A mail arrived in my inbox last week, as part of a circular sent to many people with some connection to the press. Addressed to "The Chief Editor/Photographer", it read: "We request you to cover the demonstration that AIDWA is organizing against the violence perpetrated on a (sic) tribal women in Assam at 1.30 pm near Jantar Mantar". Signed by the general- secretary of the organization, it then went on to say that "AIDWA condemns the public stripping, beating and near-lynching of a tribal woman in broad daylight in Guwahati during clashes that erupted between members of tea-tribes demanding ST status and members of the public. We have demanded exemplary punishment of the perpetrators, and full support to the traumatized woman."
My first thought on receiving this mail was a malicious one. Why had the All India Democratic Women's Association not organized a demonstration to protest the externment from the state of West Bengal of the writer Taslima Nasreen, where it could have demanded "exemplary punishment of the perpetrators, and full support to the traumatized woman"? The thought was malicious but not, I think, wholly unfair. For AIDWA is an organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and like all bodies or individuals associated with that party, it has a highly selective attitude towards suffering and discrimination. It was surely moved by the brutal beating of a poor tribal woman in Guwahati (as any sensitive human would be); but its sympathy and indignation were not entirely uninfluenced by the fact that the state government in Assam is run by a party other than its own.
As editorials and essays in The Telegraph have pointed out, the incidents at Nandigram have once more exposed the hypocrisy of the organized Left. Violence is bad, if committed by parties or cadre of the Right or the Centre. It is excusable and even legitimate if it is the handiwork of the cadre or leaders of the CPI(M) and its allies. In some respects, however, the reaction to Taslima Nasreen's predicament has been even more hypocritical. For in Nandigram there were, and are, two sides to the story. Over the past year or so, the activists of the Trinamul Congress and of the Bhoomi Uchchhed Pratirodh Committee have not exactly shown an exemplary commitment to democratic procedure. Harassment and intimidation, arson and beating, were elements in their armoury of violence, as they were in the armoury of the CPI(M) cadre who 'recaptured' the territory. In that respect, and that alone, the chief minister of West Bengal was correct when he spoke of the protesters being "paid back in their own coin". That said, the CPI(M) and the Left Front are far more culpable than the BUPC rebels - for, they represent an elected government that has a greater responsibility to work within the law.
The case of the Bangladeshi novelist is more straightforward. Forced to flee her native land, she was living quietly in Calcutta. She had not used violence or even harsh words against anyone in the city. Then a group of Muslim extremists held a rally protesting her presence; the rally turned violent, and the army had to be called in to restore the peace. The Left Front government immediately capitulated to the extremists' demands. The next day Taslima Nasreen was put on a plane to Jaipur.
As it happens, I was in a meeting in Chennai when the decision was taken in the Writers' Buildings to, as it were, throw a writer out of the state. I had not watched television the whole day, and was thus alerted to the developments by a former teacher of mine in Calcutta. Although of north Indian extraction, she married a distinguished Bengali statistician and moved to his native city. She has lived there now for more than four decades. Despite her origins, she is, for all intents and purposes, a member of the bhadralok intelligentsia. She speaks fluent Bangla, and endorses and indeed embodies the progressive, liberal, cosmopolitan views associated - or once associated?- with that particular social class.
The irony in her voice was palpable. For Calcutta was the home of the Bengali Renaissance, which - or so we were once told - brought to the Indian subcontinent progressive and humanist ideas that were to bear fruition, in time, in the democratic and egalitarian ideals of the Indian Constitution. On the other hand, Rajasthan was notoriously backward, a state steeped in feudalism, which - so it was said - had never produced a writer or scientist of note, and where women were particularly badly treated. As recently as in the Eighties, Bengal was the land of Satyajit Ray, while Rajasthan was the land of Roop Kanwar. Now, two decades later, a writer felt safer there rather than here. What could be more ironical, more bizarre, more shameful?
I think the Taslima Nasreen case has tested, and will test, the integrity of the Left intelligentsia even more than Nandigram. After the latest outrage in Nandigram, CPI(M)-affiliated academics such as Prabhat and Utsa Patnaik, Irfan Habib and the like issued a wishy-wishy statement that, in effect, excused and condoned the violence. This was followed by a statement signed by CPI(M) sympathizers living abroad - Noam Chomsky and Tariq Ali among them - which suggested that to criticize the party's doings in Nandigram was to play into the hands of the American imperialists.
On Taslima Nasreen's expulsion, however, the fellow travellers, both desi and foreign, have thus far been silent. As intellectuals and writers themselves, they should not have such a selective approach to the issue of freedom of expression. They protest when the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Shiv Sena bans a book or intimidates an artist; should they not do the same when the CPI(M) does likewise?
It was speculated - probably rightly - that the Left Front's decision to send Taslima Nasreen away was prompted by the fear of losing the minority vote as a consequence of Nandigram (where the vast majority of the victims of the latest round of violence were Muslims). Will the opinion polls that show a vast majority of Calcutta residents wanting to have Taslima Nasreen back in their midst cause them to rethink? Or will Narendra Modi's cleverly brazen invitation to the writer to take refuge in Gujarat embarrass the CPI(M) into rescinding the expulsion order? Or will these facts and provocations be disregarded and the fundamentalists win after all?
As this column goes to press there are no clear answers to these questions. My own hope, naive as it is, is for the government of West Bengal to invite Taslima Nasreen back to Calcutta, and then follow it up with a comparable invitation to M.F. Husain (an artist who certainly would not be welcome in Modi's Gujarat). That would redeem not just the credibility and conscience of the Left, but the credibility and conscience of Bengal itself. Can a land which has long thought of itself as being in the cultural vanguard allow its history and heritage to be so brutally vandalized by a bunch of fundamentalists and bigots?