Public Statement by the Forum For The Protection of Free Speech and
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 peoples' 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 prestigious publishers were doing business at the World Book fair in Delhi, the exiled Bengali writer Taslima Nasrin 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 the 18th of February, after which she is liable to be deported or remain confined as an illegal alien.
Taslima Nasrin 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 Nasrin it was the CPI (M) 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 Nasrin lived and worked as a free person in Calcutta without any threat to her person, without being the cause of public disorder, protests or demonstrations. Ironically, Taslima Nasrin'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 Government's attempt to takeover their land, and tens of thousands of people marched in Calcutta 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 Nasrin 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 communalism, 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 Nasrin, 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 vandalizing 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 Chattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, away from the public glare of press conferences and television cameras, journalists are being threatened and even imprisoned. Prashant Rahi from Uttarakhand, Praful Jha from Chattisgarh, 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 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 sensibilities. However, we believe that instead of making them simultaneously into both victims and heroes, their work should be viewed, read, criticized 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 Nasrin, 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.
Mahasweta Devi, Arundhati Roy, Ashis Nandy, Girish Karnad