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Let Taslima Nasreen speak

Taslima Nasreen's new 'friends' might just be surprised by her views on women's rights and religious fundamentalism

Activists protest against Taslima Nasreen during her visit to Kolkata in 2004. Photo: Deshakalyan Chowdhury/AFP.
Activists protest against Taslima Nasreen during her visit to Kolkata in 2004. Photo: Deshakalyan Chowdhury/AFP.

Ideas and arguments enhance public discourse. Shut those out, and the discourse ceases to be that; it becomes tepid, a monologue. The essence of art—literature, cinema, theatre or poetry—is to make us look at the world around us with different eyes. We may not like what we see or what we read; we can then shut our eyes, avoid reading the book, ignore the film and move on to something else.

And yet, the last week of January showed two more instances where a few wanted to prevent someone from saying something, or making something, which may have offended their sense of identity or belief.

The first was at the Jaipur Literature Festival. The moment word went out that the Bangladesh-born author Taslima Nasreen was to speak, protests began, with several aggrieved Muslims, including devout mosque leaders as well as educated professionals, deciding to march to oppose Nasreen’s presence at the festival. A few weeks earlier, the festival organizers had asked me if I would be willing to be in conversation with her, and I had agreed.

Nasreen has written an important book, Exile: A Memoir, which shames the governments of Bangladesh and India, and the state government of the then Communist-led West Bengal, for not doing enough to protect her freedom of expression. There are lyrical passages in her memoir, where she describes her loneliness when she was virtually under house arrest, reliant on a few journalists or officials to pass her morsels of information about her fate. Those redeeming passages also show her yearning for a place where a writer is free to write, and she hopes that India is such a place in the subcontinent. Her book is specific to her own experience. The experiences of other writers, such as Perumal Murugan, however, show that India isn’t a place where one can be free to write what one wants. She is bitter about that lonely period, and her book captures that mood.

Nasreen also has views that many disagree with: on religious fundamentalism (and not just Muslim fundamentalism), on Islam, and on women’s rights. I wanted us to explore those thoughts as we spoke on stage and I think we managed to achieve much of that in our conversation.

The festival organizers were right in inviting her; prudent in not announcing the session ahead of time; sensible in meeting the protestors; civil and polite in letting them know that the organizers would consider the protestors’ demand that she not be invited next year without explicitly making such a promise. How individuals and organizations choose to fight specific battles is their choice. Grandstanding in front of an agitated group can sometimes escalate tensions; a festival that sees an average of about 50,000 visitors per day in a tight perimeter is not the place to start a confrontation.

Nasreen has become a heroine for Hindu fundamentalists in India because of her fierce criticism of Islamic laws (her remarks on the uniform civil code were picked up by most media, though not her criticism of all fundamentalism, nor her criticism of the state). If those backing Nasreen because of their obsession with that single issue—Hindu pride—were to read carefully what she thinks about the role of women in society, and their rights, or her criticism of all religious fundamentalism, they would be in for a surprise. She writes: “The world is constantly vigilant that no one hurts the sentiments of those who are opposed to human rights and women’s rights." While she comes down hard on Muslim fundamentalism, she doesn’t spare Hindu fundamentalism either, although she is more critical of the former. If those new supporters were to read her, they might even learn something about the quality lacking in public discourse today—nuance.

They need it given what happened in Rajasthan later that week.

The shooting of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s new film, Padmavati, was disrupted by the Karni Sena, whose foot soldiers wanted to protect Rajput history by preventing a film-maker from making a film about a queen, based on hearsay that the film was going to portray the queen inaccurately. Bhansali was roughed up and slapped, and the shooting unit had to pack up.

There is a debate among historians on whether Padmini existed, but assuming she did, and assuming she did commit jauhar, a medieval practice where women sacrificed their lives to prevent being taken away as slaves or concubines by an invading army, how could the Karni Sena, or its political backers, know what Bhansali had in mind?

The film hasn’t yet been made, and what Bhansali will produce will presumably be the kind of mass entertainment for which he is famous: where the characters have recognizable names but bear little resemblance to the historical or fictional characters whose lives they depict. Bhansali has a track record from Devdas to Mary Kom (he produced it)—he hasn’t let reality, or public memory of classics, interfere with his interpretation of history or literature.

I have not been a fan of Bhansali’s films. However, he has the right to make the films he wants, the way he wants to make them, and the Karni Sena had no business taking the law into its hands.

Of deeper significance is the state of public argument in India. However unpalatable her views may be, Taslima Nasreen has the right to express them. Those who disagree with her can ignore her, argue with her, or challenge her, perhaps even call on people not to read her books. But they cannot stop her from speaking. Likewise, however unwatchable Bhansali’s films may be, he has the right to make them. Those who disagree with his interpretation can avoid the film, argue with it, or make a film that counters his thesis. But they cannot disrupt his shooting, nor attack him physically.

The men and women who are part of the Hindi film industry need to examine their own role. It is their capitulation to thuggery over the years—where they have ceded their right to name films the way they want, cast the actors they want, write plots the way they want that has emboldened the Senas—be it the Shiv Sena, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, or the Karni Sena—to act with impunity. True, publishers have also bowed to threats, but they lack the economic power and mass appeal of the film industry.

What worsens the situation is state acquiescence. Instead of protecting a writer like Nasreen or a film-maker like Bhansali, the state looks the other way. And so there is the heckler’s veto prevailing over a judge’s judgement or an individual’s right to read or watch what one wants. The tools that writers and film-makers have are their imagination and ideas. Let them be free.

Salil Tripathi writes the column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.

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