This is the letter I wrote to the editor of The Statesman Kolkata in response to an article published in the Statesman on 3rd April 2008
But first the original article and then my letter which was published today
Bundle of contradictions by Shabbir Ahmed
For some people Taslima Nasreen is a fearless feminist; for others she is a writer who deliberately courts controversy and sensationalises sex to sell average books. Adherents of Islam believe she has become a big name merely by denigrating their religion and the Prophet. The controversial Bangladeshi writer is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. The real Taslima lies buried under a heap of adulations and accolades, invectives and expletives — a bundle of contradictions. In an interview published in an English language daily on 22 August 2007, she said, “I was born Muslim but become an atheist at 13.” A self-confessed atheist, she did not have the slightest compunction about advocating a revision of the Koran and shariat law. She further said in the same interview that she belonged to “a family of free-thinking humans”. But her free-thinking uncle, who belonged to the same family of “rational humanists”, did not hesitate to molest and rape her. She has written against the burkha (veil) but she herself wore one when she left Kolkata for Jaipur on 22 November last year.Religion is the last refuge of mediocre writers and Taslima is following in the footsteps of Salman Rushdie, who reached the pinnacle of popularity — or the nadir of notoriety — by blaspheming Islam. The first edition of her autobiography, which came out in 2004, did not carry objectionable remarks. But the second edition, introduced by the author of The Satanic Verses, did so. Muslims are not averse or insensitive to criticism of their religion. As a matter of a fact, Islam is a much-maligned religion and Muslims cannot remain mute spectators if their Prophet is branded as a philanderer. Taslima’s supporters need to be reminded that freedom of expression or speech is not absolute but subject to reasonable restraint and restrictions. Muslims can defend their religion against the slings and arrows of critics and are even open to an intellectual debate, but they cannot tolerate insult to their faith. For a Muslim, religion is more important than anything else.Apart from Islam, which Taslima assails every now and then with gay abandon, sex is a recurring theme in her works. Her books sell because of sex appeal and not because of any literary value. The third sequel to her autobiography, Dwikhandito, was published in 2004. The book gives details of her sexual relationship with Syed Hashmat Jalal, a Kolkata poet. She describes how she enjoyed the encounters of the closest kind with the poet. No writer worth his or her salt would describe an illicit relationship with such flourish unless, of course, he or she is a pornographer. But Taslima does it because she is a “fearless” feminist and “a writer of rare courage”. Jalal filed a defamation suit against her in Calcutta High Court and sought Rs 11 crore as compensation. The so-called fearless feminist entered into an out-of-court settlement with the poet. The book was banned by the West Bengal government. In 2006, Calcutta High Court lifted the ban.Dwikhandito, which literally means split into two, has smashed to smithereens her image as a feminist. It truly reflects Taslima’s views on sex and sexuality. She is a firm believer in free and uninhibited sex and has preached in her works that a woman has full control over her body and is free to use it in whatever way she pleases. Example is better than precept. Taslima’s amorous and amoral relationship with a Kolkata poet as described in Dwikhandito proves beyond doubt that she practices what she preaches. This is the mark of a true feminist.Amar Meyebela (My girlhood), published and banned in Bangladesh in 1999, is a chronicle of her childhood years. In it she ridicules Muslim clerics and challenges the notion that a woman should always obey her husband as lord or master. The upholders of women’s rights give a clarion call to women to defy their husbands and assert their authority. This goes against the traditions of Islam and other religions. Amar Meyebela is a perfect recipe for disaster, conjugal conflicts and family feuds.Taslima Nasreen left Bangladesh in August 1994 with a fatwa on her head. She has lived in France, Sweden and other European countries. All the countries she visited or stayed in turned down her plea for citizenship as they did not want to antagonise the Bangladesh government and the Muslim community. She holds a Swedish passport. During her long exile in Europe, she had visited India intermittently with a request for asylum or citizenship. Her week-long visit to Kolkata on a tourist visa in 1999 may be described as historic as it paved the way for her stay in India. The entire City of Joy burst into raptures over her presence. Though it was a personal visit, she was treated like a visiting dignitary.The literati thought the presence of an internationally renowned Bengali writer in Kolkata would restore a sense of Bengali pride and identity. Her short visit revived the post-1971 euphoria: E paar Bangla o paar Bangla joy Bangla. Taslima declared in poetic style that the entire stretch from Digha to Coxbazar was her homeland. The Indian government, which had refused her asylum in 1994, agreed to grant her a resident visa, which was to be renewed every six months.Living in Kolkata since 2004, the people of this city showered her with love and affection on her but she abused the hospitality by hurting the sentiments of the Muslim community. Bundled out of Kolkata and tossed from one place to another, the beleaguered Bangladeshi writer succumbed to the mounting pressure and announced she was withdrawing certain sections of her autobiography, Dwikhandito, which had derogatory references to Islam and Prophet Mohammad. But this was only a ploy to buy peace. The damage had already been done by this impulsive and impudent writer. In August when she was attacked in Hyderabad during a release of the Telegu translation of one of her novels, she had this to say, “Some groups want to harm me under the delusion that they can muzzle me and bury my voice. I will continue to write what I believe in.” Taslima is in the process of writing the sixth volume of her autobiography. In a statement issued from the NSG guesthouse in Delhi, she had the temerity to say, “I was hounded out for being critical, but my latest writing is still critical.” There is no sign of remorse or regret over what has happened to her in the past month. Taslima became a pawn in the game of politics that was being played by the CPI(M), Congress and BJP. On 21 November, when Kolkata was rocked by a violent agitation demanding her expulsion, CPI(M) state secretary Biman Bose said, “The CM offered her refuge at the request of two Central ministers. Now that some people do not want her to stay here, she should leave the state on her own.” State home secretary Prasad Ranjan Roy claimed she left Kolkata of her own volition. But the facts are quite different. For the past three-four months the state government had been looking for an opportunity to shunt her out of Kolkata. Messages and even veiled threats were delivered to her via high-ranking police officers to shift her base to Kerala or any other state, but she refused to budge. The long-awaited opportunity came on 21 November when a peaceful road blockade took such a violent turn that the Army had to be called in. How this happened remains a mystery. The demonstrations were held in areas that are considered CPI(M) strongholds. Many people think the violence was stage-managed or rather state-managed to divert attention from the killing fields of Nandigram and Rizwanur Rahman’s unnatural death. What added fuel to the flames was an unsigned article in a Left-sponsored Bengali magazine, Pathasanket. The autumn issue included articles by Left Front chairman Biman Bose and former education minister Kanti Biswas. The controversial article, “Taslima prasange Bangladesher Bharatiya rashtradut, Pradhan Mantri O moulabadider prasange” defended Taslima against fundamentalist fury and made a vitriolic attack on the Prophet over his marital life. How an anti-Prophet article was published in a Marxist magazine is yet another mystery. But nothing seemed to go right for the ruling party and even Biman Bose had to retract his statement on Taslima.The BJP has blown hot and cold over the author of Lajja. A Muslim author writing about the Muslim backlash on the Hindu minority in Bangladesh in the aftermath of the Babari Masjid demolition was an ideal person who could bolster the anti-minority plank of the party. The party hailed her as a courageous writer. Lajja was translated into Hindi and the Sangh Parivar distributed it for free across the country to ensure the widest possible readership. But the bonhomie did not last long. The party was shocked when Taslima said the BJP was no better than the Jamat-e-Islami and denounced both as fundamentalist outfits. When the same courageous writer defended Deepa Mehta’s right to show the pathetic plight of Hindu widows in her film Water, the saffron brigade accused her of insulting the country and demanded her arrest. The same BJP, now out of power at the Centre, which was baying for her blood, demanded that Taslima be treated as a political refugee. This to corner both the UPA government and the Left. BJP-ruled Rajasthan rejected her but Narendra Modi extended her a cordial invitation.The plight of the Congress-led UPA government is more pathetic. Having become a political hot potato, the Centre did not know how to handle her. The Congress claimed the Bengal government had raised “legitimate objections” to renewing her visa — so big an embarrassment did she become.Having since left Indian shores, Taslima has written 30 books, six of these banned in Bangladesh. The ideas she preaches are dangerous and even Lajja, which is a serious book, is spiced with sex, leaving many believing she is a harbinger of hedonism, a perverter of human relationships.(The author is a freelance contributor.)
Ever since the black Wednesday of November 2007, the Tasleema debate continues to hog the limelight and Shabbir Ahmed’s write up in today’s Statesman ‘ Bundle of contradictions’ is the latest in the fray. Blasphemy was what the ancient Athenians accused Socrates of and forced him to suicide. A couple of centuries later, Jesus was crucified on charges of blasphemy. Tasleema, it seems is in august company. Whatever may be the fault of pornography, it certainly does not teach us to spread hatred and animosity; and it does have a committed readership. ‘Fanny Hill’ is read by more people than the ‘Collected works of Shakespeare’.
One fails to understand why she should have regrets and suffer from remorse for the untoward incident of November 2007, which was, as per the writer’s view, engineered by some mysterious powers. That Tasleema is a genuine secularist can be gauged by the fact that she has been able to antagonize and infuriate the Muslim fundamentalists and the Hindu fanatics in equal measure! I believe no Indian can boast of a similar feat.