Guest blogger today is Suruchi Mazumdar. She is a doctoral candidate at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and currently a visiting fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. She wrote about the banning of the TV drama series written by me.
‘The launch of Dusshohobash (painful co-existence), a Bengali serial written by Taslima Nasreen, was cancelled by a privately-run Bengali news channel, following objections raised by Muslim groups in Kolkata. The show, based on stories penned by Nasreen, was not about religion but promised to narrate tales of women’s struggle for rights and protest against issues like dowry and rape, condemnation of which are non-controversial at best in the current socio-political milieu. The Muslim groups in Kolkata are in favour of banning writings by exiled author Nasreen who on numerous occasions in the past had drawn the ire of religious leaders for alleged criticism of Islam. The local police was apparently apprehensive that the television serial, which was aggressively promoted, would provoke social unrest. The silence of the ruling party and the opposition in West Bengal come as no surprise. The reluctance to offend fundamentalist groups is politically motivated. But what is baffling is the silence of our liberal progressive elites. The same intellectuals who would otherwise miss no opportunity to condemn and burst in outrage when individuals are persecuted in the name of religion are miraculously numb this time.
Why is it that intellectuals who readily extend public support to SAR Geeliani, for instance – the Delhi University professor who was falsely implicated and later acquitted in the Indian Parliament attack case – are carefully cautious when an exiled woman author’s voice is casually stifled, lest religious sentiments are offended?
Throughout her literary career Nasreen has been vocal about different forms of violence, oppressions and discriminations against women that are rampant in the subcontinent and often patronised by religions. In 2007 she was ousted from Kolkata at the initiative of the then-CPIM-led government that apparently feared unrest over enraged Muslim religious group’s demands of her expulsion from the country. Nasreen was forced to leave her home country Bangladesh in the early 1990s after Islamic religious groups put a price on her head on charges of blasphemy. She has has remained uncompromising in her scathing criticisms of all religions – and not just Islam.
Issues such as Geelani’s (a Kashmiri Muslim) prolonged persecution in the hands of the Indian state or brutal rapes, molestation and murders of minorities in the wake of recent riots in Muzaffarnagar rightly deserve outrage, protests and demands of sentencing that have been raised time and again from sections of the civil society. The provocative criticisms of the failings of Indian democracy and the weaknesses of the country’s institutionalised secularism that emerge from certain pockets of our public sphere are indispensable, especially in the face of rampant persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, an ugly reality in India.
However, the issue is that the moral righteousness somehow falls short when Islamic clerics – as self-proclaimed representatives of a community – are easily provoked by a woman’s free voice, threaten public disorder and the political class and law enforcement agencies meekly give in. It is a different matter though that as to what extent the leaders of a few Islamic groups of Kolkata could be said to stand for Muslims of whole West Bengal. The fear that ordinary Muslims feel brutally hurt by Nasreen’s writing also seems strange – the majority of the Muslim population, at least in Kolkata, are predominantly Hindi-speaking and certainly cannot be said to be readers of Bengali author Nasreen.
The progressive intellectuals of India face a kind of moral/ political dilemma on the issue of Islamic extremists’ contention with women’s emancipation and rights. The infringement of individual/ women’s rights* could be confused with cultural rights of the minority. That could offer moral justification needed to remain silent in case of violations by radical Islamic organisations. Thus activists of the radical left who stand in unison with Islamic religious groups to denounce violence on the Rohingyas fail to raise a voice when leaders of the same groups openly implicate women for sexual crimes. This amounts to no less than a sense of misplaced secularism that encourages one to be patronising towards and forgiving of a religion’s infringement of individual rights, which would be reflective of being sensitive towards a community’s supposed feeling of being offended.
*(Here, I choose to interpret the word “rights” rather broadly by moving beyond definitions set by Western organisations and agencies that set the criteria and decide the terms of what must be known as human rights across diverse peoples and regions. In this context, by “rights” I mean Muslim women’s consent, agency and conscious preferences.)
Such a sense of secularism, however, is not without a history and context. One needs to consider the global xenophobia against Islam that can be said to have intensified under the patronage of an American military state and a global war against terror. Closer home in the subcontinent, the compulsions are no less pressing – the rise of the Hindu right and its growing political might have been a discomforting political reality over the past few decades. Post-independent India has been no stranger to large-scale massacre of minorities like anti-Sikh riots of 1984. But massive riots against Muslims in Bombay and Gujarat, being conducted under the behest of a communal ideology, were interpreted as a threat to India’s secular democratic fabric. Defending Muslims seems only understandable under such political and cultural urgencies. But it is a different matter to be politically lenient towards a framework of ideas that could lend Muslim organisations the justification to publicly pronounce death on those seen as heretic, discourage women’s education and equal rights or dictate women’s clothing.
It is a concern that right-wing groups in India and elsewhere have time and again hijacked the argument of gender equity to stoke anti-Muslim sentiments. In the Anglo-American world this has even worked as a common Western imperialist argument used to stir Islamophobia. But there could be a strong rebuttal at least to India’s Hindu right-wing voices that dare profile one religion as especially opposed to gender rights: The mention of female foeticide (through sex selective abortion, mostly common among caste Hindus in northern and central India) should be enough to silence such morally defunct voices.
The global urgency of challenging intolerance of Islam abets a home-grown cause – the need to counter perceived persecution of Muslim minorities whose existence seems particularly threatened with the political rise of the Hindu right. Besides, it is no less meaningful for leftist liberals particularly that over the past decade the only confrontation to American military might came in the form of Islamic insurgency. Azar Nafisi in a famous 2003-book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, vividly narrated how left liberals and pro-revolution activists of Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime in Iran made a common cause with anti-American/ anti-Western imperialism sentiments in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution of 1979. Nafisi’s book is about an all-women group’s clandestine sessions of reading Western literature, which was perceived as morally inappropriate in post-revolution Iran; the issue of wearing veil runs as a concurrent theme in the book.
Under these circumstances being lenient towards Islamic fundamentalists who stifle free speech or prescribe sex-segregated seating arrangements in political rallies and universities stands for a certain political correctness. This correctness – when stretched a little too far – translates to a new political orthodoxy that is not too uncommon in present times. This orthodoxy is best expressed when any criticism of Islamic fanaticism is interpreted as expression of Islamophobia and often amounts to a political stand and casual public posturing of such stand. A great example would be when liberal progressives in India vociferously express solidarity through “likes” and “shares” on Facebook as Stephen Hawking announces a decision to boycott an academic conference scheduled to be hosted by Israel’s president. While such posturing is hardly problematic, our selective silence and selective outrage is unflattering, especially if a politically-conscious citizenry is seen as something that democratic societies must aspire for.’