An Interview


You have always been very vocal against Islamic fundamentalism. On the other hand, there are many voices of liberal Muslims saying that terrorism in the name of religion is not Islamic – do you find yourself to be isolated?

There are free thinkers, rationalists and atheists who think like me, so I don’t always feel isolated. For us, it is not important what religion our families may be following, but we believe in humanism. For people like this, there is no need for any religion in society – rational thinking and scientific minds are far more important. So when I say that religion and fundamentalism have no difference and religion is the root cause of religious terrorism Look at ISIS or Boko Haram – Islamic terrorists are always inspired by Islam. They cite the same Quranic texts all Muslims consider sacred.

What about freedom to practise religion?

Of course, we don’t ask people who believe in it to throw away religion. But religious reform is needed for society. And laws should be based on human rights, womens rights, equality, justice and humanism instead of religion. I acknowledge the rights of religious people to believe and practise religion. When temples are broken in Bangladesh, or mosques are destroyed somewhere else, I protest because religious freedom is necessary, but there should also be freedom to not believe in religion or to criticise it and society, education, state etc should be kept outside the domain of religion. The state should should not have a religion but if people like to they can practise a religion but can’t be forced by anyone. This plurarity of thought is important and laws should be based on human rights and not religion. Personally as an atheist and secularist I do not believe in religion. Secularism for me is not the Indian definition – instead it is someone without religion.

You speak a lot about Islamic fundamentalism – but what about religious intolerance in India?

Some people are intolerant – and the cases of torturing Muslims in India, the beef controversy or the recent case of making Muslims eat cow-dung are very disturbing. But so many religions and cultures in India coexist that it is amazing – if India was intolerant there would be many more riots and the state is not intolerant, nothing in the constitution that promotes intolerance – maybe secularism is not being practised properly. The Indian Constitution is not intolerant, but there are individuals who are intolerant and that has to change.

Your thoughts on uniform civil code?

I’m all for an uniform civil code and had campaigned for it in Bangladesh too, where Hindu women really suffer because of ancient Hindu laws and have no right to inherit property from their fathers. They also suffer because their husbands can marry any number of times that they want to. Muslim personal laws based on Islam in Bangladesh also say that women can inherit less property than their brothers. The husband can have four wives. There’s no equality under any religion, so uniform civil code based on equality is the best way possible in India and Bangladesh.

The new face of terrorists in India and Bangladesh is that of educated young men from affluent families. Your views on radicalisation and is this more alarming than before in view of the recent violence in Bangladesh and Kashmir?

Religious leaders are looking at looking at educated youth for Islamisation because they need talented young people as recruits. They have grandiose dreams to control the world, for which they need to recruit bright young educated men with brains. The old stereotypes of poor, underprivileged and frustrated people turning to religion has changed. Educated young people are turning to religion and are being groomed through Islamic education and the Koran within their families. From a young age they are taught to believe in religion and have faith, when they later study science that’s only for jobs and their profession but they already have a strong belief in religion from childhood. This religious identity is created at an early age and provides an easy solution. Science is difficult to learn and understand while religion is attractive because it provides easy solutions. It is also easy to convince and brainwash young people with religion. Islamist leaders often don’t send their children to madrasas but instead to English medium institutions and western countries for their education, but they have been brainwashed with religion from an early age and so turn to terrorism.

What in your view is the solution?

Children should be allowed to grow up in a free thinking environment and should not be under pressure of religious teachings from an early age. Only then will they not be influenced by preachers to turn to violence in the name of religion. What happens now is that they become easy prey since the seeds of religious fundamentalism has been sown at an early age in their fertile minds. There has been a lot of talk about the misinterpretation of the Koran by preachers. But like Koran there are other holy books too which have also doubtlessly been misinterpreted by fundamentalists – but that has not given rise to Christian or Jewish terrorists who slaughter people. Only one religion creates terrorists who kill innocents around the world.

As a writer and a creative person in exile do you have any regrets about not being able to go back?

No I have no regrets, but I have relatives in Bangladesh and would like to go and visit them. But that is Impossible – the government doesn’t renew my passport or issue a visa – I have no valid documents and it is not safe anymore for me to travel to Bangladesh. I feel like I’m a citizen of this world and I don’t believe in national boundaries – the universe is my country, whole world is my village.

What about the ban by the West Bengal government?

I will keep on fighting for my right to go to Bengal, I’m a Bengali writer and I don’t have any rights to live either in Bangladesh or in West Bengal. I will fight for my right to go back to Bengal – I may not live there but I should have the right to go there because of my freedom of expression. I should be able to criticise religion or say whatever I like and still have the right to stay there. Even the Indian government had thrown me out but I came back again and I’m living here – and that is because India is democracy and India should uphold my freedom of expression. That’s why I live in India because India is a democracy and freedom of expression is valuable – I can criticise religion and still stay in India. More than me this is a positive of India as a secular and democratic state. My fight is not only for me, it is also the fight for people who need to have freedom to express their views that are different from others.

Personally, I’m a citizen of Europe and can live in Europe. I also have an American Green Card and permanent resident rights there. But I live here because I love the Indian sub-continent and I don’t feel like they’re different countries. When I’m in India I feel like I’m at home – my books have been published here and I have so many readers, so many people love me that’s why I feel at home here and not because Indians look like me.

There’s a conspiracy to throw me out though – I have been thrown out of Bengal and Bangladesh and there ae so many fatwas and price on my head but still I’m living in the Indian sub-continet because I write in Bengali – one of the Indian languages.

What are you working on – and though you write in different genres which defines you the best?

Some people like my poetry while others love my fiction and essays. I have written seven autobiographies and will write another one. I’m also writing about women’s freedom. I feel there is a poet inside me.

If you have encouraged barbarism once, you are done for.

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)

Lunatics will soon start fasting

Scientists discovered a 5th moon of Pluto. They have named it P5.

What are the religious bigots doing? They are not interested in exploring things. They are waiting for the- age-old-moon-visited-and-flagged-by-the-Americans to rise, so they can begin their Ramadan-fasting.

Throughout the world, superstitions revolve around the Moon. If you want to know about them, they are here.

What would the lunatics living in northern Finland, Norway and Sweden do? They have to refrain or abstain from eating, drinking, copulating, smoking, vomiting, etc. from sunrise to sunset. But in those regions, sun almost does not set in the summertime and almost does not rise in the wintertime.

The illiterate camel driver in Arabia obviously did not have any knowledge about the climates of the Nordic countries.