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Exiled Taslima wants freedom in India

The exiled Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen said that Indian authorities extended her visa last week, but said she could not leave her house and has appealed to the Indian government to set her free. She says she feels like a prisoner.
By Bappa Majumdar | Reuters, New Delhi
UPDATED ON FEB 18, 2008 04:30 PM IST

Exiled Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, living in a secret hideaway after being threatened by Islamist groups, said she felt like a prisoner and appealed to the Indian government to set her free.

The controversial author was rushed out of her home in Kolkata, capital of the communist-ruled state of West Bengal, in November after violent protests by Muslim groups.

She was first taken to Rajasthan and then moved to an undisclosed "safe house" in New Delhi, where she cannot have visitors and only has a mobile phone, a laptop and a television set to connect her to the outside world. "I have not committed any crime, so why have they locked me up?" she said, sounding virtually in tears in a telephonic interview.

She said Indian authorities extended her visa last week, but said she could not leave her house, which is guarded by police. "All the protests were staged in Kolkata, yet I have been locked up like a prisoner here and not allowed to step out," Nasreen told Reuters at the weekend. "I want to go back to my study in Kolkata and my pet cat."

Leading Indian intellectuals, including Booker prize-winner Arundhati Roy, have criticised India's officially secular government for not doing more for Nasreen and in particular the communist leaders of West Bengal for not allowing her back.

Leaders of West Bengal's Muslim community, who make up almost a third of the state's 80 million people, have threatened to withdraw electoral support from the left if Nasreen returns. She said this was populist politics. "The people who say they are fighting against me are only interested in gaining political popularity as most of them have never read my books," Nasreen said.

Depressed, stressed and ill

Nasreen, 45, was conferred the Prix Simone de Beauvoir by the French government for her feminist writings, but was not allowed by the Indian government to receive it from visiting French President Nicolas Sarkozy in January. "They wanted me to go to France, but I don't want to leave India at this stage and would rather fight for my freedom here," she said.

Nasreen gets three meals a day and has an attendant to look after her, inside what she calls a "small place". "They do give me food, medicine, clothes and take good care... but there is no freedom," Nasreen said.

Earlier this month, she was rushed to a hospital after her blood pressure plummeted from what she says was an overdose of medicines to control high blood pressure. "I am depressed, stressed and ill," she said.

"How can a writer live without freedom as I have always fought for freedom and human rights?" she said, the loud chirping of birds nearby nearly drowning her voice.

Nasreen fled Bangladesh in 1994 when a court said she had "deliberately and maliciously" hurt Muslims' religious feelings with her Bengali-language novel Lajja (shame), in which she argued the Hindu minority in Bangladesh was poorly treated.

In other writings, she has denounced the use of religion as a means of oppression. She angered Muslims again in her autobiography "Dwikhandita" ("Split in Two") with comments on the relationship between Prophet Mohammad and his dozen wives.

She later deleted a few paragraphs from the book, but protests have continued. Several of her books have been banned in India and Bangladesh for upsetting Muslims.

The European Parliament awarded her the Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought in 1994. She lived in Europe before settling down in Kolkata four years ago. "I was forced to stay in Western countries, but I never felt at home there and that is why I want to stay on in secular India," Nasreen said.

Nasreen was born into a Muslim family in Bangladesh but says she does not believe in religion.

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