Taslima's Exit is a Blow to Indian Secularism

Taslima Nasreen's departure from India marks perhaps the lowest point in the history of Indian secularism.

Significantly, it is not the supposedly anti-secular Hindutva brigade which has forced her into exile, as has been the case with respect to M.F. Husain. Instead, it is the self-proclaimed champions of liberalism - the Congress and the Communists - who have compelled her to leave the shores of the world's largest democracy.

Arguably, there is now little difference between India and its smaller neighbour Bangladesh, which had earlier made life too dangerous for the controversial author to remain in the land of her birth.

If it is the fanatical mullahs of Bangladesh who had taken up the cudgels against her for her admittedly provocative views on the position of women in traditional societies, especially in Muslim countries, in India it took no more than a few hours of street violence by a little known Muslim outfit in Kolkata to make the "progressive" Left Front government of West Bengal put her on a plane leaving the city.

The reason why the Communists capitulated so meekly to Muslim fundamentalists is not far to seek. Since Muslim peasants constitute a sizeable number of those resisting the acquisition of land in the wake of the Left Front government's industrialisation drive, the comrades have been wary of antagonising Muslims any further, especially after the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, a well-established organisation, joined the anti-government protests.

Evicting Nasreen, therefore, was seen as an easy way to win back Muslims on the eve of the forthcoming panchayat elections and a possible general election later in the year. The Left's ally at the centre, the Congress, too, was evidently feeling uneasy about her continued stay in the country while several retrogressive Muslim organisations continued to demand her ouster. The party clearly did not want to lose the support of Muslim voters who might be influenced by the fundamentalist campaign.

While the Congress has always been extra cautious on this score, as the ban imposed by its government on Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" in 1988 showed, the Left had been able to manage till now to sustain its pretence of being truly secular. The comrades could do so because they did not have as high a stake at the centre as at present when they are able to virtually dictate the government's policies on several counts, such as the nuclear deal.

Besides, their government in West Bengal is engaged in engineering a U-turn in its policies by putting socialism, their avowed dogma, on hold and embracing capitalism. Since this new, virtually heretical approach has disoriented many in their ranks, presaging an erosion in their previously unassailable base of support, the communists evidently do not want to create fresh problems for themselves by standing up for artistic freedom.

In its campaign against the nuclear deal, the Left identified US "imperialism" and communalism as two main threats facing India. But its retreat before the Muslim extremists shows that the comrades regard only Hindu communalism as a danger, not the Muslim version.

It is a position that can only substantiate the claim of the Hindutva lobby that the Left and the Congress want only Hindus to practise secularism while Muslims are free to engage in their bigotry and intolerance.

The Left's retreat on the question of Nasreen's stay in India is bound to cause further dismay among its supporters within the intelligentsia. Unable to accept the wooing of the private sector in West Bengal, the intellectuals will see the latest issue as yet another example of the erosion of the Left's commitment to principles.

This is not to deny the starkly opportunistic nature of the Bharatiya Janata Party's support for Nasreen. It backs her - as it does Salman Rushdie on the question of the ban on "The Satanic Verses" - simply because they offend Muslims. But the Hindutva camp does not extend this logic to Husain, who has been hounded out of the country for allegedly hurting Hindu sentiments.

The fallout of these cynical games played by both the Left and the Right, with the tacit support of the Congress in the middle, is that the intellectual climate in India is gradually becoming suffocating. No writer or filmmaker or artist can expect to give free expression to his or her thoughts without the fear of some self-appointed upholders of public morality taking to the streets.

As is known, Nasreen came close to being physically assaulted by Muslim protesters in Hyderabad while Husain's exhibitions have been routinely vandalised by groups of Hindus. An art student in Vadodara in Gujarat was even jailed for a while for one of his "offensive" paintings. More recently, a ban has been demanded on a biography of the Rani of Jhansi, the legendary opponent of the British in 1857, for suggesting that she had an affair with an Englishman.

Even the Supreme Court has now ordered the excision of a few passages from James W. Laine's biography of Shivaji. This book too was banned for a while in Maharashtra after the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune, where Laine had conducted his studies, had been ransacked.

The situation may not be as bad as when Galileo was forced to recant his view that the earth moved round the sun since it offended the religious sentiments of the time in Europe. But it's not easy to be a man of letters in India today.

(Amulya Ganguli is a writer on current affairs. He can be reached at aganguli@mail.com) 


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