WAS IT really mob fury that stalled the official launch of Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasrin’s book in Kolkata last week? Nirbasan (Exile) is the seventh part of Nasrin’s autobiography and covers a seven-month period from her being attacked in Hyderabad to her exile from Kolkata in 2007. “The book reveals everything leading up to her being banished, the insecurities of the West Bengal government and double standards of the intellectual community,” publisher Shibani Mukherjee told TEHELKA. Hours before the launch, representatives of the All India Minority Forum and the Milli Ittehad Parishad — an umbrella group of eight Muslim organisations — arrived at the Kolkata Police headquarters to lodge a protest. Kolkata Joint Commissioner of Police Javed Shamim told TEHELKA that they “did not once mention violence. There was never any threat of violence”. Soon after, the Kolkata Booksellers Guild called off the launch. “The auditorium is not ready, there are no chairs,” they first told the publisher. Guild secretary Tridib Chatterjee later told TEHELKA: “If anything happened, the public would panic, there’d be a stampede. We can’t risk the security of 1.7 million people and the fair’s sanctity just for a book launch.” From her home in Delhi, Nasrin, 49, tells Tusha Mittal how governments and fundamentalists are using each other.
EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
Do you believe in absolute freedom of speech?
Nobody has the right to live their entire life without being offended. We need freedom of expression since there are people who think differently. Everybody has the right to offend others. I believe in absolute freedom of speech for me and my opposition, but without violence.
Your detractors say the word can also lead to violence. How do you respond?
Verbal and written words are not violence. The people who commit violence are not readers of books. Some times books can encourage people to commit violence, but those books are always religious books. Whoever set a price on my head was inspired by their religious text that says: kill the infidels. None of my books ask anyone to kill anyone.
Your book was finally launched outside your publisher’s stall at the fair. It sold 1,000 copies over the next three days. Less than 10 people showed up for the protest, led by Idris Ali, vice-president of the All India Minority Forum and the head of the Trinamool Congress minority cell. Even the West Bengal Chief Mufti’s call to gather at the fair, spit on the book and ensure the stall is shut down went unheeded by the masses. When TEHELKA asked the Mufti why they had no objection to the the fourth, fifth and sixth parts of your autobiography, he said he wasn’t aware of their release. How real is this ‘fundamentalist’ threat? What do you think was the West Bengal government’s role?
Wherever that order came from, either fanatics or police or ministers, the Kolkata Booksellers Guild should’ve firmly said no, we won’t cancel the event. I wasn’t there, but I hear that even before anyone asked for a cancellation, the police had already asked the Guild to stall things. Governments have always taken decisions about me before the fundamentalists have asked for them. In Bangladesh, Lajja was banned in 1993 on government initiative; the fundamentalist agitation started afterwards. Their grouse was over all my earlier writings about women’s rights, [while] in Lajja, I criticised the government. In India, everything started after the West Bengal government banned my books in 2003. The fanatics started issuing fatwas against me, attacking me physically, asking for my deportation. If my books were not banned, I’d be living in Kolkata peacefully. Both politicians and fundamentalists use me as a political pawn.
Tusha Mittal is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.