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Taslima Nasreen, who has been living in exile in India since 1994, has been granted an extension of two months on her current visa. Mychele Daniau/AFP
Taslima Nasreen, who has been living in exile in India since 1994, has been granted an extension of two months on her current visa. Mychele Daniau/AFP

BETWEEN THE LINES: Home thoughts

Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen faces yet another moment of uncertainty in her life in India

On Thursday (31July) Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen tweeted that the government of India has cancelled her visa to stay on in the country. Further reports reveal that Nasreen, who has been living in exile since 1994, has been granted an extension of two months on her current visa, after which the government will review its decision to extend her stay (Taslima Nasreen’s long-term visa extended by just 2 months) for another year.

Such moments of uncertainty are not new in Nasreen’s life. Forced to leave her homeland by Islamic fundamentalists who put a price on her head for offending religious sensibilities, she was given refuge for a few years in Kolkata. The city, which she considered a home away from home, threw her out after irate demonstrations by Islamic outfits demanding her removal in 2007. The state government, then run by the avowedly secular communists, not only failed to provide a safe haven to her but also went on to ban one of the volumes of her seven-part memoir, Dwikhondito (Split into two), in 2003. Fortunately, the move was reversed by an order by the Calcutta High Court in 2005.

That progressive decision, however, could not prevent Nasreen’s plight from the city following the public agitation. Since then, she has been living in New Delhi as a guest of the Central government. A shift of power in West Bengal has not helped her regain admittance into the capital of the state. Chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who virulently opposes the Marxists on almost all grounds, seems to agree with the comrades on at least one point. Since her departure from Kolkata, Nasreen has been at the receiving end of verbal (as well as physical) attacks—the latter was perhaps most notoriously expressed at a conference in Hyderabad in 2007. As recently as last year, a Bengali television serial which Nasreen had written was not allowed to appear on air. And so the list goes on.

It would be easy, and lazy, to view the controversy around Nasreen through an exclusively communal lens. While there is no doubt that she upset Muslim leaders with her acerbic views on certain tenets and interpretations of Islam, most of her arguments were sparked by her deeply felt sense of injustice as a woman.

Nasreen began her career in Dhaka not as a writer but as a physician, where she witnessed the plights of ordinary women who were subjected to the whims of a profoundly patriarchal society on a daily basis. In a popular newspaper column she wrote, Nasreen recounted stories of young girls battered by men, known or unknown to them, mothers breaking down after giving birth to daughters, fearing the wrath of their in-laws, and of the elderly, who were abused and abandoned by their menfolk. Utterly candid and courageous, she stood out not only for speaking against the injustices perpetrated against other women but also for writing about her own ordeals unhesitatingly.

She did not spare her husband or her father in her memoirs, pointing out instances of abuse, emotional or physical, they had inflicted on her in clinical detail. She accused a leading Bengali writer of trying to take advantage of her sexually. Nasreen’s tone, usually devoid of sentimentality, was criticized for being gratuitously sensational—which, to my mind, went on to expose the misogyny and discomfort readers felt towards her prose. It is true, though, that creative writing took something of a backseat in her life, since she became embroiled in the controversies.

The latest episode of the Indian state’s intervention in Nasreen’s life is an extension of the ongoing pattern of coercion and intimidation inflicted upon her. The recent silencing of voices critical of the status quo—on social media or otherwise—is of a piece with this development. In spite of its democratic commitments, India has failed to uphold freedom of expression on several instances in the last few years. From artist M.F. Husain to writer Salman Rushdie to scholar Wendy Doniger to, most recently, historian Megha Kumar—the “victims" have been varied. Nasreen’s case happens to be one of the most constant and long-standing reminders of the fragility of this nation’s constitutional values.

This fortnightly column talks about readers, writers and publishers of the past, present and future.

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