|A harassed Husain went into exile and has been bestowed Qatari citizenship [GALLO/GETTY]
India is a country of more than one billion people, but surprisingly it is losing sleep over the loss of just one citizen.
Ever since it became known last week that M F Husain, one of the country's most celebrated painters, had renounced his Indian citizenship and become a Qatari national, Indians have both been shocked and dismayed.
The story has dominated the news headlines and the country's 'chattering classes' have not stopped debating why Husain chose that course of action, and how badly India's image as a liberal democracy had been dented.
Though Indians are used to a steady exodus of its most accomplished citizens for a livelihood abroad – many leave never to return – the loss of Husain has left a void.
Husain after all was India's best known contemporary painter commanding unparallelled acclaim and the highest price at the marketplace.
Objections and targets
But what is hurting more is the circumstances that led the 95-year-old painter to dump India and seek "greener pastures" in the Middle Eastern deserts in the twilight years of his life.
Husain evidently had grown tired of being targeted by some hard-line Hindu groups, who found some of his paintings objectionable.
The paintings – thought to be of nude Hindu gods and goddesses – date back to the 1970s. But they spelt no trouble for him until 1996, when inexplicably a Hindi newspaper chose to write an article condemning the paintings. Soon, criminal complaints were filed and the painter's house was attacked.
Husain's protestations of innocence – that hurting religious sentiments were not his intention - cut no ice. His exhibitions were cancelled and the painter suddenly found himself a pariah in his own country.
His 'fall from grace' took place in full public glare – the media reported his plight and the artistic community voiced outrage – but little changed. Husain's patience ran out and he slipped out of the country into exile, finally to settle down in Qatar.
His troubles mirror those confronting Indian society.
Indians have not grown less tolerant, but its leaders have. Competitive politics are driving them to orchestrate campaigns, however divisive, and grab eyeballs.
Husain has not been alone in falling prey to scheming politicians out to whip up support on religious lines.
Others too have found themselves in the line of fire in recent times.
Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan faced the ire of some groups after he spoke out in favour of Pakistani cricketers left out of the lucrative IPL cricket tournament. His posters were set alight and his "Indianness" questioned. They even tried changing the title of his latest release 'My Name is Khan' to 'My Name is Terrorist'.
These groups do not necessarily have the social sanction, but they obviously have enough muscle to terrorise the majority into silence.
So you have young couples being chased and beaten by thuggish activists on Valentines' Day. Public display of love, they say, is a Western import.
Also unwelcome is Taslima Nasreen, the Bangladeshi writer, already on the run from her country following her so-called controversial writings. She is seeking exile in India but several Muslim groups are opposed to her.
When a newspaper in south India allegedly republished one of her articles earlier this week, it triggered a riot in a provincial town.
Priding itself as the world's biggest democracy, freedom of expression is suddenly under siege in India.
In newspaper editorial columns and TV talk-shows, there is indignation and outrage. But the authorities seem incapable of stopping the hot-heads from running amok. Perhaps, the ruling coalition is not willing to intervene and risk a religious backlash.
That India has been taken hostage by self-seeking politicians is the lesson to be learned from Husain's departure.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy
Source: Al Jazeera