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Nilanjana S Roy: A pawn called Taslima


Nilanjana S Roy  |  New Delhi 

When Taslima Nasreen was forced into exile in 1994 after the publication of Lajja drew the wrath of Bangladeshi clerics, Salman Rushdie, who knows something of the power of the fatwa, wrote an open letter to the Bangladeshi author.
"As you know, Taslima, Bengali culture "" and I mean the culture of Bangladesh as well as the Indian Bengal "" has always prided itself on its openness, its freedom to think and argue, its lack of bigotry. It is a disgrace that your Government has chosen to side with the religious extremists against their own history, their own civilization, their own values.
It is the treasure-house of the intelligence, the imagination and the word that your opponents are trying to loot."
Over the last week, history repeated itself as farce "" not in Bangladesh, but in the "Indian Bengal" that has always treasured its openness, freedom to think and argue and its lack of bigotry. The All India Muslim Forum ran protests in Kolkata against Taslima Nasreen; the protests turned violent, sparking off riots. Idris Ali, AIMF chairman, has been arrested and taken into custody.
But where the West Bengal government should have assured Taslima Nasreen of its protection and of her right to remain in Kolkata, it did exactly the opposite. Taslima was shunted ignominiously out of Bengal to Jaipur; the Rajasthan government passed their unwanted guest on to Delhi, where she remains in hiding.
For all three political factions involved "" the Congress-Left Front combine, the BJP on the one hand and the AIMF "" Taslima's writings are irrelevant. Many believe, with justification, that Taslima is a mediocre writer. She has the merit of consistency, however, and her writings have often and insistently questioned the way women are treated by Islam and other religions.
"I said that Shariat law should be revised. I want a modern, civilized law where women are given equal rights. I want no religious law that discriminates, none, period "" no Hindu law, no Christian law, no Islamic Law. Why should a man be entitled to have four wives? Why should a son get two-thirds of his parents' property when a daughter can inherit only a third? Should I be killed for saying this?" she told the New Yorker in 1994.
If the Congress-Left Front government had a genuine commitment to free speech, Taslima would not have had to spend the last few years in exile in India on just a tourist visa. The tourist visa needs to be renewed every six months and does not allow her the luxury of believing that she might have found a second home in Bengal, given that she cannot go back to Bangladesh. The tourist visa also guarantees that as the date for renewal of her visa comes up, any political party in search of a cause can use Taslima as a pawn.
The BJP has eagerly seized upon Taslima's troubles, issuing a statement that says: "To eject a refugee under pressures from religious groups is to submit to hardline Islamic fundamentalists." This would be reassuring if it wasn't for the minor fact that the BJP's record on protecting free speech, writers and artists has been abysmal. They have carefully ignored those sections of Taslima's writings where she has attacked all religions for their treatment of women: "Nature says that women are human beings, men have made religions to deny it." In the BJP's view, Taslima is a very convenient pawn. They would be more plausible if they were willing to defend M F Husain's right to freedom of artistic expression alongside.
As for the AIMF, I doubt if Idris Ali has read the collected works of Taslima Nasreen, or followed her arguments on feminism and Islam. I wonder whether any of those who rioted in Kolkata last week or those who attacked her recently in Hyderabad could actually quote from her writings.
Do any of these political parties have even a rudimentary belief in a writer's "freedom to think and argue"? If they did, Taslima Nasreen would have been issued a permanent visa years ago and given the right to live in Bengal as she chose. If they did, instead of being shuttled around from state to state, she would have been given security and protestors would have been unceremoniously jailed. As one political party trades accusations with another, we are in danger of forgetting the central issue. All writers have a right to express their opinions freely. A writer in exile is doubly vulnerable; it is our responsibility to see that she retains the right to freedom of speech. So far, we haven't done a great job.

First Published: Tue, November 27 2007. 00:00 IST