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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Monday, April 09, 2007

Misadventures in Government: Delhi and Nandigram

The dream of speeding India towards globalization and economic liberalization has encountered quite a number of hiccups over the past year, though two failed government policies in particular stand out: the sealing drive in Delhi, and the Special Economic Zone plan in rural Bengal.

The Municipal Corporation of Delhi had elections over the past few days, and the Congress Party lost heavily, while the BJP gained the majority of seats, primarily because of "sealing," which is the process of closing down illegal commercial enterprises in residential areas. The government's mismanagement of the sealing drive, which has led to repeated interventions by the Indian courts, including the Supreme Court, can be compared in some ways to what happened recently in Nandigram. There, a group of villagers gathered to protest the conversion of their farmland into a "Special Economic Zone" (SEZ) found themselves under fire by police. Fourteen people died in the violence, and in the ensuing uproar the Communist government of Bengal has been forced to suspend (temporarily?) its plan to develop a massive chemical factory and the four-lane highway that would lead to it.

There are of course ironies in both instances. It's remarkable, for instance, that the Communist government of Bengal is so pro-globalization that it was ready to force several thousand people in Nandigram to relocate to make way for an Indonesian corporation (the Salim group). But it seems to me that what is happening here isn't so much about conventional ideology (left vs. right) as it is about pro-development policies, that might make sense in principle, being terribly mismanaged.

Both issues are incredibly complicated, and alongside your opinions and arguments, I'd like to humbly request that readers suggest links that shed light on the different sides of each issue.

The Wikipedia entry for the 2006 Delhi Sealing Drive is pretty helpful, as it gives a detailed timeline of events (supported in many cases by external links to news articles). Another helpful starting point is this Rediff article from last November. There is also a blog of sorts on Delhi Sealing; the recent entries refer to the "Delhi Master Plan 2021," which was unveiled by the Congress government last fall as a way to offset the political damage created by the misguided sealing drive that unfolded over the course of 2006. The new Master Plan compromises on several issues; for instance, it aims to create more "mixed use" areas, thereby reducing the need for sealing under the previous plan. In all of this, the Supreme Court has been a major thorn in the side of the Congress government; it has required the government to implement a deeply unpopular policy, and in some sense pushed the Congress Party in Delhi into its current situation. (The Supreme Court has also bucked the will of the legislative branch on the question of reservations for OBCs, though that is another whole can of worms.)

On Nandigram and the SEZs, Wikipedia is again a good place to start. I would also recommend this Tehelka article from March 3, which also discusses a controversial SEZ plan in Singur involving a proposed Tata Auto plant. There's also an interesting Op-Ed in the Indian Express, from a writer who is clearly pro-SEZ and pro-globalization, but who recognizes the failures in the plan as it was enacted. And finally, try this leftist critique of the rather non-leftish policies of the CPI(M) in Bengal at Znet. (You may or may not agree with Akhila Rman's assessment of what happened at Nandigram, but her footnotes/links are very helpful.)

The biggest problem with the SEZ program from a civil rights perspective is the way the government can acquire rural land from peasants who may not have any papers to support their claim to ownership. (In this sense, they are similar to the traders who run unlicensed shops in Delhi -- and the claims of both groups are, in my view, legitimate.) A new policy is being put in place that will require that SEZ land in the future be purchased, rather than simply possessed, but it's unclear whether that is now going to be tried at Nandigram.

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