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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 27 New Delhi June 25, 2016

My Earliest Recollections / Day One in Calcutta / The Roots of the Emergency / We Need No Taliban Here

Sunday 26 June 2016, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

My Earliest Recollections

After N.C.’s demise on June 27, 1998 three pieces were recovered from his notes as evidence that he had started writing his autobiography.We are carrying the following piece (written on March 5, 1990) on his birth and childhood.

What’s the earliest memory I have about myself? I have tried to look back to catch a glimpse of what could possibly be the earliest scene I can remember about my life.

I don’t remember anything about my birth and infancy, about the place where I was born. That was in a winter morning in November 1913 at a town in Assam called Silchar where my mother’s uncle was a prison doctor. My mother told me later that I was born early morning at about 5. I don’t know who were all there to receive me into the world, but I was told later that the arrival was smooth, without a hitch. My complexion was slightly dark—certainly darker than my mother’s and my father’s both of whom were fair. So I was called ‘Kanu’—the pet name of Krishna. One of my uncles was an admirer of a great Bengal scholar of those days and after him, I was named ‘Nikhil Nath’. That was perhaps all that I could gather about my first hours in this world.

My mother used to say that as a baby, I used to be quite a problem at night as I could cry for milk at the middle of the night and my full-throated angry howl would wake up the neighbours. And a relation who was rather obsequious to the Raj, would remark that it was good we were not living in sahib-para—the locality of the sahibs—as they would not tolerate this nightly howl by the Bengali baby. My mother used to recall another incident about my full-throated bellowing. The family had gone to the Tagore mansion at Jorasanko to watch Rabindranath’s Valmiki Pratibha in which the poet himself took part. As soon as the curtain was up and the bearded old man appeared on the stage, I roared sitting on the lap of my mother who had to rush out of the hall and had difficulty getting back home all by herself carrying the baby, as my father and my aunt stayed behind as they were ardent votaries of Tagore.

Otherwise I was a healthy normal baby with a large head and bristling hair. No problem about food as I was and have continued to be fond of milk. Every afternoon, I used to have long outings in the pram with Jagabhai who was the all-purpose factotum in our cosy little home.

My earliest recollections centre round the small house at Amherst Street in Central Calcutta. You had to reach it from the main road by a winding brick-laid lane through which no carriage could pass, only rickshaws could enter. The room in front was my father’s study-cum-sitting room. Behind it was a narrow open space and you reached the two dingy rooms and a narrow verandah which served as the dining place with small wooden stools and the meal laid out on the floor. By the staircase was the tiny little kitchen where my mother prepared all our meals. Upstairs there were two rooms, one with my father’s bed and the other belonged to my mother, where my aunts whenever they would come could park themselves. Any other guest would be sleeping in my father’s study downstairs. Next to us was the playing field of St. Paul’s College, where students would be playing. One would notice a dark-skinned young man would be playing with the boys as if he was one of them. Years later, he turned out to be my teacher in Presidency College—Kuruvilla Zachariah, a shy person with big eyes and ears, a bachelor at that time who became a real guru to me.

It was war-time (1914-1918) when I was growing up to be a boy. Khaki uniforms were popular, with a Union Jack stitched on the shoulder, and I remember I got a boy howitzer. A nursery book of alphabets all dealing with the great war that the British were supposed to be winning—D stood for Dreadnought, J for Jellico, U for U-boat, Z for Zeppelin etc.

Day One in Calcutta

The following report by Nikhil Chakravartty, the Calcutta correspondent of People’s Age (published from Bombay), appeared in the weekly’s August 24, 1947 issue (it was wired from Calcutta on August 17, 1947) under the following headlines: ‘End of a Nightmare and Birth of New Dawn!’; ‘Calcutta Transformed by Spirit Of Independence’; ‘Hindus, Muslims Hug Each Other In Wild Joy—Tears Roll Down

Where Blood Once Soaked The Streets’.

Frenzy has overtaken Calcutta. It is a frenzy which no city in India has ever felt through the long years of thraldom under the British.

When the clock struck midnight and Union Jacks were hauled down on August 15, 1947, the city shook to her very foundations for a mad frenzy overtook her 40 lakh citizens. Nothing like this has ever happened before.

I have racked my brains for hours; I have looked up all despatches in the Press; but still I find no adequate words to communicate the unforgettable experience that has overwhelmed me in the last three days. It is like a sudden bursting of a mighty dam: you hear a deafening roar of water sweeping away everything in the flood. It comes with a crushing suddenness and strikes with the strength of a thousand giants.

That is how all of us in Calcutta have felt in the last few days—all of us, old or young, man or woman, Hindu or Muslim, rich or poor. In this mighty sweep of the flood none was spared. And the floods carried off a lot of dirt and stigma of our slavery.

Calcutta is Reborn

One hundred and ninety years ago, it was from Calcutta that Clive set out of conquer this land of ours and it was this city which was the seat of all his vile intrigues that divided our ranks and brought about our defeat. But today in the sweeping torrent of freedom all that has been wiped away, and once again this beloved city of ours stands out clean and full of radiance with the glow of lasting brotherhood.

Everybody felt nervous about August 15. Weeks ahead authorities were on tenterhooks; more police and military were being posted to ensure peace. Ministers would not permit meetings in the open to celebrate the transfer of power, afraid that the goondas might create trouble. East Bengal Hindus were nervous that one little spark in Calcutta might throw the entire province into the flames of a civil war; Muslims were panicky that they might be finished off in Calcutta and many had left the city.

Gandhiji had already moved his camp to one of the most affected areas—Belliaghata—and cancelling his East Bengal trip, had decided to spend a few days here with Suhrawardy. But even he was disturbed by rowdy goondas, backed by communal groups, accusing him of being an enemy of Hindus. News from the Punjab was bad. On the whole an uncanny fear gripped everybody and the day of independence seemed like a deadline for distur-bances.

But how wrong were our calculations! With all our pretensions of knowing our people, with all the prophecies and warnings, bans and precautions, no one really knew how the people—common men and women among both Hindus and Muslims—would come forward to celebrate August 15. It was this unknown factor, which in every turn of history is the determining factor, that has made all the difference in our calculations and the actual happenings on that day.

People’s preparations for the celebrations of the day went on briskly, though imperceptibly. The demand for Tri-colours knew no bounds; whatever be the material, whatever the make, every flag was literally sold out. Even the poorest of the poor, coolie, scavenger or rickshaw-puller, bought the Jhanda. In paras and mohallas boys and girls were getting ready practising drills or formations, organising Prabhat Pheris. Party differences, personal bickerings, etc. were forgotten.

Discordant voices there were, but they did not matter. Mahasabha first raised the slogan of black flags, but then piped down and declared non-participation. But all the prestige of Shyamaprosad could not make any impression on the very people whom he had swayed during the Partition campaign.

Forward Bloc and Tagorites also opposed the celebration on the ground that real freedom was yet to be won. But despite the fact that thousands of Bengali homes paid homage to Netaji that day hardly a handful abstained from participation. Every school, factory, office, every home—be it a mansion or a bustee—awaited the great day with hearts full of jubilation.

As the zero hour approached, the city put on a changed appearance. On the streets, people were busy putting up flags and decorating frontage. Gates were set up at important crossings, bearing names of our past titans like Ashoka or our martyrs in the freedom movement. The atmosphere was tense; should there be a new round of stabbings or shootings among brothers, or should there be return to peace and normalcy?

All Barriers Broken

The first spontaneous initiative for fraterni-sation came from Muslim bustees and was immediately responded to by Hindu bustees. It was Calcutta’s poor toilers, especially Muslims, who opened the floodgate, and none could have dreamt of what actually took place.

Muslim boys clambered up at Chowringhee and shouted, “Hindu-Muslim ek ho” and exhorted the driver to take them to Bhowani-pore. But the driver would not risk that and so they came up to the border only.

But then all of a sudden in the very storm-centres of most gruesome rioting of the past year—Raja Bazar, Sealdah, Kalabagan, Colootolah, Burra Bazar—Muslims and Hindus ran across the frontiers and hugged each other in wild joy. Tears rolled down where once blood had soaked the pavements. “Jai Hind”, “Vande Mataram”, “Allah-ho-Akbar” and above all renting the sky “Hindu-Muslim ek ho”.

Curfews were ignored; men rushed out on the streets, danced, clasped and lifted each other up. It was all like a sudden end of a nightmare, the birth of a glorious dawn.

As midnight approached, crowds clustered round every radio set and Jawaharlal’s ringing words sent a thrill round every audience, “Appointed day has come —the day appointed by destiny..”

With the stroke of midnight, conch-shells blew in thousands, conch-shells blown by our mothers and sisters from the innermost corners of our homes—for the call of freedom has reached every nook and corner. And with the conch-shells were heard the crack of rifles and bursting of bombs and crackers. The very arms that were stored so long to kill off brothers were being used to herald the coming of freedom.

A torchlight procession started in North Calcutta. Tram workers, in all spontaneity, brought out a couple of trams crowded with Hindus to the Nakhoda mosque and were feted by Muslims with food and drink. In Burra Bazar, Muslims were treated the same way and all embraced one another. Hardly anybody slept that night—the night choked with passionate emotions welling up in so many ways.

As the morning came the city was already full of excitment and pavements were thronged with people. Prabhat Pheris came out singing songs of the national struggle. Boys and girls marched through the streets with bands and bugles—bright and smart, free citizens of tomorrow.

Flag salutations in every park, in every school and office. Buses plied free, giving joy rides to thousands. Trams announced that all their returns would be sent for relief. And they ran till late at night along all mixed routes which were closed for the past year.

At the Government House, our own Government was to unfurl the Tricolour, but invitees were confined to Burra Sahibs and officials, the rich and elite, Ministers and Legislators. They came in big cars, many with their wives dressed in all their fashionable clothes.

Government House—People’s Property

Common people, those that have made freedom possible, they too came in thousands, but they were kept outside, beyond the huge iron gates. Why must this be so? Why must this occasion be celebrated in the way the White Sahibs have done so long?

I watched that crowd growing restless every minute and found among them the very faces that you come across in the streets every day or at the market or in your own home: babu, coolie, student, Professor, young girl and shy wife—all jostling with each other, impatient at being kept out. Sikh, Muslim, Bhayya and Bhadralok clamoured for the gates to be opened and when that was not done, they themselves burst into the spacious grounds and ran up towards the Governor’s stately mansion.

The burst into the rooms much to the annoyance of the officials and perhaps also of the marble busts of many of the White rulers that have never been disturbed in their majesty.

For hours they thronged there, thousands over thousands of them, shoving out many of the ICS bosses. But it would be a slander to say that they were unruly. How little did they touch or damage? Had they been unruly, as somebody had reported to Gandhiji, the whole place would have been a wreck in no time.

They went there for they felt that it was one of their own leaders who had been installed as their Governor. And when the annoyed officials ran up to Rajaji to complain to him about the crowd swarming into the rooms, C.R., it is reported, replied: “But what can I do? It is their own property. How can I prevent them from seizing it?”

The sense of triumph, of pride that we have come to our own could be seen in the faces that entered the portals of the Government House. It is symptomatic of August 15 no doubt. For though there were restrictions and curtailments to real freedom in the elaborate plans the Dominion Status, the people—the common humanity that teems our land—have taken this day to mean that that have won and no amount of restrictions will bar the way, just as no policeman could stop the surging crowd that broke into the Government House.

Outside, all over the city, houses seemed to have emptied out into the streets, lorries came in hundreds, each packed precariously beyond capacity; lorries packed with Hindus and Muslims, men and women. Streets were blocked and the people themselves volunteered to control traffic.

Rakhi Bandhan Again

Lorry-loads of Muslim National Guards crammed with Gandhi-capped young Hindu boys shouted themselves hoarse “Jai Hind”, “Hindu-Muslim ek ho”.

Somebody in Bhowanipore waved a League flag under a Tri-colour. What a sight and what a suspense. But the days of hate were over and all shouted together, “Hindu-Muslim ek ho!”

A batch of Hindu ladies went to Park Circus to participate in the flag hoisting. They tied rakhi (strings of brotherly solidarity made famous during Swadeshi days) round the wrists of Muslim National Guards. And the Muslim boys said, “May we be worthy brothers!”

Hindu families, quiet and timid Bhadralok families, came in hundreds to visit Park Circus with their wives and children in tikka gharries piled by Muslims. Muslims, well-to-do and poor, visited Burra Bazar, and Ballygunge in endless streams. And this was going on all these three days.

They are all going to paras or mohallas they had to leave or where they had lost their near and dear ones. Today there is no area more attractive and more crowded than the very spots where the worst butcheries had taken place. As if to expiate for the sins of the last one year, Hindus and Muslims of Calcutta vied with each other to consecrate their city with a new creed of mighty brotherhood.

On the evening of August 16, one year back, I sent you a despatch which could describe but inadequately the mad lust for fratricidal blood that had overtaken Calcutta that day. To mark the anniversary of that day I visited the crowded parts of Hindu Burra Bazar and the Muslim Colootola where in this one year hardly anyone passed alive when spotted by the opposite community. But this evening Muslims were the guests of honour at Burra Bazar and Hindus, as they visited Colootola, were drenched with rose-water and attar and greeted with lusty cheers of “Jai Hind”.

On the very evening, at Park Circus, was held a huge meeting of Hindus and Muslims. Suhrawardy, J.C. Gupta, MLA, and Bhowani Sen spoke. It was here that Suhrawardy asked the Muslims to go and implore the evicted Hindus to come back to Park Circus.

At Belliaghata, Gandhiji’s presence itself has brought back hundreds of Muslim families who had to leave in terror of their lives only a few weeks back. And Gandhiji’s prayer meetings are attended by an ever increasing concourse of Hindus and Muslims—themselves living symbols of Hindu-Muslim unity.

Reports from Bengal districts also prove that this remarkable upsurge of solidarity was not confined to Calcutta alone. In Dacca, despite panic, Hindus and Muslims jointly participated in the celebration of Pakistan, and Muslim leaders themselves intervened in one case where the Congress flag was lowered, and the flag was raised again.

Everywhere Hindus showed response by honouring the Pakistan flag. Joint Hindu-Muslim demonstrations were the marked features of the occasion.

Reports from Comilla, Kusthia, Dinajpore, Krishnanagore, Munshinganj, Malda and Jessore, all show that August 15 had passed off in peace and amity. Only local fracas were reported from Kanchrapara, but the great and good tidings from Calcutta eased the situation there.

In this mighty flood of freedom and brother-hood there is yet the sense of suspense, for it came with such an incredible suddenness and magnitude that many think it is too good to last long. It is like holding a precious glass dome in your hands while you are in suspense that it might fall and break at any moment.

Spontaneous assertion of people’s will for freedom and brotherly solidarity needs to be harnessed in lasting forms and that is where our leaders will be tested in the coming weeks.

Whatever happens, August 15 will be cheri-shed for Calcutta’s grand celebration on the eve of the end of the dark night of slavery and the dawn of freedom. Calcutta yesterday was the symbol of our servitude and fratricidal hate. Calcutta today is the beacon-light for free India, asserting that freedom once resurrected can never be curbed or destroyed, for all our millions of Hindus and Muslims together are ready to stand together as its proud sentinels.

(People’s Age, August 24, 1947)

The Roots of the Emergency

As years pass by, one after the other, the past recedes more and more into distant memory. There are certain events in the life of a nation as of individuals, to which distance does not lend enchantment to the view. Rather the ugly visage falls into the pattern of historical evolution and lives on as such. One such event in our lifetime, and in our very land was the Emergency which was promulgated on June 25-26, twenty years ago.

Twenty years is but a short space in the vast canvas that is the history of this land, and objectivity may be difficult to attain in dealing with it, because the turmoil it set still evokes ripples of excitement and the dark, the sinister character of that great misadventure is often lost in recolllecting those nineteen months of bizarre politics in this highly political country. To understand the enormity of that episode one has to take into account the events that preceded it as also the fall-out that came in its wake, and only then can one comprehend in full measure what enormous damage the Emergency inflicted on the democratic fibre of this country.

The Emergency was essentially a product of Indira Gandhi’s approach to the question of power and her method of wielding it. Objective factors no doubt formed the bedrock of whatever happened; at the same time a very important factor behind the decision to snuffing out of democratic functioning was her very own greed for power, and with her, the worthy son she was then promoting.

To trace the roots of the Emergency one has to go back to the crisis that the Congress faced after the debacle of the 1967 General Elections, in which the party was dislodged from office in a number of States. She realised that apart from other factors, the direction of her policy stand at that time was regarded in general as having been dictated by the World Bank authorities and was therefore a misfit in Indian conditions. She promptly changed her stance and her team and very neatly turned the tables on her critics within the Congress leadership whom she branded as conservative and holding back her urge to push radical reforms. Bank nationali-sation, for instance, did not come at the crest of a massive movement but as a means by which to edge out Morarji Desai. There was an outburst of popular enthusiasm at the radical postures Indira Gandhi took, and with this, she managed to isolate the old guards of the Congress branding them as conservative, she alone to be regarded as radical progressive. Riding this radical chariot, she could mobilise the support of a good section of liberal Left-of-Centre opinion in the country and thereby split the Congress itself, holding out hopes that the Congress she would be rebuilding would be a paragon of democracy and radicalism. The climax was her coining the slogan Garibi Hatao with which she could win the 1971 election and soon after her intervention in the Pakistani civil war that led to the birth of Bangladesh, which in turn brought her further electoral victories in 1972. The poll success made her dizzy with success, little realising that the spell of election promises does not last long; rather she had roused people’s expectations without the least efforts at implementing the promises.

This provoked a new round of strident action, led mainly by the youth and backed by the leadership of Jayaprakash Narayan. Gujarat was engulfed by the Nav Nirman movement which reached its peak in 1974-75 which led to the calling of the mid-term poll in which the Congress was badly trounced. Followed the equally powerful mass upsurge in Bihar directly under the leadership of JP. And from Gujarat and Bihar, the stormy winds of mass discontent reached Delhi just at the very hour when Indira had suffered a setback as her own election to the Lok Sabha was nullified by the Allahabad High Court. By that time she had already groomed her second son who was given a free hand to run the party and interfere without authority into the affairs of the state.

Meanwhile, tampering with the normal institution of governance was also undertaken. The concept of ‘committed’ bureaucracy was widely broadcast to mean that the officers running the administration have to be totally subservient to the dictates of those in power even in matters which undermine the system. Side by side the judiciary was also sought to be made subservient by means of browbeating—for instance, the supercession of senior judges in the matter of appointment of the Chief Justice in 1973 which was widely resented.

So, when Indira Gandhi faced the dual crisis—threat to her regime because of the growing unrest in the public, and to her personal position because of the adverse judgement by the Allahabad High Court—she gave up the demo-cratic path and resorted to personal aggrandise-ment. One is reminded of the outburst of the sycophant Congress President of the day: “Indira is India, India is Indira”. As for the government, there is good reason to believe that among the contingencies discussed at that time, the question of temporarily scrapping the Constitution and arbitrarily installing her as a virtual dictator was also considered; however, legal experts in her camp hit upon the idea of declaring Emer-gency within the precincts of the Constitution on the plea that there was a threat to the established order by those campaigning against her regime. By clamping the Emergency, all the Opposition leaders were hauled up and those who could not be immediately caught were soon hunted down. The press was gagged and civil liberties were withheld. There was no consul-tation with the party leaders and no move the explain the reason behind the imposition of the Emergency. In fact, there was no election within the party under Indira.

Right from the moment the Emergency was clamped down, the party organisation was assigned no role, and Indira did not care that the party at all levels was confused and rattled and slowly forced into irrelevance, while Indira’s son Sanjay took over with his gangster methods. That was the point when Indira finally buried the possibility of running either the government or the party along democratic lines. In fact, the party was put out of action and was virtually reduced to a cheer group for Indira and Sanjay. As for the government, it was concentrated in the hands of a few who were in the coterie of Indira and Sanjay. It was by all counts a dictatorship. Large numbers of Congressmen, including some of those holding important positions today, resented in private this emasculation of the party and government and the acquisition of power by a coterie round the Prime Minister, in which her son had the whip hand. This time the Emergency was sought to be dressed up by the “progressive” 20-Point Programme which was meant to blur the real face of the Emergency authoritarianism.

While the democratic structure was sought to be crushed, the democratic spirit of the people could not be stifled with all the gags imposed and news stifled through censorship. The hiatus between the ruling establishment at the top and the common people was widened with the result that even today it could not be bridged. It was in such a hot-house environment that Indira Gandhi groomed her son to succeed her. It needs to be noted that even with the emasculated Parliament she was not prepared to face the electorate. So, Parliament’s life was extended from five to seven years. However, after the sixth year, she banked on the calculation that all opposition against her regime had been smothered and she felt it safe to go in for election, little expecting that the imprisoned leaders with all their differences would join hands to face the electorate together. Side by side, two major defectors, Jagjivan Ram and Bahuguna, came out of the Congress and joined other Opposition leaders for a common campaign against her regime. This was how the Janata Party was born.

During the brief Janata Party interlude, there was a spate of exposure of the Emergency and plenty of literature on the subject came out. But the Janata Party leaders had no idea of her determination and her mendacity. Every bungling, every shortcoming of the Janata Party government was exploited by her camp, so much so that her people played an active role in breaking up the Janata Party and put up Charan Singh for a few months to be the Prime Minister.

When Indira Gandhi came back to power in 1980, the only lesson she seemed to have learnt from her Emergency debacle was to take advantage of the Opposition division rather then rebuilding the party which was left in a state of neglect. When Sanjay died in an air crash, she did not call upon any senior leader of the party to be groomed as her successor, but blatantly brought into politics an unwilling Rajiv Gandhi to succeed her. The party was reduced to a machinery for electioneering—nothing more; while the government was run virtually as a one-man show by the Prime Minister. That tradition was continued by Rajiv Gandhi despite the promise at a moment of forgetfulness that he would rid the party of power-brokers. Incidentally, Indira Gandhi cancelled the reports of all the probe committees set up by the Janata Party government, except one—that was the Mandal Report.

The Emergency was thus a landmark in the annals of independent India insofar as it sought to destroy the democratic fibre of the leading party, turning it into a signboard organisation to render service to the leader and her progeny chosen by her to succeed her. On the political side, the Emergency destroyed the democratic fibre of the leading political formation, namely, the Congress which since the Emergency has never cared to adhere to any form of transparency in its functioning. A real landmark this, the Emergency whose impact will long be felt both in the attitude and functioning of the ruling establishment vis-a-vis the vast multitude that constitutes the overwhelming majority in our democracy.

[Mainstream (July 1, 1995); an abridged version of this article appeared earlier in The Pioneer]

We Need No Taliban Here

Maqbool Fida Husain is at the very centre of a storm whose after-effects are extremely relevant for our democracy—both for the democratic structure of our state and for the preservation of democratic values in our society.

It is not that Husain is at the centre of a controversy for the first time; in fact, it is seldom he is out of one. He has got thousands of fans, not all because of the beauty of his art but quite a large number applauding him for what would have been called idiosyncracies in the case of mere mortals. Publicity he likes, perhaps craves for, and publicity of one kind or another can certainly be good business in these days of market-worship. As is but natural in the case of any celebrity, there are always admirers and traducers, fans and jealous rivals for Husain. Sometimes, he has evoked adverse responses even among his admirers as when he put up his huge painting depicting Indira Gandhi as a Durga at the height of the Emergency. Though this fetched him a lot of kudos from the then establishment, it was taken as being in bad taste by many of his fans at that time.

Like many other artists, Husain sometimes seems to be seeking the limelight by being provocative. The present writer is no art critic, but he has sometimes felt that some of Husain’s creations need not be so aggressive as to provoke protests and misunderstandings. Would his art or his power of depiction suffer if some of his images are not so downright? Is it necessary at all that Draupadi should be bereft of all clothes, which even the filthy villain at the famous gambling over chess could not achieve?

This is no doubt trading on a minefield, a dangerous ground as it brings into focus the question perennially controversial—the length of the artist’s freedom of expression. Like all freedoms, this has its limitations, and carries alongwith it the responsibility of the artist to society to which he or she may belong. And if the artist flouts that responsibility, who is to enforce it upon him?

The raging controversy of today about Husain’s paintings started precisely on this point. Some of the angry missionaries of faith, out to cleanse the world of all its dross and dregs, raised a hue and cry of some of Husain’s paintings depicting well-known figures of Hindu mythology in scanty garments resembling birthday suits. They have warned Husain for having hurt the sentiments of the Hindu devotees. They have even gone to court to seek an injunction against the artist.

It is not difficult to anticipate the chain of argument of these angry upholders of the Hindu faith. Since Islam does not permit even an imaginary portrait of the Prophet, why should anybody, particularly a Muslim, be permitted to depict the immortals of the Hindu pantheon in a manner suggestive of being indecent, if not promiscuous? If the Prophet’s portrayal is banned, so must be the portrayal of the gods and goddesses whom the Hindus worship. Sounds reasonable and this may be the gist of the accusation against Husain when the case comes up before the Bombay courts.

But the flaw in this argument lies in the fact that the mythology of the Hindus has never presented the gods and immortals as dry totems: they reflect, by and large, the life and living of a human being projected on a supernatural canvas. By no means do they appear as shrivelled-up, bone-dry. Rather they appear almost like robust human beings with supernatural powers—having all the emotions, sometimes in abundance. There is nothing Calvinistic in its austerity in the Hindu faith. It is worth recalling that in the wake of the reform movement in Indian society in the nineteenth century, a section of the Hindu fold was expelled from it, as it refused to agree to what they called the idol-worship. This section, the Brahmo Samaj and its smaller counterparts, was austere in its outlook, and, according to it, God in any manifestation must not be idolised as mere mortals with all their emotions and urges.

Needless to add, it is the broad sweep of the Hindu faith which helped to promote rich classics in history and poetry, performing and fine arts—many works out of them which may be frowned upon by rigid standards of moral sermonising. It is in a such a background that one has to comprehend the full implications of the sudden attack on Husain’s works by self-styled defenders of Hindu faith. It would be absurd to think that the hollow pretences of such bigotry can mislead the true devotees of the religion. Nevertheless, Husain has done the correct thing in promptly issuing a statement that he did not want to hurt anybody’s feelings by his paintings, and he was sorry about it all.

This, of course, has not satisfied the fanatics, who are out to make political capital out of it. The artist with his message has not been spared by the aggressive fanatics. One of the groups, the Bajrang Dal, attacked a well-known art gallery in Ahmedabad and tore out Husain’s paintings and made a bonfire of them. This shocking example of vandalism has evoked widespread condemnation from a large body of intellectuals while artists at a number of places have come out to demonstrate their resentment against this piece of intolerance and vandalism. Undaunted, the President of the Mumbai branch of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has now come with a new offer for truce with Husain. He wants Husain himself to destroy the paintings to which the VHP and its fellow-travelling crusaders have objected, as a Dussehra reconciliation. Obviously, this move has clear communal overtones: A Muslim artist cannot be permitted to depict Hindu gods and goddesses as he likes. Ironically, these fanatics want our people to forget that most of the religious festivals in our country cut across the communal divide. The best of the idol-makers for Dussehra in Calcutta, for instance, are Muslim potters for generations.

After all the vandalism committed, this spate of threats makes it abundantly clear that the fanatic fringe which has arrogated to itself the role of the upholder of morals as per its own book would pursue the persecution of all those who are their target. Today the target is Husain. Tomorrow it may be an author or a dancer. And let us not forget, it is the same mentality of blatant fanaticism that had fired the bullet that killed Gandhi. In the year earmarked for the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of our achieving independence, it is an ominous sign that this country has within its fold such fanatics that would not hesitate to destroy our hard-earned democracy.

We need no Taliban of whatever denomination—neither in our parlour nor in our basement.

(Mainstream, October 26, 1996)