At a time when India is projecting itself on the world’s stage as a modern democracy, while it hosts international literary festivals and book fairs, the Government of India, most mainstream political parties and their armed squads are mounting a concerted assault on people’s Right to Free Speech.
It is a matter of abiding shame that even as some of the world’s best-known writers were attending the Jaipur literary festival and presti-gious publishers were doing business at the World Book Fair in Delhi, the exiled Bengali writer Taslima Nasreen was (and is) being held in custody by the Government of India in an undisclosed location somewhere in or around Delhi in conditions that amount to house arrest. Contrary to misleading press reports stating that her visa has been extended, her visa expires on February 18, 2008 after which she is liable to be deported or remain confined as an illegal alien.
Taslima Nasreen is only one in a long list of journalists, writers, scholars and artists who have been persecuted, banned, imprisoned, forced into exile or had their work desecrated in this country. At different points of time, different governments have either directly or indirectly resorted to these measures in order to fan the flames of religious, regional and ethnic obscurantism to gain popularity and expand their ‘vote-banks’. Every day the threat to Free Speech and Expression increases.
In the case of Taslima Nasreen it was the CPI-M-led Government of West Bengal and not any religious or sectarian group who first tried to ban her book Dwikhondito some years ago. The ban was lifted by the Calcutta High Court and the book was in the market and on bestseller lists in West Bengal for several years. During those years Taslima Nasreen lived and worked as a free person in Kolkata without any threat to her person, without being the cause of public disorder, protests or demonstrations.
Ironically, Taslima Nasreen’s troubles in India began immediately after the Nandigram uprising when the people of Nandigram, mostly Dalits and Muslims, rose to resist the West Bengal Govern-ment’s attempt to take over their land, and tens of thousands of people marched in Kolkata to protest the government’s actions. Within days a little known group claiming to speak for the Muslim community asked for a ban on Dwikhondito and demanded that Taslima Nasreen be deported. The CPI-M-led Government of West Bengal immediately caved in to the demand, informed her that it could not offer her security, and lost no time in deporting her from West Bengal against her will. The Congress-led UPA Government has condoned this act by holding her in custody in Delhi and refusing, thus far, to extend her visa and relieve her of her public humiliation. They have once again played the suicidal card of pitting minority communalism against majority communa-lism, a game that can only end in disaster.
Inevitably, hoping to make political capital out of the situation, the BJP is publicly shedding crocodile tears over Taslima Nasreen, going to the extent of offering her asylum in Gujarat. It seems to expect people to forget that the BJP, VHP and RSS cadres have been at the forefront of harassing, persecuting, threatening and vandalising newspaper offices, television studios, galleries, cinema halls, filmmakers, artists and writers. Or that they have forced M.F. Husain, one of India’s best-known painters, into exile.
Meanwhile, in States like Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, away from the public glare of press conferences and television cameras, journalists are being threatened and even impriso-ned. Prashant Rahi from Uttarakhand, Praful Jha from Chhattisgarh, Srisailum from Andhra Pradesh, P. Govind Kutty from Kerala are a few examples. As we speak Govind Kutty, who is on a hunger strike in prison, is being force-fed, bound hand and foot. Scores of ordinary people, including people like Dr Binayak Sen, have been arrested and held illegally under false charges.
We, the undersigned, do not necessarily agree with, endorse or admire the views or the work of those whose rights we seek to defend. Many of us have serious differences with them. We agree that many of them do offend our (or someone else’s) religious, political and ideological sensibili-ties. However, we believe that instead of making them simultaneously into both victims and heroes, their work should be viewed, read, criticised and vigorously debated. We believe that the Freedom of Speech and Expression is an Absolute and Inalienable Right, and is the keystone of a modern democracy.
If the Indian Government deports Taslima Nasreen, or holds her as an illegal alien, it will shame and diminish all of us. We demand that she be given a Resident’s Permit or, if she has applied for it, Indian citizenship, and that she be allowed to live and work freely in India. We demand that the spurious cases filed against M.F. Husain be dropped and that he be allowed to return to a normal life in India. We demand that the journalists who are being illegally detained in prison against all principles of natural justice be released immediately.
Arundhati Roy; Ashish Nandy; Girish Karnad; Mahasweta Devi; Aamir Bashir (Actor, Mumbai); Aditya Nigam (Political Theorist, Delhi); Ali Mir (Writer and Academic, New York); Angela Rangad (Activist, Shillong); Amar Kanwar (Filmmaker, Delhi); Amit Sengupta (Journalist, Delhi); Ammu Joseph (Journalist, Bangalore); Anand Patwardhan (Filmmaker, Mumbai); Anil Chamadia (Journalist, Delhi); Anurag Kashyap (Writer and Filmmaker, Mumbai); Anusha Rizvi (Scriptwriter and Film-maker, Delhi); Arun Varghese (Environmentalist, Mumbai); Aruna Roy (Activist, Devdungri); Aziz Mirza (Filmmaker, Mumbai); Badri Raina (Writer and Activist, Delhi); Biswendu Bhattacharjee (Journalist, Agartala); Chandrahas Choudhary (Writer, Mumbai); Colin Gonsalves (Lawyer, Delhi); Danish Husain (Actor and Poet, Delhi); Dionne Bunsha (Journalist, Mumbai); Flavia Agnes (Lawyer, Mumbai); Gautam Navlakha (Journalist, Delhi); Gulam Mohammed Sheikh (Artist and Writer, Vadodara); Himanshu Upadhyaya (Researcher, Mumbai); Indira Jaisingh (Lawyer, Delhi); Jawed Naqvi (Journalist, Delhi); Jennifer Mirza (Community Activist, Mumbai); Jitendra Kumar (Journalist, Delhi); K Mark Swer (Radio Activist, Shillong); Kedarnath Singh (Writer, Delhi); Khushwant Singh (Writer and Journalist, Delhi); Kiran Nagarkar (Writer, Mumbai); Kuldeep Nayar (Journalist, Delhi); Kundan Shah (Filmmaker, Mumbai); Lubaina Bandukwala (Writer, Mumbai); Madhusree Dutta (Filmmaker, Mumbai); Mahmood Farooqui (Actor and Writer, Delhi); Manager Pandey (Critic and Teacher, Delhi); Maneesha Sethi (Teacher, JMI, Delhi); Manglesh Dabral (Poet, Delhi); Mashhood Farooqui (Delhi); Meghnad Desai (Writer and Academic, Mumbai); Mita Kapur (Critic and Curator, Jaipur); Mrinal Pande (Writer and Editor, Delhi); Mukul Kesavan (Writer and Academic, Delhi); Nabaneeta Dev Sen (Writer, Kolkata); N. Inniah (Activist, Hyderabad); Nancy Adjania (Critic and Curator, Mumbai); Nandini Ramnath (Journalist, Mumbai); Nikhil Dey (Activist, Devdungri); Nilanjana Roy (Critic and Publisher, Delhi); Nivedita Deshmukh (Artist, Mumbai); Nivedita Menon (Political Theorist, Delhi); Pablo Ares (Academic, TIFR, Mumbai); Pankaj Bisth (Writer and Editor, Delhi); Parnal Chirmuley (Teacher, JNU, Delhi); Paromita Vohra (Filmmaker, Mumbai); Pervin Jehangir (Activist, Mumbai); Pradip Krishen (Naturalist and Filmmaker, Delhi); Praful Bidwai (Journalist, Delhi); Pranay Krishna Srivastava (Critic and Teacher, Allahabad); Prashant Bhushan (Lawyer, Delhi); Rabbi Shergill (Musician, Mumbai); Radhika Menon (Teacher, DU, Delhi); Rahul Roy (Filmmaker, Delhi); Rajni Bakshi (Writer and Journalist, Mumbai); Ranjan Palit (Filmmaker, Kolkata); Ranjani Mazumdar (Teacher, JNU, Delhi); Ranjit Hoskote (Writer and Curator, Mumbai); Rajendra Yadav (Writer and Editor, Delhi); Raju Narisetti (Journalist and Editor, Delhi); Rakesh Sharma (Filmmaker, Mumbai); Reboni Saha (Designer, Goa); Ritu Menon (Publisher, Delhi); Rohit Prajapati (Activist, Vadodara); Ronita Torcato (Journalist, Mumbai); Ruchir Joshi (Writer and Filmmaker, Kolkata); Sabeena Gadihoke (Teacher, JMI, Delhi); Saeed Mirza (Filmmaker, Mumbai); Sandeep Singh (JNUSU President, Delhi); Sanjay Kak (Filmmaker, Delhi); Sanjay Kapoor (Journalist, Delhi); Satya Sivaraman (Journalist, Delhi); Savad Rahman (Journalist, Kochi); Shankar (Activist, Devdungri); Shanta Gokhale (Writer, Mumbai); Shanti Bhushan (Lawyer, Delhi); Shevlin Sebastian (Journalist, Kochi); Sharit Bhowmick (Teacher, Mumbai Univ, Mumbai); Sharmila Samant (Artist, Mumbai); Shilpa Bhatnagar (Photographer, London); Shashi Deshpande (Writer, Bangalore); Shivam Vij (Journalist, Delhi); Shohini Ghosh (Teacher, JMI, Delhi); Shuddhabrata Sengupta (Artist and Writer, Delhi); Shyam Benegal (Filmmaker, Mumbai); Siddharth Narrain (Legal Researcher, Bangalore); Sourabh Ratnu (Filmwriter, Mumbai); Sumit Chakravartty (Journalist, Delhi); Sumit Sarkar (Academic, Delhi); Tanika Sarkar (Academic, Delhi); Tanveer Fazal (Teacher, JMI, Delhi); Tarun Bhartiya (Filmmaker and Activist, Shillong); Tarun Tejpal (Writer and Journalist, Delhi); Trupti Shah (Activist, Vadodara); Tushar Joag (Artist, Mumbai); Urvashi Butalia (Publisher, Delhi); Vasanth Kannabiran (Activist, Hyderabad); Vinod Mehta (Journalist, Delhi); Vishnu Nagar (Writer, Delhi); Vaiju Naravane (Journalist, Paris); Vasudha Joshi (Filmmaker, Kolkata); Vijay S. Jodha (Filmmaker, Delhi); Volga (Writer, Hyderabad)
February 13, 2008