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India: The court cases against MF Hussain on charges of obscenity and religious offence dismissed

Sunday 11 May 2008, by siawi

(i) STATEMENT BY SAHMAT

SAHMAT
- 8, Vithalbhai Patel House, Rafi Marg
- New Delhi-110001
- Telephone-23711276/ 23351424
- e-mail: sahmat at vsnl.com

9.5.2008

The artists community welcomes the Delhi High Court ruling dismissing three criminal cases against the painter M.F. Husain for the supposed crime of obscenity. The court has in our perception, upheld the right to artistic creation and decisively quashed efforts at censorship through street violence and orchestrated legal action by politically motivated groups. The court has importantly, held that there was no intent on the part of the artist to cause offence. Obscenity in this reading, is in the eyes of the viewer. And a difference in perspective cannot be the basis of criminal charges.

We note that despite an earlier ruling from the higher judiciary holding the criminal charges against India’s greatest living painter thoroughly unfounded, the campaign of victimization against him for artistic productions dating back a quarter century or more, has shown no signs of abating. This has compelled the 92-year old artist to seek refuge in a distant country, rather than risk the possibility of arrest on the orders of some over-zealous police official.

We note that police in Mumbai went so far on a recent occasion, to order the sealing of residential premises owned by Husain, for failure to respond to judicial summons in one such case. The possibility that an old and distinguished artist could be subject to the ignominy of summary arrest and prolonged detention, was very real.

Despite the ruling of the Delhi High Court, we observe with concern, that because of procedural complications, four cases are still pending against the artist in the Sessions Court at Patiala House in Delhi, on virtually identical charges. We call upon the judicial authorities concerned to recognize the value of the precedent set in the Delhi High Court ruling and to deal with all pending complaints against Husain accordingly. We call upon the Union Home Ministry to heed the principles laid down in the Delhi High Court ruling – that differences in perspective cannot be the basis of criminal complaints – and to intervene accordingly in the pending cases.

Having been active in the defence of Husain for many years, through public meetings, petitions, symposia and appeals to constitutional authorities like the President and the Home Minister, we feel our stand that Husain’s art is a part of a longstanding evolving tradition of Indian iconography has been vindicated.

Ram Rahman
For SAHMAT

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(ii)

The Hindu, May 10, 2008

Editorial

AN END TO HUSAIN’S TRAVAILS

By quashing the proceedings in three cases against M.F. Husain, the Delhi High Court has sent a strong message against cultural bigotry and moral vigilantism. The order provides a measure of welcome relief for India’s most celebrated painter, who has suffered terribly at the hands of rank communalists and a criminal justice system that failed to factor in the utter ludicrousness of his so-called offence. Mr. Husain has been living in self-imposed exile in Dubai since 2006, thanks to a vicious and orchestrated campaign by right-wing groups, which charged him with offending religious sentiments through paintings that insulted Bharat Mata (Mother India) and Hindu gods and goddesses. The 92-year-old artist was threatened, his Cuffe Parade residence in Mumbai was ransacked, and exhibitions of his paintings were vandalised. As if this weren’t enough, the harassment spilled over into the legal sphere with lower courts taking cognisance of what were clearly frivolous complaints, resulting in a chain of events — a proclamation declaring the painter an ‘absconder’ and an order to attach his Cuffe Parade residence, not to speak of the many non-bailable warrants.

In observing that frivolous and vexatious complaints that affect the freedom of an individual should be scrutinised strictly at the magisterial level, the Delhi High Court was echoing the Supreme Court which, in a series of judgments, has cautioned lower courts from taking cognisance of them reflexively. In its 192nd report, the Law Commission recommended the enactment of a law to prevent the filing of such litigations (civil and criminal); the Commission framed a model Act by drawing upon laws in force in countries such as Britain, Australia, and Canada that deal very firmly with vexatious litigants. Orders such as the one passed by the Delhi High Court are a good precedent and will act as a check on lower courts, which — instead of upholding freedom of expression — have tended to be extremely accommodating of frivolous complaints. A recent case that made international headlines related to Richard Gere; the Supreme Court had to step in to quash the arrest warrant issued against the famous Hollywood actor for pecking Indian actress Shilpa Shetty on the cheek at a public function in New Delhi. Four more cases, which were registered in different parts of the country and transferred to a lower court in Delhi, survive against Mr. Husain. They are in different stages of the legal process but are similar inasmuch as they relate to the same tired and hollow controversy over the obscenity of his paintings. They would hopefully meet the same legal fate — a firm and forthright quashing.