It is said that after he announced his Prophethood, Hazrat Mohammed suffered severe persecution in Mecca. The vitriol and calumny extended from the verbal to the physical. There was one woman who would always throw filth on him whenever he passed by her house. He would unfailingly take the same route every day and she would invariably throw filth on him. He never protested. One day as he passed her house, she was missing. He inquired after her and learning that she was sick he went up to her room, and finding her bed-ridden, tended to her.
I grew up listening to a lot of stories from my grandmother about the Prophet Mohammed. Told in an anecdotal form, the stories largely avoided his image as a conqueror and concentrated instead on his personality, especially his grace under hardship. I narrate this story especially to remind my compatriots about what they might do when faced with hostility or criticism.
I write this particularly in the context of Taslima Nasreen, whose resident permit expires this week and who still does not know whether it will be extended or not. Nasreen must be given an opportunity to stay on in India and must be provided that opportunity not as grace or favour but because she is, as a South Asian, as a fellow human, fully entitled to it. My appeal rests not merely on a liberal idea of freedom of expression, or on making this a litmus test for India’s pluralism. India’s pluralism, where it exists in practice, is not dependent on appeals or testimonials from intellectuals. Our pluralism does not — and has not — precluded violent confrontations between different social groups. However, we also have countervailing traditions of coming to a working adjustment with each other, which, as an aside, partly explains why the word ‘adjust’ is so popular in all Indian languages.
Denying her asylum is not, suddenly, going to make India less pluralistic or more intolerant than it currently is. It would not, anyway, be unprecedented. We have banned books enough, books which continue to circulate anyway, and have gagged and arrested authors and artists too. It is also not — for me — a case for harking back to the first principles of freedom of expression. I could question the value of freedom of expression in a society where large minorities do not have the freedom to be, but I will let that pass for the moment. We all know what Voltaire said about difference of opinions, and, of course, we know much less about how much he himself deviated from that maxim. But it is more important for us to find ways of understanding that maxim that makes sense to our traditions of treating certain matters with reverence and veneration.
I can’t say whether Nasreen erred in writing what she did, which we, of course, do not know much about. She grew up in a society dominated by an Islam which, unlike in India, is, in many ways, an ‘establishment religion’. In such circumstances, questioning authority can easily lead to questioning traditions that are sanctified in the name of religion and in patriarchal societies, authority needs to be questioned. There are, of course, ways of questioning patriarchal religions and we may find some ways less appealing than ours; in fact, some ways may arouse our just wrath. But in civilised societies, the sort of society the Islamic Prophet wanted to build, wrath should not — cannot — lead to mob judgments about a person’s right to live.
It would be easy to dismiss demonstrations against Nasreen in Calcutta and elsewhere. Especially after the recent events in Bombay, we know how easily demonstrations can be mounted and how transient passions can be manufactured. The thousands of young men roaming the streets of Calcutta were probably ‘good Muslims’, in some ways, but who would, perhaps, flout many Islamic injunctions and taboos in their everyday lives. Like watching films, at one time regarded (at least in my family) as an absolute kufr (act of infidelity), or ogling at women. Nevertheless, they have the right as Muslims to be upset about somebody’s attitude. However, I also know that feelings about Nasreen run wider than the Calcuttan community. Not all that strong feeling, however, will translate into stone-throwing or demanding her death or banishment.
To those who are upset about what Nasreen has said and done, I would say that she has already suffered enough. She has spent 12 years in Europe in exile and had she simply hated Bangladesh and loved the West — as some believe to be the case — she could have gone on living there. She has been buffeted around from Calcutta to Jaipur to Delhi, where she lives almost as a pariah, unable to move, unable to do things she would like to do, to go to places she would like to go to. She is deprived, currently, of normal human freedoms.
But even if she hadn’t suffered, even if she was merrily partying every night with the swish set of Delhi, she still has the right to demand and receive asylum in this country. Besides she has already been gagged; she will dare not say the things she has already said, she has already agreed to delete pages from her forthcoming books; she has already lost. And so have we.
I understand an emasculated community’s need for symbolic sops such as exiling Nasreen or banning Rushdie. But to the community or (it not being a monolith) to those among them who feel passionately about this, and to our political class, I would urge the avoidance of false pursuits. Freedom of expression is not absolute. When free from coercion of our rulers we may become victims of ideological fetters. But Nasreen is a dissenter and in spite of Voltaire, we must protect dissenters. She must stay in India because we must be free to criticise and not unfree to criticise in return. In the name of Islamic values, we must protect her and listen to her specially.
Mahmood Farooqui is a Delhi-based dastango and writer.