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Barkha Dutt
November 23, 2007
As ironies go, it probably doesn’t get any better than this. A panic-stricken Marxist government bundling up a feminist Muslim writer in the swathes of a protective black burqa and parceling her off to a state ruled by the BJP — a party that the Left would otherwise have you believe is full of religious bigots.

The veil on her head must have caused Taslima Nasreen almost as much discomfort as the goons hunting her down. She once famously took on the ‘freedom of choice’ school of India’s Muslim intelligentsia by writing that “covering a woman’s head means covering her brain and ensuring that it doesn’t work”. She’s always argued that whether or not Islam sanctifies the purdah is not the point. A shroud designed to throttle a woman’s sexuality, she says, must be stripped off irrespective. In a signed piece in the Outlook called ‘Let’s Burn the Burqa’, Nasreen took on liberal activists like Shabana Azmi (who has enraged enough mad mullahs herself to know exactly what it feels like) for playing too safe on the veil.

So, does that make some of you feel that she’s only got what she asked for?Or do we need to shamefully concede that the public discourse on creative freedom and individual liberties has got horribly entangled in a twisted version of secularism and political hypocrisy?

Nasreen may well be an attention-seeker who is compulsively provocative and over-simplistic in her formulations on Islam and women. Her literary worthiness could be a matter of legitimate dispute and her eagerness to reveal her personal sexual history a complete turn-off. Many of her critics condemn the Bangladeshi writer for her propensity to ‘seek trouble’ in a country that has been generous enough to offer her asylum.

But when confronted with India’s larger claim to being a democratic, free society, none of that is really the point. All great art is historically rooted in irreverence and disbelief. And all open societies must permit absolute freedom to individuals — artistes or not — to question and reject inherited wisdom. Nasreen has been reduced to living the life of a fugitive on the run all because some fringe Muslim group decided to mix up the carnage in Nandigram with literary censorship and because the CPI(M) government was too nervous to question the bizarre juxtaposition of the protestors.

The Taslima Nasreen controversy is not as important for what it says about her as it is for what it says about us — as a country and as a people.

We may want to brand Nasreen as an ‘outsider’ who is not worth the turmoil she causes. But we aren’t qualitatively different when it comes to our own people either. Much the same arguments and adjectives (publicity-hungry, insensitive, arrogant, childishly provocative, etc.) were used to justify the forced exile of India’s most celebrated painter, M.F. Husain. India’s elite may trip over itself to own one of his frames, an aspiring middle-class may invest in him like they once did in gold and starlets may twitter incoherently at the possibility of being immortalised on the great man’s easel. But it hasn’t moved any of us into campaigning for a 92-year-old man pushed out of his own country.

Joking with me recently, Husain said he was living the life of a global jetsetter — dividing his time between London and Dubai. Then, suddenly, the quivering voice dropped to a faint whisper, as he said, “I don’t think I can come back home till the BJP is willing to change its mind.”

And so, these are the befuddling contradictions of India’s political establishment.


The BJP is upset at the writer being tossed around from state to state like a “football” and wants India to grant Nasreen a permanent visa and political asylum. In other words, it’s quite happy for Islam to be brought under the microscope of literary scepticism. But if Husain wants to interpret Hindu goddesses in his characteristically iconoclastic style, that’s not just unacceptable. It’s reason enough to send him to jail.

The Congress, with quintessential timidity, wants to offend no one. So, it’s worked out a piecemeal arrangement wherein every few months, it nervously tiptoes around the issue and extends Nasreen’s visa, hoping that no one will really notice. Its state unit in West Bengal has called Nasreen’s autobiography a “piece of pornography” and supported the West Bengal government’s decision to ban it.

If the BJP is comfortable in politically exploiting radical Islam to its advantage, the Congress is careful to not offend its practitioners for exactly the same motivated reasons. If you remember, the Prime Minister made it a point to take an official position against the Danish cartoonist who allegedly disrespected the Prophet. And it’s a matter of some irony that it’s under this government’s Home Ministry that Husain was slapped with court notices.

And finally, the ‘progressive’ Marxists not just banned Nasreen’s book (this in a state where the Chief Minister sees himself as a poet and literary philosopher), their party leader declared without any embarrassment that if Nasreen was going to be “so much trouble” she should just pack her bags and leave. The Left has treated the protests by the Muslim Right as worthy of response, but shown only reflexive contempt for the same sort of complaints from the Hindu Right.

So, what about the rest of us?

Have we been less hypocritical than our political leaders? Or have our positions, too, been coloured by prejudice?

Do we show the same anger for the ‘liberal’ politicians who push a writer out of her home as we do for the goons who vandalised the fine arts faculty in a university in Gujarat? Does a twisted notion of secularism make us respond to censorship differently when it applies to the Hindu majority? We are quick to condemn the lunatics who wield trishuls and wear saffron. But isn’t it time that the skull-capped and long-bearded version of fanaticism and hooliganism receives our contempt in exactly the same measure?

Creative freedom cannot be applied selectively. Otherwise, our self-image of being an open and proud democracy will need another look in the mirror.

Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24X7
barkha@ndtv.com