‘India is, to me, a beacon of light on the sub-continent’

Text of Taslima Nasreen’s speech at the Mumbai Marathi Granth Sangrahalaya in Mumbai on March 6, 2000Iwould like to express my gratitude to  the organisers for having invited me here. 

I am a newcomer to Mumbai. As a transit passenger I came here for the first time last November. Though it was past midnight, I was surprised to find friends of mine waiting for me. This time also I am in transit. A few hours later I will be flying to Paris. I know Mumbai is a great Indian city. I know Calcutta closely through long encounters. This is my first time here. I am grateful for the kind affection you have shown to me. I thank you again for this warm reception. 

I am a writer. Whatever I have to say I say with my pen, either in prose or in poetry. I write, I am not like an another agitator. The agitation you see around me is not for my political or social activities. It is simply because of my writings. I have not written much. As a young doctor in a Dacca hospital I started writing columns for newspapers in my country. My primary concern was the plight of ordinary people, especially women. By our standards, those writings were popular and received wide publicity. 

My poems also reflected the concerns of everyday life of our people. Particularly women-folk who suffer a lot because of patriarchy and religious zealots. So my writings received attention, and became controversial.

Some extremist groups even put a price on my head. Unfortunately my government, instead of taking action against the fundamentalists, issued an arrest warrant against me. The rest is perhaps known to you. I had to spend sixty long days in hiding and at last had to leave the country. For six years I have been living in exile. 

You can easily imagine a writer uprooted from his or her own soil and thrown into an alien environment and completely dependant on that environment — how he or she feels. Fortunately, for me, I found a lot of friends in distant lands and they have given me all sorts of support. Still I feel lonely and long to come back to my own country. 

As this is not possible under the present circumstances, I try to come to India. Especially to Calcutta, where I find compatriots and a consensual atmosphere. Unfortunately, coming to India was also not easy. It was six years before I could come to India. I was granted a visa only recently. Because of this generous offer, I could visit Calcutta twice in quick succession. And as a bonus I could stop over for a while in this great city of Mumbai. 

India is a great country. It has a long history of civilisation and culture. I adore India. I know there are aberrations in history but India is a land of tolerance. People of different faiths have found sanctuary in India whenever they were in trouble — like Parsees, Jews and Christians. All this has contributed to making India a colourful mosaic where one finds different religious, ethnic and colourful shades. India is not only the world’s largest democracy. It is in a unique position because of its democratic way of life and the liberalism that it practices.

Living in a distant land, when I hear of violations to this ethos, I feel great pain, particularly because on the sub-continent India is, to me, a beacon of light. So, when in 1992, some extremists thought it proper to demolish a 400 year-old mosque I was shocked. 
At that time, in Bangladesh, as a reaction to the Babri Mosque affair, many ugly things happened. I could not endure this shock. I wrote a whole book, Lajja. Since then it has been published in twelve different languages in Europe as a testimony of a writer from the majority community defending the minorities. 

To me majority and minority by religious definition are meaningless. I consider the citizen of any particular country as a citizen. They are human beings first and human beings last. So, whenever I find some groups who impose their religious or cultural ideas on another, I can’t but protest. 

We are seeing this phenomenon everywhere. Where a particular group wants it’s own religious or cultural ideas to dominate others. To put forward their ideas, they choose the path of violence. I think this is not the proper way to propagate one’s ideas, this is not the way to establish one’s ideas over others. 

People who are not rational in their attitudes, people who do not believe in the language of logic and who want to subjugate others forcefully are to be resisted. They must be resisted. This, again, not by force but by arguments.
Recently, when I was in Calcutta I read about Deepa Mehta’s trouble with her proposed film Water in Varanasi. For me another shock awaited. Some others were objecting to the showing of Hey Ram. Fortunately better sense prevailed and the protests to Hey Ram were withdrawn. But for Deepa the troubles remain. 

Some friends in Calcutta asked me to comment. I supported Deepa’s stand not because I wanted to be involved in a local issue and simply join demonstrations. I supported Deepa Mehta simply because I am against all kinds of fundamentalism. I believe in freedom of expression and the individual’s right to express his or her thoughts in writing, film, theatre, singing, acting or in whatever medium he or she prefers. 

It is not my particular concern what the fundamentalists are, what their motive is. Wherever and whenever an artist’s freedom is threatened, I come out in protest. Isn’t it very natural, being the sufferer myself at the hands of fundamentalists who threw me out of my homeland, that I can’t but stand besides others who are oppressed like me?

I don’t know whether I have offended some people. I believe all writings are not to please. Some are to make people even angry. I don’t want to dwell on this subject anymore. My whole life is an open book. I suffered a lot at the hands of fundamentalists. But I know in India people who believe in true democracy and who are liberal in their attitude will triumph in the end. A handful of crazy people will one day find reason and hear, patiently, not only their own voices, but other voices too.

I can assure you, come what may, I will never be silenced. I will fight all the evil forces all the time. The love, support and solidarity you have shown me here has made me all the more committed and all the more determined in my cause. 



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