Sunday, November 25, 2007

Marxists and Mullahs in West Bengal


For freedom, stand by Taslima Nasreen
Kanchan Gupta
Dissident Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen arriving in Delhi on Friday night
Those acquainted with contemporary Bengali literature could argue that dissident Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen is not a talented writer. But there are few who would disagree that she is an extremely courageous woman who has struck out at Islamic fanatics and mullahs whose sole passion in life is to come up with the most perverse interpretations of the Quran so that they can live out their dark fantasies born of obscurantism and twisted notions of patriarchy. Ms Nasreen gave up her profession as a qualified physician to take on radical Islamists who had begun to gather strength under the tutelage of Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by Dhaka cantonment queen Begum Khaleda Zia, as well as Awami League, headed by a fork-tongued Sheikh Hasina Wajed. Her newspaper columns were hugely popular, especially among Bangladeshi women, although the Jamaat-e-Islami was none too pleased that someone should dare question the mullahs’ diktats.
Ms Nasreen became a celebrity of sorts in Kolkata after the publication of Nirbachito Column, a collection of her newspaper columns, which won her a prestigious literary award. Back in Dhaka, her success raised the hackles of those discomfited by the fact that rather than disappear behind a burqa and meekly accept the oppressive ways of the clergy, a Bangladeshi woman had begun to inspire others to emulate her defiance. They began to sharpen their knives for the kill; in the meanwhile, they turned on Bangladesh’s minuscule and disinherited, disempowered Hindu community, committing horrendous atrocities. After the demolition of the disputed Babri structure in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, they let loose a reign of terror, killing Hindu men, raping Hindu women and destroying Hindu temples. Lest all this be denied by Islamic fanatics on both sides of Padma — including those who fly the banners of Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, All-India Milli Council and assorted organisations like All-India Minority Forum that make up the Brotherhood in Green — and their ‘secular’ patrons, the most casual scan of newspapers of those days will reveal the extent of the crimes committed against Hindus in Bangladesh in the guise of protesting the demolition of the disputed Babri structure.
It is a tribute to Ms Nasreen’s courage that rather than silently watch the persecution of Bangladeshi Hindus, she recorded those crimes in a slim volume, Lajja. Within days of the publication of the novel — it was ‘fiction’ based on incontrovertible facts — it was slammed by the Government of Bangladesh, which had clearly colluded with the fanatics by allowing them a free run, and the mullahs who, typically, were outraged that a Muslim (although Ms Nasreen says she is a ‘humanist’) should have dared put their misdeeds on record. The book was banned and a mullah issued a fatwa, calling for her execution as she had committed ‘blasphemy’! During Friday prayers in mosques across Bangladesh, believers were urged to murder Ms Nasreen if the Government failed to carry out the death sentence. Another mullah offered a reward of $ 2,000, which was really more a reflection of his cash flow problems than his desire to see her head brought to him on an aluminium platter borrowed from his kitchen.
But all this did not dampen the demand for Lajja. Pirated copies of the book sold in thousands even as fanatics took to the streets, clamouring that Ms Nasreen be executed to uphold shari’ah. Overnight, Ms Nasreen became a household name, here and abroad. In those days The Pioneer had a fiesty correspondent in Dhaka. I recall asking him for a copy of the book. He got hold of a pirated copy and sent it to us by courier. Since everybody was curious about what Ms Nasreen had written that had so angered the mullahs, The Pioneer published the relevant extracts. Later, the book was published in both Bengali and English in India; thankfully, the Government did not ban Lajja. That was the beginning of Ms Nasreen’s woes. Hounded by Islamists baying for her blood (in the hope of pocketing the promised $ 2,000), she fled her beloved country in 1995 and sought shelter in Sweden. Two decades earlier, another Bangladeshi writer, Daud Haider, had to similarly flee Bangladesh after fanatics declared him a heretic. We shall return to Daud’s story later.
Feted by Kolkata’s intellectuals, Ms Nasreen decided to shift to West Bengal and was granted a one-year visa in September 2005. But before that, she had run into trouble with Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee who, despite his pretensions of being a writer and a Marxist, gave in without a fight and banned her autobiographical book, Dwikhondito, in November 2003 because it had references to the perversion of Islam by those who use religion to perpetuate their twisted notions of a Muslim woman’s place in society. Another book, Aamar Meyebela, also ran into trouble and was promptly banned in Bangladesh. The publishers of Dwikhondito went to court and appealed against the ban. The Calcutta High Court declared the ban was “untenable” and “unjustifiable” in September 2005. Dwikhondito reappeared in bookshops and became an instant bestseller, not least because it rips off many a ‘secular’ and ‘progressive’ mask.
On August 10 this year, when Ms Nasreen visited Hyderabad for the launch of her translated works, she was set upon by leaders of Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen who insisted that she should be handed over to them so that they could punish her for her ‘sins’. She escaped the lynching but the incident showed that fanatics had put in motion a plan to hound her out of India. Last Wednesday’s riots in central Kolkata when murderous mobs owing allegiance to All-India Minority Forum, headed by Mr Idris Ali, a Congress leader, demanded that she be thrown out of the country, are part of this devious plan whose ultimate goal is to demonstrate the might of radical Islamism in ‘secular’ India. Mr Biman Bose, chairman of the Left Front and a member of the CPI(M) Polit Bureau who loves to be portrayed in media as a remorseless, cold-blooded commissar, wilted in the face of Muslim fury and ensured Ms Nasreen’s eviction from Kolkata and West Bengal. Since then, she has been on the run, first seeking shelter in Jaipur and then in Rajasthan House in Delhi.
It is anybody’s guess as to whether the UPA Government will be able to summon the courage to stand up to fanatics and insist that Ms Nasreen shall remain in India. On another occasion, Mrs Indira Gandhi had succumbed to Muslim pressure and was on the verge of deporting Daud Haider to face death in Bangladesh when the dissident poet was rescued by German Nobel laureate Gunter Grass. If Ms Nasreen is forced to leave India, make no mistake that a time will come when anybody who doesn’t subscribe to the twisted worldview of Islamic fanatics will be similarly hounded in this wondrous secular democracy of ours.

{This appeared as my Sunday column Coffee Break on November 25, 2007.)

3 comments:

Matt said...

I hope all those arguments are valid when it comes to defending Hussain too. Artistic freedom, freedom of expression... or should we consider the sentiments of the majority when talking about Hussain's paintings?

They also hold true for defending the Danish cartoonist, Da Vinci Code and the Last Temptation of Christ.

Or is it all applicable only when it comes to defending against intolerance from Muslims?

~rAGU said...

You are a Hindu fundamentalist (pun intented)!

James said...

Pseudo-wallahs only know how to protect an ill minded old painter who has no respect for other religions and its people. Lets see if Hussain paints a nude painting of Ayesha or Fatimah and how Qatari people(who hussain think as liberals) will react. As for Taslima Nasreen, she is in wrong country, you have to abuse Hindus to be called a victim in India these days.