Monday, December 03, 2007

India in quandary over writer Taslima Nasrin

Threatened by radical Islamists, exiled Bangladeshi bounces from city to city in India

ALISTAIR SCRUTTON

AN exiled Bangladeshi woman writer threatened by radical Islamists has become a victim of political ping-pong in India, bundled from one city to another in a controversy critics say has shamed the secular state.

Authorities rushed award-winning Taslima Nasreen, a Muslim who criticizes the use of religion as an oppressive force, from Calcutta, her home in exile, last week after Islamist protests led to riots, forcing authorities to call in the army.

The riots came after years of simmering anger directed at Nasreen. Some radical Muslims hate her for saying Islam and other religions oppress women.

A group of religious leaders issued a "death warrant" against her in August.

After quelling the riots, police moved her to a hotel in the western state of Rajasthan, then quickly sent her to Delhi at the weekend under police protection.

No one seemed to want her.

"Democratic we may be, but liberal we most certainly are not," wrote Karan Thapar in the Hindustan Times, criticizing India for failing to defend freedom of expression enough.

On Friday, Nasreen promised to remove passages from her autobiography that some Muslims found offensive in the hope that would enable her to live peacefully in India.

The controversy highlights the delicate social fault-lines of modern India, a nation born out of secular ideals 60 years ago where communal politics still play a huge role.

Each move led to criticism that politicians were pandering to Muslim voters and were unwilling to take heat for defending her.

In an editorial last month, the Economic Times accused the government of being "afraid of offending the Islamist street."

Critics railed at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for being silent, as women's groups called on the government to grant citizenship to Nasreen, whose visa expires in February.

Nasreen fled Bangladesh for the first time in 1994 when a court said she had "deliberately and maliciously" hurt Muslim religious feelings with her Bengali-language novel Lajja (Shame) about riots between Muslims and Hindus.

Several of her books have been banned in India and Bangladesh because they upset hard-line Muslims. The European Parliament awarded her the Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought in 1994.

While the Indian government said it would give Nasreen protection, The Times of India said officials pressured her to leave the country.

India's main opposition Hindu nationalists, the Bharatiya Janata Party, criticized Singh for his silence, saying they plan to force a parliamentary debate on Nasreen.

The Communist leaders of West Bengal, her home in exile, also caught flak for statements that critics said showed their lukewarm feelings toward Nasreen's right to live in Calcutta.

Nasreen has made it clear she wants to return there.

Muslims are India's biggest minority and account for about 12 per cent of the population. In West Bengal, they represent nearly a third of voters and prop up the left, analysts said.

India has come under fire for not protecting artists before – and not just those who are Muslim.

M.F. Husain, one of India's most famous painters, lives in exile after an often violent campaign by hard-line Hindus.

Some states banned The Da Vinci Code. Officials also banned Fashion TV and AXN channels for showing too much flesh.

"Both issues (Husain and Nasreen) highlight how vulnerable secular parties feel in India," said Zoya Hasan, a political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

"They fear if they take a strong position in favour of these people their opponents will accuse them of minority appeasement." #

Reuters News Agency article first published in The Toronto Star, Toronto, Canada on December 3, 2007