London-born singer Adnan Sami, born to a Pakistani father and an Indian mother, was offered Indian citizenship as 2015 drew to a close. But Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, exiled from her country for 22 years following threats from fundamentalists, has had to renew her stay in India every two months. Now a Swedish citizen, Nasreen speaks to Dola Mitra about what it’s like to live an uncertain life.
How do you react to the news about Adnan Sami having been granted Indian citizenship?
I am really happy for him. It is as it should be. He is an exceptionally talented musician and I appreciate his music. This confirms that India is still a country that values artists, authors, musicians and other creative people. It also proves that India can rise above pettiness and embrace those who belong to countries which are not always friendly towards them. It proves India truly believes in the idea of accepting everyone as its own.
But you have not been granted Indian citizenship despite the lapse of so many years?
“I am really happy for Adnan Sami. That he was granted citizenship proves that India truly believes in accepting everyone as its own.”
Actually, I have never wanted Indian citizenship. I am a citizen of Sweden which essentially means I am a European citizen. I also have a green card and permanent residence status granted by the United States government. But it is in India where I like to stay. What I want is a permanent residence status or at least an extended permit which is more than just the six-month or one-year permit that the Indian government has been giving me.
The whole process of re-applying at the end of the term is extremely stressful for me, not to mention tedious, time-consuming and expensive. I get really tense as the expiry date approaches and wonder what my fate will be. I have lived most of my life in this way. It is an unsettling feeling. And the Indian government usually takes a lot of time over my visa.
Why do you think that is the case?
Because no government in India wants to rub the Muslim fundamentalists the wrong way. The Islamist community hates me and my books because I have criticised their ways in them. But unfortunately they also control Muslim votes so all governments want to appease them. Consequently politicians don’t want to be seen as being friendly towards me. Adnan doesn’t face that.
What is your relationship with the BJP government?
When I met Union home minister Rajnath Singh, he told me he was willing to give me a visa for fifty years. I laughed because I don’t think I will live that long. I told him I would be grateful if I were given a visa for five or ten years, which is legally feasible. But again the visa I got was for two months; less than the UPA government’s which gave me six months and then extended it to one year.
So you are saying the BJP government is less friendly towards you?
I don’t think it’s a question of whether they like me or not. It is all about what is feasible for them. Before they take a decision on my visa they naturally consider their interests. That’s why the CPI(M) government shunted me out. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, who is known for his love of culture and the arts, humiliated and kicked out an author because it was inconvenient for his government. He too needed to appease the fundamentalists.
You had hoped that the Trinamool government would allow you to return to Calcutta but you are still banned from visiting that city.
“I am still not allowed to travel to Calcutta. But at least my cat Minu has now been returned to me. Fortunately she doesn’t need a visa extension.”
Yes, I did hope but the reality is something else. Mamata too wants to appease Muslim fundamentalists. A Bengali television series based on my work was stopped from being aired by her government because it was based on my book Nirbashito. Calcutta was my home when my own country kicked me out. Calcutta was the perfect place for me. It was a city where Bengali was spoken. People could understand me and I could understand them. They could read my books. I believed that Calcutta was a city which was truly liberal and valued artistic freedom of expression. But I am disappointed.
What is your current status?
I have been allowed to live in Delhi but my movements are restricted. I am not allowed to travel to Calcutta, for instance. But at least my cat Minu has now been returned to me. She was lonely without me in Calcutta. Fortunately she doesn’t need a visa extension.
Another liberal blogger has been killed in Bangladesh....
It pains me to hear that my beloved Bangladesh is going into darkness. But then where is it improving, you tell me? Look at West Bengal. Wasn’t it supposed to be a progressive state? What happened to me there shows that it is darkness everywhere. But I think it is not just the politicians. Everyone knows that that lot will do everything to cater to the vote bank because they want power at any cost. But what about the thinkers? Where are they? How can they let the values of freedom slip like this?