Rediff Logo News Banner Ads Find/Feedback/Site Index

May 11, 1998


Pritish Nandy

Defending Thackeray

E-Mail this story to a friend

Like the 24 per cent of India who voted for Hindutva, I am also getting a bit hot under the collar about this secularism. No, I am not a fundamentalist. Nor have I ever supported the BJP. But I fear we are all going over the top on this matter of whether Ghulam Ali should be allowed to perform in India or Jansher Khan to tutor squash enthusiasts. Whether Husain's flat should have been ransacked because he painted Hindu goddesses naked.

The media loves those who wear their secularism on their sleeve. Who claim to fight for artistic tolerance, cultural freedom and secular values, however fake they may be. Even Manjit Bawa and Jatin Das, who have made their careers out of badmouthing Husain are now grabbing front page headlines by defending him in the name of secularism and free thinking. While the BJP, always sharp to unearth a political opportunity, is rooting for the liberals, because it sees this as the perfect opportunity to whitewash its communal image.

But what is secularism? Is it an euphemism for liberal politics or is it a true understanding of what constitutes right and wrong in a multi-religious, pluralistic society like ours? Is a secular person someone like Mulayam Singh who speaks for the minorities and voices their political concerns or is it someone who stands up for what is actually the right thing to do, irrespective of whom it benefits, the majority or the minorities?

Take the massacre of the Hindus in Kashmir. My friend Anupam Kher has been branded communal by some sections of the media (and these so-called secularists) simply because he had the temerity to question conventional wisdom. He argued, rightly in my view, that disrupting Ghulam Ali's concert and banning Jansher Khan were not exactly examples of Sena intolerance. They were protests born out of anguish and despair which the secularists have deliberately chosen to misread.

This is not new. Every time a writer or a painter or a musician is attacked by the religious majority in a society, he or she immediately becomes a victim and a hero. Like Salman Rushdie. No one ever bothered to look at the point of view of the Ayatollah Khomeini or millions of conservative Muslims who were outraged by The Satanic Verses. Why? Simply because the media finds it unfashionable to be conservative.

Everyone jumped to Rushdie's defence. He was seen as an innocent victim of Islamic fundamentalism, a heroic writer standing up to injustice and intolerance. No one bothered to look at the real issue. Was it right, was it necessary for him to make his reputation (and his millions) as a great twentieth century novelist by deliberately hurting the sensitivities of millions of conservative Muslims whose only crime was that they were believers?

But that was not a fashionable question to ask. The fashionable stance was the liberal one: How dare these bigoted Muslims get offended by a work of artistic merit? Anyone who disagreed was labelled a zealot, undeserving of being part of a modern, liberal society. The real issue (Was Rushdie right in hurting the feelings of millions?) was conveniently brushed under the carpet and everyone zoomed onto a non-issue (Was Khomeini justified in putting out a fatwa against him?) and the whole world rooted for Rushdie (as a great novelist, deserving of the Nobel Prize) and abused Khomeini for wanting his head (as a frumpy, filthy fascist, with no understanding of modern literature).

It was politically correct to spit on Khomeini. Rushdie was this brave, liberal, secular, and enormously talented author being harrassed by a wicked, brutal, ugly, fundamentalist state. It became a fight between art and authoritarianism, right and wrong, good and bad. Rushdie was the nice guy. Khomeini was the evil emperor of crime.

Very glib. Very pat. But was it true? Was Khomeini really a bad guy or was he simply standing up for what he thought was unjust to his faith, his people? No one had time for the truth. Public opinion, spearheaded by the intolerant Western media, was clearly prejudiced. No one could defend Khomeini without getting tarred by the same brush.

This is exactly what has happened to Thackeray.

No one is ready to look at the real issues. Which are: Why did the Shiv Sena disrupt Ghulam Ali's concert? Why did the Bajrang Dal ransack Husain's flat? Why has the Sena banned Jansher Khan? Are these signs of intolerant Hinduism? Or is it outrage at the insensitivity of the media to the anguish of the majority community?

Is it fascist to stand up against those who hurt us, knowingly or unwittingly? After all, no one is saying anything against Ghulam Ali or Junoon or Jansher Khan. Their excellence is not in question. Nor are they being accused of any crime. They are only being identified for what they are. Pawns on the chessboard of our complex political life.

Pakistan is happy to send us their best talent, who win our hearts by their art, their music, their poetry, their excellence in sports. At the same time, they subvert us by sending in terrorists who bomb and kill and loot hundreds of innocent men, women and children whose only crime is that they are Hindu. How can we separate these two issues? How can we say that art and sports unites our nations while terrorism is a crime we must rebut? That Pakistani artistes must be welcomed with open arms but Pakistani-trained terrorists must be fought back?

Is this possible? Is it possible to keep art and life in separate compartments? To fight the Pakistanis at the frontier and welcome their writers, poets, singers and musicians to our cities and fete them? To say that culture has nothing to do with terrorism, sportsmanship is more important than human life? That the murder of the innocents in Kashmir must not be allowed to bloody our ties?

This is exactly what Pakistan wants us to say. It suits them, not us. To separate art from life, culture from politics. It is time we fought back this argument. It is time we called the bluff of our fashionable secularists. For we cannot remain blind to the truth. That the ISI today is subverting our life, our freedom, our political choice.

It is easy to be secular when your father, your brother, your son is not tortured and killed before your eyes. It is easy to be liberal when your mother is not gang raped, your sister is not molested by strangers. When your village is not razed to the ground, your home is not looted. Your means of livelihood are not destroyed by a brutal, meaningless war that runs on and on and on.

Kher's view is my view. It is the view of millions of Indians who are not intellectually articulate, who do not have access to the media, who were not taught liberalism in fashionable English schools. Who do not understand all this bullshit about secularism and art. Millions of Indians who are angry and outraged at what Pakistan is getting away with.

We believe that art cannot pretend to be superior to life. It is not possible to allow a gaggle of city socialites to sit back and enjoy a ghazal night by Ghulam Ali or a rock concert by Junoon while thousands of innocent people in Kashmir remain terrorised by Pakistan. It does not matter whether Jansher Khan can teach squash to a bunch of well heeled youngsters who have no idea of what is happening on our borders every day. We can afford to do without these luxuries for a while just to show support and sympathy for those who have suffered in the hands of Pakistani inspired terrorism and crime.

It is time we stopped thinking in terms of what is secular and what is communal and, instead, focussed on what is right for India, good for India. If that, coincidentally, happens to be a Hindu point of view, so be it. After all, even the BJP is ready to forsake that position today. In desperate search of minority votes.

We were unfair to Khomeini in the name of secularism. We are unfair to Thackeray, in the name of secularism, when he protests against Husain painting our goddesses naked. Who is interested in Husain's credentials, whether he loves Hindus or not? The question is: Does he have the right to hurt others?

Would he have dared to paint Allah naked? Would he have dared to paint Allah at all? Or is he brave only in hurting those who do not hit back because they think it is politically unfashionable? Because they think that modern India must enshrine secularism and kick everything else in the butt?

I have fought for all the secular causes and I am ready to defend secularism with my life. But not at the cost of India. Not at the cost of what is right.

And what is right is simple: We cannot allow Pakistan to make monkeys out of us. Our tolerance must not be taken for granted. Artistic freedom cannot have precedence over our lives, our honour. The blood of innocents must not be allowed to be shed in vain.

How Readers responded to Pritish Nandy's last column

Pritish Nandy

Tell us what you think of this column