Is Taslima treading a dangerous path in India by courting the Hindu fundamentalists? Vidya Bhushan Rawat
In an interview to the Indian Express, Delhi on November 24th, noted Bengali author Taslima Nasreen said, "Nothing happens to MF Hussain, who has done so many things, while everybody is after my life'. It is ironical that the statement comes from a person who has been 'wronged' by the Muslim clergy in Bangladesh and whose issue rocked Indian parliament as well as has exposed the hypocrisy of our society and so-called 'liberal' values.
It is more than shocking that the issue cropped up at a time when the self style custodian of the secular values in India were exposed to the outside world on the issue of the socio-economic conditions of Muslims in West Bengal. Their own intellectuals, artists started questioning the take over of Nandigram and communalization of West Bengal. The seer hypocrisy of the Government of West Bengal was visible as the CPI(M)'s cadre went back to 'annex' Nandigram and the victory day celebrations took place there. The red flags were hoisted as if Nandigram was an alien territory and great nationalist forces of the left have won.
A fortnight ago when some of the intellectuals and political activists from Kolkata came to Delhi for a meeting, the issue of emergence of some outstanding Muslim leaders also came into focus. It was said that the Muslim Dalit combination is set to win over West Bengal and future of the West Bengal politics would always be in the secular hands and not to a Bhadralok politician. I thought it was rare that Muslim political leadership would raise the issue of the concern of Muslim Samaj, which is mainly socio-economical and not religious. The literacy rate is very low; there are no health centers in Muslim localities, no government jobs for them and virtually no benefit of land reforms for them. West Bengal's government was already targeting many of them in the name of Bangladeshi's infiltrators. Yet, what happened in the streets of Kolkata November 21 st was not only shameful deviation from the real issues of Muslims in West Bengal but it gave the CPM's government as much waited relief to hide in the shade of Taslima Nasreen. How come Taslima become the main issue of the community which is fighting for its survival in Nandigram ? It is another matter that many of the Muslim leaders from Bengal are blaming the CPM for the current crisis. They charge that these riots were engineered by the CPM to save themselves from further charges of anti Muslim rhetoric. Not to be left behind in this exercise, West Bengal's ruling party's spokesperson Biman Bose retorted that Taslima was unwelcome in Kolkata, a city which prided itself in giving shelter to a hapless Muslim tailor of Ahmedabad in Gujarat who became face of terrorized Muslim community in Gujarat.
It is unfortunate that Muslim leadership everywhere joined hand and started protesting against Taslima ignoring the vital fact that the more they would protest against her, the bigger would be the damage done to the community. A community which is living in marginalization in India, where the brahmanical supremacy is working over time to marginalized communities, Muslim political leadership has completely failed and betrayed their community. The west takes it a chance to target Islam in further isolating the Muslims. It is not the Islam but the Mullahs who are in danger. Taslima is no Salman Rushdie. She has projected the face of fundamentalist Muslims in Bangladesh in the aftermath of the Babari demolition. It might have been the genuine grievances of the minority community in Bangladesh and the same is true about the Muslims in India who are living on the margins. And more importantly same is true about both the communities and their treatment to Dalits in all our South Asian societies including Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, and India. Poor Nasreen perhaps does not know the plight except the plight of a bhadralok Bengali upper caste Hindu in Bangladesh.
While any one is free to ignore Taslima's writings which many of the scholars term as blasphemous. That she has no right to live in India is the case point that every one of them has been making. She has hurt the sentiments of Islam, they said. Nobody has a right to hurt religious sentiments, said Pranab Mukherjee, Indian foreign minister, in Parliament. One does not know how sentiments are hurt. If ask for a ban on Kumbha fair, it hurts the sentiments of Hindus. If we say that the roads which are closed for nearly a fortnight between Delhi and Hardwar for ensuring that Hindu pilgrims walks on the road freely despite all other problems for commuters and travelers, during Savan, its appeasement. Again when we speak against susidy provided to Haz pilgrims, it is appeasement says, Hindu right wing while seculars keep quiet and Muslims are happy. That makes things easier for the Hindu right wing and they make it point to explain it their constituency and others through media. Therefore when M.F.Hussain paints something and the Hindu right wing are up in arms against him for hurting their sentiments. Actually the Hindu fundamentalists also want to have a 'right to take life' or threat to issue 'fatwa' like their Islamic friends in India and elsewhere. And that way, the Jamayate Islami in Bangldesh has been of great help to Sangh Parivar here for threatening Taslima Nasreen. Now she is more than welcome in India by them. And unfortunately, Ms Nasreen seems to have played in their hand when she said that nothing happens to M F Hussain. What do you want to be done to Hussain, Ms Nasreen? Should we hang him, beat him to equate ourselves with the Bangladeshi Mullahs or Talibani thugs?
Taslima should not let down all those who stood for her. All those who stood for her are fighting the case against the Hindu fundamentalists in India. These fundamentalists who do not want any dissent in this country. Who want brahmanical hegemony at all cost? Narendra Modi invited her to Gujarat, the other day saying that a woman and that too an 'intellectual' of Taslima's stature should be welcomed. He used the same Bangladeshi refugee card in his speeches. Modi, who tells us that 'scavenging' is a spiritual experience, and that every time the questions about his sincerity towards the Muslim population of Gujarat are raised, he comes back to his pet old thesis. In the last election it was Mia Musharraf and this time, it seems, he want Taslima to be in Gujarat. Modi's Gujarat shines at the cost of Dalits and tribals and Muslims and Christians are the hunting ground for him. Many leaders of the Hindutva brigade have already given Taslima the status which she never had. Her victimization story might be true but there is nothing new what she says. The fact of the matter is that the oppression of women and marginalized is not an Islam Centric thing. It is everywhere in religion which have become our daily routine. They are also part of cultural values and have mixed up with religion in different parts of the world. Many people try to explain religion in a different way to make it more inclusive while others go in to every word written there. There is another stream which feel every word written in these texts need to be challenged and questioned.
It is equally baffling that the secular voices remained mute in this entire exercise and the support to Taslima came from the right wing Hindu fundamentalists. And to the discomfiture of secularists as well as humanists, as Taslima claims herself to be, she has linked her problems with that of M.F.Hussain. There are two different issues involved here and one commonality between them. First the common point is that attack on both of them is an assault on freedom of artistic expression and freedom of conscience. Hussain is facing many charges against him in the courts filed by various Sangh Parivar outfits. The officially he is not debarred from India but at this age of 90 he is running here and there. Secondly, Hussain actually has not defamed the Hindu Gods and Goddesses but celebrate them. A large number of his paintings are bought by the Hindus themselves. He celebrates Madhuri Dixit and her 'Naritva', an ideal Indian womanhood. I am sure Taslima would agree that any such concept is not only derogatory in nature but stereotype the women in general.
Taslima's main problem emanates from her one sided writings. Surely, she is not an activist hence can take liberty to so-called freedom of conscience even if there are riots and mayhem caused by them. Her writings are one way passage to demonize Islam. It is no doubt that she faced victimization in Bangladesh. That such feudal outlook is not confined to Islam and Bangladesh only. Such situation exists in our part of the world also and elsewhere too. Women were always used in religion and considered subservient to man. Taslima can speak to a Shankaracharya and a Christian clergy who would never say that they are equal. Ofcouse, an enlightened and politically mature religious leader would always say that they are equal. Unfortunately, like many others, she also feels that her best security in Indian would come from the Hindu fundamentalist. That approach is dangerous and self defeating. Taslima should understand that Muslims in India live in utter fear and are even more marginalized than the Dalits as far as participation in the governance is concerned. All those who support here from the Hindu rightwing organizations target M.F.Hussain for denigrating the Hindu Gods. What happens when these rituals and practices denigrates the 170 million Dalits in India. Yes, as I mentioned and hopefully Taslima would also be reading that, Narendra Modi, the chief Minister of Gujarat, who presided over a regime that butchered innocent Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 and further isolated them till this date, consider scavenging as a 'spiritual' experience. Yes, one can only hope that Modi and his generations would leave politics and adopt this 'noble' profession of cleaning shit of others so that their sins are washed.
I would also like to remind Taslima that she seems to be ignorant of the vast anti caste movement in India. One is not sure whether she ever read the work of Ambedkar, Phule and Periyar, she would not have uttered the word against M.F.Hussain and his creative work. Much before Taslima and Salman Rushdie could think of challenging the religious orthodoxy, I am not sure whether they ever challenged it or just narrated to us their own 'experiences'. Ambedkar wrote 'Riddles of Hinduism' and Periyar wrote his own explanation of 'Ramayana'. Phule condemned Brahmanical values and many others fought against the brahmanical social order and hegemonistic concept of the brahmanical values. When Ambedkar's riddles were published, the government banned it buckling under the pressure of the Hindu right wing elements. Thanks to the strong Dalit protest against this proscription that government had to lift ban over it. If Taslima think that Ambedkar and Periyar would not have allowed to live after all they wrote much more against brahmanical values than Taslima could think of writing against Islam. Yes, it was the power of the people. Ambedkar, Periyar, Phule were not just philosophers and writers but responsible social revolutionaries. When they were targeting against rituals and religious values, they were enlightening another group of people who were denied basic human rights by the same religion. And Taslima, I hope would remember how Dalits have been living in India, and how their untouchability had got religious sanction. Yet, these great revolutionaries changed the mindset of the people and their power was understood. Today, Dalits are a powerful political force in India despite all disabilities attached to their birth and caste. A majority of Muslims and Christians got converted overtly or covertly to escape from the tyranny of the brahmanical system in India.
Taslima love Bengal. It is natural. She says Kolkata was a secular place. Yes, in that secular space there was no space for Muslim voices, no space for dissent. During the partition days, Kolkata saw the worst ever communal riots. In the 1990s, the bhadralok public did not allow a new comer ' Srilankan' to win against India in the world cup semi finals. Yes, in this entire jargon of secularism in India only powerful upper elite of every religion participated, others were votary of secularism but not leaders of it. The secular debate came from those whose ancestors created this caste divide. Taslima is a proud member of this elite club today. She is a welcome guest and must speak out openly against all forms of oppression. I am sure the day she will open her mouth against the Hindu fundamentalism, the same voices of 'sanity' will ask for her head.
Voices of dissent have to be careful in their criticism. After all for whom are they working? As I mentioned earlier, India had the history of voices of dissent right from Carvaka to Buddha and in this age in the form of Ambedkar, Phule and Periyar. They dissented and lived a life for their people and today they are loved and respected. Not only that, Ambedkar is supremely respected and worshipped by the millions of Dalits all over the world for his unrelenting and uncompromising struggle against brahmanical supremacy. The problem of Islamic fundamentalism in the subcontinent lies in the same. They need an enemy to retain their upper elite hegemony. In India, already, there are voices of the down trodden Muslims asking for their share in power structure and for the socio-economic benefit of the community. Lot of work is being done at the grassroots and people are protesting. Ofcourse, not every one will leave the religion. Ambedkar and Phule were working for the communities and hence they fought and had the courage to tell the Dalits to reject the brahmanical Hinduism and embrace radical Buddhism. Taslima is an individual hence perhaps can not even tell any one to do what Ambedkar and Periyar could ask for?
As far as the Islamic zealots are concerned, the least said about them is better. They have no work except the religious issues. It is strange how they use democracy for their own purposes. They need liberal voices from other religions, from secularists, from atheists when the community faces music from the right wing Hindus but they are not ready to change. They are unable to understand that in the 21 st century a lot of things have to be changed. The socio-economic-cultural paradigms are changing. Muslim women will come out and work in the offices, do PhDs, and join films and sports. As the economic independence knock at their doors, women's can not be expected to remain mute on violence against them. They will speak and they will have to speak. There is no other alternative against violence and hegemony. Religions have been a male hegemony and modernity demand equal rights for all. The power of religion would not allow this power equation to change. But as their time is coming closure so will be the targets. They would attack all those who challenge them because it is the threat from with in that seems powerful and not from outside. Both the Hindu Fundamentalists and the Muslim fundamentalists know it well. For a Narendra Modi, Taslima is the best to demonize Islam and deviate from the assertive OBCs, Dalits and tribals who are asking him where is Gujarat shining, for the Muslim fanatic groups, since they have done very little work to gain the faith of the Muslim masses, Taslima gives them hope to revive their dirty agenda. As usual the Muslim intelligentsia is submissive and does not have the courage to stand on its own.
The only answer to both these fundamentalist groups could be the forces of change with in the communities. Yes, the Dalit Muslims are now asking their share in power and will not succumb to these tactics and a broader alliance with the Dalits, tribals and OBCs will not only throw away their own middlemen leaders but ultimately pave the way for a humanist society where every one can live in harmony and where criticism is constructive and aimed at resolving the crisis and not to further it. One sincerely hopes that good sense will prevail to Kolkata's Muslims and they will ally with other secular Dalit groups in opposing the socio-economic marginalization of their community people in Nandigram. Taslima is not an issue. Let her live in peace otherwise she will become fodder for those who have demonize Muslims in India. For Taslima, it would be good if she continue her writing without any prejudice and should not become another Francis Goutier, who has today become the soldier of Sangh Parivar. One hopes that all those opposing Taslima will understand that her withdrawal from Kolkata and West Bengal does not solve the crisis of the people of Nandigram. In fact, it will unnecessarily divide forces who stand with the displaced people of Nandigram and salute their heroic struggle against the land acquisition in the name of Developing an SEZ in Nandigram.