Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Taslima Nasreen: A Roundup

The Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen (about whom I've written before) has become the center of controversy again following anti-Taslima riots in Calcutta over the past few days. Exactly why the riots focused on her is a bit of a mystery, since the incident follows a new violent incident at Nandigram (about which I've also written before). At any rate, some Muslim groups are also demanding that Nasreen's Indian visa be canceled (she's applied for Indian citizenship; her current visa expires in February 2008), and she seems to have yet again become a bit of a political football.

Since the riots, the Communist government of West Bengal apparently bundled her up in a Burqa (!) and got her out of the state, "for her own protection." (She's now in Delhi, after first being sent to Rajasthan, a state governed by the BJP.) The state government has also refused to issue a statement in defense of Taslima, fueling the claims of critics on both the left and right that the Left is pandering (yes, "pandering" again) to demands made by some members of the Muslim minority.

The writer Mahashweta Devi's statement sums up my own views quite well:

This is why at this critical juncture it is crucial to articulate a Left position that is simultaneously against forcible land acquisition in Nandigram and for the right of Taslima Nasreen to live, write and speak freely in India. (link)

Ritu Menon in the Indian Express gives a long list of outrages to freedom of artistic expression in India in recent years:

These days, one could be forgiven for thinking that the only people whose freedom of expression the state is willing to protect are those who resort to violence in the name of religion — Hindu, Muslim or Christian. (Let’s not forget what happened in progressive Kerala when Mary Roy tried to stage ‘Jesus Christ, Superstar’ at her school. Or when cinema halls screened The Da Vinci Code.) Indeed, not only does it protect their freedom of expression, it looks like it also protects their freedom to criminally assault and violate. Not a single perpetrator of such violence has been apprehended and punished in the last decade or more that has seen an alarming rise in such street or mob censorship. Not in the case of Deepa Mehta’s film; not in the attack on Ajeet Cour’s Academy of Fine Arts in Delhi; not in M.F. Husain’s case; not in the violation of the Bhandarkar Institute; not at MS University in Baroda; not in the assault on Taslima Nasreen in Hyderabad this August. I could list many, many more. (link)

I was unaware of some of those, in fact.

In Dawn, Jawed Naqvi quotes a book on Nasrin and feminism, which compares her to the great rebel poet Nazrul Islam:

The foreword to the book, "Taslima Nasrin and the issue of feminism", by the two Chowdhurys was written by Prof Zillur Rahman Siddiqui, the former vice-chancellor of Dhaka's Jahangirnagar University. "To my mind, more important than Nasrin's stature as a writer is her role as a rebel which makes her appear as a latter day Nazrul Islam," he says.

"The rage and the fury turned against her by her irate critics reminds one of a similar onslaught directed against the rebel poet in the twenties. More than half a century separates the two, but the society, despite some advance of the status of women, has not changed much. The forces opposed to change and progress, far from yielding the ground, have still kept their fort secure against progress; have in fact gained in striking power. While Nazrul never had to flee his country, Nasrin was forced to do so." (link)

Barkha Dutt plays up the irony of Taslima's being asked (forced?) to put on a Burqa as she was escorted out of the state:

As ironies go, it probably doesn't get any better than this. A panic-stricken Marxist government bundling up a feminist Muslim writer in the swathes of a protective black burqa and parceling her off to a state ruled by the BJP -- a party that the Left would otherwise have you believe is full of religious bigots.

The veil on her head must have caused Taslima Nasreen almost as much discomfort as the goons hunting her down. She once famously took on the 'freedom of choice' school of India's Muslim intelligentsia by writing that "covering a woman's head means covering her brain and ensuring that it doesn't work". She's always argued that whether or not Islam sanctifies the purdah is not the point. A shroud designed to throttle a woman's sexuality, she says, must be stripped off irrespective. In a signed piece in the Outlook called 'Let's Burn the Burqa', Nasreen took on liberal activists like Shabana Azmi (who has enraged enough mad mullahs herself to know exactly what it feels like) for playing too safe on the veil.(link)

Saugata Roy, in the Times of India, gives an insider perspective on the "Fall & Fall of Buddha" -- which refers to the growing willingness of both the Chief Minister (Buddhadeb Bhattacharya) and the Communist Party of West Bengal in general, to compromise on basic principles. Roy mentions that in the 1980s, the CPI(M) did condemn Rajiv Gandhi's overturning of the Supreme Court's decision on Shah Bano. But no more:

The role reversal didn't come in a day. It began the day when the CM banned Nasreen's novel Dwikhandita on grounds that some of its passages (pg 49-50) contained some "deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any group by insulting its religion or religious belief." What's worse is Buddha banned its printing at the behest of some city 'intellectuals' close to him. This was the first assault on a writer's freedom in the post-Emergency period. Later, a division bench of the Calcutta High Court lifted the ban.

But the court order was not enough to repair the damage. The government move dug up old issues and left tongues wagging. Soon thereafter, Hindu fundamentalists questioned M F Hussain's paintings on Saraswati. Some moved the court against Sunil Gangyopadhyay's autobiographical novel Ardhek Jiban, where he recounted how his first sexual arousal was after he saw an exquisite Saraswati idol. All this while, the Marxist intellectuals kept mum lest they hurt religious sentiments. And when fundamentalists took the Taslima to the streets, they were at a loss. Or else, why should Left Front chairman Biman Bose lose his senses and say that Taslima should leave the state for the sake of peace? Or, senior CPM leaders like West Bengal Assembly Speaker Hashim Abdul Halim say that Taslima was becoming a threat to peace? Even worse, former police commissioner Prasun Mukherjee - now in the dog house for his alleged role in the Rizwanur death - went to Taslima's Kolkata residence and put pressure on her to leave the state. This was before last week's violence in Kolkata. But still, the timing is important. Mukherjee went to
Taslima's place when the government went on the back foot after the Nandigram carnage.

But the Marxists themselves? Perhaps unknown to himself, Buddha has been steadily losing his admirers. There was a time — just a few months ago, really — when not just the peasantry and workers but the Bengali middle class swore by him. Today leftist intellectuals like Sumit Sarkar, liberal activists like Medha Patkar are deadly opposed to him and his government. The Bengali middle class, for whom Buddha represented a modernizing force, is today deeply disappointed with him. One thing after another has added to the popular disenchantment. First, there was the government's high-handed handling of Nandigram, then came the Rizwanur case in which the state apparatus seems to have been used and abused to thwart two young lovers, and now the government's capitulation in the Taslima affair before Muslim fundamentalists. (no link to TOI; sorry)

And finally, Taslima Nasreen herself speaks, asking that her situation not be made into a political issue:

Taslima Nasreen is happy her plight has been highlighted, but the author-in-hiding says she does not want to become a victim of politics. She has been told that she could become an issue for the BJP against the Congress and the CPM in the Gujarat elections.

“I do not want any more twists to my tale of woes. Please do not give political colour to my plight. I do not want to be a victim of politics. And I do not want anybody to do politics with me,” an anguished Taslima told HT on Monday over the telephone. (link)

It's a fair request -- unfortunately, it's already too late. Politics, one might say, has "been done."

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vkrishna said...

I feel very ashamed and sorry about the treatment meted out to her, and unfortunately she is just another in a growing line of intellectual and cultural figures who are getting persecuted in India for political expediency and appeasement. This particular episode reflects poorly on practically all the major political players in India. The worst of them are the Communists whose behavior, I am sure, has come as a shock to many of their leftist sympathisers in India, and who have simply displayed for all the thuggery and cowardice that was always inherent in their party. The second is the cravenness shown by the central government in not unconditionally offering her protection and safety, but rather on the one hand offering her protection and on the other hand pressuring her to leave the country. Finally, she has also become a target of political exploitation by the BJP and their fascist fringes, who are offering to protect and support her, not for principle, but because she can be used as a tool for their ideological and communal wars.

There is an unfortunate and virulent undercurrent of intolerance in many sections of Indian society which is simultaneously appeased and fed by the political classes. It is very disquieting to see such events occur and this intolerance become increasingly brazen and public.

9:58 PM  
Anonymous said...

It is a pity that she can not apply for 'asylum' (for want of better terminology) in the UK or Europe. That said, the lot of many muslim rebels here is probably not much better i.e. they still have to hide.........
Nadir Hasan

7:03 AM  
vkrishna said...

Well, at least the central govt has finally done its duty and assured her protection and safety.:

6:32 PM  
Ruchira Paul said...

But Nadir, she is NOT a Muslim. She in fact will have to "hide" from Muslims just as Rushdie did.

Of course it is the invertebrate and opportunistic "vote bank" politicians but why should we expect anything else? Nasrin is not the only one who has faced the wrath of the fundamentalists and politicians have always, always cowered. The link that V. Krishna has provided is very illuminating. See what Pranab Mukherjee has said:

“It is also expected that the guests will refrain from activities and expressions that may hurt the sentiments of our people,” his statement said.

“India has never refused shelter to those who had come and sought our protection throughout history. This civilisational heritage, which is now the government’s policy, will continue, and India will provide shelter to Ms. Nasreen,” he asserted.

Those granted shelter had always undertaken to eschew political activities and actions that might harm India’s relations with friendly countries.

What he is saying is : "Shut up and behave and we will save your skin." What a contrast to the protection afforded Rushdie by a conservative British government whom he had criticized relentlessly.

Is it an apostasy to believe that "freedom of expression" is not an idea that is appreciated equally by all democracies? (The behavior of the Dutch government was not very stellar either when it came to Hirsi Ali.) And can you imagine Steven Colbert standing next to an Indian elected leader and speak the way he did at the White House Correspondents' dinner last year?

8:52 PM  
vkrishna said...

I also found that statement by Mr. Mukherjee interesting. I think though, that his statement implies that she should keep quiet and not say anything that may upset "muslims". I think that this pretty much means that she keeps completely quiet. I dont think he or anyone would care much if she criticized the govt, since her opinion of the GoI is not really important (to them). It is very disturbing to me that he makes such a statement and as a citizen of India, it makes me angry too. This is classic appeasement and vote bank politics at its worst. She has become a pawn in the political vote bank game between the various political groups.

On a related and tragic note, Mr MF Husain is in self imposed exile in Dubai, due to very similar problems that he faced while in India.

2:23 AM  

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