And So He Left…

About a year ago, I wrote about Delhi High Court’s exemplary verdict that disposed off the charges against M F Husain; I cherished each and every word of Justice Kaul’s verdict that emphasized the importance of tolerance in a free and democratic society.

M F Husain, who was once called the Picasso of India by Forbes magazine, has now given up on India and embraced Qatar. Thanks to the game of competitive intolerance in India, he has now become the Picasso of Qatar.

Many newspaper articles and blogs are written about this – some endorsing, some condemning – but the best article that I came across is from Salil Tripathi (link). Here’s an excerpt:

And this is how it ends. This is how India loses one of its own.

Maqbool Fida Husain, born in Pandharpur, Maharashtra, before there was an independent India, is no longer ours. After a decade in which he faced arrest warrants and was threatened, his canvases defaced, his family harassed, his property attached, his personality ridiculed, art galleries showing his art attacked, and his art deliberately and disingenuously mischaracterized, he has decided that it is enough.

For those who argue that Qatar is not a democracy and Husain has become a laughingstock for choosing a country that’s light-years behind India in terms of human rights protection, here’s what Tripathi says: “Qatar’s record on free speech is not relevant; India’s is. And it is for Indians to reflect on why India’s most widely known painter feels safer in Doha than in Mumbai.”

I couldn’t agree more!

Husain felt unsafe: He spent his summers in London, winters in Dubai. He apologized; he explained; he clarified. But nothing was enough for his detractors. Indian ambassadors abroad praised him, while police officers at home prepared arrest warrants. Courts threw the cases out and defended art, but the state dragged its feet. Some officials said the state would protect him, but Husain did not feel safe—to think, imagine and create, in peace.

And so he left.

And the saddest part of all is that this is no longer about Husain. Just look around and you’ll see many examples of people taking offense and often retorting violently (Taslima Nasreen, Yarlagadda Lakshmi Prasad, Sachin Tendulkar, Shah Rukh Khan are some of the recent victims of competitive intolerance), and such events are gaining momentum and earning a wider ideological support.

The end-note on Salil Tripathi’s article reads:

Maqbool Fida Husain was Indian. India made him a foreigner.

I deeply regret this loss, and being an Indian I want to apologize to this great painter and expatriate who still talks proudly about his Indian-ness, expresses regrets if he had offended anyone, and blames the politicians – not Indians in general – for his exile.


And while on the subject of ‘taking offense’, here’s today’s comic strip from Jesus and Mo:


Divine Justice?

The idiotic claims from televangelist Pat Robertson — that the earthquake in Haiti may be a blessing in disguise and is a result of the pact the Haitians made long time ago with Satan to help them against French imperialists (video link) — reminds me of a similar speech made by Gandhi in 1934 to the victims of earthquake in rural Bihar.

On 15th January 1934, a colossal earthquake hit Bihar […] The death toll was estimated at twenty thousand. Gandhi visited Bihar in March and spoke to the bereaved, destitute and homeless people. The earthquake, he told them, “is a chastisement of your sins.” And the particular sin that he had in mind was the enforcement of untouchability.

Even Gandhi’s closest supporters were horrified. The victims of the earthquake had included poor as well as rich […] But Gandhi was explicitly blaming the victims, appropriating a terrible disaster to promote his own religious ideas. Nehru, who had been helping the relief efforts in Bihar, read Gandhi’s remarks “with a great shock”. But the most effective refutation came from Rabindranath Tagore, long one of the Mahatma’s greatest advocates. Tagore argued caustically that this supposedly “divine” justice, if such it was, constituted the least just form of punishment imaginable. [From Indian Summer, Tunzelmann]

Behind these types of – possibly noble yet misleading and plain wrong – claims lie the fundamental tenets of religion(s) that demand and propagate the need for a greater (divine) purpose of life and events. Once you give in to the belief that our existence in this world (and the existence of this universe) has a purpose; and explanation that is anything other than natural and rational, you’re in for a whole lot of nonsensical, unscientific, and dogmatic convictions (like God punishes you for your sins etc.) Here’s a passage from an article on Slate by Hitchen:

Earthquakes and tsunamis are to be expected and can even to some degree be anticipated. It’s idiotic to ask whose fault it is. The Earth’s thin shell was quaking and cracking millions of years before human sinners evolved, and it will still be wrenched and convulsed long after we are gone. These geological dislocations have no human-behavioral cause. The believers should relax; no educated person is going to ask their numerous gods “why” such disasters occur. A fault is not the same as a sin.

However, the believers can resist anything except temptation. Where would they be if such important and frightening things had natural and rational explanations?

Indeed, where would they be?

Vande Mataram

The “dead issue” is brought back to life yet again by some Muslim clerics who issued a fatwa against the recital of Vande Mataram by Muslims. In response, Hindu hard-liners retorted that those who refuse to sing the national song should go to Pakistan.

Two connected but fundamentally different claims are made here: (1) that Vande Mataram is un-Islamic, and (2) that refusal to sing Vande Mataram is unpatriotic. While the former is induced by religion, the latter has national chauvinism written all over it.

We certainly can’t deny the communal and political motives behind such claims, but the falsity of the second claim deems the first one almost irrelevant. In a just and liberal society no one should be forced to sing a song, be it national song or national anthem. If I, for example, find Vande Mataram offensive for religious, personal, ethical or any other reason, I should have freedom to deny its recital.

As Amit Varma has argued in a compelling blog post (link), there are two types of patriotism: one is primarily driven by love, and the other from pride and self-esteem. The first type of patriot doesn’t impose his own love and reverence (for the country) on others. While the second type of patriot demands everyone else to share his fervor and passion. A love-driven patriot may feel bad if others don’t share his feeling, but unlike a pride-driven patriot he wouldn’t get offended by that. Symbolism (like national anthem, flag etc.) and display are very important to the pride-driven patriotism. But they don’t mean much to the love-driven patriot, who adores the real things (like food, culture and music) as opposed to symbols that represent them.

The other concern that this event raises is about the vices of an unbridled democracy. There is a detailed discussion in Fareed Zakaria’s illuminating book The Future of Freedom about this. The first source of abuse in a democratic society comes from the government, and the second source comes from the people themselves. The will of majority can easily transform into tyranny of majority. The will of majority is important, even crucial to a democratic system, but so is the protection of minority’s rights. Democracy is surely a good system, but too much of a good thing can be bad sometimes.

[See my earlier related post: Talibanization of India]

Clarification: It might appear from my post above that I am implicitly approving the fatwa declared by the cleric. I am not. What I am defending is: liberty. If one doesn’t want to sing Vande Mataram, he should not be forced to sing. And same way, if a muslim wants to sing Vande Mataram then he should be allowed to do so as well.

For the interested reader, here’s good summary of issues and controversies surrounding Vande Mataram.

Cattle Class

The recent Twitter controversy about Shashi Tharoor’s “insensitive” remark reminded me of this cartoon by Mike Luckovich published about two years ago.

luckovich2006112680423 - Airline Passengers

The joke, as Amit Verma explained on Times Now show, is on the airlines, not on the passengers.

Like an Ever-flowing River

Last month, English language added the millionth word to its repertoire. (Don’t ask me, kaun sa labz?)

Compare this with Hindi, which has only about 120,000 words.

And meanwhile, only 14,135 people listed Sanskrit as their primary language in the 2001 Indian census.

Why do some languages die out and others survive the test of time? What is the most important factor that makes a language popular (i.e. widely spoken) – the lack of which leads to its extinction?

Perhaps, the answer is: adaptability.

Using lyricist Prasoon Joshi’s analogy, language is like an ever-flowing, and more importantly, ever-growing river. English is a perfect example, which has been importing words from all languages. It’s almost as adaptive as any language can possibly be. No wonder the most embracing language is being embraced so widely.  If the language stops evolving, it can face erosion. Or worse, extinction.

There’s a growing concern in India that we’re loosing languages like Hindi, Gujarati, Bengali due to the spread of English in day-to-day conversations, especially among the younger generation. I think it’s quite a valid concern, but if we want to save our languages, we need to be more forgiving and less restrictive of things like word-imports. Tightening our firm grips to save the perceived sanctity of our languages – the purist attitude – may result in their eventual (and sad) demise.


P.S. That millionth English word might be a publicity gimmick, but Oxford English Dictionary lists around 600,000 words and that count surpasses all other languages by a huge margin.


The great-great-granddaughter of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, Madhu, is illiterate, and makes a living by running a tea-stall with her mother in the slums of Calcutta.

Thanks to an initiative by a journalist to rescue her from penury, the Ministry of Coal has decided to employ her to run errands in Coal India’s offices.


Does she deserve any special treatment (like a job in a government office) just because she has royal blood running through her veins? May be not. But it is quite heart-breaking to see this royal descendant — whose forefathers include emperors like Zafar, Akbar, Babur and Gengiz Khan — in such poor conditions.

This reminds of that great ghazal (supposedly) written by Bahadur Shah Zafar himself.

na kisii kii aa.Nkh kaa nuur huu.N
na kisii ke dil kaa qaraar huu.N
jo kisii ke kaam na aa sakaa
mai.n vo ek musht-e-gubaar huu.N

jo chaman fizaa.n me.n uja.D gayaa
mai.n usii kii fasl-e-bahaar huu.N

The semblance is agonizing.

Also, see my earlier post where I reviewed a wonderful book about Zafar: The Last Mughal.

[Picture Courtesy: BBC]

P.S. Musht-e-gubaar means ‘a handful of dust’.

Numbers Don’t Lie

According to the Benford’s law, the first digits in many real life data follow a particular pattern such that the number 1 will be the most common as the first digit, number 2 will be the next most common, then 3 and so on. For example, one out of three times you will see 1 as the first digit. Click here to see the likelihood for all single digit numbers. This trend can be found in real life data, such as financial statements, birth and death rates.

This means that a simple frequency distribution check on, for instance, accounting reports, can be used to detect fraud – because the botched numbers tend to violate the distribution.

That’s exactly what someone did to verify an anomaly in the ballot numbers from 2009 Iranian presidential elections. And guess what, according to this paper, the results indicate a possible overestimation of the winning candidate’s votes by several million! (Apparently, as compared to the expected distribution according to the Benford’s law, there was an access of 7’s in the vote counts for Mousavi, and access of 2’s and lack of 1’s in the vote counts for Ahmadinejad.)

P.S. Andrew Gelman, whose blog I visit often, is not convinced about the methodology, by the way.

Talibanization of India

The CM of Karnataka (B S Yeddyurappa), Sri Rama Sene Chief (Pramod Muthalik) and the CM of Rajasthan (Ashok Gehlot) follow the footsteps of the Thackerays. Muthalik barges into a pub in Mangalore with his hooligan friends and they assault the girls for wearing Western outfits and dancing with their friends. (link) “We will not allow pub culture in Karnataka” says BSY and before you start thinking that this is a well known phenomenon that exists in the right-wing group, Gehlot, a Congressman, slams “pub and mall culture” and aspires to become a “moral police” of the state.

These incidents are aptly being labeled as efforts of “Talibanization of India” in some editorials (here’s one). Instead of learning to respect individual liberty and preserving the age-old tradition of tolerance and fairness, some elements in India seem to strangle the society with their dogmatic orthodox beliefs. Forcing their own ideals, however corroded they are, on others is exactly what the Taliban has done (and is still doing) in Afghaniztan. Because we live in a society that’s relatively more law abiding, the magnitude of their atrocities are limited, but their ideology is not far off from that of the Taliban regime.

The fact that some of these intolerant whimsical madcaps are democratically elected leaders, often heralded by many locals, makes it more saddening. It reminds us again of the dark sides of democracy. That democracy is not always liberal. Fareed Zakaria has elaborately explained this in his thought provoking political science book The Future of Freedom. The dilemma is this: what if elections are free and fair, but the elected are fascists, racists and separatists – illiberal in general? Zakaria writes:

For the people in the West, democracy means “liberal democracy”: a political system marked not only by free and fair elections but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property. But this bundle of freedoms – what might be termed as “constitutional liberalism” – has nothing intrinsically to do with democracy and the two have not always gone together, even in the West. After all, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany via free elections.

In a democratic system, there are two potential sources of abuse: one from the elected autocrats, and another from the people themselves. The will of the majority can easily transform into tyranny of the majority. Because the politicians have to rely on votes to stay in the government, populism and pandering is embraced. One might blame the existence of vote banks for such attacks  (mentioned above) on liberty. But it’s important to distinguish between a symptom and the disease. Vote banks, and pandering in general, are side products of illiberal democracy. Their existence rely on things like religious fundamentalism and collectivism. Even Washington is not exempt from this phenomenon, where the special interest groups and lobbyists seem to run the show. “The more open a [democratic] system becomes, the more easily it can be penetrated by money, lobbyists and fanatics” writes Zakaria.

Today, India is genuinely free society and have a fully functional democratic system in place. But the frequency of “Talibanization efforts” have become more frequent and fervent. We need to remind ourselves yet again that protecting liberty and individual freedom should be the hallmark of a free and just society.

Mumbai or Bombay?

Vir Sanghvi writes about Marathi chauvinism in his recent column in HT. Now, I don’t always share his opinions, but this article looks interesting to me. Here’s an excerpt:
[W]hether we like it or not, Bombay is not an ancient Indian city in the sense that, say, Delhi is. It is a colonial creation. There is no record of any city on the site of Bombay before the Europeans got here. 
That explains the name. It is generally believed (though there are other theories) that the word ‘Bombay’ comes from a Portuguese phrase which means beautiful bay. This was later anglicised — when the city passed to the British — to Bombay. So Bombay is not a Maharashtrian name. In fact, it is not even an Indian name. And that’s because the city did not exist before colonisation.
So where did ‘Mumbai’ come from? The general view is that it is a corruption of ‘Bombay’. Indians have a tradition of corrupting city names when we use them in different Indian languages.
There are no references here, but the proposition confirms what I knew about the origins of the names.
One can think of many such corruptions of city names in India. Like (as Sanghvi mentions in this article) Ahmedabad, is commonly and informally spoken of as Amdavad by Gujaratis. But no one claims that Amdavad is the proper term, and everyone refers to it as Ahmedabad in writing. Bangalore is probably another such dialectical modification of the original name: Bengaluru. 
Burma  is another example that comes to mind. John Wells (a professor of Phonetics) wrote about this in his blog: (link)
As we all know, the ruling junta in Burma would prefer that we call their country Myanmar. In Burmese, this name Myanmar is essentially just a variant of the name Burma. It is transliterated as Myan-ma or Mran-ma, and in the local language pronounced something like [ma(n) ma], as against [ba ma] for the traditional name.
According to Wikipedia: Within the Burmese language, Myanma is the written, literary name of the country, while Bama … (from which “Burma” derives) is the oral, colloquial name. In spoken Burmese, the distinction is less clear than the English transliteration suggests.
Coming back to the Indian context, it looks like politicians are, once again, using this “purification” campaign to incite junta and thus earn political dividends. It looks like the Marathi manoos is falling for that, and the politicians are winning in their unstoppable zest of attaining and exploiting power, once again.

Competitive Intolerance

The Delhi High Court has sent a strong message against ‘competitive intolerance’ by disposing off charges (of offending religious feelings) against the renowned painter M. F. Hussain. 

Here are some excerpts from the verdict by High Court Justice Sanjay Kaul:

“In a free and democratic society, tolerance is vital. This is true especially in large and complex societies like ours where people with varied beliefs and interests mingle.”

“India’s new Puritanism, practised by a largely ignorant crowd in the name of Indian spiritual purity, is threatening to throw the nation back into the Pre-Renaissance era.” 

“Criminal justice system should not be used as an easy recourse to ventilate against a creative act.”

“Art and authority never had a difficult relationship, until recently…Our greatest problem today is fundamentalism, the triumph of the letter over the spirit.” [source]

I cherish each and every word quoted above, and hail this verdict by Justice Kaul. I do feel that our society should become more tolerant and learn to appreciate the fundamental rights of freedom of speech and expression. As I have argued earlier (here), I believe that protecting the fundamental right of freedom of expression should be one of the main goals of a liberal, democratic and morally healthy society.

Many examples come to mind while we’re on the topic of cultural intolerance: Banning Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses (India was the first country to do so), trying to get cheerleading banned from IPL, burning the movie theaters that showed the movie Fanaa after Aamir Khan made a controversial remark about those unfortunate displaced families, filing police complaints against Mallika Sheravat for wearing a provocative dress in a function – are just some of the many such incidents.

What’s different in M. F. Hussain’s case though (from the above mentioned and many other such examples) is that this was actually a communal/religious fervor & hatred wearing a mask of cultural intolerance. Justice Kaul didn’t address this facet of the charges in his well-worded verdict (I couldn’t find a full transcript, so I am speculating from the quotes I read so far.) I wonder if such charges were filed against a Hindu (let’s say for drawing a cartoon of prophet Mohammed), would the court had been able to mete out justice in similar fashion? May be not! But that doesn’t mean that the M. F. Hussain verdict is wrong. You can’t fight intolerance with intolerance, right?

Update: Here is the full transcript of the full judgement. (Hat tip: Sujai K)

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