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Taslima Nasreen Returns To India – August

May 19, 2008

Can’t I be allowed to stay in Kolkata?: Taslima

Kolkata (PTI): Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen on Friday said she would prefer to stay in Kolkata or Delhi, a day after she was quoted as saying that she wished to shift to Tripura if she was not allowed to stay in Kolkata.

“Kolkata is where I had set up my home. Can’t I be allowed by the West Bengal government to return to my city?” Taslima told PTI in an e-mail from Sweden.

Responding to a question about her reported wish to stay in Tripura, Taslima said her comments were quoted out of context.

“One of my friends called up from Agartala and said if I could not stay in Kolkata then I could consider Tripura where the majority of people were Bengali. All I said was that I could consider it,” the writer said.

“I have no home in Europe. I stay with friends. Bangladesh has turned its back on me. Where I can turn to?” she asked.

Paris: Exiled Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen said on Monday that she planned to return to India by August, just months after she left the country after threats by Islamic radical.

Nasreen fled to Sweden in March after five months in a government safe house, where she said the stress from her isolated, prison-like conditions sent her blood pressure soaring and affected her heart and eyesight.

In Paris for three days for the release of a book on her time in hiding, she told reporters that she had recovered her health, and planned to fly back to India before August 17, when her current six-month resident permit expires.

“Whether I would be allowed to live a normal life or whether I would be forced to live under house arrest I don’t know,” said the soft-spoken 45-year-old, who radical Muslim leaders have vowed never to let return.

“So I have to go there and see,” she said. “I hope that the Indian government will allow me to stay so that I can live there peacefully.”

Nasreen was first forced to flee Bangladesh in 1994 after radical Muslims accused her of blasphemy over her novel Lajja — or Shame — which depicts the life of a Hindu family persecuted by Muslims in the country.

Bangladeshi exile Nasreen to return to India

The author left India in March for Europe after a period of forced confinement in a New Delhi safe house.

“My writing has been badly affected since the day I left Kolkata. I am anxiously waiting to be in Tripura capital Agartala if not Kolkata to resume my writings soon,” she added.

According to the newspaper, Nasreen has expressed unhappiness over her “asylum” life in Sweden, the US and Germany. She said she was suffering from depression and sincerely trying to return to India.

The validity of her resident permit in Sweden would expire in August.

“Despite the huge crowds, the luxury around me in Sweden, I am feeling lonely here even though my friends over here are helping me a lot, but I miss Kolkata,” Nasreen said, adding she would urge the West Bengal government to allow her to stay in Kolkata.

“I will request the West Bengal government to allow me to stay in my Park Street home in Kolkata. If the Bengal government refuses, I will approach the Tripura government,” said Nasreen, who left India March 19.

“I still believe that the people of Bengal love my writings and those people who do not read my work and do not know me properly, they and also the fundamentalists have understood their mistake. I think they will not create any problem if I return to Kolkata,” Nasreen said.

“I always write on humanity and evil practices in civilised society, but I am not against any religion or sect. I believe in socialism. When Muslims were attacked in Gujarat, I had written against the incident,” she pointed out.

Earlier, several intellectuals, including Khushwant Singh, Arundhati Roy and Mahasweta Devi, in separate letters to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, had requested that Nasreen be allowed to exercise “reasonable degree of freedom” and get adequate security in India.

“I will die if I continue to live like this. I am a secular humanist and a feminist, and I have to write and work for women. The society in Bengal needs me. I have to work on social projects in India in the most backward places,” she said.

“Here I live in a hotel. But my home is in Kolkata. I have to pay a huge rent there. I only hope I would return there very soon,” Taslima said.

Expressing admiration for Indian leaders, including External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and West Bengal Chief Minister Budhadeb Bhattacharjee, Taslima said: “I have very cordial relations with them, but they might misunderstand me.”

“I am not a politician, I have no leanings with any political party or any powerful group. I am a writer.”

France and India are two countries that proudly proclaim the secular nature of their democracies. The principles of church-state separation and state neutrality towards religion are the same.

The visit focused mostly on expanding investment and defence cooperation, with much gossip on the side about whether the freshly divorced president’s new flame Carla Bruni would join him at the Taj Mahal (much to the chagrin of the paparazzi, she didn’t).

Hidden behind the headlines, though, was a fascinating disagreement about Sarkozy’s plan to present Taslima Nasreen, an exiled Bangladeshi writer living in India, with the “Simone de Beauvoir Prize For Women’s Freedom.” This prize sponsored by CulturesFrance (part Muslim protesters burn effigy of Taslima Nasreen in Kolkata, 20 Jan. 2004/Sucheta Dasof the French Foreign Ministry) and a Paris publisher went this year to Nasreen and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, two women of Muslim background who have been threatened with death by Islamists because of their forceful criticism of the religion.

Sarkozy wanted to present the award to Nasreen in New Delhi, presumably at a ceremony to be broadcast back home where he is under fire for allegedly violating French laïcité. He was even thinking of doing it at the safe house where she is hiding from death threats. This caused considerable concern in the Indian government, which worried about a possible Muslim backlash over any honour for the award-winning writer they accuse of blasphemy. The Indian army had to be called in to quell anti-Nasreen riots by Islamist groups in Kolkata last November.

Taslima Nasreen in Kolkata, 20 Jan. 2004/Jayanta ShawIn the end, it didn’t happen. The grand French gesture was reduced to a request to India to “facilitate Ms Nasreen’s journey to France” to pick up her award.

It looks like a case of thinking that secularism was the same the world around. The French version, laïcité, was a reaction to the power of the majority Catholic Church and aimed to keep religion out of public life. Defending this is as natural for a French president as praising apple pie and motherhood is for his American counterpart.

Prime Minister Singh was largely silent on Nasreen’s case last year, sparking criticism from secular intellectuals that the government was failing to defend the country’s principles. In the Hindustan Times, Karan Thapar wrote of India: “Democratic we may be, but liberal we most certainly are not.” His low profile has also drawn fire from Hindu nationalists, who charged he was appeasing Muslims by not vocally supporting Nasreen. There may not have been much he could say. Criticism of the Muslims could have prompted the Hindu nationalist opposition to cry even more loudly that Islamist groups are a threat to the Indian state.

For the moment, it seems as if Singh has won on both counts. He headed off both Sarkozy and a possible uproar from Muslims over his award ceremony plans. In a recent broadside, Jamaat-i-Islami Hind focused on the government’s decision to extend the visa of “a foreign controversial lady.”

Nasreen has since said she will not go to Paris for the award and asked that it be sent to her residence in Kolkata.

The controversy, for now, appears to be fading. And the French have bounced back into the cultural news headlines smartly with another, less controversial award. On Sunday, the French ambassador decorated the Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan with the country’s highest decoration for artists, the “Order of Arts and Letters.”

In India, it was a much safer bet.

The sad fact that this creative humanitarian activist lives under the shadow of insecure Muslim men who vow to destroy her, Taslima has the heart of a lion. This is where appeasement by the government is counter productive. To allow these threats to blackmail and water down policy and law is shameful. To be so threatened by the works and words of a single woman shows that Muslim men are very afraid. Muslim women might accidentally listen or read her words. This could spell catastrophe for male dominated Islam. Control of the lesser gender is where their self esteem must be the most vulnerable. This is why they approve despicable atrocities against women they decide have broken their version of Islamic Law. In Taslima’s favor is world interest in her welfare. Her readers and fans span the free world. She shines a glaring light on ancient cultures and traditions that still behave violently against equal rights for women, wives, sisters and mothers. She demonstrates how these obsolete traditions have no place in the 21st century. The world is too small now for this behavior to go un-fettered. Civilization must become civilized. This is but a dream, but it sounds good to me.

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