A series of incidents happening in India for the past couple of years dragging Taslima Nasreen into one or the other controversy, which has always resulted in her silent exit from India for a while, raises several questions on India’s firm commitment to its avowed secular character.
During the previous stint of UPA, the Leftists who supported the then UPA, ensured that Taslima left Kolkatta a day after attack on her. She landed in Delhi from Kolkatta enroute Jaipur, only to be told by the government of India that it was not prepared to accept her freedom of expression and speech through her writings as neither the Leftists nor the UPA were willing to face the wrath of the Islamic fundamentalists.
One can understand the rank political opportunism of the Leftists and the Congress in appeasing the Muslim fundamentalists’ in the country for the sake of votes. But the stoic silence maintained by both the media and political groups of various hues (except BJP), reflected an equal hypocrisy which merited severe condemnation as what all is happening is nothing but undermining the secular character of Indian constitution and its people.
Apart from raising a number of questions concerning the ‘secular’ character of India, the ‘secular’ character of the media, which often proclaims itself as the watchdog of Indian democracy, itself became dubious for the attack on Taslima Nasreen is an attack on the ‘freedom of speech’ and thus an attack on the ‘freedom of media’ too.
Above all, it is an attack on a woman writer, who has the grit and courage to question the fundamental tenets of Islam, which has placed the women on a different status in the name of Holy Faith and the God—the Allah.
Taslima Nasreen is not only a woman writer but, at the given moment, she is a guest of our country, which believed in the noble traditions of treating a ‘guest’ as ‘god’ (Athidi Devo Bhava) as per the tenets of Upanishads. A country, which is headed by a woman President Ms. Pratibha Patil, as a guardian of Indian Constitution on the one hand, and headed by the UPA Chairperson Ms. Sonia Gandhi, should have been more assertive in protecting the interests and the dignity of a woman-writer, who (at one time braved the fundamentalist mullahs of Islam in Bangladesh), at the end of the day virtually collapsed due to the running she was subjected to from Kolkatta to Delhi via Jaipur. Yet, no statement of soothing emanates from either of these top women of the country for fear of attracting the wrath of Muslims. What a ‘secular’ approach and what a respect for a ‘woman, who has been guest of this country all this while’!
Adding insult to the injury was the shameless statement, which undoubtedly hits at our ‘secular’ values today, of maverick RJD leader and President, Lallu Prasad Yadav who said that ‘Taslima Nasreen shouldn’t write anything against Islam hurting the sentiments of millions of Muslims. Look at the same Lallu’s statements a couple of years ago when he defended M.F. Hussain, who is a born Indian and in self-imposed exile now, when some of his paintings, portraying a number of Hindu Goddesses including Saraswati and Lakshmi naked, became controversial. When some Hindu organizations agitated against such depiction of goddesses, they were branded as Hindu fundamentalists who cannot appreciate the so-called ‘modern forms of art’.
Lallu’s most recent statement depicting Sita as sister of Rama, perhaps, wouldn’t hurt the majority Hindus. Listen to the statements of Mr. Karunanidhi, who is a Constitutional head as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, questioning the person – Who is Rama, where from he graduated, and which engineering college did he graduate? He even dared L.K.Advani to come for an open debate regarding the drinking habits of Rama whom he described as drunkard and a regular boozer. Yet, the Hindu majority feelings wouldn’t be hurt. Majority Hindu’s feelings weren’t hurt when same Krunanidhi led DMK stoned the idols of Rama, Lakshmana and Sita pulling them in a chariot in 1973 on the roads of Anna Salai.
The UPA government shamelessly filed an affidavit stating that historically there is no evidence for the existence of Rama and later withdrew it when the conscience of the country was ‘believed’ to be shaken or hurt. For all these misdemeanors none of these leaders were rusticated or persecuted. On the other, the people who protested were branded as Hindu fundamentalists and protagonists—who did not believe in the age old ‘secular’ traditions of India that gave a blank cheque to any one to speak anything against Hindu holy books and Gods.
All political groups comprising Congress to Leftist Groups to Samata Party to National Conference glorified themselves with the crown of avowed and unquestionable ‘secular’ character. What happened to the hypocritic and ‘ pseudo secular’ character of all these political groups when few Islamic fundamentalists took the State by surprise by indulging in rampage and vandalism in the streets of Kolkatta confusing an issue, otherwise linked to the economics of Nandigram, with Taslima Nasreen’s living in India as a State guest ? Where are the ‘secular’ voices of Sitaram Yechuri, Brinda Karat and Prakash Karat who are always up in arms in condemning the protests of any pro-Hindu organizations? Why don’t they come out openly in defence of Taslima’s secular rights?
Attack on Taslima Nasreen was not first of its kind today. Barely a year ago, was she attacked at the Hyderabad Press Club, when the media invited her to release a book on the freedom of women. The attack on her was orchestrated by the MIM led fundamentalist groups and most brazenly and shamelessly the MLAs of MIM participated in the attack. Virtually abusing her in an unprintable language, besides throwing chairs and every object available to hands, they displayed their unquenching and unquestionable loyalty to almighty—Allah.
The noted ‘secular’ writer Asghar Ali Engineer, while pardoning Taslima for her ‘ignorant’ writings (‘ignorant’ because she questioned the rationality of some of the Islamic tenets dealing with the women), in his article to The Hindu, advised the militant Muslim MLAs to desist from physically attacking a woman. However, there is a silver line to it for the entire political leadership, cutting across all political hues, openly condemned the attack on her in Andhra Pradesh. Later on the complaints of the Press Club and the Media Personnel who were injured in the incidents, the police commissioner Balwinder Singh after a great dalliance ordered for the registration of cases against the MLAs.
The Andhra Pradesh High Court is presently hearing the case, where the MLAs who attacked her pleaded for the dismissal of the cases in the lower court as they attacked her as per Islamic tenets. Strangely the same MLAs demanded the police commissioner to register a case against Taslima for writing against Islamic beliefs the most important of which being the kind of raw treatment meted out to muslim women. The police commissioner, surprisingly, was too liberal to book a case against Taslima Nasreen, a State guest only to appease the Muslim leadership of the Old city. The police commissioner didn’t even bother to check which was the writing of Taslima these fundamentalist groups were objecting to? Was it a recent one or an old one? He did his job to prove himself impartial?
But, the actions of these fundamentalist groups were strongly objected to by the media then. A slew of editorials and the edit page articles appeared in the media of Andhra Pradesh condemning the savageous attack of these fundamentalists on Taslima.
Contrasted with the media and political reaction to what happened a few months back in Hyderabad, today the rock silence meted out to Taslima’s episode shakes the conscience of all of us who believe in ' that every religion is subject to questioning and test of rationality'. Sheer doctrination has led to revolt against Catholic Church in the 14th century and even gave birth to Protestant church.
Even Hindu religion allowed and encouraged rationality and questioning. Entire Upanishads were based on question and answer system of learning between Guru and Chela. Hindu leaders from Adi Sankara to Vivekananda allowed the questioning of many beliefs in the Hindu religion, philosophy and doctrines. Charvaka (atheist tradition) theory is part of the Hindu philosophy. Swami Vivekananda believed that ‘the day a religion doesn’t allow the questioning, that day the religion would meet its demise’. By allowing the questioning of the religious tenets, a religion becomes stronger.
There need not be an Asghar Ali Engineer to pardon her for she did no sin. She raised very same questions that the Saudi girl, who was given a sentence of 200 lashes by the Saudi court, was raising through the human right activists and media in Saudi.
Civilization doesn’t mean that who ever questioned the religion or some of its tenets should be physically eliminated. At this time it is the media, which should treat it as an attack on the very fundamentals of the human civilization. Freedom to speech and freedom to write are fundamental to human being as much as to the very existence of civilization. The present lethargy of the media in reacting even belatedly is quite unbecoming of it. It sadly displays the pseudo-secular character, a new make up which media in Delhi is beginning to don out of market driven journalistic compulsions. But, at the end of the day it is the media, which can only expose the hollowness of the Congress, and Leftists ‘secular’ credentials. The media in Delhi and elsewhere must give up its lethargy and pseudo-secular character. It should come out in one voice against any further raw deal meted out to her in India.
Present silence maintained by the media and the top political leadership of the UPA government may send wrong signals to the militants and fundamentalist-groups, who may get more emboldened to attack her even in Delhi. The UPA partners as well as the media should raise above the narrow opportunist ideas of appeasing Muslims at this time and come together in one voice in supporting Taslima Nasreen firstly for protecting her basic right to freedom of speech and the freedom to write, and secondly her status of being a guest to India and finally her position as a woman who cannot physically counter the violence against her in any form.
C.S.H.N.MURTHY Ph.D is a Professor in Mass Communication and Journalism.