The Taslima Nasreen opportunity

India has a chance to stem the slide down to the pit of illiberalism

M F Hussain painted Hindu goddesses in the nude in the early 1970s. The paintings did not become controversial until 1996. It took some people 26 years to take offence. That’s unusually long as far as the business of taking offence—spontaneous or organised—goes. Hussain, into his 80s, was already a public figure, and his works were famous long before they became offensive. That his paintings should provoke police complaints and criminal proceedings so long after the offence begs the question what happened in those 26 years to change the way people viewed his art.

In a breath: Salman Rushdie. When India, under the Rajiv Gandhi government, became the first country to ban his Satanic Verses, it breathed life into the demon of competitive intolerance that now haunts contemporary Indian society. No artist, no writer, no actor and no scholar, no matter how obscure, is free from the risk that someone or the other would take offence. Not only does the offending artist risk being put behind bars, he also risks being subject to physical violence by self-appointed defenders of public morality. To be sure, the statutes that allow the government to ban books and movies have existed since British times—and indeed, are a relic of the British raj which sought to impose both Victorian mores and colonial rule to suppress its Indian subjects. But before Satanic Verses, they were largely used to hide the government’s and politicians’ dirty linen. Now they are even being used to ban the Santa and Banta Joke Book.

The banning of Satanic Verses sent a clear signal to all that religion could be used, very conveniently, to suppress freedom of expression. In India’s political culture—since dominated by weak and infirm governments—the power to deny fast became the currency of power (ergo, the common minimum programme). What better way to demonstrate political clout than by gathering up a mob organised around chauvinisms of various kinds? Competitive intolerance has reached a head under the current UPA government which has one the one hand routinely succumbed to the intolerant, thereby increasingly their numbers. On the other, it has failed miserably to ensure the security of the victims of intolerance, such as Taslima Nasreen, M F Hussain and Chandramohan Srilamantula. (Victims they are, even if they are no saints. They need not be. And if the charge against them is that they court controversy to sell their wares, then isn’t it better we prevent our taxes from being used as marketing expenses?)

Yet, Taslima Nasreen presents India with an opportunity to exorcise the demons of two decades of intolerance and begin the process of laying them to rest. Giving her citizenship is a different matter, one of due process. But it is in India’s interests to remain (yes, remain) a bastion of tolerance in the region. Ensuring her physical protection, for the duration of her stay in India, is thus of utmost and immediate importance. For if the Indian government demonstrates that it is willing to unequivocally and unapologetically protect her, it is possible to stem the secular (pardon the pun) slide down into the pit of illiberalism. If the UPA government creates a precedent by sparing no expense in protecting her, it might be possible to stop the race to the bottom. M F Hussain should then have no cause stay in self-imposed exile, should he?

Related Links: Read Atanu Dey’s view.

26 Responses to The Taslima Nasreen opportunity

  1. Rahul 25th November 2007 at 12:50 #

    But it is in India’s interests to remain a bastion of tolerance in the region.

    Should India protect Tasleema so it can continue to be a bastion of tolerance in the region, or should it protect Tasleema because the Indian people will be never have complete personal freedom until tolerance of their ideas is guaranteed and protected by the state?

    Should India do certain things because of the relative merits of that action, or because it is just the absolute and only right thing to do?

  2. Nitin 25th November 2007 at 13:48 #

    Rahul,

    All of the above.

  3. Anand 25th November 2007 at 16:51 #

    Nitin:
    “BJP turns Taslima’s knight in shining armour” (link)

    Now, the BJP certainly isn’t intent on making India a bastion of tolerance, and have a vested interest in currently championing her cause.

    But isn’t the ‘failure’ of the model of ‘competing self-interests’ responsible for competitive intolerance? (Or is it not?)

    In this case, realistically/for expediency would it make sense to go all out behind the BJP?

    Am I making too many assumptions? (I certainly am asking a lot of questions!)

  4. libertarian 26th November 2007 at 01:05 #

    But it is in India’s interests to remain (yes, remain) a bastion of tolerance in the region.

    Cannot agree more. Down our history we have absorbed people and made them wholly Indian even as we changed. The US had to legislate that consensus – India evolved that consensus over centuries. Tolerance (and non-violence) has been our contribution to the modern dialog. There’s much more at stake than Taslima Nasreen’s personal safety and freedom.

  5. Oldtimer 26th November 2007 at 09:06 #

    >>Now, the BJP certainly isn’t intent on making India a bastion of tolerance, and have a vested interest in currently championing her cause.

    What is that vested interest?

  6. Chandra 26th November 2007 at 10:26 #

    Well said Nitin. But I’m not sure what procedural hurdles are there to give her citizenship – the same ones blocking terrorist Afzal’s hanging may be? While we certainly have that partition baggage when it comes to issuing citizenships to Paks and Banglas, she should be given citizenship as political refugee and allowed to live where she likes and pursue her writing career.

    And BJP should make her case, just like it made Rushdie’s, because for UPA, which easily folded on high-profile nuclear issue, Taslima would be small potato to sacrifice compared to the stakes involved in unfolding the appeasement agenda.

  7. Dijo 26th November 2007 at 12:10 #

    The funniest part of all this was Tasleem’s reaction:
    M.F Hussain does so many things but nobody targets him.

    Even she doesn’t argue that people should have the right to speak whatever they wants to and instead starts this idiotic comparison. She somehow doesn’t seem to realize that they both are victims of the very same malady.

  8. B.O.K. 26th November 2007 at 13:05 #

    India’s interests in the case of Taslima Nasreen can be protected very well simply by extending her visa every 6 months (or at some other frequency) without any hassles, and providing her security (like we should, for every legal visitor to India) as suggested by Nitin.

    Giving her citizenship or political asylum (which is something India does not grant as a matter of policy, the term does not even exist in our laws AFAIK) is not in India’s best interests. Given our unenviable location and amazing neighbours, it is like to lead to a flood of such applications (every illegal immigrant will file such an application, and will have a legal status for as long as it takes to sort out the case). It sends out a message that we are okay with accepting refugees. European countries grant such asylum, but getting to London/Paris from Dhaka/Colombo is much tougher than getting to Kolkata/Chennai.

  9. Preordain 26th November 2007 at 16:02 #

    Salman rushdie has even abuse RAM and Sita in his satanic verses page 288.

  10. CPU 26th November 2007 at 17:36 #

    Preordain,

    That’s bad. It’s only a matter of time before ROMs, hard-disks and why, CPUs too are subject to abuse by Rushdie. We should ban electronic and online versions of his work.

  11. Rezwan 26th November 2007 at 22:01 #

    An interesting comment about the Muslim community in Kolkata from Aly Zaker, renowned media celebrity and theater activist from Bangladesh.

    “I don’t know Hyederabad in the Andhra Pradesh and its muslims who drove her out of that city, but I have some experience of knowing the mindset of the majority of muslim inhabitants of the city of Calcutta (now known as Kolkata) during our war of liberation in 1971. Most of them not only refrained from supporting us they were most annoyed with us for breaking Pakistan. To give vent to their anger and frustration they even did not hesitate to physically torture fellow Muslims from Bangladesh who took refuge in Kolkata.”

  12. The Rational Fool 26th November 2007 at 23:36 #

    Oldtimer asked:

    … What is that vested interest [of BJP]?

    The BJP cannot claim to be on the high-horse here. It’s position on Taslima is a cynical attempt to embarrass the Congress and its communist allies, that’s all. Wasn’t this the same party that hounded out Deepa Mehta and her production crew for The Water (imho, a much hyped film that cannot hold a candle to Nagesh Kukanoor’s Dor on a similar subject)? Why did the Vajpayee Government not lift the ban on the Satanic Verses, when it was in power? The party and its’ private armies bristled and took to the streets, when their beloved Ram’s existence was questioned, did they not? And, the fellow who questioned Ram’s existence and character, of course, would not hesitate burn down Chennai, if any resident dared to cast aspersions on his idol, Kannagi. Sectarianism, I am afraid, is the time-honored refuge of Indian politicians, regardless of their party affiliations.

  13. Chandra 27th November 2007 at 00:28 #

    “The party and its’ private armies bristled and took to the streets, when their beloved Ram’s existence was questioned, did they not?”

    Huh? And what does this have to do with anything? Would your private armies take up to streets, if, say, atheists are banned from India?

    High-horse or not, BJP has every right to take it’s stand. Welcome to the land of politics. In fact, one has to be really dumb to compare BJP actions with UPA actions when it comes appeasement policies of the day. Without BJP’s action, when it was government, Rushdie would still be banned from visiting India. That’s what competitive politics is all about. It’s about correcting excesses of other political entities. To say that someone has to be consistently on a high-horse is bogus. There is a reason why most people hate politics, but it’s the only way to make democracy work without violence on streets every day and tyranny, however well intended and consistent.

  14. Nitin 27th November 2007 at 05:28 #

    Rational Fool, Chandra & Anand,

    I see competitive intolerance as an arms race: There are liberal and intolerant factions and individuals within every party, but the corporate output of the political party caves in to intolerance. The mere existence of liberal individuals and factions does not guarantee a liberal outcome, and conversely the existence of intolerant individuals and factions need not lead to an intolerant outcome. Disincentives for intolerance need to be found within the current system. That’s why Taslima as a precedent is important.

    So I wouldn’t think high or low horse. I’d just think arms race and how it might be arrested.

  15. The Rational Fool 27th November 2007 at 08:03 #

    Freedom of expression and rule of law are the cornerstones of democracy. Any compromise on these will reduce democracy to a mere frenzy for power. Competitive appeasement and intolerance are the weapons of mass appeal, in what is aptly called in this post as arms race.

    It is, however, extremely difficult to arrest this race, and impossible to roll it back, within the current system. Time to mount a sustained campaign against India’s professed neutral secularism in favor of strict separation of the state and religion. Secs. 295-298 of the IPC should be re-examined, and if found violating free speech rights, must be rendered unconstitutional.

  16. Chandra 27th November 2007 at 08:54 #

    “Any compromise on these will reduce democracy to a mere frenzy for power.”

    This is the second time I heard such comment recently. I think you have it backwards. Only way to make democracy work is frenzy for power within the limits of constitution. Frenzy for power within a party, frenzy for power among parties, frenzy for power between executive and legislature (with Judiciary being neutral protector of constitution). Without frenzy for power (and in India’s case swiss bank accounts, as a bonus, for most) what is left in a democracy? And why would anyone want to perpetuate the system?

    Democracy is not some noble activity that needs to put on high pedestal (or horse). It’s all about the rough and tumble nature of things (and humans). Of all systems, only democracy allows ‘all’ people to get in a frenzy for power – reason why, someone said (Churchill, was it?), it’s the least bad system. Inherently most Indians understand this frenzy for power and swear by democracy while cursing it in the same breath.

  17. Oldtimer 27th November 2007 at 09:05 #

    >>It’s position on Taslima is a cynical attempt to embarrass the Congress and its communist allies, that’s all.

    Why shouldn’t Congress and Communists be made to be “embarrassed” on this issue? You don’t believe that it was ok for the CPIM to make a scapegoat of Taslima for its crimes in Nandigram, do you?

  18. rc 27th November 2007 at 09:51 #

    Chandra,

    >> … Only way to make democracy work is frenzy for power within the limits of constitution. Frenzy for power within a party, frenzy for power among parties, frenzy for power between executive and legislature (with Judiciary being neutral protector of constitution). Without frenzy for power (and in India’s case swiss bank accounts, as a bonus, for most) what is left in a democracy? And why would anyone want to perpetuate the system? >>

    Clap Clap !!

    This is exactly why the much reported “infighting” within the BJP is actually healthy and the “undisputed leadership” of the Congress is not.

    We really do have it backwards.

  19. Jai_Choorakkot 27th November 2007 at 10:21 #

    I cant speak for RF and am not familiar with his blogging, but it did not appear unreasonable to me to state this:

    *Mere* frenzy for power (RF at #15) ~= frenzy for power not constrained by constitutional limits (Chandra at #16).

    My unfortunate ability to spot non-differences usually earns me no friends but is a public service :-). Agree with RC that ‘infighting’ is a normal thing to have and diktats from a High Command is undemocratic. Am not sure RF has anywhere sounded very different, or even commented on it.

    regards,
    Jai

  20. The Rational Fool 27th November 2007 at 10:40 #

    Oldtimer,
    Congress and Communists must not only be “embarrassed” on this issue, but also be made to pay dearly – with votes of course. My point is that the BJP and its allies have not been consistent in their position on freedom of expression. I don’t see any reason why an exception should be made on the Taslima Nasreen issue. Then again, as some commenters have pointed out above, consistency is not necessarily a virtue for the politicians, I guess.

  21. Pankaj 27th November 2007 at 11:06 #

    The debate in the Indian media seems to be perverted, as is usual. Nasreen has had a stormy history with the bangladeshi mullah establishment. And this was much before she wrote – Lajja –

    Lajja was just was the last straw for the bangla mullahs as Nasreen broke the code of silence that prevails in bangladesh regarding the relentless hindu minority persecutions there over decades.

    link 1, link 2

    All this talk about Nasreen insulting the islamic prophet is bullshit. Nasreen is a target because she broke the code and refused to follow the script.

    What is instructive is the near total solidarity of these muslims, residents of India mind you, with the bangla mullahs. There is something for us all, that is the kafirs, to learn from here.

    Thanks.

  22. Nitin 27th November 2007 at 11:07 #

    Rational Fool,

    You wrote:
    Secs. 295-298 of the IPC should be re-examined, and if found violating free speech rights, must be rendered unconstitutional.

    I guess the legislative route is out of the question. But can it be challenged in the judiciary? I don’t know…perhaps someone could throw some light on this.

  23. Pankaj 27th November 2007 at 11:17 #

    The rally at Calcutta seems to be more about Nandigram than about Nasreen. Its one of the ways of the Jamaat to warn the commie government about what they can do. The commie govt. has got the message fair and square.

    What is ironical in all this is that these mullah forces, who now challenge the commies, have been fed and sustained by the commies themselves over decades in their consolidation of power over Bengal.

    {quote} ……and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside. {unquote}

    - John F. Kennedy.

  24. Nitin 27th November 2007 at 19:44 #

    Campaign trail politics, of course: but one that should be welcome.

  25. Chandra 27th November 2007 at 23:26 #

    “*Mere* frenzy for power (RF at #15) ~= frenzy for power not constrained by constitutional limits (Chandra at #16).”

    Jai, that can be tested only in courts, usually by the losing party. Until then frenzy for power is a good thing. And it only works as long as the judiciary is neutral. So any dictator’s first target is the judiciary, before opposition candidates, like, say during Indira’s days right before emergency or the current Gen. Mush’s emergency.

  26. history_lover 28th November 2007 at 10:25 #

    While we are at it, M F Husain should be invited back to India and the frivolous cases filed against her by the Hinduvtva forces should be thrown out.

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