Breaking Bread with Governance Now: Taslima Nasreen speaks on secularism, intolerance and NDA rule
Aasha Khosa | February 20, 2016 | New Delhi
A Swedish citizen, an American green-card holder and a Bengali at heart craving to live in India; award-winning Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen wears many hats.
So, when she agreed to meet me in New Delhi for a luncheon interview, I was wondering if I should be prepared to host a stereotype Bengali. Not taking chances, I checked the menu of Eau De Monsoon at Le Meridian for the fish before we would settle down for what turned out to be a cozy conversation for over 90 minutes.
I am right – it seems despite acquiring a new citizenship and travelling across the world, Taslima remains an archetypal fish eating Bengali. In fact, she discusses the menu with the waiter in detail before settling for Sole (fish) cooked tandoori style. Being on diet, she would not eat rice, and hence ordered quinoa. Though it is touted as a super food from Peru, after tasting it Taslima declares that it is like Couscous, a staple of north Africa.
She starts the conversation with an explanation. She was accompanied by her ‘daughter’ – a young Hindu girl from Bangladesh. “Since she was facing threat to life, her parents have entrusted her responsibility to me,” she says. The pretty-faced girl wearing short hair and sports shoes appears every inch a sportsperson. Since she had to leave her home in a huff (we avoided talking about it) and did not come here on student visa, Taslima is finding it difficult to get her admitted to a Delhi school.
“I have helped many Hindus like her,” she says setting the tone for our conversation. “When I wrote my book Lajja (1993) and had to leave Bangladesh after threats from religious hardliners and the government ban, Hindus started trusting me and treating me as one of their own. Many Bangladeshi Hindus got asylum in the West by simply presenting Lajja to prove they faced threats and persecution back home.”
Lajja is an account of persecution of Hindus by Islamic fundamentalists in Bangladesh after demolition of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. The book documents the account of tyranny – rape, abductions, killing and arson – unleashed on the Hindus. The book was banned by the government and the fanatics issued a fatwa and also put a price on her head. Following an attack on her, the Bangladesh government ordered Taslima to leave the country. She went into exile and lived 11 years in Europe – Sweden, Germany and France – and the US.
The West showered her with citizenship, awards, honours, fellowships and also gave her space for free thinking and an experience of life in a liberal society. She became a cult personality. Life was good but her mind longed for her home – ‘Bengal’.
Why was she so keen on having a home in India when she could have led a comfortable life anywhere in the West, I ask her. I was sure that Taslima had heard this before. “At the US immigration desk, the officials almost get angry with me. They ask me why I don’t live in the US despite having the coveted green card,” she says with an impish smile.
“I tell them and all others that I want to live in India because I know the names of all the flowers here,” she says. This is followed by a meaningful silence.
Suddenly Taslima declares, “I don’t believe that a nation can be divided by a barbed wire or religion.” She is referring to the partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947. She narrates the story of her growing up with the idea of one Bengal and also of her being pushed into exile.
In Mymensingh, while Taslima was studying to become a doctor and also writing poetry for Bengali magazines she would regularly read the Little Magazine of Kolkata. At 17, when she became the editor of a poetry magazine she would publish works of writers and poets from the other Bengal (West Bengal). “So, finally, when I visited Kolkata in the eighties for the first time, I never felt I was in another country; and also when the choice of living outside Bangladesh had to be made, I naturally chose Kolkata.”
Meanwhile, food is served. Taslima likes the presentation especially of broccoli cappuccino (soup), served in a small beaker with a handle. She clicks pictures and also captures the Sole moment on her phone’s camera.
I ask Taslima whether after 21 years of exile she still feels like a victim; or she can today see the exile as godsend that made her a celebrity and a change-maker in a bigger world.
She thinks for a while. “I have mixed feelings. At times I do feel like a victim – after all, I was only fighting for freedom of expression and never got justice for being on the side of truth. However, I also feel that the incident has placed me in a bigger world; I have been able to make more women and men aware of the situation in Bangladesh and create awareness about women’s rights. This (exile) has given a new meaning to my life.”
On the other hand, she regrets not being near to her father and uncles in their last days. “I had tried to get back my Bangladeshi passport or visa so that I could travel to be with my parents one last time. I even applied on humanitarian grounds. But the government never changed its decision on me.”
On Bangladesh, Taslima feels that a country can never have true democracy till there is misogyny in the system. “I was not thrown out from Bangladesh because of Lajja: it was because I was fighting for equality for women and opposing religion and traditions. I am not only against Islam but all religions that restrict women and deprive them of rights. I am also against the festival of karva chauth and the sindoor-wearing traditions of the Hindus. Why do women have to display their marital status? Do men wear such things?”
Taslima likens the condition of Hindus in Bangladesh to that of Christians in Pakistan. “The Hindu women in Bangladesh continue to be oppressed not only by the Islamists but also at the hands of the law. They have no right to property and can’t even divorce the abusive husbands under the Hindu personal law.” Also, she says, the feudal tradition of Hindu men marrying multiple times continues.
Taslima says her fight is for creating a society where laws are based on equality and not on religion or tradition. This crusade angers her detractors – be it in Bangladesh or India – and they quickly label her as anti-Islam and issue fatwa against her.
When after years of dithering, New Delhi had finally granted Taslima the residence permit in 2004, she was thrilled and quickly settled down in Kolkata. “After years of exile, I finally felt I was home,” she says. However, this was not the end of her woes as fundamentalists across India kept seeking her expulsion and declaring a bounty on her head.
However, in 2007, she was shocked when the Marxist government of West Bengal suddenly put her under house arrest for four months and later asked her to leave the state. This was immediately after Islamic fundamentalists had tried to attack her in the Kolkata book fair and also in Hyderabad.
“Initially, I did not realise it, but after my expulsion from West Bengal and being bundled off to Rajasthan, I realised that Indian politicians were using my name to address their vote banks,” she says.
Taslima could also understand the reason for her expulsion. It seemed the Left Front government was facing a challenge from opposition leader Mamata Banerjee, who was exploiting the Singur land sale to the Tatas to her advantage and had managed to wrest the support of Muslims. The Budhadeb Bhattacharya regime was desperate to regain the Muslim ‘vote bank’. “They decided to throw me out of Kolkata, my home, to make Muslim fundamentalists happy.
“I was put under house arrest in Kolkata for four months and I felt miserable. It was then that I realised how leaders of all parties were only making use of my name for their own ends.” Taslima says since she lacks understanding of politics and is an apolitical person, she took time to see through these ‘games’.
When Mamata Banerjee became chief minister, she lost all hope of returning to Kolkata. “She (Mamata) is seen moving around with the imam of Tipu Sultan mosque (in Kolkata). He is the same person who has put a price on my head,” Taslima says. She also finds Mamata’s conduct as a politician irritating, “All the time, this woman is seen praying in mosques, covering her head and being in the company of Muslim fundamentalists and other shady characters.”
To her chagrin, the BJP, which had used Lajja as an effective campaign tool to consolidate their Hindu vote bank, turned out to be no different. Fed up with tedious processes of renewing her residence permit every six months, Taslima met union home minister Rajnath Singh to request a long-term residence permit.
“Rajnathji said he will give me a permit for 50 years and I was very happy.” But later, the government extended her permit by six months up to August 21. “This is same as what the Congress government did,” she chuckles.
Ever since her expulsion from Kolkata, Taslima has been living in New Delhi. Due to short-stay permit, the renowned author is not even able to rent out a house. “I have been staying in the house of a friend, who died recently. Now since her son wants to sell off the house, I have no place to go,” she says. As Taslima faces threat to her life and is guarded by policemen, no owner is ready to rent his house to her. With no proof of residence in her hand, she can’t even have a mobile sim card in her name.
We continue talking about politicians of South Asia. Isn’t Sheikh Hasina Wazed, the Bangladesh prime minister, a liberal person who is taking on the Islamists? For Taslima there is no difference between Hasina and Banerjee – the two women in charge of the two Bengals – as far as their mollycoddling the Islamic extremist elements is concerned.
In a popular move, Hasina’s government had vigorously pursued the cases against the 1971 war criminals, who were involved in genocide and helping the Pakistani army, in courts. A court had convicted two key Jamat-e-Islami leaders – including an octogenarian – and they were hanged amidst protests by the hardline Islamic elements.
Taslima says the hanging of these two men was no test of Hasina’s determination to root out anti-secular forces. Hasina’s Awami League party is not secular and draws support from the elements which are responsible for the recent killings of secular bloggers in Bangladesh, she says. “She is clever,” says Taslima. “On one hand, she hanged an 80-year-old maulana for war crimes, but on the other hand she continues to consolidate her position by allowing the anti-secular groups to have a free ride; these people are threatening freedom of speech and free thinking in Bangladesh.”
She wonders why the Awami League with its claims of being secular has a wing of ulemas (religious judges).
What about India? I ask her. Is not India, her adopted home, becoming a hub of religious and cultural intolerance? Taslima disagrees with this perception. “If 1.2 billion people with different religions, cultures and languages were intolerant then you would have riots here everyday.” In India only “some people are intolerant while majority of the people are fine. Frankly, personally, I am victim of intolerance in India as I was attacked, had to face death threats, and expulsions,” she says.
She also feels while the Indian constitution has secularism as one of the fundamentals of nationhood, politicians have made their own interpretation of the term. “In the West, a secular polity means that the state should be away from religion; but in India, secularism is interpreted as a system in which government has to respect all religions.” This creates problems as government tends to patronise and appease certain groups at different times for political gains.
“But for me a nation is not a government; it’s the people of a country that make it a nation. I am living in India since I have so many friends here who love me,” she says. In fact, Taslima was a vocal supporter of Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s odd-even scheme of traffic restrictions. “I was a smoker for many years. Since I have quit and am asked to breathe clean air so that my lungs will regain health, I fully supported Kejriwal,” she says.
With her global experience does she feel that politicians are the same everywhere? No, she says emphatically. She tells me two stories of Swedish leaders who, for her, epitomise honesty in public life. “In Sweden, opposition leader Mona Sahlin was all set to become prime minister when she had to quit following an inadvertent use of her official credit card for buying chocolates for home.
“Sahlin, it seems, was not carrying her personal credit card and had used her official card to buy chocolates to save time. Next day, she declared it and also returned the money but the verdict was already out: she had committed impropriety. This was the end of Sahlin’s political career.”
Another time, she tells me, she met an unusual politician at a friend’s place in Sweden. Being on the hit list of international terrorist organisations, Taslima came escorted by police. “I had noticed a young woman on a bicycle behind my car. Later when she was introduced to me as minister in the Swedish government, I couldn’t hide my bewilderment,” she says.
Taslima asked the minister why she could not use a car and have a police escort – like her, an immigrant. The minister told her, “This is because you face threat and I don’t.” Taslima admits that she was pleasantly surprised by the minister’s response and simple logic. As large armies of Muslim refugees are moving into the Western countries to escape violence and turmoil in west Asia, Taslima is worried about its long-term impact on global peace. “There were horrific incidents wherein young Muslim immigrants molested young girls in countries like Germany and Sweden. The people there are angry.”
She explains the psyche of young men from the Middle East, who may have never seen women moving freely. “Many refugees misconstrue the concept of free sex in western nations as their right to molest young women. For them, a blonde woman moving alone is a prostitute whom they have the right to have sex with.”
She fears the influx of refugees would eventually help the right-wing parties to rise in the West, especially Germany, France and Sweden, polarising the world further.
Our conversation ends over a cup of Darjeeling tea and Taslima revealing her mission: “With my positive experiences of the West and my Utopia (in mind) I will continue to fight for a society in South Asia where all humans are equal and there is no poverty.”
(The interview appears in the February 16-29, 2016 issue)