Exiled by Bigots' Edicts
By J. Sri Raman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
By J. Sri Raman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Wednesday 28 November 2007
A woman writer who won literary trophies in her twenties. An aged artist once known and loved for his bare-foot charm and innovative brush. Both are on the run today. And no force in the vast South Asian region, stretching from New Delhi to Dhaka, can help either return home in dignity.
Painfully dramatic events over the past week, involving the persecuted Bengali writer and reminding many of the banished painter, illustrate a major threat to peace in the subcontinent - inside and between its impoverished nations. Competing forces of bigotry, whose edicts have condemned both to cruel exiles, can coexist with each other, comfortably so. But they cannot coexist with enduring South Asian peace.
Forty-five-year-old writer Taslima Nasreen is being kicked around like a football for a week now within India, where she sought asylum 13 years ago. She has been living in Kolkata (once Calcutta), capital of the State of West Bengal, which shares a border and the Bengali language and culture with Bangladesh, despite a religious divide. In this city and State, known for its love of literature and arts, she has seemed happy and at home. Not any more. It now appears doubtful whether she can return to even her first place of exile and resume her life there for long.
Maqbool Fida Husain is more than twice Nasreen's age. The 92-year-old painter, among the best-known artists of India, was forced to flee abroad in 2006. He now divides his time between Dubai and London, telling every interviewer about how much he misses his Mumbai (formerly Bombay) and the country that inspired his canvases. He, too, however, has no realistic hope of returning home in the foreseeable future.
Nasreen's exile within an exile began on November 21. That was the day Kolkata, seat of a Left Front State government, surprised the whole country with a violent agitation demanding Nasreen's expulsion from West Bengal, if not her deportation from India. The Muslims of the city and the State, whom the agitators claimed to represent, had never raised this demand in all these years.
What made the event more intriguing was it came as an unexpected twist to a rally supposedly in solidarity with a struggle of farmers in Nandigram, a far-away village that had witnessed much violence earlier. The farmers were soon all forgotten, as agitators turned the city streets into a battlefield and would not relent until Nasreen's flight became known.
Starting as a physician in a government hospital in Dhaka, Nasreen acquired both fame and infamy as she turned increasingly to writing in the early nineties. It is for literary critics to judge the quality of her works. It was her courage of conviction, as a writer for women's rights at the risk of incurring the clerics' wrath, that won her instant recognition and increasing admiration besides opposition of a most obscurantist kind.
Her strong views on this subject inevitably made her a staunch opponent of politico-religious forces that stood for persecution of the minorities (including the Hindus and Ahmedia sect of Islam) in Bangladesh. In 1994, she came out with her best-known novel titled "Lajja (Shame),"' which brought out the sectarian backlash against the minorities following the demolition of the Babri mosque in India's Ayodhya by the far-right hordes.
This brave effort brought her honors abroad, including the Sakharov Freedom of Thought Award from the European Parliament. What followed in Bangladesh, however, was an official ban on the book. The slew of court cases launched against her soon forced her to flee the country with the government encouraging her self-exile.
Husain's troubles also began in the early nineties, which saw the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political front of the far right, advancing towards power in New Delhi through the Ayodhya agitation. Interestingly, the anti-Husain campaign was initiated with a far-right journal abrupt re-publication of some of his portraits of a Hindu pantheon, dating back to the seventies, and assailing them as a crime against the majority community.
Husain was alleged to have offended "Hindu sensibilities" by painting some of the female deities in an "indecent" fashion. The far-right crusaders for "cultural nationalism" did not even seem to know of the similarly exquisite sculptures of the same deities in shrines where common Indians have worshiped down the centuries without any qualm.
A series of court cases hounded Husain too. When threats to his life made it even worse, Husain left India in 2006.
It is not only opponents of religious bigotry who see a parallel in the two cases of persecution. The tormentors of Nasreen actually cite the two cases together as evidence of even-handedness. Their repeated refrain is they had supported the cause of majority sectarianism in Husain's case and would like the courtesy to be reciprocated.
Some observers point to a certain subtle difference between the two cases. Husain's persecution was a punishment the majority meted out to an offender from a minority. Nasreen's torture, however, was an example of a minority community chastising one of its own. While the observation has a certain validity, it is not as if Husain has been a darling of the obscurantists of his own community.
He faced their ire when his experimental film titled "Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities" was released in 2004. Clerics took strong exception to one of the songs in the film on the grounds it reproduced words from the Quran and, therefore, amounted to a gross blasphemy. The film had to be pulled out of theaters after a day's showing.
The BJP has not agreed to back the bullying of Nasreen as a quid pro quo for the minority sectarians' support for Husain's banishment. It has, in fact, seized the opportunity to mount an offensive on the Left and the Manmohan Singh government. The episode, the far right claims, exposes the hypocrisy of its political foes and the skin-deep nature of their "secularism."
It is true that often, perhaps too often, parties and forces that claim to fight the BJP and the rest of the far right fail to do so frontally and betray a lack of firmness in the face of a rabble-rousing campaign by religious fundamentalists. This, however, does not make the BJP's allegedly pro-Nasreen agitprop anything but an extension of its anti-minority offensive, which includes demonization of Muslims and Islam as a whole.
The most outrageously funny part of the BJP campaign must be the pro-Nasreen perorations emanating from Narendra Modi. The BJP chief minister of the State of Gujarat, who presided over the anti-minority pogrom of 2002, has offered Nasreen unsolicited protection. He has invited her to seek asylum in Gujarat, if she cannot return to Kolkata. No one has asked him where the thousands of Muslims, who were forced to flee Gujarat and still cannot return home, will find their refuge.
Even as politics rages all around her, Nasreen is being shifted from place to place for "her own safety" as intelligence agencies continue to insist. And, even as his name is being bandied about in the debate over her, there is no word about anyone doing anything to ensure the return of nonagenarian Husain who has brought laurels to his nation as Nasreen did to hers.
A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of "Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.
'Condemned to life as an outsider
Driven out of Kolkata by violent protests last week, Taslima Nasrin talks to Kathleen McCaul from hiding about her battle for free expression
Friday November 30, 2007
Writers lives are proverbially quiet, but Taslima Nasrin's is a frighteningly noisy one. Last week in Kolkata, where the Bangladeshi author has been living since 2004, Muslim groups who claimed she had insulted Islam demonstrated to demand she leave India. Hundreds took to the streets and violence flared.
"There was burning going on and I was terrified. The two policemen who were supposed to be guarding my door had gone. People said I would be killed by Islamic fundamentalists, the mob would come and attack my house," Nasrin says, her voice shaky as she speaks from a safe house near Delhi.
It's not the first time public feeling about her writing has forced her to flee. Angry, atheistic, and sexually explicit, her work has long been the source of fierce controversy. In 1994, she slipped out of Bangladesh after her books' vehement attacks on the position of women in Islamic societies led to charges of blasphemy. She then spent a decade in Sweden where, she has said, she felt "condemned to life as an outsider". Her novels, poetry and journalism have been translated from Bengali into 20 languages but life as an insider, it seems, remains a distant hope.
Nasrin was born in 1962 into a devout Muslim family. Her own experience of sexual abuse and her work as a gynaecologist in Bangladesh - where she routinely examined young girls who had been raped - informs her angry writing about the treatment of women in Islam and against religion in general. Her most famous novel, Lajja (Shame), focused on state-sponsored persecution and violence against Bangladesh's Hindu minority and sparked off protests which led to the proceedings against her. Her four volumes of sexually explicit memoirs - still banned in Bangladesh - and outspoken newspaper articles have also fuelled her notoriety.
She subsequently became a standard-bearer for freedom of speech and was written about admiringly in the New Yorker and Time. She remembers how every country wanted to give her shelter: she was viewed as a status symbol of democracy. But she wanted to go home. She tried again and again before finally settling three years ago in the Indian state of West Bengal, which, together with modern day Bangladesh, made up the old pre-partition state of Bengal.
"I want to live in Kolkata, I don't want to live in Europe, I can't write there," she said. "I write in Bengali and I need to be surrounded by the Bengali language and culture." For two years it seemed she might have found a home there, but last week's events - which saw 50 people injured and a curfew imposed - have put paid to that dream.
She first travelled under the cover of a burqa to the western Indian state of Rajasthan, thousands of miles away from West Bengal, but the police there said they couldn't provide her with adequate security. She was moved to Delhi in a convoy of cars, chased by media who picked up grainy images of her in the back of an official car being whisked away.
Nasrin's critics say she is intentionally outrageous and should have seen this coming. Earlier in the year an Islamic group offered a reward for her beheading and protesters - including local politicians - ransacked a book launch in Tamil Nadu for her novel Shodh (Getting Even).
"This is a culmination of the offence her writing has caused over the years, " said Dr Alum Mansoor, general secretary of All India Milli Council, one of the groups which has been protesting against Nasrin.
Nasrin first enraged clerics with a series of Bangladeshi newspaper columns which criticised the treatment of women under Islam; describing in one article the execution of a 21-year-old woman by burying her waist-deep in a pit and then stoning her because her marriage was deemed un-Islamic.
But all this was over 10 years ago, and Nasrin thinks the timing of this flare-up of violence is very suspicious. In recent years she has been directing her frank prose not towards Muslim fundamentalists but at Calcutta's literary circles, with kiss-and-tell autobiographies describing, in detail, sexual encounters with prominent Bengali poets. (She caused one furore when she claimed that one renowned poet was having an affair with his sister-in-law.)
"I'm writing a lot, but not about Islam," she explains. "It's not my subject now. This is about politics. In the last three months I have been put under severe pressure to leave Bengal by the police."
Even Muslim figures such as Dr Mansoor think she is being used by the West Bengal government as a way of diverting attention from an altogether different scandal - the dispute between the state and Muslim farmers in the rural district of Nandigram. When the government tried to take over Nandigram to turn it into an industrial hub, the farmers fought back. Fourteen people were killed in one encounter and reports of ongoing violence have continued to shock India.
At a candle-lit vigil for Nasrin in Delhi on Tuesday, her defenders were passionate in her defence. "There has been disquiet over the number of Muslim deaths in Nandigram and who is the obvious symbol of disquiet in West Bengal? Taslima. She is an easy target. Some extremely political moves are being made in the state and she is being caught in the crossfire despite not opening her mouth on the issue," said Rita Menon, her publisher, holding a large placard in the growing dark.
Nasrin says that her treatment has nothing to do with Nandigram and is unusually quiet on the subject. But with the state in such turmoil, a quiet return to Kolkata for Nasrin looks unlikely. Menon is bleak.
"We do worry. I have no idea what will happen. She can go anywhere but she needs a particular environment in which to write - a place where she can speak to language and she has a cultural context in which to write," she said.
Nasrin, meanwhile, describes herself as "traumatised". "This has upset me so much," she says. "I can't think of anything else. I write from the heart. I see the truth and I want to tell the truth. We can't let the fundamentalists win."
The Indian media, government and literary establishment have come out to support Nasrin - in front page news, TV headlines and major editorials - despite the criticism of her work in recent years. She has become the latest symbol of the fight for freedom of expression in a country fraught with communal tensions. Whether she will win her own fight, for a voice and a home, remains uncertain.