As the old liberal cliché goes, the true test of a principle is when you use it to defend somebody or something you do not like. I remind you of the aphorism because of the latest developments in the Taslima Nasreen saga — chiefly her claim that she’s under effective house arrest and her tearful lament about not being allowed to go back to Calcutta. <b1>
The problem with Taslima, from the point of view of anybody who has to deal with her — journalists, politicians, bureaucrats, policemen etc — is that they usually come away feeling that there is less to her than meets the eye.
The general view is that she seems like a much worthier cause on paper than she does in real life. Bengali literary critics say that while her fiction is not without merit, few of her books will be remembered.
Journalists regard her as an ace-publicity hound, as the sort of woman who is unable to go to the bathroom without phoning in an exclusive to the press. They say that she spends more time talking to journos than she does writing fiction. After an initial burst of publicity when she talked at length about her sex-life (the lover who had a venereal disease etc), she has now adopted a shrill, complaining tone portraying herself as a tragic victim of circumstances and asking the press to help her while simultaneously giving the same ‘exclusive’ to six different media outlets.
Government officials who have dealt with her say she can be unreliable, pleading for shelter one moment and then rushing off to complain to the media about them the next.
All this means that Taslima is desperately short of supporters within the literary, government and media establishments. It has reached the stage now where journos may take her calls because she is currently in the news, but no sooner do they start writing their stories than the usual muttering about ‘publicity-hound’ begins.
So, how do we react to the controversies surrounding her?
The knee-jerk response is to say that she’s not worth the effort to defend her, that her problems are her own fault, that if she had just spent the last dozen years living quietly in Calcutta and not attracting any attention then she wouldn’t be in any trouble today.
I’m pleased to note, however, that most of us have gone beyond knee-jerk reactions. We may not like her, and we may be annoyed by her publicity-seeking ways, but we accept that she cannot be hounded out of society by a small group of politically-motivated people who claim to be offended by her writings.
Not only has the press supported Taslima but even the government has not taken the line that her problems are her own fault — considerable effort and expense have gone towards ensuring her safety, giving her police escorts and finding safe houses for her to stay in.
In that sense, there are parallels between the post-fatwa Salman Rushdie and Taslima. Rushdie was loathed by Britain’s Conservative government for his opposition to the Falklands War and for his constant abuse of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (“Mrs Torture” he called her) but when it came to the fatwa, ‘Mrs Torture’ “and her government did everything they could to guarantee Rushdie’s safety for years on end”. (Though unlike Taslima, he paid for at least some of his security.)
While the UK government was protecting Rushdie, India was busy banning The Satanic Verses and denying him a visa. Twenty years ago, we would have adopted a similar attitude to Taslima and her book.
Fortunately, we are now mature enough to function as a more liberal society. There is no talk of banning Taslima’s books, nobody says that the protests against her are justified and three different governments (two states, Rajasthan and West Bengal, and the Centre) have taken responsibility for her security at different times.
However, another factor has recently been raised: she’s not an Indian, but is a Bangladeshi and in exile in our country.
So, a new debate has begun. Are foreigners entitled to the same protection as Indians? Why should the Indian state go to such lengths to defend and shelter a foreign national who offends the sensibilities of Indian citizens? It is one thing to offer Taslima asylum in our country; quite another to support her as she embarks on actions that cause riots in Indian cities.
This debate seems more difficult to resolve than the basic freedom-of-speech issue because it is presented in terms that involve asylum and refugees. There are countries that offer political asylum to people who are unwelcome in their own nations but almost all impose at least some restrictions on the activities that the refugees can engage in.
Take our own example. When the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in the aftermath of the Chinese invasion, India gave him shelter (to the considerable annoyance of Peking) but asked that he refrain from engaging in any political activities on Indian soil.
At that stage, the Dalai Lama was not the global figure he is now, so he had little choice but to accept our terms. But even today, when he is one of the world’s most towering figures, he has stuck to the deal. What’s more, he does not resent the conditions that India imposed on him. Rather, he seems genuinely grateful that our country offered him and his followers a new home.
Those who disapprove of Taslima’s behaviour draw parallels with the Dalai Lama. Look at him, they say, one of the world’s most respected figures, content to live quietly in India and careful to not embarrass or inconvenience his hosts. And now look at Taslima: a tell-all writer of dodgy literary merit, milking her situation for everything she can get, keeping herself in the headlines and showing no consideration for her host country. Why should we continue to extend her visa? Let’s just deport her.
This argument has two components: foreign policy and liberal freedom. The foreign policy part is easy. If a refugee is conspiring against a friendly nation then, of course, we must revoke his/her visa and pack him/her off. But in the Taslima case, this is a red herring: there is no suggestion that she wants to overthrow the Bangladeshi government or has a political agenda.
So, despite all the rhetoric and the parallels with the Dalai Lama, it does boil down to freedom of speech again: do we grant foreign nationals the same liberal freedoms we grant our own citizens?
In my view, we have no choice. We must grant them those freedoms.
Let’s turn it around. Many of us think that George W Bush is a fool and say this quite openly. Suppose we went to the US and participated in a discussion on the Iraq War where many Americans also made the same point. What would we think of the US if the Americans were allowed to criticise Bush but any Indian who agreed with them was deported because he had offended the sensibilities of Bush supporters?
A liberal society does not check passports before guaranteeing freedom of speech. And liberal freedoms are not granted to specific individuals but to society itself.
But let’s take the other view. Even if we believe (which I do not) that foreigners have a duty to be more responsible in their utterances than Indians, what has Taslima actually said that is so provocative? The only objection is to a passage in one of her books that some Muslim fundamentalists find offensive — which she has withdrawn and apologised for.
If we revoke her visa then we are simply giving in to the rule of the mob and allowing intolerant religious leaders to hijack the basis of our liberal society. If it is Taslima they target today, it will be you and me tomorrow.
So what does one do? My position is that we have to let her stay. Otherwise we demean ourselves as a nation. It doesn’t matter what we think of her writing or her love of publicity; the principle is more important than the person.
Does this mean that we should let her go back to Calcutta as she demands? Sure — if she’s willing to take the risk. Nobody in England forced Salman Rushdie to stay in safe houses. He asked for protection and the government gave it to him.
So just as India’s choice is clear — let Taslima stay or stop being regarded as a liberal society — so is Taslima’s. She can either take the security or take her chances without it on the streets of Calcutta. But if she wants to take the security and still continually whine about being ‘under house arrest’, well then, it just confirms the general view that she is a tiresome publicity hound.
Now that we have defended the principle, let’s not get conned by the person.