India has failed Taslima Nasreen yet again: Freedom of speech is still a victim as govt, police pass the buck

India has failed Taslima Nasreen yet again. The fact that the Bangladeshi author was denied entry into Aurangabad in Maharashtra, despite BJP governments at the state and the Centre, indicates that there is no space for freedom of speech in India regardless of which political formation is in power.

31072017FirstCutByManjul

Cartoon by Manjul

And this isn't the first time that Nasreen has faced bullying from fundamentalists in India. What makes her case truly tragic is that there is no one to speak up for her. In her work, Nasreen has often taken a stand against bigotry and intolerance in Islam and has largely been abandoned by the so-called liberals. Her ordeals, in India at least, sit at the intersection of constitutional ambiguity, pseudo-secularism, votebank politics, mob violence and the State's repeated and pathetic failure in implementing law and order.

It is bad enough that the exiled author, now a Swedish citizen, has to go through the annual humiliation of applying for an Indian visa. Now it appears that we are unable to ensure even her basic safety when she is in the country on a low-key, private visit. She intended to visit the Ajanta and Ellora caves but all she witnessed was the caving in of the Maharashtra Police.

Rahul Shrirame, deputy commissioner of police (Zone-II), told PTI that the author, who landed in Aurangabad around 7.30 pm on Saturday, was immediately sent back by a Mumbai-bound flight to avoid any "law and order problem" in the city.

Yashasvi Yadav, the city police commissioner, told The Times of India that the writer had not shared prior details of her visit with the cops, and "citing security reasons, we asked her to board the next flight, and she agreed".

File image of Taslima Nasreen. PTI

File image of Taslima Nasreen. PTI

"There is already tension and tight security in the city because of the ongoing demolition of illegal religious structures. We cannot tackle more problems at this moment," another police officer was quoted as saying in the same report.

Interestingly, even as the police claimed that they were unaware of Nasreen's itinerary until an hour of her arrival, the protestors — a motley crew led by AIMIM legislator Imtiyaz Jaleel — possessed specific details of her programme. They knew when she would arrive and were ready at the airport gate with placards, while another group started creating a ruckus in front of the five-star hotel where she had booked a room in her friend's name.

Shrirame admitted that the protestors knew very specific details. "We are wondering about the source of such specific information. The protestors were aware of her entire schedule, including the places she would be visiting and the date she would be returning."

An argument is being made that it was Nasreen's decision to return to Mumbai. She acted out of own volition. This is hogwash. When cops are dropping large hints that her stay at Aurangabad could "create law and order problems", what is she to do? Take a risk? The law and order machinery is part of the state's coercive power. And it exists for a reason. It is the state's responsibility to ensure rule of law and it cannot put the onus on the individual. It is a pathetic attempt at blame-shifting and paints a miserable picture of the Devendra Fadnavis administration.

Sadly, the script follows the template set by the Left Front or Trinamool Congress governments in West Bengal. The "progressive" Left Front had repeatedly caved in before Islamists in banning Nasreen's book Dwikhandita in 2004, or in asking her to leave the state in 2007 to ensure peace.

Soon after coming to power, the Mamata Banerjee government in 2012 had cancelled the release of her book Nirbashan at the vaunted Kolkata Book Fair, and a year later, stopped the airing of a TV serial scripted by the acclaimed author. According to a report in The Indian Express, it was done under direct instructions from the chief minister.

This prompted Nasreen to tell the media that Mamata turned out to be harsher than the earlier Left regime. "I had expected the situation in West Bengal to change after Mamata came to power. But I was wrong. I found her harsher than the earlier Left Front government," she was quoted as saying.

Furthermore, in an interview to Catch News, the writer had blasted the TMC government for "creating a Frankenstein". "Mamata Banerjee's Muslim appeasement policy made these fundamentalists this violent. I remember, two years ago, when her government banned my TV script only to appease some Muslim fanatics. Now she is seeing the results of those actions. She has created a Frankenstein monster."

It isn't about the BJP, the Left Front, Congress (banning Salman Rushdie) or the TMC, however. It is about the State's failure to uphold an individual's rights before the coercive power of the collective. This mentality goes at the heart of the mob violence or lynching episodes in India where anyone can twist rules and break laws under the cover of a group.

The Constitution fails to protect the citizen, simply because far too many dilutions have been allowed to affect the sanctity of Article 19(1)(a). Free speech is one of the building blocks of democracy, but in India, in a radical sleight of competitive vote-bank politics, the fundamental right to express one's opinion has been totally usurped by one's right to feel offended.

In the current scenario, furthermore, there is another devious ploy at work. The AIMIM is catering to its electoral constituency in protesting against Nasreen (never mind that many of those protestors may not have read even one her books), while the BJP is scoring points in letting the author become a victim of Islamist intolerance. It's a zero sum, yet a win-win game for both.


Updated Date: Jul 31, 2017 18:39 PM

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