Clerics issued a death warrant for writer who critiqued her faith
CALCUTTA — Misfortune never comes alone. Over the past few weeks, the controversial Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasrin has been reminded of that age-old proverb.
In the second week of August, she was physically assaulted by a Muslim religious group at the launch of a translation of one of her controversial novels in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad.
A week later, in Calcutta, Muslim clerics issued a “death warrant,” threatening to kill Ms. Nasrin – who is Muslim, although a critic of Islam – if she did not leave the country. This week Forward Bloc, part of the leftist block supporting the Indian ruling alliance, announced that it would press for Ms. Nasrin’s expulsion from the country, senior FB leader Bhaktipada Ghosh said.
Ms. Nasrin, a medical doctor turned writer, made international headlines in the 1990s after her debut novel Lajja, or Shame, was released in Bangladesh and sparked such intense Muslim antagonism that she was forced to flee her homeland.
Now, it looks as though her dramatic history may repeat itself after her efforts to settle close to her native country, in West Bengal, are sparking a similar outcry.
And for the homesick Ms. Nasrin – whose plight has been compared to that of British-Indian author Salman Rushdie – the new controversy highlights some hard choices.
Since she fled Bangladesh, she has lived in Sweden, Germany, France and the United States, but never felt at home in the West. In 2005, when she was granted a year-long Indian tourist visa, Ms. Nasrin believed she might be able to build a “second home” there, in Calcutta.
At the time, Ms. Nasrin, who writes in Bengali, said: “If I cannot return to Bangladesh, my native country, I want to settle in the capital of West Bengal, where I can speak and hear … my mother tongue. I badly need a Bengali environment to continue my writing.”
She began seeking Indian citizenship as soon as she settled in Calcutta in 2005. But until now, New Delhi has not made any move to upgrade her status beyond temporary visitor.
In recent months, after some Urdu newspapers carried translations of part of her controversial autobiography Dwikhandito (Split in Two), Muslims across India have called for immediate action against her. In an angry rally of Muslim clerics this month in Calcutta, one announced that anyone killing her would get 100,000 rupees (about $2,500 Canadian).
Last week, a delegation of Muslim organizations demanded that Ms. Nasrin be expelled. Mr. Ghosh told them: “Ours is a secular society. We cannot tolerate attacks on any religion here. What she has been doing could lead to a communal trouble in the country. In the interest of peace and safety, she should be removed from the country.”
“Although many don’t know how, exactly, she has attacked Islam and what she has written in vilification of the Prophet, most of the country’s Muslims, educated or uneducated, cannot tolerate Taslima,” said Abdur Rouf, a veteran newspaper columnist in Calcutta. “Some softer people write letters to the newspaper protesting against her writing, while others want her to be thrown out of the country or some extremists want her to be killed.”
A senior Calcutta bureaucrat believes Ms. Nasrin’s days in India are “numbered.”
“Muslims make up 27 per cent of state’s population. To stay on in power in Calcutta, the [government] badly needs the key support of Muslims. The government in all probability will decide to object to the extension of her visa next time.”
Since she fled Bangladesh, successive governments have refused to let her return, and Ms. Nasrin is keenly aware of her vulnerability.
“In Bangladesh I don’t see a hope of any positive change in the attitude of the people who still want to kill me,” she said. “In a Western society I feel like a fish out of water. … I will be in big trouble if Muslim pressure forces the Indian government to ask me to leave the country.”
“But the events of the past few weeks have made me understand that a growing radical force among Indian Muslims is working against me. … The Muslims in India now are targeting me the way they began in Bangladesh in the nineties.
“I need Calcutta as my base and as my home. I am a Bengali writer. But, now I feel I am losing friends, losing support in India.”
The pressure seems at long last to be wearing her down. In the first sign that she may be considering a compromise with her critics, Ms. Nasrin suggested that she may modify her approach to Islam. “Perhaps Muslims here will stop considering me their enemy and governments … will allow me to stay on in India, if I can change my way [of writing]. I have begun thinking if I can really do that.”