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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 1

Taslima Nasreen’s Agony Must Come to an End

Tuesday 25 December 2007, by Muchkund Dubey

Speaking to a group of reporters who managed to sneak through the tight security cordon around her in the Rajasthan House in Delhi on November 25, 2007, the famous Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen said:

What crime have I committed? Is it that I write about women’s rights and my life is dedicated to upholding secular humanity and human rights?

This reminds me of one of the poems written by the great Russian novelist and poet Boris Pasternek. When after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, he was harassed and persecuted by the Soviet authorities, he wrote:
- Is there some ill I have committed?
- Am I a murderer, miscreant?
- For, I have made the whole world weep
- Over the beauty of my land.

Since she was hounded out of her flat in Calcutta, Taslima has been going through one of the most traumatic experiences of her life. She had virtually to keep awake on the night she was flown from Kolkata to Jaipur. During the next three days, she was moved from place to place, none of which were of her own choosing. And after that, she is held in virtual custody by the Central Government in a secret place. If this would have happened to an Indian citizen, this would have been a clear case of abduction, kidnapping and forced detention. Taslima, in fact, deserves a better treatment than that accorded to an Indian citizen, because she is a single woman, she is our honoured guest and she has a claim to all the fundamental rights that accrue to a person by virtue of her being a human being.

Taslima’s continued custody is a shame for India. More than any other event in recent years, it has made us smaller. The famous economist and one of the fathers of Western liberalism, James Stuart Mill, had said something to this effect: If any innocent person in a country is held in prison, the right place for all other persons of that country, is also prison. Besides, Taslima is bound with us by the thread of common humanity. Therefore, her agony and trauma is shared by the millions of Indians who believe in secularism and fundamental rights and who are moved by the feeling of common humanity.

A few incontrovertible facts stand out from the welter of apparently contradictory and patently false statements made by leaders of political parties and high government officials regarding the circumstances in which she was bundled out of her flat in Kolkata and thereafter moved from place to place. Firstly, there is no doubt that she was pressurised, if not forced, by the police of West Bengal to leave the State against her will. She had been under their pressure for several months when high level police officers summoned her and brandished various kinds of threats, including likely attempt by Islamic extremists to kill her, the State Government’s inability to provide security to her and the possibility of the cancellation of her visa.

Secondly, this despicable and illegal action by the West Bengal Police officials was taken at the behest of the ruling CPM for its electoral purposes. In any case, there is no difference between the dominant ruling party, that is, the CPM and the government in West Bengal. After sensing that their support among Muslim voters has been dented because of the Nandigram incidents and Rizwanur Rehman’s case, they wanted to retrieve the ground by pandering to the whims of the religious extremists among a section of the voters. And poor Taslima became an unwitting victim of this political ploy. The meanest part of the whole episode is that in compelling her to move out of Kolkata, the West Bengal Government took advantage of her vulnerability—the fact that she is a single women, that she is on an exile from her country, that short of living in Bangladesh, West Bengal is the only and logical place for her to stay and work and that her applications for both the extension of her visa and grant of citizenship are pending with the Government of India.

Thirdly, the various explanations given by a CPM Polit-Bureau member as to whose responsibility it was to issue or extend Taslima’s visa and provide security for her at the place of her stay, were inane, redundant and deliberately designed to divert the people’s attention from the real issue. The fact is that she has a valid visa to stay in India till mid-February 2008 and that she is staying in West Bengal where the State Government has been giving security coverage to her. How do then the questions as to who will issue visa to her and who will provide security arise at this stage?

Fourthly, the statements made, soon after her eviction from Kolkata, by West Bengal and the Central Government officials that she was free to return to Kolkata if she wanted to do so were the unkindest cut of all. The State Home Secretary is reported to have said on November 23: “She is a free person and as such she won’t come and go according to our dictate.†He is also reported to have said: “Nasreen could return and there are security arrangements for her.†The Chief Minister of West Bengal is reported to have said on November 25 that she was free to return to the State whenever she liked and the State Government would make all arrangements. These statements came soon after West Bengal CPM supremo Biman Bose’s outburst at the height of the flare up in Kolkata that Taslima should leave West Bengal,†if her continued stay disturbs the State’s peace†. This pronouncement of Biman Bose turned out to be an informal order to the West Bengal Government to get rid of Taslima. All the statements made to the contrary were lies and a cover-up for an operation planned and carried out meticulously. This is vouchsafed, among others, by the statement of the Rajasthan Government officials that when in the morning after her arrival in Jaipur, they made arrangements for her flight back to Kolkata and informed the West Bengal Government accordingly, the latter “simply refused to countenance the idea†. Moreover, if the West Bengal Chief Minister and police officials meant what they said, then why are they still not agreeing to Taslima’s return even after her agreement and instructions to her publishers to delete the objectionable pages from her book Dwikhandita? The utter cynicism behind these statements is also brought out by the fact that they were made in spite of their knowledge that the only State where Taslima wanted to live was West Bengal and the only city, Kolkata . Taslima has not left a shred of doubt on this score. She has said: “I do not want to leave India for any other country†and that she would like “to live in India till her death†. She has also said that “Kolkata is where my heart lies†.

THE BJP’s role in the Taslima affair has been equally, if not more, opportunistic, hypocritical and callous. On the one hand, they claimed credit for the BJP led Rajasthan Government having received her in Jaipur and provided facilities for her stay in the Rajasthan House in Delhi. But, on the other hand, it was clear that they had no intention to give her shelter in Rajasthan. In fact, they did everything possible to ensure that the responsibility for looking after her was transferred to the Central Government as soon as possible. Their alacrity in this regard was at least partly due to the threat held out by the All India Milli Council to hold demonstrations in case she was allowed to stay in Rajasthan. The argument given by the BJP leaders for getting rid of Taslima as soon as possible was not at all convincing. For example, a prominent BJP leader in Parliament said on November 24 that the BJP Government in Rajasthan could not keep Taslima in Jaipur or elsewhere in Rajasthan because she was sent without the Rajasthan Government being informed. That leader stated: “It is a matter of propriety that the Union Home Minister first take the Chief Minister concerned into confidence.†Apparently, for them propriety takes precedence over humanity.

In a resolution adopted at a meeting of the BJP office bearers on November 26, 2007, the party demanded “that Taslima Nasreen be treated as a political refugee in India with a right to live with dignity and security†. By taking such a stand on Taslima’s status in India, the BJP’s aim clearly was to politicise the whole issue. This stand also has the effect of complicating the case of Taslima’s continued stay in India. Taslima is by no means a political refugee like the Dalai Lama. She has not left Bangladesh because of any political reason nor has she any political agenda. Her desire to move to India is motivated by her belief that this country, by virtue of its commitment to secularism and freedom of expression and because of the affinity of language and culture, is the safest place for her to stay and provides the best environment for her creative work. If at all a comparison is needed, she should have the same status as was accorded to the scientist J.B.S. Haldane who stayed in India to pursue his biological research. Finally, as has been widely commented, considering the stand that the BJP has taken on some of the paintings of M.F. Hussain, on the archeologists who regard the Ram Setu as a natural phenomenon, and on several other similar cases, its ostensible solidarity with Taslima’s cause cannot be taken at its face value.

I am not familiar with most of Taslima’s work. But I have read in original Bengali, her Novel Lajja and a few collections of her poems, particularly her Selected Poems published in Calcutta in 1993. I have also followed her beleaguered but brave career as a writer and a fighter for women’s rights. To the best of my knowledge, Taslima’s focus in her literary work is not Islam as a religion. But she is an inborn rebel and a crusader against patriarchy and all other forms of exploitation of women. She is also deeply committed to secularism and human rights. Moreover, she has an extraordinary courage of conviction and an ability to make sacrifices in an attempt to live up to her convictions. Taslima’s disdain of patriarchy is expressed succinctly in the Dedication of the Selected Poems:

- I have torn asunder the shackles
- I have jettisoned from the betel leaf I chew,
- the lime of tradition.

The helplessness in which a woman finds herself in our society is powerfully brought out in the following two simple lines of her poem “Frontier†(Seemanta):

- I know how to swim,
- Therefore they will not let me swim.
- The same sentiment is expressed more elaborately in the following lines of the poem “Fear†(Bhoy):
- Nobody is allowing me to cross the field;
- Each time I try to run,
- Half way they pull me back suddenly by my frock,
- They frighten me.

This theme is reflected in a more profound sense in the following stanza from her poem “Pride†(Obhiman):

Bearing the cross of life, and the sin of talent,
- I walk, daily removing the stones fixated in my path
- Drowning I sink in the deep sea of prohibitions
- Who is mine except me alone.

Taslima’s poems while depicting her helplessness, also bring out her resolute determination and infectious optimism to be able to dismantle the barriers of tradition and patriarchy, as reflected in the following lines from the poem “Frontier†:

I want to dance; one day I shall also dance,
- I shall return dancing.

Taslima’s Lajja was a phenomenon in Bengali literature in Bangladesh. Until this novel came out, periodic atrocities against the Hindus, though a reality, were discussed by the Bangladeshi elite and the so-called secularists only in their drawing rooms. Only a few of them would, on rare occasions, own these up as a national shame. Then came Taslima who wrote a novel graphically and forcefully depicting this national shame or lajja. There is nothing against Islam as such in this book and yet the Islamists of Bangladesh banded together to get it proscribed and mullahs issued a fatwa giving the call for her killing. The Bangaldesh authorities instead of taking action against them framed Taslima in law courts under the charge of blasphemy, thus forcing her to go into exile.

The elite and the so-called secularists of the country were in no position to deny that atrocities against Hindus were being committed periodically. Therefore, they resorted to the device of characterising Lajja as a mere reportage and branding Taslima as an inconsequential writer. For, they knew that there is nothing more demoralising for a writer than being reduced to the category of the inconsequential. Some of the well-known writers of West Bengal also joined this chorus for their own ulterior purposes. And unfortunately in the context of the current controversy surrounding Taslima, a section of the Indian media has also tried to stick this label on her.

I am not a literary critic by profession and in any case my reading of Taslima’s work is very limited. Therefore, I am not in a position to pronounce on Taslima’s standing as a writer. However, Taslima’s poems that I have read cannot by any stretch of imagination be regarded as ordinary. They have at the same time depth, force, elegance and striking originality. Lajja may not be a great novel; but it is by no means an ordinary novel. In the context of Bangladesh, its theme is daringly unconventional. It is both moving and fascinating. Its reportage style adds strength to its narrative. It is, therefore, not surprising that it was a best-seller in West Bengal for quite a long time.

Moreover, compared with the novel Pak Sarzamin Saadbad by Humayun Azad which deals with the related theme of the perfidy of the religious extremists in Bangladesh, and their sinister conspiracy to turn Bangladesh into Pakistan, Lajja uses language which is proper and restrained. Pak Sarzamin Saadbad, on the other hand, is full of expletives and is highly repetitive in the typical surrealistic style which, of course, I find fascinating. The Bangladeshi elite and intellectuals simply cold-shouldered Humayun Azad’s novel; but they derided and tried to run down Taslima’s Lajja. However, most unfortunately, the Islamic extremists did not spare Humayun Azad who became a victim of their bullets and, in all probability, later succumbed to the resultant injury.

That Taslima is a widely read and popular writer is adduced by the fact that she has got published more than two dozen books of poetry, novels, short stories and essays and her work has been translated into many foreign languages. Not only Lajja but a number of her other books have also been on the best-seller list. She has achieved all this when she is still barely at the half-way mark of her literary career. She has still a lot more contribution to make to Bengali literature. Who knows how she would be judged by the end of her career and by the posterity? But it is a fact that she has already carved out a distinguished niche of her own in the world of literature, not only for what she has written but also for the causes she champions and the courage she has displayed in doing so.

THE leaders at the highest level in the government and the Congress party are maintaining a studied silence on Taslima’s plight. In order to remain in power at the Centre as long as possible, they have decided to leave behind the baggage of moral conscience, constitutional values and basic principles of governance. At the Cabinet level, Pranab Mukherjee made a strange statement in Parliament on Taslima’s status in India. The statement implied that Taslima was undertaking political activities in India, harming India’s relationship with friendly countries and indulging in activities and expressions which may hurt the sentiments of the Indian people. The statement was inept and uncalled for, apart from being devoid of grace. Moreover, it was non sequitur as none of the conditions spelt out by him applied to Taslima. Her behaviour during her stay in India has been exemplary. She has not undertaken any political activity. She has not done anything which can harm India’s relations with a friendly country, which in the present context is Bangladesh.The novel Lajja, which drew the ire of the Bangladesh Government, was written some 15 years ago and Taslima got permission to stay in India after this fact was taken into account. She has not written or said anything recently which “may hurt the sentiments of our people†. Dwikhandita is her only novel containing a few passages to which some sections of our people have found objection. But Dwikhandita was also written quite a while ago. Besides, it has stood the test of India’s laws as the Calcutta High Court after hearing all sides of the case ordered the withdrawal of the prohibition imposed on the book. One may, therefore, ask Mukherjee: What was the provocation for such a statement?

The issue before the government is not Taslima’s conduct but to deal with religious extremists who resort to unconstitutional means to express their point of view and who wantonly violate laws and indulge in acts of violence. They come from amongst both Hindus and Muslims, both the Left and Right of the political spectrum. The tragedy is that these obscurantist and extremist groups have vote-banks on which the ruling parties both at the Centre and in States are dependent for remaining in power. Some of these groups are a part of the ruling coalition as was the case with the MLAs who recently attacked Taslima in Hyderabad. No action or only token action has been taken against these groups. Whenever religious extremists, on whose votes the government relies, hold out threats to kill or actually kill innocent persons and indulge in other acts of violence, the government promptly folds back the Constitution and suspends the rule of law. The law of the land would warrant that the religious extremists who have indulged in violence should be in jail, and Taslima a free person. She does not pose threat to anyone except those who regard the Indian Constitution, particularly its provision on secularism and freedom of expression, as a threat to their religions bigotry and obscurantism. The government and the people of India should realise that these religious extremists are only superficially against Taslima, but in the real sense they are against the Indian Constitution and against the ethos of the Indian state. We will have to come to terms with this reality and deal with it effectively.

This process of opportunistic pandering or surrender to religious extremists, of both Hindu and Muslim varieties, must stop. Otherwise India, like Pakistan, will become a failed state. We have already come to a pass where a Muslim boy is killed supposedly with the connivance of senior State Government officials because he wants to marry his Hindu girl friend, a great painter like M.F. Hussain prefers to exile himself rather than face the ire of Hindu zealots in India, an archeologist cannot say that the legendary Ram Setu is only a natural feature, and a writer like Taslima who has been given permission to stay in India is uprooted from her place of residence with the apparent connivance of the State, because a minor group of Islamic extremists decide to take out a procession in Kolkata shouting slogans against her and demanding her expulsion.

We seem to have regressed from what we were even in the 15th and the 19th century. In the 15th century, the great saint poet Kabir admonished the mullahs for shouting loudly from the tower of the mosque and sarcastically asked: “Has your God become deaf?†. In the 19th century, another saint poet Lalan Shah Faqir wrote: “If circumcision can make one a Muslim, then what do you prescribe for a woman?†Both Kabir and Lalan have been hailed during their lifetime and till now as great reformers. But in the increasingly intolerant Indian society of the 21st century, indulgent to religious extremism of the worst variety, their writings may very well be declared as blasphemous.

Taslima has suffered too much and has gone through prolonged distress and agony. This must be brought to an end without delay. She should also, without much ado, be allowed to return to Kolkata, her preferred place for stay. Moreover, she should be granted Indian citizenship before her current visa expires so that her creative work does not suffer and she is never again rendered fugitive and stateless. The award of citizenship would also make it easier for her to protect her rights. In urging this, I am not alone; hundreds of millions of Indians desire likewise.

The author is a former Foreign Secretary of India who served as India’s High Commissioner in Dhaka for several years.

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