Why India Should Honor Taslima Nasrin

India owes Taslima Nasreen her proper acknowledgment

In her article “The Role of the Writer,” Maryse Condé, the famous writer from the French speaking island of Guadeloupe in the Caribbean, shares an interesting memory from her childhood. When she was about seven or eight, she wrote a short play in honor of her mother with the intention of showcasing the multiple aspects of her imposing personality. Her mother was a teacher, a profession which, in those days especially, had great prestige attached to it. For example, when her mother used to go to her school every day, she would be accompanied by two pupils – one, who would carry her books, and the other, who would carry her notebooks. The procession resembled that of an African queen, according to Condé.

condeWhen Maryse Condé read out what she had written to her mother, her mother became angry, Condé recounts, and disputed the truth of the portrait her daughter had painted. Reminiscing about the incident, Maryse Condé states that she had thus at a very tender age discovered the dangers one faces when one engages in the act of writing; she had learnt that it was very possible that one may cause displeasure if one wrote what one considered to be true, and that one could even be beaten, arrested, or executed.

But while she had made her mother cry, she had also tasted of the intoxication and the sense of empowerment, she tells us, that comes from writing. Continuing her story, Condé finally describes writing as the “art of displeasing.”  

Decades later, on the opposite side of the globe, another woman would come to know of the dangers of writing, although in very different circumstances. It was precisely the power of words, the power of her words to disturb and cause displeasure to religious fundamentalists that got another female writer, Taslima Nasrin into very serious trouble.

However, while people everywhere are familiar with Salman Rushdie and his situation worldwide, not many people know about Taslima Nasrin and her struggle.

Nasrin’s case is worth knowing and should be of interest and concern to all civilized people. It is especially relevant in these present times wherein terrorism has turned into a truly global phenomenon and citizens expect governments to be more accountable for their security.

Taslima’s Early Life and Escape from Bangladesh

So who is Taslima Nasrin?

Internationally renowned Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin is one of the best known names in the world of contemporary Bengali language literature and poetry. No other Bengali literary personality, other than Tagore from India perhaps, has ever been as extensively translated as Nasrin.

The trenchant urgency of her themes, the evocative power of her language and imagery, the distinct originality of her feminist poetics, the courage with which she denounces human rights abuses and all forms of barbarity in the name of religion, the ferocity with which she has been persecuted for her writing, and her uniqueness as a fugitive female writer with a death sentence, or a fatwa, on her head distinguish her as an author-poet whose impact on the literary history of the human race will be long-lasting.

Taslima Nasrin was born in 1962 in Mymensingh, a small town in northern Bangladesh (former East Bengal/East Pakistan) to a Muslim family. East Bengal became Bangladesh in 1971 after a civil war in which it broke away from Pakistan. During this war, approximately 3 million civilians were killed, hundreds of thousands of women were raped and more than 20 million people were pushed into India as refugees by the Pakistani military forces. The Hindu minority bore a disproportionate brunt in this genocide.

She received a liberal education while growing up, studied medicine, and became a gynecologist. Serving in the rural areas of her country, she became acutely aware of the brutality and the widespread physical, emotional, and sexual violence against women in her homeland. She took to the pen and began publishing articles critical of the Islamic Code. Towards the late eighties, her attacks on political and social Islam had earned her the rage of fundamentalists.

lajjaBy the time her most celebrated novel Lajja (Shame) – a work depicting the nightmarish fate of the country’s Hindu minority — got published in 1993, her persecution had reached a state of unprecedented frenzy. Islamist political parties were organizing demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of people demanding that she be killed. Her books banned, an official arrest warrant and a fatwa on her head, Nasrin went into hiding and then fled the country.

In 1994, Taslima Nasrin was granted asylum in Sweden. She has spent time in France and USA as well, but her “exile” continues, becoming the theme of her poem “Exile” later discussed in this article. Her exile has been extremely difficult, as remaining physically connected to either of the two Bengals is critical for her as a writer.

Finding Home in India

Since the time she fled her country and found refuge in Europe, she has been indicating to various governments and organizations that she would prefer to reside in the Indian state of West Bengal in order to maintain her links to Bengali language and Bengali culture and in order to remain connected to her roots and keep her literary being alive. Bengal is her lifeline, her inspiration, her very breath. It gives her, what she calls, the “oxygen of language.” Outside of the two Bengals, which she needs for her inspiration, she has transitioned to “lighter writing” — romance novels such as French Lover, which eloquently reveal how exile may sap the genius of committed writers by depriving them of the very sources of their literary, creative and moral sustenance — their homelands and their mother tongues.

The Indian government had already denied her request for Indian citizenship in 2005 for obvious political reasons, but in 2006, after a prolonged effort, the Ministry of External Affairs finally allowed her to live in India under a visa arrangement which required her to periodically leave the country every few months to extend her visa. It was perhaps out of a sense of shame, or perhaps to save face, or perhaps because somebody in the government had realized that India also had some kind of duty towards her, that she was finally allowed into India for an extended stay. After all, she had already spent so much time in the West by then, in Sweden and France in particular. So in 2006 she began living in Calcutta/Kolkata keeping a somewhat low public profile.

In August 2007, she was invited to the southern Indian city of Hyderabad for the launch of a translation of one of her books. At the function she was suddenly rushed upon by Islamist legislators who clamored for her death and vowed to behead her. It is to be noted that her attackers at the function were none other than state legislators. (For more information about this group and some of their controversial statements click here.)

She was immediately whisked away from the scene by security and quickly sent back to Calcutta, but the word was already out. Soon afterwards, armed Islamist mobs were out on the streets of Calcutta, terrorizing the populace, setting buildings and vehicles on fire, demanding that she be expelled from the city for injuring their religious sentiments. The police was unable to control them. It was only after the army was called out that the mobs retreated.

jamaatWhat followed thereafter is tragic and shameful. The West Bengal State government, run by the Communist Party, decided to summarily evict Taslima from her apartment, from the city and from the state — all in the name of maintaining civil order. Instead of curbing the marauding fundamentalists, the state government of West Bengal decided to victimize the victim. The government turned into a collaborator. She was not even given the time to pack and was hurriedly put on a plane to Jaipur, Rajasthan, from where she was quickly passed on to New Delhi. Now officially a guest of the Indian government, she was put in a guest house where she became a virtual prisoner. Her book De ma Prison, based on the journal she kept during this period, logs this ordeal, provides chronological and other details, and includes her reflections during this period of confinement.

Her well-wishers and supporters were kept at bay and her movement was curtailed. Over the course of several months, the Congress Government, in particular the External Affairs Ministry and its bureaucrats, did their best to break her spirit and traumatize her through isolation, mind-games, and mental torture so that she would voluntarily leave the country and go back to Europe and so that they would not have to deal with the Islamists thirsty for her blood. She details all this in De ma Prison. Ultimately the Congress Party politicians and their underling bureaucrats prevailed and she had to leave India, a country which should have been the first to give her asylum and offer her a life of security and dignity in keeping with its highest and noblest ancient traditions of courage and humanist spirituality.

This is how a female writer militating for oppressed womanhood through literature and writing earned the ire of Islamists and ended up becoming a global fugitive, persecuted by the very government systems that should have protected her in the first place. The victimization and persecution of Taslima Nasreen was abetted and perpetuated by all the three democratically elected governments involved: that of Bangladesh, that of the Indian state of West Bengal and that of the Republic of India — because none of the governments in place at that time felt they could afford the animosity of their respective Islamist sectors if they wanted to remain to remain in power.

It is still clear how the Modi Government’s handling of the Taslima Nasrin question will be different from that of the Congress Government. It is evident though that at the state level, in West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, in spite of securing a landslide victory in 2011 against the Left Front, will be continue to remain highly averse to rehabilitating Nasrin, given how aggressively she has cultivated her Muslim vote bank and how dependent she is on it for her own survival.

Understanding Taslima and her Poetics

malalaTaslima Nasrin has received several prestigious awards for literary excellence as well as for her humanist engagement. These include the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought (the same award that was conferred on the Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai in 2013 for her bravery in defying the Taliban who wanted to stop her activism to promote education for girls) in 1994, Le Prix de L’Édit de Nantes (1994), the World Economic Forum’s Global Leader for Tomorrow Award (2000), the Ananda Award (1993, 2002), the UNESCO Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence (2004), and the Grand Prix Condorcet-Aron (2005). The year 2005 also saw her nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Her works remain banned in her native country, notable among which is the internationally acclaimed Meyebela (My Bengali Girlhood), part in a series of autobiographical novels. Some of her books were also banned in West Bengal keeping in mind secular sensibilities. She has accused Indian writers of having double standards when it comes to dissent.

Religion and its perversities, the degradation of the feminine, and sexuality form the thematic core of Nasrin’s discourse. Her poetry is very powerful and very eloquent. Her feminist writing, her poetry in particular, shakes a reader to the core. Some of her poems like the ones available in translation in the collection Love Poems of Taslima Nasreen are in a more lyrical vein and articulate the poet’s existential musings on love, longing, desire, despair and intimacy. They powerfully demonstrate how writing itself becomes the ultimate refuge of the persecuted writer, the homeland of the stateless author. Exile being the fate of many a persecuted writer, including Nasrin, the theme of exile in Nasrin’s poetic discourse is what I would like to discuss now.

The poem “Exile” appears in the Love Poems of Taslima Nasreen. It expresses the emotional pain of this exiled writer and her yearning for her homeland. Exposing her innermost vulnerability and loneliness, the poet addresses her country as would a pining woman in a letter to her beloved in a distant land. Nasrin’s pain and anguish as an exile are expressed through the idiom of unrequited love in a style that does not fail to evoke the humility of one totally surrendered to the fire of longing.

Simple yet eloquent, tender in tone, the poem comprises three stanzas. Each verse evokes a sentiment of acute and unbearable longing. The function of the first stanza is more than just phatic, as the poet initiates a direct, insistent enquiry and interpellates the homeland to find out about its well-being: “My country, how are you? / How are you, my country? / You, my country, how are you? / Are you keeping well, my country?” The repetition of “my country” in each line suggests a sentiment of closeness and belonging that the poet feels towards her country and indicates a bond that has obviously not been severed or weakened by events, distance, and time.

The homeland comes across as an idée fixe, an obsession, that the poet cannot shake off. In the second stanza, the poet informs the homeland that her heart yearns for it and queries whether this yearning is mutual: “My life is running out thinking of you / and yours? / I die dreaming of you / And you?” The message carries a sense of urgency, with the poet pleading with the homeland that her life is running out in the process of thinking and dreaming of it. Once again, the poet does not relinquish her gentle but persistent questioning and invites a response of some sort from the homeland, her blank understated queries opening a space of ambiguity, hinting at a tacit sense of betrayal.

The third stanza develops a negative romantic tonality that deploys the imagery of shattered and silenced womanhood. The poet communicates to the homeland the devastated state to which she has been reduced in the language of a discarded (female) lover and describes the symptoms of her inner wounds and psychological damage: “I hide my wounds in secret / my sorrows / my tears / hold back in secret / my unruly hair / flowers, sighs.” The final verses evoke the magnanimity of the female in the role of unconditional lover and eternal well-wisher when the poet concludes by blessing her country despite her own misery: “I am not well / you keep well, my beloved country.”

Though the poem is an expression of the personal anguish of the poet as an exile, it may also be read as a muted and symbolic testimony to the violence and abuses against women that are the explicit subject of so many of her other poems. From a feminist perspective, the symbolic power of this poem is better appreciated when read in conjunction with poems such as “Happy Marriage,” “Noorjahan,” “The Game in Reverse,” “Garment Girls,” “At the Back of Progress” and “Edul Wara,” which most readers are likely to find shocking and disturbing for their depiction of forms of unmitigated female victimization involving acts of oppression, violence, and terror against women.

For a reading concerned more with issues of uprootment, “Exile” may be read in conjunction with “The exile’s poem” (Love Poems), in which the poet elaborates a discourse on food, grief, and nostalgia and attempts, sitting alone in her “air-conditioned room in Scandinavia,” to recuperate her native land through the primordial act of eating rice and fish curry by hand: “I don’t know why I want the taste and smell of rice so much / preferring it to the golden spoon / Actually when I touch rice / my hand doesn’t bring up rice / but fistfuls of Bangladesh.” The harshness of the treatment meted out to her is in stark contrast to the compassion, sensitivity, and the feelings of the heart expressed in her writing.

How India can Honor Taslima Nasrin

So, why (and how) should India honor her?

Taslima took the bull by the horns single-handedly. She was one of the first people to denounce militant Islam and speak out fearlessly about something that would grow from being a local problem to be a global problem. She highlighted its excesses at a time when very few people were even willing to see the elephant in the room and most of the so called intellectuals refused to even recognize there was a problem brewing.

She spoke up for the persecuted, butchered, decimated and orphaned Hindu minority of Bangladesh that has been reduced from being 40% just a few decades ago to merely 8% of the total population now.

History bequeathed India a moral duty towards the decimated Hindus (and Buddhists) of Bangladesh vis-à-vis a militant Islam, but it has consistently failed them. Taslima did not. She dared to document not just the terrible atrocities and human rights violations lived daily by the terrorized Hindu population of a region that was formerly a part of India, but also raised awareness, through her writing and her poetry, about the socially sanctioned atrocities committed on rural Muslim women in the name of religion.

To India thus, as a writer, she is of greater value than, say, the likes of Arundhati Roy, who, through their glib penmanship relentlessly poison world opinion against India as well as Hindu culture, all the while conveniently “writing in the language of the colonizer.” Taslima, it should be noted, writes in Bengali and is thereby also contributing by keeping Indic literary traditions alive. She has already done a lot more for Literature, for India, for dharma, for justice, and for human values than the pitiable award wapsi people.

It is still not too late for India to atone for the treatment meted out to Taslima.

First, she should be given Indian citizenship — if she still wants it. If the Pakistani singer Adnan Sami can be granted Indian citizenship, then why can’t she? If lakhs of illegal Bangladeshi infiltrators can obtain Indian residency through fraudulently issued ration cards, why can’t she be allowed a life of dignity, safety, stability and honor in India?

Second, she should also be allowed to settle down in Calcutta / Kolkata if she so desires. The West Bengal state government should stop Islamists and their sympathizers from harassing her, and the Central Government should strip her persecutors of Indian citizenship and deport them if they are found to be illegal immigrants.

Third, instead of conferring Sahitya Academy puraskars and other awards on undeserving venal and mediocre artists and writers and authors — most of whom would have otherwise lived their mediocre lives in obscurity had they not been rewarded for their political connections and loyalties and chosen as bedfellows of convenience for the ruling elite — India’s government and literary academies should honor Taslima Nasrin with the nation’s highest awards, both non-literary and literary, for her bravery and for her writing.

India owes her proper acknowledgment not just for her social commitment, her fight for justice for women and for the beleaguered Hindus of Bangladesh, or for the literary and artistic merit of many of her works, but especially because her oeuvre transmits humanistic cosmopolitanism, universal human values and a sensibility of gentleness, all of which dovetail seamlessly with all that the timeless Indian spirit stands for. And that is why India should honor Taslima Nasrin.