The MNIK brouhaha seems to have died down. But will this be the last we hear of assault on artistic expression? Where, then, is pluralism in our democracy and the constitutional guarantee to freedom of speech?

There was a time when the term slash and burn brought to mind a form of shifting cultivation practised from ancient times. In the past two decades, with the ascendance of majoritarian politics in India, the term has exemplified a trajectory of political opportunism characterised by a virulent aesthetic of violence in public space — especially in the cultural terrain.

Most recently we saw Shiv Sainiks foam at the mouth in an attempt to stop the release of Shah Rukh Khan's film “My name is Khan” for his ‘anti-national' statement ruing the omission of Pak cricketers for the current IPL season (and blast the effrontery of the punchline, ‘My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist). Some months ago, the MNS successfully extracted an apology from film producer Karan Johar for the ‘insult' caused to Marathi manoos pride in the film “Wake Up Sid” by the mere mention of Mumbai as Bombay.

Charring canvases, vandalising artistic spaces and institutions of excellence, disrupting film and theatre performances or targeting individual artistes is part of the energetic occupational description. And just as an artist, filmmaker or writer can get inspiration from any source, these practitioners have the felicity of claiming any artistic act as being injurious enough to a particular identity, ‘tradition', gaurav (pride) or asmita to warrant mob action in its demand for apologies, amendments to the creative work or straight bans.

Since the idea of civilisational grace as having a thin skin, hardened attitude and aggrieved heart on the sleeve has often gone uncontested at the level of governance or political engagement, the calendar of art attacks has increasingly got crowded and diversified.

In 2005, the screening of “Parzania”, set against the backdrop of the 2002 Gujarat violence, was forestalled across the state, tom-tommed as an attack on Gujarati pride. A common wavelength connected the majority community, Parivar activists and government. The act of suppressing the film reiterated the connection between Gujarati pride and the dehumanising brutality suffered by the minority community. Again it was in Gujarat in 2006 that “Fanaa's” release was obstructed to avenge the ‘harm caused to Gujarat's interest by lead actor Aamir Khan's statement supporting the Narmada Bachao Andolan.

The way these practitioners see it: politics is a way of life and culture is a way of politics. The idea of according art its own domain seems an act of utter weakness when ‘creative' tasks of a higher magnitude demand urgent attention.

Of the various facets of democracy, one of the easiest ways to joust for a larger slice of the political pie is by espousing forms of majoritarianism with variants of communalism, regionalism, parochialism or nativism. The formula is quite straightforward: fashion a weapon of chauvinistic identity by parasiting on the turbulent societal anxieties simmering just below the surface in an increasingly complex world. Once that is accomplished it's time to deploy this weapon on the streets in the name of ‘the people'.

Grim example

For 15 years the Hindutva campaign to isolate, target and brand the iconic artist M.F. Husain as a deviant, connecting his ‘crimes' with his community's ‘disloyalty' has been a grim example of this form of political mobilisation. There was a time in the mid-1990s when even L.K. Advani turned art critic briefly by attempting to give a communal overtone to artist Satish Gujral's comments against Husain; comments that Gujral sensibly withdrew.

However, the hundreds of cases instituted against Husain across India for executing a ‘nude' drawing of Saraswati and later a painting of Bharat Mata, the title bestowed by a third party, have kept the nonagenarian artist in exile, uprooted from his home and the cultural environment that has nourished his impulses.

The slew of Hindutva campaigns unleashed in public space set the stage for many more contestations subordinating the artistic domain to the cause of social and political engineering.

Today, in an age of snowballing identity politics of various hues — as an avenue of vertical mobility or lateral regrouping to retain power — the attempt to control images of the constructed self-identity assume importance in a world governed largely by perception. This attempt surfaces in a variety of ways. Implicit in this endeavour is an awareness of the amplificatory potential of this mobilisation through the 24X7 mass media. Filmmaker Ashutosh Gowariker's “Jodhaa Akbar” had its share of hiccups when an outfit called the Rajput Karni Sena captured media attention by demanding an apology from the director for his ‘ historically inaccurate' portrayal of Jodha.

No apology was given; several theatres refrained from screening the film in Rajasthan. Protests spanned several places in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.

No doubt spurred by such uplifting activities, a couple of weeks ago the Sena trained its sights on the Salman Khan starrer “Veer”, dubbing it an attempt to malign the image of “our brave community”. Thereupon the Sena wrote a new chapter in bravery by indulging in acts of vandalism in theatres screening the movie. Clearly, the ‘art' lies in feeling aggrieved all the time.

Similarly, in Punjab too the Sikh clergy's disapproval of ‘inaccurate' portrayal of characters as per Sikh tenets (“Jo Bole So Nihal” and “Singh is King”), told their story of a directed, puritanical gaze aimed at keeping their influence over their flock intact. At a deeper level such interventions through the mass medium of popular cinema add to an ongoing process of fixing of identities along religious lines in the state.

Seen thus, the notion of public sphere in India as a democratic space encouraging a diversity of views, or dissent against majoritarianism seems to be in peril. And by and large, in the event of infringements of artistic freedoms, political establishments engaged in hard-nosed realpolitik have seemed reluctant to firmly speak the language of Constitutional guarantees.

Inspiring judgments

In fact, it is the highest courts of the land whose judgements have questioned art vandalism. Once again, the case of Husain underscores an interesting aspect of this entire debate. For, two 2008 judgments of the Delhi High Court and Supreme Court which quashed some of the obscenity cases filed against the artist gave one of the most inspiring and luminous judgments seen in recent times.

Very clearly the judgments enunciated the need to comprehend a contemporary art work on the basis of artistic principles as well as from the artist's perspective before notching up any objections. The judgments anchored these acts to Constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and principle of pluralism. By commenting that “the complainants are not the types who would go to art galleries or have an interest in contemporary art…” and quoting Picasso — “…Yes, art is dangerous. Where it is chaste, it is not art” — the Delhi high Court judgement of Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul provided a perfect precedent for citing.

Yet, Husain continues to live in exile. The artist who put the name of Indian contemporary art on the world map perhaps is not considered adequately significant for any political gesture of ensuring his safe return.

That is not the worst rub. It is not merely the Hindutva brigade that has targeted Husain. India's premier, annual art fair, the India Art Summit, which started in 2008, chose to ignore the works of the artist whose name is synonymous with the creation of a market for Indian contemporary art. The logic of the organisers, Hanmer MS&L, was that they could not afford to expose works worth crores of rupees, for it was a public space.

Note the irony here. Over the years the offensive of art vandalism of Hindutva elements has made public space a site of corrupted meanings, one that has excluded Husain's works. But so did the art summit exclude Husain's works, albeit in a defensive move — corrupting public space into an exclusionary, sanitised and monetised space and protecting it from the buffeting of ‘politics'.

With the disappearance of serious arts journalism from the media, which started leaning heavily towards entertainment, the possibility of a vibrant debate on assaults on artistic practice took a back seat.

Today, in the film business, the parameters of artistic responsibility have shifted somewhat. It is the maturity of a filmmaker in protecting the money riding on the film and reaching the film to his audience that is seen as a responsible stand. The number of ‘idealistic' individuals who may have lamented Karan Johar's apology to MNS chief Raj Thackeray to ensure the screening of “Wake Up, Sid” was equally matched by those who were relieved that he did not stand on dignity.

In the current fracas between the Shiv Sena and Shah Rukh Khan, which spilled over to “MNIK”, director Johar has stood behind Khan who himself has not exactly been known to take a consistent stand on such issues. It's a trait he generically shares with the high and mighty in Bollywood — each to himself.

Making the difference

To many it is still not clear what the tipping point was this time. They are just relieved that Shah Rukh Khan did not back off after his initial confrontation with the Shiv Sena. What made all the difference, however, was the pressure exerted on the state government of the day to deal with miscreants firmly. Audiences too decided to vote for the film with their feet and money.

Of course there is still no knowing if future offensives on any film will be dealt with similarly. The signals are clear though: the extent to which a society celebrates the subversive intent of art and acknowledges the contemporary artist's freedom of expression as measured by yardsticks arising out of the artistic domain is a measure of life-affirming freedom and pluralism in a democracy.

You could call it the ‘art' of living.