nationalism which simultaneously creates internal enemies. In such an environment not just Muslims and Dalits, who do not ‘buy into’ the imagined Hindu world, but also the secular activists opposed to the dam, found themselves squeezed out. To state it sharply, the movement, over time, seemed to have transformed from an anti-dam protest to a socio-political mobilization which is both conservative and exclusionary.
This requires some explication. Not only was Sunderlal Bahuguna, the icon of the Chipko movement, a towering figure held in high esteem by both the local populace and officialdom, every review of the Tehri Dam had advised against the project. Yet, there was no stopping the dam. And, as the many ‘fasts unto death’ by Bahuguna failed to yield the desired result, the protesters started moving away from an opposition drawing on secular/scientific rationale to bring in element of hurt faith, thereby according legitimate space to Hindu ideologues and organizations. In some ways this may have been a weapon of last resort. Overall thus, while sharing Mukul Sharma’s unease about the movement, I would tend to be a little less critical, arguing that the insertion of right-wing, religious activists and ideology in itself do not take away from the validity of the movement, even as one needs to be wary of the possible negative fallouts of the mobilization. In essence , even though the protest movement failed to achieve its objectives, the Tehri Dam remains a deeply flawed project.
The most telling case study is of the Vrindavan project, which in its attempt to declare the area as holy, Krishanbhoomi, has most dramatically defined the terms of social transformation. Sharma points out that despite claims of a lineage rooted in antiquity, Krishna worship in the region and the elevation of Mathura-Vrindavan as a holy site are relatively recent. Once, however, these claims acquire a legitimacy, both the status and concerns of communities/groups not subscribing to Krishna worship tend to be marginalized. Sharma’s description of the role and status of Dalit and Muslim communities in Vrindavan is telling, as also how well-ensconced religious foundations have successfully appropriated large tracts of land for their favoured purposes. What is fascinating is the relative neglect of drainage and sewage in the religious township, belying the concern for pollution control in the Yamuma river. To state it sharply, under religious garb, the greening efforts in the Mathura-Vrindavan belt seem designed to serve the interests of religious commerce – tourists, residential complexes for the faithful, and so on – far more than revive the area in a manner that would help the residents, specially those at the lower end of the spectrum to lead a dignified life. Worse, both the river and the surrounding region continues to be degraded as the project, given its limited imagination, has failed to ensure a meaningful buy-in from a vast majority of the residents of the region.
Mukul Sharma does not suggest a simplistic, linear, relationship between green and saffron. Even as he points to the ‘dangers’ inherent in a certain kind of green politics, he does not rule out the possibility of a liberative Green agenda and practice. Nevertheless, not just the cases discussed, but also his survey of the European, particularly German Greens, indicates that the likelihood of green movements turning insular and conservative, harking back to an imagined past with a privileged place for the natives, remains high. This is a point made brilliantly in an earlier two volume study, From the Green Movement to the Green Party by Saral Sarkar. Sarkar, like Sharma, discusses not only the implications of the sacralization of the landscape as intrinsic to the definition of the native community, but also how the resultant ideology feeds into a distrust of the foreigner, in turn giving rise to a chauvinistic nationalism. It is worth remembering that both Hitler and the Nazi party were deeply committed to a conservative version of green politics, promoting vegetarianism and organic agriculture and many of these strains continue to enjoy contemporary purchase, even as other variants of green thought and practice advance a decentralized, community centred politics which can help deepen democracy.
This book thus serves as a timely caution to all those of us uneasy about the reckless and destructive use of our natural heritage. Protest movements, in particular their leaders and ideologues, are far too often imbued with a disturbing self-righteousness, a conviction that but for their intervention, disaster is inevitable, such that they are insufficiently attentive not only to the strategy and tactics of their struggle but also to its consequences. Green and Saffron is more than a cautionary tale; it simultaneously invites us to be a little more open in our analysis and action, and in particular create space for those who may not agree with us. In short, it is an invitation to be democratic, a quality, which in an era of intolerance, needs constant reiteration.
HISTORY AND THE MAKING OF A MODERN HINDU SELF by Aparna Devare. Routledge, New Delhi, 2011.
A good deal of scholarly literature in social and human sciences has already explored the encounters between modernity and the state of Bengal in political, cultural, social and religious spheres. However, the erstwhile Bombay Presidency, especially the state of Maharashtra, despite being exposed to modernity since the early nineteenth century has conspicuously received scant scholarly attention. The modernity in the West was essentially a byproduct of enlightenment rationality and the spirit of scientific enquiry that grew with the industrial revolution. Eventually, it was superior technology involving fire arms, manufactured goods and the naval supremacy that allowed the then leading industrial countries like Great Britain to embark on imperial ventures. In the process, the people from the erstwhile Bombay Presidency had to deal simultaneously with imperialism and modernity. Several thinkers as well as social reformers from Maharashtra, notably Phule, Ranade, Gokhale, Tilak, Agarkar, Karve, Savarkar and Ambedkar with their respective backgrounds, continually negotiated with modernity, and made sense of it by revisiting and even interrogating established Hindu texts and customs in the hope of changing state and society in India. Given the insufficient literature pertaining to this entire process, the book under review is a welcome addition.
Devare has primarily concentrated on three thinkers – Phule, Ranade and Savarkar – and the way each historicized complex interrelationships between India’s old civilization and modernity. It is her contention that their stance as well as ideas that stemmed from such interactive relationship continue to enjoy contemporary relevance. In fact, the acceleration of the politics of identity as stimulated by Mandal Commission report as well as demolition of Babri Masjid in the early nineties helped trigger the author’s intellectual curiosity to trace the origins of such politics and she has located the germs of such ideas, in complex ways, in the praxis of the above mentioned thinkers. Her work theorizes the history of ideas and the manner in which histories are written by bringing these three key figures to the foreground. The author’s efforts to situate the influence of these thinkers since the late nineteenth century till date on state and society in India has certainly opened up new avenues of looking at modernity and the making of the Hindu self. In view of this, let us proceed to highlight the substance of Devare’s book and its central arguments.
After initially exploring the contours of history and religion in colonial India, and commenting on the relationship between Hinduism and history, Devare moves on to discuss Phule. She argues that Phule viewed modernity through the prism of eliminating upper caste dominance, especially that of Chitpavan Brahmins, who owed their privileged position over state and society in Maharashtra to the Peshva rule which lasted from the late seventeenth to the early nineteenth century. So oppressive must have been the Brahmins vis-a-vis the lower castes, that Phule even considered British rule more acceptable than the rule of the Peshvas. He conceived the British – politically, socially and culturally – as potential allies to contest and combat upper caste domination over society in Maharashtra. He also had the benefit of studying in an English missionary school.
Nevertheless, despite partially embracing the British, Phule did not give up on tradition. Rather, he questioned the validity of prevalent religious rituals and customs that legitimized the dominance of minority upper castes, especially Brahmins/the erstwhile Aryans. As a true Satyashodhak, a movement that he started to search truth, he was courageous enough to interrogate history as perceived and narrated through myths and legends by the upper castes with the help of ancient texts and documents like Shastras, Puranas and Vedas. Since this form of history showed indigenous communities, which primarily comprised lower castes, as inferior in terms of culture, Phule chose to write alternative discourses of history in order to craft legitimate space for the oppressed communities and castes. Writing discourses that involve the building up of counter cultures, at one level, does represent an acceptance of modernity. However, while engaging in such an exercise, Phule opted to situate his efforts in Indian tradition and the way he perceived India’s history in terms of the ongoing relationship between the ruling and the oppressed communities.
In contrast to Phule’s interest in the role of caste, Devare argues that Ranade was essentially a social reformer who chose to synthesize modernity and tradition. He was, perhaps, the first historian of India in any modern sense. He published his history of Maratha rule in 1901. In an inimitable scholarly style, he drew on documentary evidence from diverse texts to write history even though some of the ancient documents used lacked a definite time span. In spite of being a Brahmin, he described the history of Maratha rule as India’s history, since Maratha rule subsumed Peshva rule and Ranade perceived the British rule as alien. Even though he was sensitive to the exploitative nature of British imperialism, he was attracted to the economically and socially progressive attitudes that came with modernity. He conceded that Britain was economically advanced and its attitude towards women and lower castes was socially emancipatory.
Ranade constantly endeavoured to combine tradition with progressive streaks in modernity. Besides, he valued the knowledge that came from ancient texts. He was also greatly influenced by saint poets such as Eknath, Tukaram, Kabir, Nanak and Namdev – all of whom in his view represented Bhagwat dharma. Their message, in general, and, in particular Tukaram’s, that rested on compassion, love, devotion and humility appealed to him while searching for an appropriate metaphysical basis for life as a process. Consequently, he attempted to synthesize gyan marg, bhakti marg and yoga marg (path towards knowledge, devotion and austerity). He was also ready to discard the content from priestly knowledge that privileged certain castes over others. The Prarthana Samaj that he founded organized prayers that were eclectically composed on these lines. Thus, like Phule, religion was fluid in his case as well.
Actually Devare has argued that both Phule and Ranade allowed for a plural self while reconciling tradition with modernity and were comfortable with plural identities. Moreover, Ranade was learned enough to negotiate with modernity through scholarship, in a western sense, and progressive enough to oppose caste discrimination and support widow remarriage. Moreover, he went as far as to join processions organized by Phule against the oppressive caste system.
Unlike Phule and Ranade, Devare argues that Savarkar’s singular dominant interest was nationalism, which apparently rested on a hard anti-colonial stand. He was also completely modern in a western sense and never fought shy of debunking tradition, including rituals and superstitions. For instance, he ridiculed rituals and superstitions that viewed the cow as sacred in India, since to him the cow was merely a useful animal in the agrarian context. Like most secularists, he believed that the sphere of politics should only be occupied by rational, scientific and secular thought. He, however, offered a totalistic and modernist vision of nationalism and history by privileging the majority Hindu community. By upholding the notion of Hindutva, in a geographical sense, on historical grounds, he chose to deploy Hindutva as collective nationalist identity towards political mobilization. Enamoured by the West, he was highly appreciative of the scientific achievements of the western countries. He even admired militaristic and aggressive imperialistic tendencies of the western countries. His main source of anguish was an inability of India and Indians to become like western people. In short, even if he fought the imperialist, in his heart he wanted India to be like the imperialist countries themselves.
Keeping the above essence of this travail, it would be worth looking at Devare’s contribution critically. Any reader would be struck by her lucid and clear presentation. The treatment of the entire theme is receptive to social complexities of different hues. Moreover, the author has also demonstrated her critical acumen in consistently pointing out the limits of history writing. The underlying questions such as whether the past is viewed and reviewed with the present in mind or whether history becomes a convenient tool in the hands of ideologues, are directly and at times subtly addressed in this work. We would, however, offer an immanent, albeit, constructive critique of this work in terms of strengthening the links in the history of ideas and their social impact by raising a few questions, underscoring the significance of a few scholarly sources and facts.
To start with, Devare’s work on Phule clearly underscores the pitiable plight of the subalterns. In some ways Ambedkar and his followers drew from Phule’s ideas and rebellious attitude towards upper caste dominance. In this context, acquaintance with Nalini Pandit’s writings on Phule as well as on caste and class in Maharashtra would have enriched her chapters dealing with Phule. A reading of these chapters on Phule, raises the following ideas and questions on history. For instance, while it is necessary to debunk upper caste myths for legitimization of their power, can it be done by providing alternative histories that are not empirically grounded. Can there ever be history written on the basis of facts that are objective? Is not all history writing, at one level, tantamount to fiction writing? Let us leave these questions for readers to ponder over.
Out of these three thinkers, the chapters on Ranade are much better written and the author has throughout shown unique sensitivity to tensions between tradition and modernity, the physical and metaphysical aspects of life, complexities of intellectual conflict in encounters between an old civilization and modernity. In fact, Ranade had a fairly sound understanding of imperialism as well as British capitalism. It could as well be argued that despite their economically and socially progressive outlook, both Ranade and Gokhale failed to muster the mass support which their contemporary Tilak enjoyed. Nevertheless, eventually Gandhi and even Nehru drew on both of them at a later stage.
Although Devare has marshalled both hitherto unexplored primary and an enormous range of secondary sources to present her arguments, the chapters on Ranade would have acquired greater insight had the author read N.V. Sovani’s writings on Ranade. In the process of encountering modernity, Ranade began a tradition of scholarship in economic and social history which was capable of probing specificities and heterogeneity of economic, political and social environment in India. Sovani, a disciple of D.R. Gadgil, even conceived of a distinct science of economics in India, in line with economists like Lewis and Nurkse who recognized the need for the Indian economy to be treated as a separate subject. Incidentally, Gadgil, a founder of the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics (who was born in 1901 the year when Ranade died) carried on Ranade’s tradition in his writings on economic history. His influence on the planning process in independent India can hardly be overlooked. Thus, through Gadgil and the work done by the Gokhale Institute as well as the Planning Commission, Ranade’s liberalism, capacity to synthesize modernity and tradition, gets linked to contemporary times.
While exploring the manner in which the author has analyzed Savarkar’s relationship with modernity, one is reminded of Frantz Fanon and his The Wretched of the Earth. In fact, under conditions of colonialism, imitation becomes the best form of flattery. Consequently, the persecuted person’s perennial desire is less to end the processes of oppression but become an oppressor himself. Ironically, Savarkar’s ideas display this peculiar streak. Savarkar was catapulted into prominence in India with the advent of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led coalition regimes from 1996-2004.
Evidently, links between the ideas of the late nineteenth century and contemporary times do get established in this work. However, the normative question of how to write history remains. To bring India together do we require selective amnesia or will social movements, through identity based politics, continue to divide India on the basis of caste and community by foregrounding unpleasant memories of the past? Under such conditions, is it possible to live in the present divorced from the past? On the whole, Devare’s exercise is thought-provoking and her work a welcome addition for students of social theory and Indian government and politics.
BAREFOOT ACROSS THE NATION: Maqbool Fida Husain and the Idea of India edited by Sumathi Ramaswamy. Routledge, London and New York, 2011.
THIS book is a severe indictment of the Supreme Court of India. It lays out in considerable detail what Husain had come to represent for India’s aspiration – ‘to secure to all its citizens… liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship’ – as set out in the Preamble to our Constitution. It decodes the many dimensions of his work and sees it as a major contribution to India’s civilizational inheritance. Yet, as Husain’s work came under physical attack, the Supreme Court did not give him the protection due to him as promised in the Constitution. It did not put on, as it has so often done these last few years, its persona of judicial activism and intervene in the legal process. Hecklers were not stopped from issuing threats against the 90 year old who had been feted by the Government of India with every Padma award as well as a nomination to Parliament. It did not get involved when his exhibitions and paintings were vandalized, when he had to go into exile, give up his Indian citizenship and die in a foreign country, even though he dearly wanted to live and die in India. The Supreme Court did not act, preferring to let the lower courts deal with the issue. It treated Husain’s case as just another one requiring no special attention, unlike its stand in the CWG or the 2G or the CVC controversies. It is this moral judgment of the Supreme Court – about what requires its intervention, perhaps even suo motu, because of its significance for the constitutional order – that is the basis of this severe indictment.
In my assessment Husain’s case could not be treated as just another case for what was at stake and under threat were fundamental constitutional values. These required the highest court’s intervention not just to protect artistic freedom, as has been stated in many articles in the book, but also to use the historic opportunity to define and redefine the core principles of our constitutional republic. Such moments, when judicial sagacity is called for, come but rarely in the life of a court. That moment has to be recognized. It is an epiphanic moment when what is hitherto regarded as ordinary is suddenly seen to be fundamental. It requires an intellectual culture of reflexivity, the Socratic eternal vigilance, and a moral sensibility to core principles. Husain’s case was more fundamental than the court realized and hence, in not rising to the occasion, it failed both Husain and the Constitution.
But that is not what the book’s editor or the contributors intended. My opening comment would certainly surprise them for what they have in fact tried to do is explore Husain’s oeuvre, his artistic location in the history of Indian art, his membership of the progressive artist group in Bombay and how this influenced his work. His experiments with form and the use of multiple media to express his creativity, his origins as a billboard painter and how this experience gave him a certain perspective, his early work which was radical and his later work which was less so, and which some felt had not evolved as much as it could have from his early experiments and, of course, the nature of the symbols he used, especially of the horse, the nude and the empty faces, and how these constituted a conversation with the different cultural zones that he inhabited, are all explored in some detail. The 14 articles in the book, including the preface, are not only intellectually of a very high order, rich in insight, closely argued, but also accessible even to one who is located in a different vocabulary from that of the art historian, cultural theorist or art critic, though concerned with exploring the different aspects of his work.
The book is immensely educative and after reading it – which has to be done slowly since it is replete with interesting propositions about contemporary India that must not be missed in a moment of distracted reading – one gets a fuller sense of what Husain has come to represent for the Indian constitutional process today. Each article is a detailed exploration of some aspect of his life and work. Together they give one a sense of the enormity of what we have done or not done, of how we have missed the opportunity to take our polity to a higher moral plane, if not regressed. The editor, with some perseverance and by overcoming several obstacles, has struggled to publish the book for which both she and the publisher deserve our deep gratitude. Both from the Preface and the Introduction, it is obvious that she did not intend it to be an indictment of the Supreme Court. That is its unintended consequence, but one which must be flagged for our collective learning. The preceding discussion should, therefore, not be seen as only a critique but equally a comment on how our intellectual life slips into a routine mode, into Tagore’s ‘dreary sand of dead habit’, as a result of which we fail to recognize the opportunity, when it presents itself, to lead the discussion on issues of public morality. While individuals may slip and fail in fulfilling this obligation, institutions such as the Supreme Court have no such luxury of lapse, especially in societies undergoing complex transformation.
Let me illustrate the elements of this missed opportunity by taking only four ideas, from the many in the book, that need extensive debate. The first is taken from the article by David Gilmartin and Barbara D. Metcalf in their ‘Art on Trial: Civilisation and Religion in the Persona and Painting of M.F. Husain’, who read the Delhi court judgment of 2008 as underscoring ‘the shared ideals of "art" and "law" precisely in furthering a specific "civilizing" vision of citizenship in India’ (p. 55). This civilizing vision, the shared commitment of both art and law to take society to a newer and more emancipatory level, is what was forfeited when Husain was driven into exile. As the articles in the book show convincingly, Husain’s corpus introduces into our cultural life not just a new aesthetic and a celebratory reading of the many strands of our civilizational heritage but also new interpretations of the important symbols of this inheritance, whether these be religious themes or important personalities or critical events. His art opened up new vistas and in doing so helped infuse our public discourse with a new creative energy. I suppose that is why from the 1950s till the 1990s, the Republic, and its publics, honoured and hailed him as one of its most creative children. From his art the nation could draw images of itself as it struggled to create a new secular, composite, accommodative political community. By enriching the civilizational resources of contemporary India, art was performing its share of the bargain and it looked to law to do its part. Law failed. Here was an opportunity for law to draw the Laxman rekha for the new order that was being fashioned, of what was permissible and impermissible. Recall the legal debates around D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, on the distinction between art and pornography, which opened up new frontiers for artistic expression. Perhaps this was our Lady Chatterley moment, even more so since this is the ancient land of India. We were invited to delve into the history of Indian art and recognize the many times when religious iconography underwent reinterpretation, to wrestle with the elements of our moral universe and decide where that Laxman rekha should be drawn. Unfortunately, we let the moment pass and worse, allowed the heckler to determine the boundaries of our public morality.
This brings me to the much contested second idea that emerges from Veena Das’ statement in her article, ‘Of M.F. Husain and an Impossible Love’: ‘I am not advocating that we as citizens simply accept the narrowing of artistic freedoms but rather trying to find how both sides of the controversy might come to acknowledge the capacity of art to hurt. One component of this argument might be that the possibility of circulation among publics created through the very idea of democratization of art might add to this capacity to hurt’ (p. 117). There are two aspects to this observation. The first concerns what happens to art when its appreciation moves from the gallery to the street, when the views of the art connoisseur with respect to its value, has to share space with those of the aam aadmi. When the politics of Indian democracy is provided an opening to enter the world of the artist, and a chance to mobilize for or against it, then the threat of veto for political gain becomes a palpable threat. This is a new situation and the regulatory institutions of Indian democracy must be prepared to regulate the threat. In Husain’s case these institutions were unprepared. There was a misalignment between process and institution, between the fence and the field, with the field beginning to eat up the fence. The political processes of democracy, in Husain’s case, threw up new realities that the constitutional institutions did not know how to deal with because they were unprepared. This is one lesson that we can draw from the case, that the processes of democracy in India have developed a momentum and, therefore, regulatory institutions must catch up.
It is the second aspect of the statement that is more difficult to decode, the acknowledgement by both sides, the artist and the public, of the ‘capacity of art to hurt’. How does one read such a statement? Is it equally valid for all democracies or more valid for plural democracies such as that of India? Is it an invitation to the artist to exercise self-censorship? Is it an acceptance of the argument that the ‘harm principle’ can be invoked in Husain’s case, providing thus a basis for legitimate constraint? Is it just a descriptive statement with no normative undertones and hence to be read as morally open? The ‘capacity of art to hurt’ idea requires us to define ‘hurt’ and what to do with it, examine the contrasting perspectives of the artist and the viewer, the social and political processes that produce this hurt and, most importantly, debate just how much hurt can and should a society tolerate. It confronts us with the claim by some of being offended by the actions of another, a sense of offence that is significant and requires intervention by an adjudicatory authority. One cannot think of a better case for the Supreme Court’s guidance on these issues and for that wisdom to be the guiding principle for our society. But no guidance, as was given in the Aruna Shanbaug case on euthanasia, was available here.
The third is the comment by Sumathi Ramaswamy in her Introduction, that ‘even as his advocates and admirers place him on the transcendent perch of the secular artist whose work is to be viewed allegorically and symbolically, his critics resolutely refuse this, "preferring to describe him as a Muslim trespassing on Hindu symbolic ground".’ Husain’s Muslimness gaining importance over his artistic personality is an alarming trend, perhaps produced by the mobilization politics of Indian democracy. Several issues for discussion can be derived from this comment. What does describing an important person thus, a Dalit president, a Parsi solicitor general, a Hindu CAG, a Sikh general, a Christian vice-chancellor, a Muslim artist, imply? Is it a coded statement for capability or worse, a coded statement for what public culture might regard as permissible? For Husain not to be allowed to draw inspiration from everywhere, certainly not from the Hindu universe, is a serious proscription. For an Indian, or anyone for that matter, not to be allowed to find a question of great import in the Mahabharata is to place on her a severe handicap. When we say that if it is not found in the Mahabharata then it is found nowhere else, we mean that seriously and hence, to deny such explorations to anybody is morally and constitutionally unacceptable. However, in addition to the moral issues involved, such naming is also unacceptable because it breaks up the nation into parochial zones patrolled by border police, as was the case of Beirut in another period and remains the case of the Jerusalem of today, both resulting in a society torn apart by civil strife. India cannot allow this to happen. We have too much at stake to allow such a partition of our common cultural patrimony to take place. In fact we must all acknowledge, in fullness, the elements of this common patrimony – elements that come from texts, folk practices, a painful history of strife, a long memory.
The fourth issue that we can place for deliberation, and that is the common thread running through all the articles, is the lament that we, by not standing up for Husain, were party to inflicting a big loss on India’s capacity to deal with its future, since it allowed one of the few voices that had evolved a creative and productive exchange between the Islamic and the Indic worlds to be silenced. Husain’s work is a celebration of these two cultural streams, what Maulana Azad described as the coming together of the Jamuna and the Ganga at Prayag. The increasing aggressiveness of political Islam and political Hinduism, presented by their most vocal exponents as incommensurable with each other, needs to be resisted by a counter intellectual and cultural movement. Husain was key to this resistance. He sought to develop a conversation between these two cosmologies as they have attempted to work out the terms by which they could live together differently under an emerging constitutional democracy. There are increasingly fewer and fewer allies in this struggle against exclusivism as we succumb to a politics of identity and parochialism, and hence, losing an ally such as Husain was a grievous blow. He was a formidable ally whom unfortunately we abandoned, denying him the right to his culture and his country. He was not just another case.
I have, in this review essay, briefly discussed some of the ideas that emerge from this important book. I want to conclude by repeating, once again, my gratitude to the authors who, with considerable scholarship, discuss Husain’s life and work. I was not fair to them since I did not engage with their erudition. That would have been difficult, because the arguments they present are complex and require a longer essay for proper engagement. But, nevertheless, I feel I have done them justice because I have read their collective contribution as an indictment of the Supreme Court. This blindness of the court in not seeing that what was at stake was our constitutional promise is the cause for much sadness. When the court did not intervene and protect Husain, by default, it reset principles for our Republic, principles by which we could negotiate matters of the limits of art, hurt, offence and intervention. It is telling when there is a groundswell of appreciation in our public discourse at the Supreme Court’s intervention on grave economic offences, but little dismay when it fails to get involved on a matter of equal, if not greater import, for our Republic – artistic freedom. We need to question our silence and our blindness. Is there an opportunity to make amends? Let the court decide and let history judge.
Peter Ronald deSouza