Dear All (apologies for cross posting on Kafila.org and the Sarai Reader List)
The recent attack on Taslima Nasreen has again shown how fragile the freedom of expression is in India today. It breaks whenever a sentimental reader or viewer has their ‘sentiments challenged’. Are all these worthy gentlemen who go about obstructing screenings and readings suffering from some early childhood trauma that makes it difficult for them to countenance growing up and acquiring the ability to listen to contrary point of view? How long are we to be held hostage to their infantile suffering?
What is worse is the fact that the people who attacked her, and have made public threats to kill her – activists and elected representatives belonging to MIM, a leftover of the Nizam’s hated Razakars, were arrested and then let off on bail. So, the message that the state sends out to these goons is – “threaten to kill, be taken to a police station to have a cup of tea, have your picture taken, be splashed in the media, go home and make some more threats.”
In fact, according to a report in the Indian Express today, it is Ms. Nasreen who is now being booked under section 153 – the same section of the penal code that was earlier used to detain the unfortunate art student in Baroda who had offended ‘Hindu and Christian sentiments’. So as far as the Police in the state of Andhra Pradesh is concerned, person who makes a public threat to kill a writer – a prominent politician is innocent, and the writer herself, who has never threatened to kill anyone, nor has asked others to kill people is guilty of inciting hatred. Both are to be treated equally. There can be no greater travesty of justice than this incident, and it once again demonstrates how willing state power in India is to dance in tandem with bigots. It happens in BJP ruled Gujarat, it happens in Congress ruled Andhra Pradesh. It happens (see below)in Left Front ruled West Bengal.
Once again this demonstrates that bigotry and cussedness is not the monopoly of the self appointed representatives of any one community or political tendency. If the self appointed representatives of the Kashmiri Pandit community and their allies pour venom on Sanjay Kak on various electronic fora and elsewhere, they are matched in their ardour by the viciousness of those who have appointed themselves the guardians of Islam in Hyderabad, and the protectors of Hindu and Christian dignity in Baroda. And lest we forget, (we do have short memories) let us remember that the last time Tasleema Nasrin was vilified and hounded and her publication banned in an Indian state, it just happenned to be in West Bengal, where she has her largest readership, and this happenned because the secular progressive left front regime, led by the Contractors Party of India (Monopolist) deemed her a threat to the sanitized cultural landscape that they so vigorously uphold and maintain in that state.
The CPI(M)’s party organ ‘People’s Democracy’ found it necessary to publish the official ‘party line’ on the ban in its issue dated November 7, 2003 (Vol XXVII, No 49). It said (apologies for this lengthy quotation)
“THE Bengal Left Front government has decided to ban Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen’s latest book, Dwikhandita (‘Split in Two’) because it was feared that the book would incite communal violence. At no point of time has the book been proscribed on political or literary grounds.
In a government notification issued on November 28, the state LF government has formally invoked the ban under section 95 of the code of Criminal Procedure, read with Act 153 of the Indian Penal Code (where it is considered a criminal and punishable act to create enmity, rivalry, and hatred amongst religious communities.
State secretary of the CPI (M), Anil Biswas said that there was apprehension expressed widely that the book would spark off communal tension, and that very many experts in the field supported this view. The LF government has banned the book for the sake of the upkeep of democracy in Bengal. Several newspapers, too, have expressed similar feelings. Biswas pointed out that “from the time the Left Front has been office in Bengal not a single book or publication has been proscribed on political grounds.” However, said Biswas, it was a different matter altogether if a publication or a book incited terrorism and communalism.
Chief minister of Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee whose department issued the notification banning the book, said that he had himself read the book “several times over.” that he has “persuaded at least 25 noted specialists to go through the book critically” and that they have recommended the book to be not fit for circulation among the reading public. In particular, the pages 49-50 of the book contain very derogatory and provocative references that go against the grain of the tenets of Islam and of Islamic beliefs.
Several noted authors including the poet Sunil Gangopadhyay, the novelists, Dibyendu Palit, Nabanita Deb Sen, and Syed Mustafa Siraj, the Bangladeshi novelist, Sams-ul Huq, the singer Suman Chatterjee, as well as the Trinamul Congress leader and Kolkata mayor, Subrata Mukherjee, among others, have come openly out against the book and have supported the decision by the state LF government to get the book banned.
Pradesh Congress leader Somen Mitra who has called Taslima Nasreen a blot on the world of women, has described the book as having no difference with a piece of pornography and has said that nobody ought to assume rights to hurt the sentiments of a religious community.
The book which forms a part of Nasreen’s multi-volume autobiography has been charged by the reading public of Kolkata and Bengal with obscenity and has come under fire for its maligning and falsified personal references to the lives of several noted scholars of Bengal and Bangladesh as well.
However, the book, as Anil Biswas made clear while speaking to the media in Kolkata recently, was banned because of the fact that portions of the book would cause religious disharmony to break out, with the religious fundamentalists utilising the book to fan the flame of communal fire.
True to form, the BJP chief Tathagata Roy has supported Taslima Nasreen’s derogatory references to Islam and has opposed the proscription of the book. Mamata Banerjee has chosen to hold her silence, as she is wont to do of late on very many other matters as well.”
It appears that if there is one thing that religious fundamentalists, communal, nationalist, secular and leftist politicians agree on is the necessity to curb the freedom of expression in Inda.
There is only one possible ethical response to this pathetic display of arrogance by the self appointed representatives of Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Communist sentiment, and that is to ensure the widest possible circulation of these materials in the public domain. It is to organize as many screenings as possible of a film like ‘Jashn-e-Azaadi’ (or any other film that is attacked in a similar fashion) and to hold public readings and distributions of the books of someone like Taslima Nasreen.
In ‘Homeless Everywhere:Writing in Exile’ an essay by Taslima Nasreen that had been first published in English in Sarai Reader 04: Turbuluence
She wrote –
“Just like in West Bengal today, my books have been banned earlier in Bangladesh on the excuse that they may incite riots. The communal tension raging through South Asia is not caused by my books but by other reasons. The torture of Bangladesh’s minorities, the killing of Muslims in Gujarat, the oppression of Biharis in Assam, the attacks against
Christians, and the Shia-Sunni conflicts in Pakistan have all occurred without any contribution from me. Even if I am an insignificant writer, I write for humanity, I write with all my heart that every human being is equal, and there must be no discrimination on the basis of gender, colour, or religion. Everyone has the right to live. Riots don’t break out because of what I write. But I am the one who is punished for what I write. Fires rage in my home. I am the one who has to suffer exile. I am the one who is homeless everywhere.”
If we want to ensure that writers, filmmakers and artists are not ‘homeless everywhere’ then we have to ensure that they receive the hospitality that enables the conditions that allow their work, thought and expression to continue to have a public life. This means making sure that their work lives and continues to breathe in society, by any means necessary.
For those who are interested, and can read Bangla, some of Taslima Nasrin’s work is available in the form of downloadable pdfs from http://www.talimanasrin.com. When the venerable Buddhadev Bhattacharya decided, after consulting twenty five eminent intellectuals to ban her book, I decided to download the said book, make twenty six photocopies of the entire book bind them and distribute them free.
That is one method to deal with censorship (formal or informal) I am sure that there are other, more creative methods out there as well. I would welcome practical suggestions from those in the community of the people who are reading this post
about how these attacks on the freedom of expression may be confronted and made irrelevant. Let us try and make some time for peaceful film watching and reading.