India must be one of the few democracies where two reputed artists - M.F. Husain, the painter, and Taslima Nasreen, the writer - are being hounded by fundamentalists. Husain, who is an Indian, is facing the wrath of Hindu fanatics while Nasreen, a Bangladeshi, has received death threats both in her own country and in India from Muslim zealots.
That both Husain and Nasreen are Muslims shouldn't make anyone jump to the conclusion that only members of this community are the targets of militants.
As is known, a Hindu filmmaker, Deepa Mehta, couldn't shoot her movie "Water", depicting the plight of Hindu widows, because of rowdy demonstrations by supporters of the xenophobic Hindu outfits associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its mentor, the Sangh Parivar.
Similarly, a Hindu art student was attacked by the parivar activists in Vadodara for one of his allegedly blasphemous paintings. And the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune was vandalised, again by Hindu zealots, because an American scholar, James W. Laine, had worked there while writing a controversial biography of Shivaji, the Maratha warrior king of the medieval period.
What all these incidents underline is the failure of the Indian state to protect artistic freedom and even academics unless they follow the censorship norms prescribed by bigots. And the reason for this failure is the reluctance of politicians to take on the fundamentalists, masquerading as patriots intent on preventing any denigration of religious and cultural sentiments, or deviation from 'politically correct' notions about historical figures.
Unfortunately, this pusillanimity of the political class cuts across party lines as well as the secular-communal divide. While the hounding of Husain by the Hindutva brigade for his 'objectionable' paintings of Hindu deities was not unexpected because the BJP and other outfits linked to the parivar had never made a secret of their excessive protective zeal for Hindu sentiments, Nasreen has virtually been hounded out of Kolkata where a secular Marxist government is in charge.
Evidently, just as the 'communal' BJP likes to whip up religious fervour to woo its vote bank of xenophobic Hindus, the 'secular' comrades too do not mind appeasing their own vote bank of Muslims even if this means pandering to the retrogressive elements in their ranks.
Arguably, not all Muslims will endorse the various fatwas, one even calling for Nasreen's beheading, issued by the bigoted clerics. In all probability, the silent majority of this community would like to leave her alone even if they are offended by the criticism of their religion in her books.
The same may well be true of Hindus as well, a vast majority of whom are embarrassed by the ransacking of Husain's exhibitions by the saffron storm-troopers and his continuous harassment, which has forced him to live in exile in London.
But the politicians invariably listen to the fundamentalists if only because these rabble-rousers have the ability to disrupt normal life in a city by deploying their 'army' of anti-social elements. This is exactly what happened in Kolkata, persuading the state government to pack off Nasreen to (of all places) the BJP-ruled Jaipur in Rajasthan following a day of violence by rowdies linked to a little known Muslim organization in Kolkata.
Although the Bengali intelligentsia has been vociferous in its condemnation of Nasreen's deportation, the commissars have maintained a deafening silence, for they know that, in terms of numbers, the middle class intellectuals are a tiny group compared to the ability of the bigoted clerics to field their supporters on the day of voting and coerce the uninvolved Muslim citizen into toeing an anti-Nasreen line.
It isn't only the Left in West Bengal that has virtually surrendered to the Muslim fundamentalists on this issue, the Manmohan Singh government too has been following a cautious line. Although it has provided a 'safe house' to Nasreen, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee has told parliament that 'guests' are not expected to do or say anything that may hurt the sentiments of ordinary people.
There hasn't been a word from any of the government worthies either about artistic freedom or of the right of scholars to present their well-researched views even if they run counter to popular myths.
It goes without saying that this kind of censorship not only amounts to an endorsement of the stand of the bigots, thereby further emboldening them in their rejection of liberal values, but also paves the way for the stifling of artistic freedom and even scientific inquiry.
This second danger was evident when the Manmohan Singh government withdrew an affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court, which claimed that the Hindu deity, Lord Ram, was a mythical figure, and that the so-called Ram sethu (bridge) between India and Sri Lanka was a natural formation, and not manmade.
This kind of blind faith is reminiscent of medieval times when Galileo was forced to refute his theory that the earth goes round the sun because such a claim would hurt religious sentiments - the same argument which the fundamentalists offer today.
Before the Nasreen episode, the Left pretended that it was against such regressive thinking. But the need to keep the mullahs on its side has apparently become all the greater after the recent Nandigram tragedy where Muslim villagers were at the receiving end of the rape and arson carried out by the armed cadres of the Marxists.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at email@example.com)