By Swapan Dasgupta
In a month from now, on August 17 to be precise, the newly-opened Terminal 3 of Delhi airport could witness a disagreeable sight calculated to shame all Indians: the deportation of the Bangladesh-born writer Taslima Nasreen, presently living in Delhi.
Earlier this year, when her residence permit (issued first in 2003) was extended by a niggardly six months, the Home Ministry informed Taslima that this was the final extension and she must leave the country by August 17. She could, of course, re-apply for a residence permit at any Indian Embassy overseas but there was no surety it would be granted. Senior officials have told me in private that the basis of the decision is completely "political".
That Taslima can be a damned nuisance for politicians is undeniable. A writer who can best be described as feminist and secular-humanist (in the Western sense), she has angered conservative Muslims with her scepticism of faith, irreverence and candid approach to sexuality. In the Indian context this isn't unusual and Taslima has things in common with the atheistic, Dravidian rationalism of 'Periyar' E.V. Ramaswami Naicker, a man venerated by the DMK. But whereas Periyar confined his rationalism to an assault on the Brahmanical religion, Taslima has been preoccupied with Islam and its theology—not surprising because Muslims constitute a simple majority of the Bengali-speaking universe.
Taslima's critique of Islam and particularly Islamic dogmatism has been relentless but never outlandish, even though it touched many raw nerves among the believers. In 1991-92, militant Islamists mounted a vituperative campaign against her in Bangladesh after two volumes of her essays became bestsellers. Her works had enough literary merit to be awarded the Ananda Purashkar, India's most prestigious prize for Bengali writing, in 1992.
The irony is that despite her literary credentials, Taslima today finds it difficult to get her writings published in both Bangladesh and West Bengal. Many booksellers have been threatened for her stocking her writings and in this year's Kolkata Book Fair, self-appointed vigilantes—perhaps the same one who organised a violent bandh in 2007 against her living in the city—tried to make the occasion Taslima-free. Even those who published Hindi translations of her columns have developed cold feet.
The comparisons between Taslima and painter M.F. Hussein whose paintings are constantly targeted and who had to flee India, are striking. Hussein's plight outraged the intelligentsia. Tragically, the same people haven't up for Taslima. Even double-standards carry an eloquent message: All religions are sacred but some are more sacred than others.
If self-publicity was the only thing driving Taslima, she would probably have been glad to escape this tension and set herself up as an exotic exile in Paris—where her views on the anti-women bias of Islam would draw an appreciative audience. After all, she travels on a Swedish passport which was graciously given to her after Bangladesh withdrew her citizenship.
Taslima is unique in that she wants to live in India because it provides her creative nourishment. She seeks Indian nationality, views Kolkata as 'home' but is agreeable to living in Delhi till the dust settles. So far the authorities have grudgingly given her a toehold in India. In a month's time even her nominal status as an intellectual refugee is set to be undone.
On Novermber 28, 2007, Pranab Mukherjee had assured the Lok Sabha that "India has never refused shelter to those who had come and sought our protection…This civilisational heritage, which is now the government's policy, will continue, and India will provide shelter to Ms. Nasreen," Five months later, replying to an overseas Indian's plea on her behalf, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh conceded "Taslima has been a victim of the politics of hate that a small section of extremists…are now pursuing." Citing the sanctuary given to the Dalai Lama, Manmohan Singh gave an assurance: "We recognise Taslima Nasreen's right to remain in a country of her choice, viz India…"
The PM was writing as an enlightened man of letters. Now, as a politician, he faces the sorry dismal prospect of not only having to eat his words but worse, mocking at the idea of an India "where the mind is without fear…"