Freedom of Expression or Licence to Hurt? An Analysis of Taslima Nasrin Episode

The unwarranted attack on Taslima Nasrin in Hyderabad shook everybody. Media and socio-politico set-up of our civil society spontaneously reacted. The attack was condemned from all quarters and the impression was given that something unusual and uncalled for has happened in the country. Along with Hindi and English newspapers, some Urdu dailies also joined the…

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The unwarranted attack on Taslima Nasrin in Hyderabad shook everybody. Media and socio-politico set-up of our civil society spontaneously reacted. The attack was condemned from all quarters and the impression was given that something unusual and uncalled for has happened in the country. Along with Hindi and English newspapers, some Urdu dailies also joined the race of condemnation. President of Hyderabad Press Club, Shailesh Reddy said that “there were other ways also available for protest but the manner in which the protest was made was not suitable.” In a statement, famous writer Mahashaweta Devi, Hindi critic, Manager Pande, poet Kalyani, writer and president of JNU Teacher’s Association Chaman Lal and some other people also condemned the incident and demanded that exemplary punishment be given to the attackers. Akhil Bhartiya Hindi-Urdu Samanvaya Samiti also expressed concern over the incident and Hyderabad police registered a case against protestors terming them attackers.
Now the question arises: despite being a Bangladeshi what was Taslima Nasrin doing there in Hyderabad? Actually she was in Hyderabad to release the Telugu edition of her book, Shodh, translated by writer Veeni Gala. She is in India because she has been absconding from her native country since 1994. Her books have been banned in Bangladesh and a court there sentenced her to imprisonment for one year over blasphemy. Since then she is on the run and enjoying hospitality of democratic nations: First she fled to Spain and after passing through different countries, she reached India. Many ulema have issued “fatwa” against her but she likes India in more than one ways. Though she has not got Indian citizenship but is enjoying uninterrupted attention and hospitality of the West Bengal government. One of her books, Davi Khanditava was banned in 2003 but in September 2005, a court in Kolkata lifted the ban. In the book, the writer has tried to justify her immoral relations and anti-social activities. She has described her sexual relations in lewd words and even embarked upon to justify them. Earlier also, her books Amari Mai Dela (Meri Jawani) and Atal Hawa (Toofani Hawa) were also banned by the Bangladesh government. In another controversial book Lajja she has exaggerated public reaction in Bangladesh after the demolition of the Babri Mosque in India and branded it as atrocities against Hindus there. Consequently Bangladesh became a hostile land for her. Instead of correcting herself or facing trials there, she fled and became a lifelong guest of the West Bengal government.
The Constitution of India grants right of freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) to all citizens of India. It may be noted that Taslima is not a citizen of India; rather a foreigner. Also this “freedom” is not a licence to speak or write such things as may hurt the sentiments of any community. All the freedoms granted in Chapter III are subject to public order, morality, decency and health. It means that if the freedom granted is misused resulting in disorder in society, then such an act cannot be legitimately justified. Indian Penal Code stipulates punishments to those who indulge in hate mongering or disorder in the society. In short, it can be safely said that nobody is authorised to hurt religious or moral feelings of others by speech or writing. For example, cow slaughter has been banned in several states on the direction of the judiciary only because it hurts religious feelings of the Hindus though ‘Qurbani’ of a cow has been sanctioned in Islam. Likewise, as per Cinematography Act, obscene films cannot be shown in talkies nor can the Censor Board pass them. In the same manner, if such freedom is injurious to the unity and integrity of the nation, then also it cannot be granted. Hence, if any speech, writing or book damages the unity of the nation, it cannot and should not be tolerated by any government.
If we consider all the facts mentioned above, it is proved beyond any doubt that a foreigner, or for that matter even a citizen of India, has no right to hurt the feelings of second largest religious group of our nation. In fact, she has no right to portray a religion in a lurid light. She has also no right to expose her personal life and convey her sexual relations to the masses because it all goes against the Indian Constitution and our social ethos. What message she wants to give to the readers by describing her physical relations in her biography. Did she want to mould others in her frame? She has spent her life in a way which is not sanctified by any religion.
I did not mean that the methods adopted by leaders and activists of Itehadul Muslimeen were right, and I am convinced that they should have used other acceptable forms of protests. But violent protests have acquired a respectable place in our society and when these activists see such protests every now and then, they may have thought it fit to do the same. The government should ensure that such violent protests should be curbed and contained. Suitable actions should be taken against those who indulged in such unacceptable protests.
Both the Central government and the government of West Bengal cannot be spared as far as Taslima episode is concerned. This is altogether another fact that Bangladesh is a small and weak country and India is a large and strong nation. Honestly speaking, Indian government should not have imported a “problem”. It is not proper that our government roll out red carpet for an absconding lady from a neighbouring country. There would have been different treatment if she had committed any crime in countries like USA and UK. If she may have run away from China or Russia, then West Bengal government may not have welcomed her. Because such a step would have dented diplomatic relations but in this case the nation involved is a weak nation. UPA government and the West Bengal government both are enjoying power due to the support of Muslim masses but both do not care a bit about Muslim sentiments. It seems that a large section of Indian society is bent upon hurting Muslims. Perhaps the environment created after the alleged attack on World Trade Centre has affected India also. Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was forthwith. He banned Satanic Verses of Salman Rushdie after taking into account the sentiments of the Muslims. But the present government, remote-controlled by his widow Sonia Gandhi, is continuously extending visa to Taslima Nasrin. It is very unfortunate but important that the day Taslima was attacked in Hyderabad, the Central government extended her visa further for six months. If her visa had been extended during the Vajpayee government, Muslims would have perceived it differently but unfortunately the act has been done during the UPA regime in which Janta Dal of Lalu Prasad, Lok Janshakti Party of Ramvilas Paswan, DMK of Karunanidhi, Muslim League of Kerala and some other secular parties are partners. There is no difference between communal parties and secular parties as far as this episode is concerned. Even there is no difference between Rightists and Leftists. All have united over this issue. Even established and renowned writers are also favouring Taslima. Eminent writer Khushwant Singh is happy that the West Bengal government has succeeded in getting the visa of Taslima extended and he hopes that soon she will get Indian citizenship (Hindustan Times, September 1, 2007). When a person like Khushwant Singh who is outspoken and secular, thinks in such a manner then it is almost certain that she will get citizenship soon. In fact, the government is unable to grant Indian citizenship because a foreigner has to live in India at least eleven years for getting citizenship. But by extending visa period continuously, the government is certainly preparing grounds for that.
In short, it may be concluded that Taslima’s stay in India is neither in the interest of nation nor good for communal harmony. The Government should correct itself and order Taslima to leave the nation before expiry of six months to heal up the wounds inflicted upon Muslim psyche. The UPA must act fast otherwise they will have to answer uncomfortable questions during the coming elections which are not too far. There is no Muslim leader in the Congress party who may face questions arising out of Congress’s attitude in Taslima affairs. Therefore, the Congress and other secular parties should refrain from alienating Muslims from them. Deportation of Taslima Nasrin will be a step in right direction. Her presence in India is extremely dangerous for communal harmony. If the Government of India can withdraw affidavit from the Supreme Court keeping in view the outrage of the Hindus, it should do the same in the case of Taslima and withdraw the facilities and hospitality accorded to her.
[The writer is Senior Reader, Department of Law, A.M.U., Aligarh]