“I oppose the West Bengal government despite being a Leftist. I oppose it because I am a Leftist,” said veteran playwright and activist Habib Tanvir. His word summed up the spirit of a forum of writers and intellectuals that came together to protest the clamping of “free speech and expression”, in the aftermath of the Taslima Nasreen episode.
Author-activists Mahashweta Devi, Arundhati Roy, Ashis Nandy and Girish Karnad were also part of the forum.
The Bangla writer’s condition — Nasreen is living in government custody “somewhere in Delhi” with her visa set to expire on February 18 — was the immediate provocation for the protest. The forum demanded full citizenship for Taslima and denounced the persecution of artists and activists all over the country.
Whether it is journalist P Govind Kutty from Kerala or Dr Binayak Sen in Chattisgarh, the government is using the Maoist or Naxal threat as an excuse to strip these people of their civil rights, the group claimed in an open letter to the Prime Minister.
Mahashweta Devi slammed the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee administration and a complicit UPA for “manipulating” the Taslima Nasreen issue to distract from “continuing atrocities in Nandigram”, and expressed full solidarity with the writer.
Roy also questioned the link between Nasreen and Nandigram. She quoted Mohammed Safi Samsi’s report in The Indian Express (December 2), describing how the Taslima Nasreen issue was being systematically blown up, so that now this gathering was concerned with free speech rather than the recapture of Nandigram.
She also cautioned against seeing the issue simply as a clash between religious fundamentalism and secular liberalism, even though that is Nasreen’s own assessment as well. She pointed out how popular sentiment is politically twisted and how free speech is under siege from “many fundamentalisms”— religious, ultra-nationalist and market fundamentalism — intertwined in the strangest ways.
In Chhattisgarh, public security law is vague enough to criminalise all citizens and grant the state sweeping powers to pick their victims. This systematic encroachment on the civil and democratic rights of people was the big fight of our times, she said.
“The system has never been as loaded against the powerless as it is today,” said Tarun Tejpal, adding that: “The issues of Binayak Sen, Taslima Nasreen and M F Husain were as fundamental to the idea of India as any we’ll ever have.”
Though many forum members disagreed with the views of those victimised by the state, they were united by their commitment to the principle of free expression. “We are not pleading the cause of Taslima Nasreen, M F Husain or Binayak Se — we are pleading our own cause,” said Ashis Nandy.