India: Attacks on Taslima Nasrin part of a pattern of repression by non-state fundamentalist forces

Economic and Political Weekly via SACW
Editorial: "The attack on Taslima Nasreen in Hyderabad on August 9, 2007 by legislators belonging to the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) is yet another instance of the steady criminalisation of politics in the country."
What followed the attack is even more disturbing. While the Hyderabad police booked the MIM legislators under fairly inoffensive charges, they went ahead and booked a case against Taslima Nasreen for hurting the religious sentiments of Muslims.
The political motivation for the MIM is clear. Having ruled the destiny of the Muslims in Hyderabad's old city for decades, the MIM has steadily been losing ground to the Majlis Bachao Tehreek and the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Taslima Nasreen's presence in Hyderabad provided the MIM a perfect opportunity to reclaim its dwindling status as the sole spokesperson of Muslim interests in the state.

The MIM leaders remain unfazed by the criticism that has come from all right-thinking and civilised sections of society. A day after the incident, the MIM leaders vowed to eliminate Taslima Nasreen and also prevent her from ever entering the city again. They argued that for them their religion was higher than the Constitution of India. A closer look at this statement shows that they have singular disregard for god as well as the Constitution. Records show that the MLAs who physically assaulted the exiled Bangladeshi author had, indeed, sworn in the name of god to protect and preserve the Constitution. It is increasingly apparent that the Indian state and its institutions have no mechanism to punish lawmakers who metamorphose into common criminals. There has not been a single known suggestion from among the political classes to strip these legislators of their membership of the Andhra Pradesh assembly. Nor is there even the slightest evidence on part of the political establishment to initiate a debate on the interpretation of several problematic provisions of Article 19 of the Constitution that guarantees a citizen the right to freedom and expression. The idea of "reasonable restrictions" on the freedom of speech, and the limits imposed on such expression in the face of public disorder, have been systematically misused by the very people who have little respect for civilised debate and discussion.

In this race for reaping the benefits of identity politics and competitive populism, there is no secular-communal divide in the use of criminal strategies. The Sambhaji Brigade, an offshoot of the Nationalist Congress Party, had vandalised the Bhandarkar Institute in Pune for allowing James Laine to research his book on Shivaji in their library (15 years before its actual publication). The "secular" Congress-NCP government in Maharashtra banned Laine's book. The Narendra Modi government in Gujarat aided and abetted the move to prevent Fanaa from being screened in Gujarat because of the support of the film's actor, Aamir Khan, for those displaced by the Sardar Sarovar dam. More recently, the Congress governments of Punjab and Andhra Pradesh banned the film, The Da Vinci Code, in response to complaints from some Christian groups that it "hurt" their sentiments. It is also important to recall that Rajiv Gandhi banned Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses in India even before Ayatollah Khomeini issued the fatwa against the author. The Sangh parivar regularly manages to vandalise art exhibitions and disrupt the functioning of educational institutions. The saffron outfits have driven M F Hussain out of his own country into exile. The most recent instance of moral policing and criminal assault on public institutions was the desecration of the Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda and its examination process in May 2007, resulting in the arrest of a student, Chandramohan, on the pretext of having hurt Hindu and Christian sentiments.

In all these instances, the attackers have invariably gone scot-free or have even flourished, while the attacked have suffered without reason. Political alliances and expediency have often dictated the reaction of the governments responsible for ensuring the rule of law and bringing these criminals to book. The attack on Taslima Nasreen and the manner in which the Rajasekhara Reddy government has chosen to turn a blind eye to the whole incident testify to this trend.

The Congress and the MIM have an alliance at the state level and the MIM is also a partner of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). For the Congress and the UPA, an assault on freedom of speech and expression, and a violation of the rule of law andcodes of civility, is a small price to pay compared to losing a valuable alliance partner. Ironically, the same Congress Party and its leader, who now happens to be the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, poured scorn over Chandrababu Naidu's refusal to withdraw support to the National Democratic Alliance government when the Gujarat riots of 2002 happened.

Source: Economic and Political Weekly

18 August 2007