Of Freedom, Swatantrata, and M F Hussain

 [These are just a few thoughts that came to mind because of some recent discussions and articles I read. I would love to know the opinions of my blogger friends about this subject.]


 Action has to take place according to a certain method if it is to bear fruit. If there is rainfall on the top of a mountain, the water flows away in a haphazard manner and benefits no one. But if this same water is contained in a canal, it enables many acres of crops to grow. Its strength lies in its restraints.

We see that even God himself- or Nature as one may believe- acts according to certain rules. Life on Earth is possible, because of the precise movements of the Sun, the Earth, the Moon. The tides ebb and flow, the seasons change, plants grow, animals and birds flourish- all according to specific rules.

In our Bharatiya culture, great importance is given to the concept of Swatantrata. ‘Swatantrata‘  does not mean acting without any rules at all. ‘Swa‘ means I or We. ‘Tantra‘ means method, discipline, or rules. So Swatantrata means acting according to our own methods or rules.

But these rules are not a burden, because we have accepted them ourselves. They have not been forced upon us by anyone else.

In one of his thought- provoking books in the series ‘Jeevan Mulye’ (Principles of Life), Prof. P G Sahasrabuddhe has given an example from the Mahabharata.

Seeing his relatives and elders standing in front of him in the Kurukshetra, Arjuna hesitates to pick up his weapons. Shri Krishna explains why he should proceed to fight, putting forward innumerable theories and examples.

After narrating the complete Bhagwad Gita of 18 chapters, Shri Krishna leaves the decision whether to do battle or not, up to Arjuna, saying “I have told you all that I wanted to tell you. Now you should do as you wish.”

This is ‘Swatantrata‘.

Our sages of earlier times have said that to be truly free, a person must understand the nature of this ‘swa’. In other words, he must know who he himself is. If he succeeds in understanding this, he will understand how he should act, he will understand what his ‘Dharma‘ is. 

If he does not, it is possible that he may become a traitor to himself, and also to his country. As were those, who helped the British and Moghul invaders against their own countrymen. As were those, who gave local assistance to the terrorists at the time of the Mumbai attacks in Nov. 2008. As are those today, who appropriate public funds to line their own pockets.

For in our culture, ‘swa‘ does not mean merely the individual in isolation, but the individual as a member of his family, as a member of society and as a citizen of this nation. And as such, the individual is bound to take care that while enforcing his right of freedom, he does not cause harm to the society and country he is a part of.

In our culture, the individual considers his country to be his Matrubhoomi. He feels that just as he, himself, is a child of his Matrubhoomi, all other citizens of this land are also children of this same Matrubhoomi.

Therefore, while enjoying his right of freedom, he is also able to identify with the joys and sorrows of these others. And that is the reason, while enforcing his freedoms- of speech, of expression, of action, – he takes care not to cause harm to the other children of his Matrubhoomi.


The Economic Times saw fit to publish on the front page, on Monday, the following statements by artist in self- imposed exile, M F Hussain.

I left India for freedom, and out of fear:

India has become the land of puzzling paradoxes. On the one hand is an artist’s freedom of expression, a right that our society is founded upon and one that we appreciate on a deeply personal level.

On the other is the cherished value that allows all Indians to live harmoniously in a multicultural society with sensitivity and respect towards the religious sensibilities of other cultures.


I feel that in reality, the so-called paradox stated by M F Hussain, is no paradox at all.

 Any person considering himself to be a child of this nation, will take care not to hurt his brothers and sisters. His freedom will be a tempered freedom, not absolute in nature.

This will not be because anyone forces him to curtail it. It will be because, as we discussed above, he will be able to identify with the joys and sufferings of other children of this land.

 If he is unable to do so, perhaps it suggests that he has lost sight of the meaning of ‘swa‘?

Maybe it is time for him to look inwards, instead of at the words and actions of others?




  1. It’s impossible to impose a certain culture onto another person. So it’s quite possible for you (as an example) to feel that Indian culture “should” be one thing and for another person to have their own views. So it’s quite alright for someone to feel that a person is part of society and for another to reject that notion.

    In my opinion, if Husain knew he was going to hurt other people, he may (or should) be called a jerk, an insensitive idiot or anything else. But, we must remember that they were his paintings. After all, a painting is an expression of one’s thoughts. So are we saying that he was wrong to even think of a naked Hindu goddess?

    After all, Husain didn’t force anyone to view his stuff. And if people wanted to object, they should have done so in the same way that Husain offended them. Either write a book, paint a picture showing him as an idiot, make speeches, make songs ridiculing him etc…It was unacceptable to threaten him with physical violence. That is something that is simply wrong. And ultimately that is precisely what the problem is. Husain felt physically threatened.


    1. I completely agree with you on this point that to threaten Hussain with physical violence was unacceptable. I also agree that we cannot impose a certain culture onto another person.

      It is worth thinking about, though, why Hussain did not feel that the culture of this country was his culture, and why he was so ready to hurt the feelings of his fellow countrymen. Or did he not regard them as thus?


      1. Well, I can’t really speak for Husain since I don’t know how he thinks, but isn’t it possible that he didn’t think it was an insult? Perhaps he didn’t view nakedness as anything to be ashamed of.

        True – people were offended. But if he didn’t think like that should he not have painted them?


        1. It is not up to me to suggest whether Hussain should or should not have painted what he did.

          I have merely tried to explain why I think that what Hussain perceives as a paradox, is not really a paradox at all in the context of our country. And also the probable reasons why he sees it as a paradox.

          BTW, you have mentioned Hussain’s depiction of nude Hindu goddesses. Have you seen his painting which he himself has entitled- ‘Rape of India’? It is easily found online on several sites.


          1. Yes – I saw it. I’m quite a poor critic of art and I don’t like it 🙂

            I think the core issue is this. In a democracy, does a person have a right to be unoffended?

            So many mullahs for example are “offended” when a woman wears jeans. Once we start giving in to persons trying to stop things because it “offends” them, we open a can of worms that is best left untouched…


  2. Its a touchy subject ! One mans freedom is another offence ! As we grown in size and volume such discussions will have to sustain !

    There is just no way out, but to dip back into our history and understand contexts ! Like you always do !


  3. I feel pained at the efforts of some celebrities and media to paint Hussain as a victim..I dont think artistic freedom means hurting the sentiments of some people..what he painted were indian godesses, can anyone imagin his mother as naked person..? could he do the same with his prophet?…..

    I have read Lajja from Tasleema Nasreen..and this novel she has written about how the hindu citizens were driven out and totrtured in bangladesh…


    1. Renu– I personally think that some people support Hussain because it is politically correct to do so, not because they agree with what he does.

      And people are always talking about how he was driven out of India. In reality he himself admitted in an interview that he went to Quatar for the tax benefits he would get there! 🙂


  4. some people take all the benefits of being a minority but dont want to consider the sentiments of majority community, though I dont think that their is any minority anymore……..


  5. I agree with you. How could he be so thoughtless in the name of art. He should have stuck to his horses. He may be a great painter, but he is a ‘small’ man.


  6. I don’t know why people should worry about Hussain so much! As you say Manju, he had admitted openly that he went to Qatar on his own and for his own benefits, not because he was scared of physical abuse by Hindus.

    I have seen his naked Saraswati goddess paintings and others too. Let him draw any number of paintings of naked women, but why he should give a veena in her hand? Even after this, no one ‘threw’ him out of India.

    We, Hindus are a minority in Pakistan but how much benefits are given to minorities over there? Here, muslims are treated with full dignity and some of them misuse it. I have some good muslim friends and people like them blend peacefully with us, Hindus. We are by nature, peace loving people, but humans too. Some Hindus react when hurt badly.


    1. Sandhya– ‘Let him draw any number of paintings of naked women, but why he should give a veena in her hand?
      Yes, that is why one feels that he did it on purpose to hurt the feelings of Hindus.


  7. some time ago when you, or was it the blogger Happy kitten had written about hussain, I had taken the side of the artist and said that he is free to do what he wants . now i will take a completely different angle about it and say – Is Hussain being used ( yes as a spy) by some government to create “danga” in India. if we continue to dig the roots of politics, government, economics and its nexus, the power to control is the main factor among others. And anybody can be used in any way…. Hussain must be just another pawn in the hands of the big and the mighty and would have been threatened. who knows ?

    Like the story of the union carbide that came out after 25 years about how rajiv gandhi had decided to rescue his half brother (mohammad yunus son ) in exchange of the CEO’s flight from india, will we know the truth much later or will we ever know?

    many such truths are under the carpet and one will see that our history is much different than what we are taught in schools.

    The politics of politics is unknown.


    1. Anrosh – I do not advocate preventing anyone from enjoying his freedom. I do think that any artist- including Hussain- should be allowed to create / write what he wants. I do think that using violence against him should be condemned.

      But why is it that if I criticise what he has painted, then I am labelled a fascist? Do I not have that freedom? Do I not have the freedom to speculate why he has painted as he has?

      Why can't I imply that if he is so ready to hurt the sentiments of Hindus, then he has a grudge against Hindus, that he does not feel an affinity with other citizens of this country?

      Is it only Hussain who has the freedom to do/say what he feels like doing/ saying?

      And yes, I agree that it is possible that Hussain is being used as a pawn. As you say, we will probably not know the truth- at least not yet.


      1. Anrosh– And in the above comment, I wasn’t implying that you had said that I wasn’t free do do these things. 🙂

        I’m just a bit frustrated that the minute I speak against Hussain’s paintings ( not only online here) that people label me a fascist.


    1. Freedom to me is enjoying our Fundamental Rights while doing our Fundamental Duties.– I agree completely! Your daughter is very intelligent for one so young! 🙂


  8. Freedom of thought provided it does not hurt others. We may express our own thoughts about any system without hurting the persons loving the system. Then only the purpose of doing so may be achieved.


  9. Manju,

    I largely agree with what Bhagwad Jal Park says above, but I get nauseated by people’s attempts to insert into analysis the ‘greatness’ of Hussain and all that. If he fled India because he felt threatened, then it is a cause for worry, irrespective of whether he was a street beggar or a millionaire. His perceived greatness or depravity is a non-issue here.

    So those who appeal to get Hussain back just because they consider him to be a great artist, they are appealing to elitism and nothing else.

    And he outrightly lies when he says he drew the goddesses naked as he loved them. He hasn’t shown similar love for figures of his religion. I had read somewhere that the Quran (which is the only source of Islamic guidelines) does not proscribe drawing of the Prophet, so it is high time he showed love for some of the Islamic religious figures also, provided he loves them.


    1. I wrote this post after reading the statements by M F Hussain in the Economic Times, and noticing the importance that the newspaper as well as some commentors gave to those statements.

      As I said to Bhagwad Jal Park, I am not really concerned with whether Hussain has a right to paint what he did. I am more concerned as to why he painted what he did.

      I think it was because he did not see any connection between himself and other Indians. If he considered himself and other Indians as children of this country, he would not be so ready to hurt them.

      I have explained my views of us all being children of the same Matrubhoomi in an earlier post- http://bit.ly/aNhPgS


  10. In all honesty, I am alright with not seeing a connection with fellow countrymen, though for practical and ethical reasons, I would not deliberately hurt them, except for if temporary hurt in my opinion would benefit them (e.g., issues related to superstition that could lead to wastage of money or harm to one’s health).

    E.g., if two complete strangers struck are struck by an accident (only one of them is an Indian), and they are exactly similar in all perceptible respects, and if I have an option of donating blood for only one of them, I would be biased in favor of doing so for an Indian. But I would do so, not with a feeling of pride, but one of guilt for having employed a partisan attitude, for having discriminated against the other stranger merely for having taken birth outside the territorial boundaries of India.

    But the reason I dislike Hussain is because he is an opportunistic hypocrite. And there are many opportunistic hypocrites, but perhaps, I get further angry on this issue, because, I see media playing a sanctimonious partisan role in it.

    Had Hussain said that he drew the paintings only out of the pleasure he could derive from seeing the hurt and helplessness of Hindus, I would certainly have respected him for his honesty.


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