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Exiled by Bigots’ Edicts

by J. Sri Raman, 30 November 2006

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A woman writer who won literary trophies in her twenties. An aged artist once known and loved for his bare-foot charm and innovative brush. Both are on the run today. And no force in the vast South Asian region, stretching from New Delhi to Dhaka, can help either return home in dignity.

Painfully dramatic events over the past week, involving the persecuted Bengali writer and reminding many of the banished painter, illustrate a major threat to peace in the subcontinent - inside and between its impoverished nations. Competing forces of bigotry, whose edicts have condemned both to cruel exiles, can coexist with each other, comfortably so. But they cannot coexist with enduring South Asian peace.

Forty-five-year-old writer Taslima Nasreen is being kicked around like a football for a week now within India, where she sought asylum 13 years ago. She has been living in Kolkata (once Calcutta), capital of the State of West Bengal, which shares a border and the Bengali language and culture with Bangladesh, despite a religious divide. In this city and State, known for its love of literature and arts, she has seemed happy and at home. Not any more. It now appears doubtful whether she can return to even her first place of exile and resume her life there for long.

Maqbool Fida Husain is more than twice Nasreen’s age. The 92-year-old painter, among the best-known artists of India, was forced to flee abroad in 2006. He now divides his time between Dubai and London, telling every interviewer about how much he misses his Mumbai (formerly Bombay) and the country that inspired his canvases. He, too, however, has no realistic hope of returning home in the foreseeable future.

Nasreen’s exile within an exile began on November 21. That was the day Kolkata, seat of a Left Front State government, surprised the whole country with a violent agitation demanding Nasreen’s expulsion from West Bengal, if not her deportation from India. The Muslims of the city and the State, whom the agitators claimed to represent, had never raised this demand in all these years.

What made the event more intriguing was it came as an unexpected twist to a rally supposedly in solidarity with a struggle of farmers in Nandigram, a far-away village that had witnessed much violence earlier. The farmers were soon all forgotten, as agitators turned the city streets into a battlefield and would not relent until Nasreen’s flight became known.

Starting as a physician in a government hospital in Dhaka, Nasreen acquired both fame and infamy as she turned increasingly to writing in the early nineties. It is for literary critics to judge the quality of her works. It was her courage of conviction, as a writer for women’s rights at the risk of incurring the clerics’ wrath, that won her instant recognition and increasing admiration besides opposition of a most obscurantist kind.

Her strong views on this subject inevitably made her a staunch opponent of politico-religious forces that stood for persecution of the minorities (including the Hindus and Ahmedia sect of Islam) in Bangladesh. In 1994, she came out with her best-known novel titled "Lajja (Shame),"’ which brought out the sectarian backlash against the minorities following the demolition of the Babri mosque in India’s Ayodhya by the far-right hordes.

This brave effort brought her honors abroad, including the Sakharov Freedom of Thought Award from the European Parliament. What followed in Bangladesh, however, was an official ban on the book. The slew of court cases launched against her soon forced her to flee the country with the government encouraging her self-exile.

Husain’s troubles also began in the early nineties, which saw the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political front of the far right, advancing towards power in New Delhi through the Ayodhya agitation. Interestingly, the anti-Husain campaign was initiated with a far-right journal abrupt re-publication of some of his portraits of a Hindu pantheon, dating back to the seventies, and assailing them as a crime against the majority community.

Husain was alleged to have offended "Hindu sensibilities" by painting some of the female deities in an "indecent" fashion. The far-right crusaders for "cultural nationalism" did not even seem to know of the similarly exquisite sculptures of the same deities in shrines where common Indians have worshiped down the centuries without any qualm.

A series of court cases hounded Husain too. When threats to his life made it even worse, Husain left India in 2006.

It is not only opponents of religious bigotry who see a parallel in the two cases of persecution. The tormentors of Nasreen actually cite the two cases together as evidence of even-handedness. Their repeated refrain is they had supported the cause of majority sectarianism in Husain’s case and would like the courtesy to be reciprocated.

Some observers point to a certain subtle difference between the two cases. Husain’s persecution was a punishment the majority meted out to an offender from a minority. Nasreen’s torture, however, was an example of a minority community chastising one of its own. While the observation has a certain validity, it is not as if Husain has been a darling of the obscurantists of his own community.

He faced their ire when his experimental film titled "Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities" was released in 2004. Clerics took strong exception to one of the songs in the film on the grounds it reproduced words from the Quran and, therefore, amounted to a gross blasphemy. The film had to be pulled out of theaters after a day’s showing.

The BJP has not agreed to back the bullying of Nasreen as a quid pro quo for the minority sectarians’ support for Husain’s banishment. It has, in fact, seized the opportunity to mount an offensive on the Left and the Manmohan Singh government. The episode, the far right claims, exposes the hypocrisy of its political foes and the skin-deep nature of their "secularism."

It is true that often, perhaps too often, parties and forces that claim to fight the BJP and the rest of the far right fail to do so frontally and betray a lack of firmness in the face of a rabble-rousing campaign by religious fundamentalists. This, however, does not make the BJP’s allegedly pro-Nasreen agitprop anything but an extension of its anti-minority offensive, which includes demonization of Muslims and Islam as a whole.

The most outrageously funny part of the BJP campaign must be the pro-Nasreen perorations emanating from Narendra Modi. The BJP chief minister of the State of Gujarat, who presided over the anti-minority pogrom of 2002, has offered Nasreen unsolicited protection. He has invited her to seek asylum in Gujarat, if she cannot return to Kolkata. No one has asked him where the thousands of Muslims, who were forced to flee Gujarat and still cannot return home, will find their refuge.

Even as politics rages all around her, Nasreen is being shifted from place to place for "her own safety" as intelligence agencies continue to insist. And, even as his name is being bandied about in the debate over her, there is no word about anyone doing anything to ensure the return of nonagenarian Husain who has brought laurels to his nation as Nasreen did to hers.

A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of "Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.