Salman Rushdie was barred from entering Kolkata. The news, though unfortunate, was hardly surprising. Been there, done that. For the past 25 years, my freedom of speech has been trampled upon. I have been living the unsavory life of an exile; despite writing in Bangla, I am persona non grata in both sides of Bengal. I have been physically assaulted, and there are at least seven or eight separate prices on my head. How on earth can anything like this ever surprise me again?
Today the atmosphere is rife with loud, grief-stricken wails and funerary dirges from certain quarters because Rushdie was prevented from entering Kolkata. Those who are crying a river now were mostly silent or supporting ban in 2003, when my autobiographical book, “Dwikhandito”, was banned by the West Bengal government. At that time, Muslims had not taken to the streets, or demanded any restriction on the book. Rather, the-then Chief Minister of the state, Mr. Buddhadev Bhattacharya, instituted the ban proactively; the odious idea of the ban had its genesis in his mind. Ostensibly, he did mention that a group of about 25 intellectuals importuned him with the task of banning – but he should have realized that those who whine in favor of the censorship of an author, are anything but intellectuals. The reasons presented to bolster the idea of the ban were baseless and ridiculous, a fact that was borne out when, in just a couple of years thereafter, the Honorable Kolkata High Court made the same observation, lifting the ban. I was (and still am) at a loss to understand why Mr. Bhattacharya felt so obliged to come down heavily against freedom of expression, which is the cornerstone of democracy.
It was a time when I’ve been living in the city of Kolkata. Following the ban, Mr. Bhattacharya, an erstwhile friend of mine, had started to maintain a safe distance from me – a sad situation which didn’t change even after the ban was lifted. I naively thought perhaps he had realized the error of his ways, but I was grossly mistaken. Immediately after the Islamic fundamentalists assaulted me in Hyderabad, he was finalizing his new designs. I don’t know how many of the so-called intellectuals were complicit in that. I am a harmless, harassed, and homeless author; I never had a clue about political machinations. In August 2007, Islamic fundamentalist leaders of Kolkata banded together with the fundamentalists from Hyderabad to hold a large rally at the center of the city – a rally with the express purpose of putting a price on my head. If someone beheads me, he will be awarded an ‘unlimited amount’ of money. High officials of the Police were present there, and yet, that day, no one was arrested on charge of issuing an illegal Fatwa; rather, the fundamentalists were felicitated. But under this pretext, Mr. Bhattacharya started sending high-ranking Police officials to my residence, with the idea of intimidating me into leaving Kolkata, or West Bengal, or perhaps even the country. Why did I have to leave? Apparently, if I stayed back at Kolkata, the government said, it would hurt the feelings of the faithful Muslims of the city.
Meanwhile, around this particular time, the state government was in a royal mess regarding the affairs in Nandigram and Singur, and the case of Rizwanur. The ruling Communist Party had earned the wrath of the Muslim community. On the 21st of November, a few people emerged from a Park Circus alleyway and started setting vehicles on fire and pelting stones at the police. Their anger was about the political murders of Muslims in Nandigram and Singur, and the myserious death of Rizwanur Rehman. At the end of the day, someone lifted up a piece of paper for the benefit of the media: on it was written, “Taslima go back.” That was the excuse the government was looking for. I was picked up from home and sent to Jaipur, on the other side of the country. The ticket was already purchased by Mr. Bhattacharya – a one way ticket. I haven’t been able to set foot on West Bengal since, even though my home, cat, friends were all left back in Kolkata. I was thrown out of Bangladesh, too. But my eviction from West Bengal was even more heartless and painful. Mamata Bandyopadhyay, the current Chief Minister, may well not see eye to eye with her predecessor, Mr. Bhattacharya, on any issue, but she sure agrees with him that Taslima has no place in West Bengal. In this regard, she has faithfully followed the footsteps of Mr. Bhattacharya. Last year, in the prestigious and tradition-rich Kolkata Book Fair, the release ceremony for my book “Nirbasan” (Exile) was canceled by her government.
While Rushdie’s unceremonious exclusion didn’t surprise me, I am putting my outrage and protest on record against this. I have protested against the unlawful abridgement of the freedom of expression of creative people such as Maqbool Fida Hussain, A K Ramanujan, James Lein, Rohinton Mistry, and Kamal Hassan. When fundamentalists make a demand to the government, however unjust or plain wrong, the government has a propensity for buckling down. The proffered reason is mostly a variation of “not to offend” them or “preventing a communal disturbance” by them; the same or similar reasons have been used time and again to justify unreasonable and undemocratic decisions taken by the government. This were the reasons given for banning my book – the same reasons advanced to prevent Rushdie from visiting Kolkata for half a day. Clearly, the state has gone to pot, and the sole responsibility lies with Mr. Buddhadev Bhattacharya. Had he not banned my book that day in a cowardly manner, had he not thrown me out for life, Rushdie could have set foot in Kolkata without a hitch.
Mr. Bhattacharya has given strength and encouragement to the fundamentalists. Now they can reach all the way to the airport, and hold up the another piece of paper saying ‘Rushdie go back’. And why not? They have been given to understand that they would be furnished with whatever they desire, sometimes even before they ask for it. Today, Mr. Bhattacharya claims that had he been in power, he would have facilitated Rushdie’s visit. That’s a lie. Even if he had been willing, the fundamentalist Frankenstein that he helped create would have brought its considerable weight to bear against it; it would have rioted. Evicting Taslima did not ultimately win Mr. Bhattacharya and his party a single extra vote; the same Frankenstein had defeated him in the elections. The outcome, in any event, would not have been different.
Not only in West Bengal, I have encountered intolerance in the rest of India, too. Mufti of Kashmir brought out a fatwa banning young women from singing. Kamal Hasan’s movie was not allowed to be screened in Tamil Nadu. Art galleries cannot display nudes. Continued indulgence to intolerance has raised it to impunity. Once you have mollycoddled intolerance, once you have made nice with barbarism, that is how it is going to be for the rest of your life. The problem is not with barbarism, it is your fault; you have invited it in. You have drunk from the poisoned chalice. Now, when death is nigh, at least confess to your sins, would you not?
Meanwhile, the question remains: for how long would this situation be allowed to continue? How much longer will the government display this cowardice in facing the fundamentalists? How much longer will it accede to unwarranted, unfair and irrational demands from these groups? Unlike Bangladesh or Pakistan, India is a democracy – the largest democracy in the world. India’s democracy doesn’t have the shaky, nominal pretensions to democracy of the flavor practised by its neighbors. India now stands alongside the developed countries in technology, power, education and stability. Why is such a great country lending itself to abuse by regressive fundamentalists? Intimidated by the fear of a handful few, the elected representatives have not hesitated to dishonor the Indian Constitution (Article 19A), or objected to pushing the nation back a thousand years. Worst of all, these fearful actions and disgusting pusillanimity of people in position of authority have had a terrible unintended consequence; they have been instrumental in painting a whole community, a whole religion as an intolerant, barbaric one. Who would bear that responsibility?
The only visible concern seems to be winning elections. Let the country rot, let the nation’s future go to hell – I must win the elections. Acceding pathetically to the unjust demands made by some immature, illiterate, uncouth, crazy, misogynistic extremists, the undemocratic enemies of progress, some people in power have been taking away the fundamental freedoms of civilized, educated, enlightened and progressive littérateurs and intellectuals. This can only result in the enhancement of power and prestige of the fundamentalists, encouraging them towards further atrocities. I can say unequivocally that such people are the enemies of the state. My life is at risk, but I shall not be silenced.
Translated from Bengali to English by Kausik Datta (@kausikdatta22)