We really don’t have to pretend to be liberal
All that about Kolkata’s liberal spirit being exposed for what it really is holding true, it is also a fact that the authorities are not in a position to protect Nasreen as well as the city itself from possible fundamental ire.india Updated: Nov 23, 2007 20:26 IST
There are a few ways by which one can gauge how liberal a society is — the most obvious one being the extent to which the social mainstream allows individuals to express their thoughts, however unpalatable these thoughts may be. Another method of determining the ‘liberal spirit’ of a place is to gauge how much the same mainstream civil society is willing to stand up to intolerant voices that have taken upon themselves the task of snuffing out any critical voice. While Kolkata’s ‘street cred’ of being a liberal city has always passed the first test, Wednesday’s violent protests in the city, ostensibly against Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen’s residence in Kolkata, has left the fabled liberal spirit of the city looking very shaky indeed.
Ms Nasreen is not a writer of tame ideas and narratives. In fact, many would argue that she has gone out of her way and sought out the controversy to position herself as a Muslim woman writer battling radical Islam, especially that of her home country, from the ‘safe quarters’ of European cities and in Kolkata. For those furrowing their brows because of this self-positioning, let it be said that Ms Nasreen writes what she writes and she has the right to ‘position’ herself in whatever manner she chooses to. But when a fringe Muslim group in Kolkata holds the city hostage for a whole day because of its highly illiberal form of disagreeing with Ms Nasreen, one would have thought that when it came to the crunch — as it did on Wednesday — the West Bengal government and the people of Kolkata would defend the freedom of expression against collar-tearing fundamentalism. That has not been the case, as was evident by top CPI(M) leaders’ statement on Thursday (subsequently retracted) that the city would be a better place if Ms Nasreen left the city. In effect, a fringe mob throwing stones and bottles and burning vans and creating a sense of terror across the city has managed to get Ms Nasreen booted out of Kolkata. So much for the city’s great ‘intellectual’ spirit taking flesh.
All that about Kolkata’s liberal spirit being exposed for what it really is holding true, it is also a fact that the authorities are not in a position to protect Ms Nasreen as well as the city itself from possible fundamental ire. The Left Front government, on Thursday, passed the buck about the status of the writer’s visa to the Centre — almost a replay of the way the army, rather than the state police, was made to quell the tension a day before. Ms Nasreen surreptitiously made her way to Jaipur, where she faced fresh threats from the All India Milli Council of Rajasthan. She was last heard seeking refuge elsewhere in north India.
The bigger question has already started to be asked: does India or, for that matter, a state administration need to put so much energy to protect a foreign writer? The West Bengal government has, in the past, come up with some sort of response by balancing its act. Ms Nasreen’s 2003 book, Dwikhondito (Split in Two), for instance, was banned even as she was allowed to stay in Kolkata. Earlier this month, it banned a CPI(M)-sponsored magazine for carrying an article defending Ms Nasreen’s views. A bhadralok-like disapproval of Ms Nasreen as a flammable writer who proverbially shoots off her mouth was checked by the maintenance of Kolkata as a safe haven for the ‘artistic-minded’. After Wednesday, Kolkata decided that it was not prepared to risk so much for one individual. At least, we now know how far Kolkata’s ‘liberalism’ can run. Now it’s up to the central government to make its position clear.