Like the proverbial swallow, one My Name is Khan does not make a summer. The most striking illustration — and the most embarrassing for India as a secular democracy with a tradition of glorious, unfettered art — is the fact that a foremost artist of the country has been conferred honorary citizenship by Qatar after he has found it impossible to return to India for years. Else, this could just have been celebrated as an acknowledgment of brilliance by another country. Maqbool Fida Husain, in self-imposed exile since 2006 when the decade-long campaign against his art became too threatening for his work and person, has never made any bones about his longing for India. But he was remembered only through the incredible exclusion of his work from the 2008 India Art Summit, held with the support of the secular United Progressive Alliance government. So it was not the Bajrang Dal, or the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or any similar organization — which destroyed paintings, vandalized galleries, broke into the artist’s home and constantly threatened him — that was behind this exclusion. The government was plain terrified of the damage a mob with Hindu sentiment as their excuse could wreak during the event. For in India, the pretext of hurt religious sentiment stops all administrative action cold in its tracks.
The nation has grown used to the infringement of artistic space by politics. Literature, film, the visual or performing arts are all made scapegoats in the political need to assert strident group identities, sometimes to recover lost space in the public memory, or to repeatedly make visible invisible divisions so that interests vested in conflict are kept in clover. What is more disturbing about the ‘secular’ parties’ apparent ineffectuality in protecting Mr Husain’s work, home and reputation, however, is the inescapable feeling that tolerance, secularism, freedom of expression and aesthetic values vanish like a puff of smoke before the bogey of religion. Nobody is sure about its hold on the self, and whether proclaiming the simple unacceptability of vandalism as a way of protest — against Mr Husain’s nude Saraswati or anything else — would mean a loss of votes. Superstition can be of many kinds.
This sign of an inadequately developed attitude to the relationship between religion and a society of many faiths is most obvious in the lukewarm response of the Indian government to the news of Qatar’s offer of citizenship to Mr Husain. He can come home if he wants to, runs the signature tune, the government can give him security but no guarantees. This disinterest, now and for years earlier, may be, of course, an expression of the very mature realization that all art is universal and the true artist has no home. All the world is his home, but perhaps not India.