The recent passing of India’s renowned painter, Maqbool Fida Hussain, in London exposed India’s halfhearted commitment toward secularism.
Hussain, an Indian-born Muslim who lived in self-imposed exile because of death threats from Hindu fundamentalists, acquired Qatari citizenship in 2010.
Born in the Indian state of Maharashtra, he began his career by painting cinema hoardings. Hussain shot into prominence in the late 1940s and was widely known as the "Picasso of India".
He also joined the Progressive Artists’ Group, received many awards, and in 1986 was nominated to the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian parliament.
He was forced to leave the country of his origin in 2006 after receiving threats and being charged for making paintings that allegedly berated Hindu deities.
Hindu extremists attacked his art exhibitions. Members of the Bajrang Dal, a highly fanatical Hindu organization, vandalized his paintings. The Shiv Sena, another Hindu nationalist group from his native state of Maharashtra, welcomed this action.
Hussain was accused of painting Hindu goddesses nude and provoking religious sentiments. For this, he was always on the hit list of the groups that enjoy an affiliation with the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), which is the main opposition group.
Even the ruling Congress party of India—which claims to be far more secular than the BJP—not only failed to prevent him from leaving his home country, but also failed to bring him back and let him live fearlessly with dignity.
In contrast, the Congress-led coalition government gave refuge to Taslima Nasrin, a Bangladeshi Muslim author who had offended Islamic fundamentalists. Nasrin received death threats, too, and was forced to leave Bangladesh in 1994.
She continues to live in exile and was given refuge by the Indian government from 2004 to 2007.
Congress’s hypocrisy matches that of Hindu nationalist groups, which are intolerant to any free comment about their faith. These groups welcomed Salman Rushdie, who faced death threats from the Islamist groups. When Rushdie was to visit India, the then-Shiv Sena chief, Bal Thackrey, commented that his organization wouldn't oppose the novelist's presence.
The Indian establishment that guaranteed the safety of Nasrin, an outsider, failed to ensure the safety and security of its own Muslim citizen. Such doublespeak from the Congress-led government not only reflects its commitment to a secular agenda, but also its weakness in standing up against Hindu extremism.
Indeed, the Congress-led government has also been unable to ban Hindu extremist groups, like Abhinav Bharat (which is separate from a charitable trust by the same name) or Bajrang Dal, that have been accused of planting bombs during recent years.
Unlike banned Islamic, Sikh, and ultra-leftist terrorist organizations, those promoting the cause of a Hindu nation continue to have a free run. On many occasions, Congress has also indulged in peddling the soft version of Hindu nationalist politics.
Congress officials were not only involved in the 1984 anti-Sikh carnage that followed the assassination of the then-Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards, but also turned a blind eye when Hindu extremists gathered to demolish an ancient mosque in December 1992.
The Indian government should ensure the safety of all writers and artists whose lives are endangered, without being lenient toward any extremist group. Religious groups need to understand that any free comment cannot really put any religious belief in danger. No religion is so weak or fragile that it can break into pieces by any small act of blasphemy or a free thought.
Instead, religious leaders should be more compassionate and forgiving if they love and care for humanity. They should not let religion go into the hands of extremists, who are full of hatred and venom.
Gurpreet Singh is a Georgia Straight contributor and the host of a program on Radio India. He's working on a book tentatively titled Canada's 9/11: Lessons from the Air India Bombings.