She is a symbol of free expression, defiance and sheer courage. She is also perhaps the one Asian woman whom Islamist fundamentalists—and cynical vote-seeking politicians—hate the most. She has been abused, vilified, hounded for her writings, and is forced to live incognito under the shadow of fatwas. She is a refugee with no country to call her own.
Surajit Dasgupta ran into exiled Bangaldeshi writer TASLIMA NASRIN at the home of an activist in October. While she readily agreed to an interview, it did not materialize for more than two months, as one appointment after another was cancelled by her at the eleventh hour. Often, she would not take his calls; messages went unanswered. Until eventually she divulged her residential address, while pleading not to share it with anybody. When he finally reached the house where she lives without the knowledge of even her immediate neighbours, he was frisked thoroughly by two police constables, made to fill a register of visitors and then let in.Throughout the interview, Minu, Taslima’s cat, sat by Surajit’s side on the sofa, once climbed up onto his lap and fretted whenever his hands moved while talking. Taslima explained that Minu had to be temporarily kept in the custody of different people she had no option but to trust in the periods when she was either banished from Kolkata or not allowed to stay in India. The author does not know how the cat coped with those durations of putting up in households it was not familiar with. Minu’s call sounds like the wail of a forlorn human baby; it might well be seeing a potential attacker in every visitor. This is not a literal translation of the interview, which was conducted entirely in Bengali, but utmost care has been taken to uphold the spirit of all that Taslima said, at a location we cannot disclose.
The Wikipedia article about you says that you live in the United States these days.
Really? Wow! Terrorists can set sail for America to eliminate me then (laughs).
The threats to your life that you had received in 2007 and 2008 from the likes of Maulana Tauqeer Raza—are they still being issued?
Yes, Rs 5 lakh for my head. Then, the riot-like situation created in Kolkata.
By a certain goon called Idris Ali?
Idris Ali couldn’t have done that on his own. Who are the people who bring forth such characters? Some political parties, politicians. Idris Ali was once in the Congress; he is now with the Trinamool Congress. The people who created that situation, holding the city to a ransom, inconveniencing thousands of law-abiding citizens, were CPI(M) guys. Muslims only from areas ruled by the then ruling party had assembled to create that chaos. Without some organizational backing, a mob of that size cannot be managed and, more importantly, the police wouldn’t reduce to being mute spectators to scenes of buses, trucks, cars etc being set on fire.
This was the CPI(M)’s ploy to deflect Muslim attention from the incidents of Nandigram and Singur, where police action found mostly Muslims at the receiving end, and the murder of Rizwanur Rahman, which had alienated the community. Muslims by and large believed the police had killed Rizwan.
That very night (the then chief of the West Bengal CPI(M) party unit) Biman Bose said, “If they (Muslims) do not want Taslima, Taslima must leave.” This is clearly politics. Who is Idris Ali in this entire scheme of things? Or, who is the Imam of the Tipu Sultan Mosque to issue a fatwa against me? None of these pawns could have, on their own, realized such an elaborate gameplan.
Now the CPI(M) is no longer ruling in West Bengal. So, has the situation improved for you?
Not really. I am still not allowed to enter Kolkata. Among other things, they have cancelled a book launch of mine. The biggest setback I have suffered, which is financial, is that the screening of a mega serial that was about to begin on the Akash 8 channel was prohibited. After 100 episodes were shot, the city was splashed with billboards about the series and the local media had carried advertisements announcing it. I am the writer of the story of the series. The Mamata Banerjee government sent its police to the channel’s office, threatened its management and forced them to junk the programme.They are not satisfied merely by blocking my entry into Bengal; they additionally ensure that my name is obliterated from people’s minds. It was not that they had found the content objectionable. Just because it bore my name, the series was junked. Now I am also a victim of media boycott. I had regular columns in some newspapers. They have all been discontinued. Why? Because Mamata Banerjee does not want any work of mine to be out.
I am not permitted to enter Bangladesh. West Bengal would have been the next best thing. So, certain things do not change with the change in government. One thing that definitely does not change is every political party’s tendency to appease Muslim fundamentalists, which is very harmful for the country and its democracy. Nobody wants it, but it continues—and I am its biggest victim. If I am allowed to stay here, it will be an opportunity for India to tell the world that it hosts a victim of Communist intolerance, Dalai Lama, and a victim of Islamic intolerance, Taslima Nasreen.
It is being said that India has turned intolerant since Narendra Modi has come to power. Do you think so?
I wouldn’t say that India has turned intolerant. Some individuals had always been intolerant; they continue to be so. You won’t find a country in the world where everybody is tolerant. Some people look for opportunities to express their intolerance. This happens during all governments. If everything had been hunky dory during the previous regime, people would have retained them in power.
As a whole, it must be seen that the right education reaches every citizen; that everybody has the freedom to express himself; that women are able to live without being subjected to harassment and violence; that women enjoy the same rights as men do. These are important messages that unfortunately do not get adequate mileage. Radio and television must highlight these issues rather than being obsessed with entertainment. When people like us write, it does not reach many people; the void must be filled by the mass media. Once radio and television begin playing this important social role, even then it will take ages for human beings to transform into empathetic, educated and awakened beings.
India is unique because different ethnicities, religions, belief systems, castes, languages coexist and thrive. To maintain this diversity, you must appreciate every individual’s choice. What one wears, how one lives, what somebody eats or drinks—these are wholly private matters. Individual liberty must be paramount in India. The problem with fundamentalists is that they do not believe in individual liberty or plurality of thought; they insist upon group loyalties.
I do not defend pseudo-secularism; I stand for true secularism. This fight that you see going on in the subcontinent is actually not between Hindus and Muslims, or between Hinduism and Islam. It’s one between secularism and fundamentalism; it’s a conflict between rational-logical minds and blind faiths, between innovation and tradition, between humanism and barbarism, between modernism and anti-modernism, between people who value freedom and those who do not.
What do you attribute the antagonism towards you to? Is it because you are seen as anti-Islamic; is it because of your language, or is it because of the fact that you are a woman?
Everything! Since I critique Islam, Islamic fundamentalists demand my head. They feel my writings influence a lot of people and so I am a big threat for them. My language and my being a woman are factors, too. My identity of a woman is certainly a problem for Islamic fundamentalists. How dare a woman speak so much? A woman better stay a woman! Why isn’t she married? Why doesn’t she bear children?
But Bangladesh wasn’t like that. Bengali women are not known to be leading subdued lives.
No. What you see Bangladesh as today is how it has gradually shaped up.
I’m talking of the Bengali society as a whole: Bangladesh and West Bengal included. Bengalis never told their women folk to stay home.
Misogynists live in this society, too—be it in Bangladesh or West Bengal. They do not merely believe in patriarchy; they worship it. They think they have the right to decide how far a woman must go.
There was a time in this very Bengal when girls were not sent to schools. We fought the traditionalists to get the practice of sati abolished, to send girls to schools and colleges—these changes did not happen on their own. Even in the West, women did not have suffrage to begin with; a long struggle culminated in the recognition of these rights. Bengal was not a paradise for women’s rights since its inception.
The fundamentalists, misogynists and traditionalists continue to live and put hurdles in the path of women’s progress. It is when a government that pampers them assumes office that they unleash their mayhem.
Would you say in this context that the Sheikh Hasina Wajed regime is better than that of Begum Khaleda Zia?
Not quite. Maybe Hasina is marginally better, but she does pamper the fundamentalists. On the one hand, she is hanging those guilty of the 1971 war crimes; on the other, she is turning a blind eye to the atrocities committed by the present-day fundamentalists and religious terrorists. She has done nothing to bring justice to the atheist bloggers who were recently hacked to death.
There is, in fact, a wing of the Awami League called Ulema League that is as Islamist as Jamaat-e-Islami. They believe killing atheists is a legitimate exercise. What if Hasina punishes these fundamentalists and gets branded as an atheist herself? What if she stops getting their votes? These must be the apprehensions of the current Prime Minister of Bangladesh.
You have been accused of being an agent of India.
Oh, I have lost count of the number of times they called me an agent of India and that I have sold out Bangladesh’s interest to India. Both Khaleda and Hasina have abused me like this. Off and on I have turned into their electoral plank. They wouldn’t make promises of alleviating poverty or fighting for women’s rights; they would rather say I am an agent of RAW.
Hilarious! The first time I heard this accusation about me, I did not even know what RAW was. Then I was told the BJP had funded my book Lajja (Shame). I did not even know “BJP” stood for Bharatiya Janata Party.
Were you told by the government in 2008 that it wouldn’t be possible for India to offer you protection, after which you had left the country?
No. Rather, I was forced to leave.
Was this officially communicated?
Oh, that’s a nightmare! Read my book Nirbashan (Exile) to know about it. The West Bengal government of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee virtually dragged me out of the state. Then the “safe house” where I was made to stay in Delhi was not quite safe. People were not allowed to meet me; and I was not allowed to go out and meet people. I was given food. I was given new clothes when needed. That was about all.
Initially, I had thought it must be a stopgap arrangement I must make do with till I can return to Kolkata—maybe for a day or two or, at the most, a week. But months passed with me confined in the house even as I felt it was no longer safe. Even the very limited number of people whom I would allow to meet me were not allowed in.
So it was, in effect, a house arrest?
You can say that. And I was constantly being asked to leave India. I was also offered money to leave, which I declined. Eventually, I was forced to leave. I couldn’t have continued here like that. It was also becoming really dangerous.
When your visa was extended recently, did you feel a more considerate government had stepped in?
Well, I am being given a residential permit since 2004 in India. Rajnath Singhji had once said I could live here for 50 years; I told him I wouldn’t be living that long, so a five-year stay permit would suffice—as it is given to asylum seekers. But when it came to signing on the dotted line, first it was just a stay of two months. On meeting Rajnath Singhji, he clarified that it was a clerical error and allowed me to live here for another year, to be renewed every year under normal circumstances, just like the way it was during the UPA rule.
Have the threats of the kind issued to you in 2007-08 been renewed by some quarters?
No. But you must also note that from 2009 to 2011, I was forced to stay out of India. I was allowed to visit this country only when I could furnish travel documents that showed I was leaving within a matter of a week; only on that condition I would be allowed to step on this soil, and then in two days the authority would extend my residential permit. I had to make those visits to get the permit extended once every six months. Funny! I was being given an extension of the residential permit under the condition that I would not reside here!
I was told in 2010 that now that I had lived in India for five years, the residential permit would not be renewed any further. I was told I could apply for a fresh permit by approaching an Indian embassy in another country. Now, I knew that one rarely gets a residential permit through the embassy route. So, I insisted that I be given the permit right here. I turned so adamant that the government had to give in. Since 2011, I have been living here continuously.
Note that UPA1 was worse. If not for my resilience, I wouldn’t be staying here. They had presumed I would yield after going through so much of harassment. This woman is being denied entry into the country time and again, and yet she insists she will live here; it must be impossible to persuade her otherwise, they must have thought.
Why do you feel so attracted to India?
Look, I am a green card holder in the United States. I have Swedish citizenship, which is de facto the citizenship of the European Union. But I love to live here. It is a sentimental attachment; after all, I write about the people and society of this subcontinent. By living here, I can observe the local people from close quarters; I can meet with the subjects that make my stories. This is for the sake of my vocation of writing, but I also feel like contributing to this land.
Since I won’t be permitted to enter Bangladesh, India is the best place left in the region for me to live in. If I was allowed to live in Kolkata, nothing like it! I would have been more involved and active in the life of the place. Most importantly, I could have spoken my language. This is significant for a Bengali who writes in Bengali—may not be so much for a writer who expresses himself in English or Hindi. I should be living in a Bengali-speaking place.
I was living under protection of the State even in the Western countries; the threat perception was always there; maybe it is greater here. So, why would I still be in a developing rather than a developed nation? Maybe because I have always lived a life of challenges since my childhood. That’s the other reason. If West Asia is facing the ISIS crisis, bloggers are being killed by the Ansarullah Bangla Team in Bangladesh and I am always on the hit list of Islamic fundamentalists. This risk inspires me; it has now become a usual way of my life.
It is more than a habit. Why should democracy and freedom of expression be muzzled? If I yield, it will be a victory of the fundamentalists.
I am hated by all politicians. You want Muslim votes? Abuse me and get it! Freedom of expression cannot be thwarted with the excuse of “not hurting anybody’s sentiments”. No matter how hard you try, some people will always be offended. My stay in this region is a revolt against these people, whom I cannot let win this battle.
Finally, do you think the world will be easier to live in for both the sides of the debate if both used a milder language of expression?
Humanists and rationalists like us do believe in dialogue. It is the fundamentalists who do not believe in it. It is not that there has never been a dialogue between the theists and atheists. Different people have different approaches. Some are radical, others are mild. It is so for the atheists as well—all of them do not speak the same language.
As for me, I believe in the freedom of expression of all—including that of the fundamentalists. I do not believe in God, but if someone wishes to visit temples and mosques, I respect their right to do so. When I protested the demolition of temples in Bangladesh, did it mean I believed in temples? No, I respect their right to go to the temple. I have protested the persecution of Muslims in Bosnia, Palestine and Gujarat, and the oppression of Christians in Pakistan. To me, these are all human beings, not Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist or Christian.
Human rights are paramount to me, whatever be an individual’s narrower identity. Of course, I don’t endorse the violence of ISIS. But I can enter into a dialogue with a fundamentalist. You offend me and I offend you—that’s fine. The exchange must remain verbal and decent and not turn physically violent.