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30 November 2007updated 24 Sep 2015 11:16am

Human rights and Taslima Nasreen

Tabish Khair gives his take on the case of Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen

By Tabish Khair

How does one prevent party politics from hijacking human rights? That’s the question that lies behind the latest controversy around Bangladeshi writer, Taslima Nasreen, who now lives in India.

Ms Nasreen is no stranger to controversy, having provoked the ire of, among others, Islamic fundamentalists and Bangladeshi nationalists in the past.

She has been threatened with death for her writing – fiction and non-fiction – which some religious Muslims find offensive, arguably more for gender-related reasons than theological ones.

Her autobiography ran into some legal trouble in India in 2004 because it was considered “sexually disturbing” and she was accused of tarnishing the image of living individuals – to which she famously replied than if she had ‘tarnished’ any person’s image it was her own.

Given this sort of history, Ms Nasreen has also become a cause célèbre for some people, a kind of gendered, sub-continental version of Salman Rushdie.

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This time, once again, religious fundamentalists, rightists and chauvinists lie at the bottom of a needless controversy.

On 21 November, 2007, a political pressure group, dominated by religious Muslims, demonstrated against Ms Nasreen’s books in Kolkata (where she had been based for some months) and the protest turned violent.

Soon afterwards, Ms Nasreen left Kolkata (Calcutta), the capital of the left-run state, Bengal, for Rajasthan, a northern state near Delhi, dominated by the rightist-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Ms Nasreen claimed that “mental pressure” had been put on her to leave Kolkata, which she considers her real home.

Rajasthan, run by the BJP, which is ideologically opposed to the Left, accepted Ms Nasreen (as it should have) and did much to capitalise on the controversy.

Bengal, it appears, is reluctant but not totally unwilling to have Ms Nasreen back, a matter complicated by the fact that she has a direct readership in Bengal in India (for she writes in the native language of that state, Bangla, about cultural matters shared by Bengal and Bangladesh) and Bengal also has a large Muslim population.

In both these respects, the politicians of Rajasthan – with a very small Muslim population and no direct access or relationship to Ms Nasreen’s literature – could afford to be generous and noble-minded.

Incidentally, the BJP, which runs Rajasthan, has been far less tolerant with some other Indian artists and writers.

However, after a few days in Rajasthan, Ms Nasreen was moved to Delhi, dominated by the centrist Congress (very uneasily allied with some Left parties at the national level) and lodged in a guest house in Delhi.

This moved the matter into another political dimension, and soon one of the big national ministers – significantly from Bengal – had to make a public statement.

Making his statement in the Indian Parliament, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said “throughout history, India has never refused shelter to those who have come and sought our protection.”

He said the “civilisational heritage, which is now government policy, will continue, and India will provide shelter” to Nasreen.

Mukherjee, who made the statement amid demands that Nasreen be asked to leave the country, said the “guests” in India are provided protection by the Union and state governments. However, he added that “guests” also have to respect sentiments and aspects of the host culture.

While Mr Mukherjee’s statement was necessary and welcome, it fell into an easy ‘nationalist’ rhetoric – by no means uncommon in Europe these days – by bringing up the ‘guest-host’ issue.

Guests do not need to muzzle themselves in any country. What they need to respect are the laws of the host country, not its sentiments, opinions, politics or even customs. They ought to be as free to criticise, even ridicule, aspects of the ‘guest’ country as they should be to criticise their ‘home’ country.

So, here we are again: a matter of human rights, with subtle political nuances. And yet, in such matters it is best to put human rights first.

No matter what differences one has with a person, there is no justification for curtailment of basic human rights and associated matters – the right to life, education, safety, freedom of movement and expression, work etc.

One can understand – though not support or condone – the sort of pressure that may be exerted by a political group or a protesting mob. But any government has to make its position on human rights very clear: no government, or its employees, should be involved in curtailing or abetting in the curtailment of human rights.

It is not enough to claim, as some people have, that Ms Nasreen is at a “greater security risk” in Bengal.

This is probably true, but the decision to live there has to be left to Ms Nasreen. All that a democratic government can do is to extend protection (as long as laws are not broken), leaving the matter of ‘respecting’ host or home to the individual’s taste and conscience.

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