~ By Taslima Nasreen
Although I was not born an Indian, there is very little about my appearance, my tastes, my habits and my traditions to distinguish me from a daughter of the soil. Had I been born 20 years earlier than I was, I would have been an Indian in every sense of the term. My father was born before partition; the strange history of this subcontinent made him a citizen of three states, his daughter a national of two.
In a village in what was then East Bengal, there once lived a farmer, his name was Haradhan Sarkar, one of whose sons, Kamal Krishna Sarkar, driven to fury by zamindari oppression, converted to Islam and became Kamaal Uddin Sarkar. I belong to this family. Haradhan Sarkar was my great-grandfather’s father. Haradhan’s other descendents obviously moved to India either during or after partition and became citizens of this country. My great grandfather, a Muslim, did not.
Even though I was born well after partition, I wrote a number of poems and stories lamenting the loss of undivided Bengal, indeed undivided India, even before I visited this country. I simply could not bring myself to accept the bit of barbed wire which kept families and friends apart even though they shared a common language and culture. What hurt most was that this wire had been secured by religion. By my early teens, I had abandoned religion and turned towards secular humanism and feminism which sprang from within me and were in no way artificially imposed.
My father, a man with a modern scientific outlook, encouraged me to introspect, and as I grew older I broke away not just from religion but also from all the religions customs, indeed the very culture, which constantly oppressed, suppressed and denigrated women. When I first visited India, specifically West Bengal, in 1989, I did not for an instant think that I was in a foreign land. From the moment I set foot on Indian soil, I knew I belonged here and that it was, in some fundamental way, inseparable from the land I called my own.
The reason for this was not my Hindu ancestors. The reason was not that one of India’s many cultures is my own or that I speak one of India’s many languages or that I look Indian. It is because the values and traditions of India are embedded deeply within me. These values and traditions are a manifestation of the history of the subcontinent. I am a victim of that history. Then again, I have been enriched by it, if one can call it so. I am a victim of its poverty, colonial legacy, faiths, communalism, violence, bloodshed, partition, migrations, exodus, riots, wars and even theories of nationhood. I have been hardened further by my life and experiences in a dirty, poverty and famine stricken, ill-governed theocracy called Bangladesh.
The intolerance, fanaticism and bigotry of Islamic fundamentalists forced me to leave Bangladesh. I was forced to go into exile; the doors of my own country slammed shut on my face for good. Since that moment, I sought refuge in India. When I was finally allowed entry after a few years, not for an instant did I think I was in an alien land. Why did I not think so; especially when every other country in Asia, Europe and America felt alien to me? Even after spending twelve years in Europe I could not think of Europe as my home. It took less than a year to think of India as my home. Is it because we, India and I, share a common history? Had East Bengal remained a province of undivided India would the state have tolerated an attack on basic human freedoms and values and the call for the death by hanging of a secular writer by the proponents of fundamentalist Islam and self-seeking politicians? How would a secular democracy have reacted to this threat against one of its own? Or is the burden of defending human and democratic values solely a European or American concern? The gates of India remained firmly shut when I needed her shelter the most. The Europeans welcomed me with open arms. Yet, in Europe I always considered myself a stranger, an outsider.
After twelve long years in exile when I arrived in India, it felt as though I had been resurrected from some lonely grave. I knew this land, I knew the people, I had grown up somewhere very similar, almost indistinguishable. I felt the need to do something for this land and its people. There was a burning desire within me to see that women are educated, and independent, women stand up for and demand their equal rights and freedom. I wanted my writings to contribute in some way to the empowerment of these women who had always been oppressed.
While I was living in West Bengal, a few fatwas were issued against me, and some Islamic fundamentalists in Hyderabad chose to launch a physical attack upon me. After hearing of the incident in Hyderabad, Muslim fundamentalist leaders in West Bengal, became so excited that they wasted no time in issuing a new fatwa against me and set a price on my head. Almost twenty five per cent of India’s population is Muslim and, unfortunately, the most vocal representatives of this considerable community are fundamentalists. No educated, civilized, cultured, secular and enlightened Muslim is regarded as representative of the community. What can be a greater tragedy than this?
India was my second home. Because a handful of Muslim fanatics did not want me to stay in India, I was forced to leave the country in 2008.Recently I have written book remembering those painful days.
In my book Exile, I wrote about the series of events leading to my ouster from West Bengal, then Rajasthan and eventually India, my house arrest, and the anxious days I had to spend in the government safe house, beset by a scheming array of bureaucrats and ministers desperate to see me gone. Without a single political party, social organization or influential personality by my side, I had been a lone, exiled, dissenting voice up against the entire state machinery with only my determination at my disposal. But there was one thing I was sure of -I hadn’t done anything wrong, so why should I be punished unfairly? Why wouldn’t I be allowed to live in a country I love?
Why would a nation that prides itself on being a secular democracy bow down to the diktats of a section of dishonest, misogynist, intolerant fanatics, and banish an honest, secular humanist writer? Despite being forced to leave, I have eventually ignored all the prohibitions and bans and threats, and come back to India.
I have come back because I have nothing else but India, and because I hope India will one day truly encourage free thought. I wish to live in this country and be allowed the freedom to express my opinions even if they are contrary to others. I wish for neighbouring nations to learn from India’s example and be inspired – they who yet do not know the meaning of freedom of speech.
Writers across the world are being persecuted, whipped, tortured, imprisoned, killed and exiled. But, leave alone dictators, even democratic governments are no longer interested in freedom of expression. Whenever I try to point out the significance of such a fundamental right, I am informed that even freedom of speech must have its limitations and that it cannot be used to hurt someone’s sentiments.
Wouldn’t it be extremely difficult to ensure that you never hurt someone’s sentiments? People keep hurting us, intentionally or not, by words or deeds. Our world is populated by a multitude of opposing mindsets. They clash and hurt each other but also have an in-built mechanism to manage hurt. Unfortunately, religious fanatics use the excuse of injured sentiments to cause further mischief, refusing to listen or be placated.
It is a moment of crisis for democracy when a citizen is robbed of their right to speak and express their opinions. Social change makes it necessary that a few feathers will be ruffled and a few egos will be wounded. It hurts people’s sentiments when you try to separate religion and State, when you attempt to abolish misogynistic laws; equality between men & women cannot be achieved without hurting religious sentiments. A lot of people had been outraged when the Crown and the State were being forcibly separated in the Continent. Galileo’s and Darwin’s views had upset many pious people of their times. The superstitious are routinely offended by the evolution and advancement of science. If we stop expressing our opinions because someone will be hurt by it, if we curb the growth and development of scientific knowledge, if we forcibly try to stall the march of civilization, we will end up inhabiting a stagnant quagmire instead of basking in a possibly raging cascade of knowledge and plenitude.
If the objective is to say exactly what everyone would love to listen to, then we would have no need for freedom of speech. Such rights are important primarily for those whose opinions are different or usually don’t follow the status quo. Freedom of speech is the freedom to say something you might not like to hear. Those who never hurt other’s sentiments do not need freedom of speech. A State that chooses to side with those who seek to oppose such freedoms, instead of ensuring that they are brought to book, will be responsible for its own eventual destruction.
Some time back, one such a draconian law against freedom of speech was abolished by the Government of India. I was among those who had worked towards this goal and our success was a significant acknowledgment of the systematic persecution many have had to go through because of such laws. I have had to face it too, which is why I am glad to have been part of such a reform initiative, despite not being a pure-born citizen of India. The world is constantly vigilant that no one hurts the sentiments of those who are opposed to human rights and women’s rights. When will the world learn to see all as equal? When will it learn to stop pleasing extremists and begin to respect reason and humanism instead?
In Bangladesh, you may know that Hindu temples and homes are again being attacked by Muslim fanatics. You also know that secular bloggers and progressive people were hacked to death. And you know about the terrorist attack at Dhaka Cafe. Those terrorists were around twenty years old. They were not poor, not illiterate. Heavily indoctrinated in Islam, they shouted ‘Allah-hu-Akbar’ while slaughtering people.
Those terrorists had nothing but religion as their guide. Young men have been brainwashed· with Islam. They have been fed the belief that non-believers, non-Muslims and critics of Islam should be killed. By killing them, they have been convinced, they will go to heaven. They have also been taught that jihad is mandatory for every Muslim and Muslims should strive to turn Dar-ul-Harb (the Land of the Enemy) into Dar-ul-Islam (the Land of Islam).
There is no point trying to confuse the issue by saying that poverty, frustration, lack of jobs and the absence of hope force people to become terrorists. It is, in fact, the other way around. The new terrorists are often rich and educated, highly qualified professionals, who have been seduced by fanaticism. They join terrorist organizations because they know they will be at liberty to do whatever they wish to do, and be given the sanction to rape, kill and torture at will.
Many organizations and institutions in Bangladesh have been funded by Islamic fundamentalists from rich Arab countries for decades. Madarsas and mosques have long been breeding grounds for Islamic fundamentalists. Islamization in Bangladesh started not long after its creation in 1971. It is tragic that Bangladesh, whose very birth was premised on secularism and a rejection of the two-nation theory, has degenerated into an Islamic fundamentalist country.
In the early 90s, when I was attacked by Islamic fundamentalists, a fatwa was issued against me, a price was set on my head, and hundreds of thousands of Muslim fundamentalists took to the streets demanding my execution. The government, instead of taking action against the fundamentalists, filed a case against me on the charges of hurting the religious sentiments of people. I was forced to leave the country and that was the beginning of what today’s Bangladesh is – a medieval and intolerant nation of bigots, extremists and fanatics. And you know, governments have been preventing me from entering my country.
I truly hope that the secular movement in my country will begin again and turn into a positive political movement for a true democracy and a secular state – a state which affirms a strict separation between religion and state, and maintains a uniform civil code, a set of secular laws that are not based on religion, but instead, on equality, and an education system that is secular, scientific, and enlightenment- based.
People must know that Islam should not be exempt from the critical scrutiny that applies to other religions aswell; they must understand that Islam has to go through an enlightenment process similar to what other religions have gone through, by questioning the inhuman, unequal, unscientific and irrational aspects of religion.
The narrow-minded political will forever seek to plunge society into darkness and chaos, while a handful of others will always strive for the betterment of society and to have good sense prevail. It is always a few special people who seek to bring about change; that is how it has always been.
I have been living in exile since 1994. I know I have no other alternative but to live in exile for the rest of my life. I feel, I have nowhere to go, no country or home to return to. I say now, India is my country, my home. How much more will I have to suffer at the hands of fundamentalists and their political allies for the cardinal sin of daring to articulate the truth?
Even after all that has happened, I still believe, I still dream, that for a sincere, honest, truly secular writer of the subcontinent, India is the safest refuge, the only refuge.
(This article is the summary of the address made by Ms. Taslima Nasreen, author at the India Ideas Conclave at Goa on 5th November, 2016)