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Hounding Taslima


The Indian Express, Nov. 26, 2007

It needed Taslima Nasreen herself to clarify a disgraceful sequence of events which had got shrouded in a tissue of falsehoods and subterfuge. Speaking to the Express, the Bangladeshi novelist revealed that she was unceremoniously bundled out of Bengal without even being told where she was going. Meanwhile the official version of events took on the colour of fiction. First you had party chairman Biman Bose stating that Taslima had to leave Kolkata if her stay disturbed peace, only to retract his words a few hours later. He then said that it is for the Union government to take appropriate action. The state home secretary followed by claiming that security arrangements have been made for the writer and that she could return if she so chose. There was also the story put out that Taslima had actually wished to go to Jaipur and that friends in the state had merely facilitated her departure. The writer has dismissed this as false.

If Nandigram held up a mirror to the West Bengal government, so too did the Taslima episode. It revealed why liberalism and individual rights have always been antithetical to the mindset of those who controlled the state. Taslima's work has been subjected to censorship on more than one occasion in Bengal. The court had to intervene for the state government to lift its ban on Dwikhondito, her autobiography. Lajja, too, had been banned in the state. Given this unedifying history, the craven deference to the sentiments of a mob led by Islamic fundamentalists that had come out on Kolkata's streets last week should surprise no one. The state government's claim that it is committed to upholding democratic rights now rings hollow.

If the Buddhadeb dispensation emerged very poorly from the Taslima episode, so too did the constituents of United National Progressive Alliance, most notably Farooq Abdullah, N.C.P. patron, who has demanded that she apologise for her writing. Freedom of expression is a constitutional right in this country and its practice, every single day, tests the ability of political leaders and citizens to understand its full import. In fact, Taslima herself has failed this test when she compared her plight with that of a 92-year-old Indian artist now living in exile because of threats from Hindu fundamentalists. By publicly lamenting that 'nothing happens to M.F. Husain, who had done so many things,' she has displayed a lack of understanding about the forces that have punished her for her creative work.