So the mullahs have had their way. Dissident Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen has decided to leave India for a country where she will not be kept in solitary confinement under house arrest, as she has been for the last four months.
When I spoke to her over the phone on Monday evening, she was no longer the feisty woman I have known all these years, but a tired and defeated person, desperate for a breath of fresh air that has been denied to her since November 23 last year.
Nasreen was forced to leave Kolkata a day after Muslim mobs, instigated by small-time Congress leader and chairman of All-India Minority Forum Idris Ali, ran riot on November 21. The rioters demanded Nasreen be thrown out of the city and the country for "hurting Muslim sentiments" through her widely acclaimed autobiographical book, Dwikhondito (Split in Two).
The Army was called in to restore peace, though it's apparent the CPI-M, which heads West Bengal's Left Front government and claims to have converted the state into a "progressive paradise", had a role in engineering the violence. The purpose was to distract media attention, which at that time was riveted on Marxist thuggery at Nandigram, causing huge embarrassment to Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.
The Muslim rage over Dwikhondito came four years after it was published. In November 2003, Bhattacharjee, despite his pretensions of being a writer and a Marxist, banned the book because it had references to perversion of Islam by those who use religion to perpetuate their twisted notions of a Muslim woman's place in society.
Human rights activists went to court and appealed against the ban. In September 2005, the Calcutta high court declared the ban was "untenable" and "unjustifiable", and set it aside. Dwikhondito reappeared in bookshops and became an instant bestseller, not least because it rips off many a 'secular' and 'progressive' mask.
It took two years and one month for Idris Ali and his cohorts to discover that Dwikhondito, published in Bengali, was an "affront to Islam". What further confirms reports about CPI-M complicity in the rioting of November 21 is that it followed within days of the ghastly killings at Nandigram by the party's cadre.
Earlier, on August 9, 2007, Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen cadres, led by the party's MLAs, had attacked her in Hyderabad. Nasreen barely escaped with her life. The MIM owes its origins to Hyderabad's razakars who fought against the state's integration with India; they wanted Hyderabad to join Pakistan.
On November 22, Nasreen was literally frog-marched by the police from her central Kolkata apartment to the airport, where she was put on a flight to Jaipur. She was allowed to carry only her laptop with her.
After spending the night in Jaipur, she was driven down to Delhi. On November 23, central intelligence agencies took charge of Nasreen and shifted her to a 'safe house'. Since then, she has been living under virtual house arrest and is not allowed to either receive or visit friends.
Nasreen had to flee her country, Bangladesh, in 1994 after Islamic fanatics took to the streets demanding the death penalty for her because she had recorded the plight of Hindus after the demolition of Babri Masjid in her slim novel, Lajja (Shame). Her call for reforms in Islam and increasing popularity among Bangladeshi women had further angered the mullahs.
After spending some time in Sweden, Nasreen moved to France. But she was restless to return to her roots. Since she could not go back to Bangladesh, she settled for Kolkata and moved to the city in 2005, armed with a resident permit.
"As a Bengali, I felt at home in this city. Unlike Europe, here I could speak in Bengali, read Bengali books, magazines and newspapers, watch Bengali programmes on television, and eat Bengali food. I was at peace," she once told me. That peace is now long shattered.
Meanwhile, faced with mounting protest and scathing criticism for succumbing to mullah pressure, Minister for External Affairs Pranab Mukherjee told Parliament on November 28: "Throughout history, India has never refused shelter to those who have come and sought our protection This policy will also apply in Taslima's case." Nasreen responded to Mukherjee's statement by offering to delete the 'controversial' passages from Dwikhondito.
In retrospect, the government's assurance was no more than a ruse. It was a ploy by a gutless Congress to smoothen ruffled feathers. That done, it has now turned to appeasing fanatics. The mullahs know Nasreen has been reduced to a mental and physical wreck. In the guise of ensuring her "protection", officials have been working overtime to convince her into leaving India by imposing conditions that are beyond endurance and an insult to human dignity. So much so, she was not allowed to receive the Prix Simone de Beauvoir, awarded by the Government of France to outstanding women writers, from French President Nicolas Sarkozy during his visit to India in January.
On Monday evening, when I called Nasreen to check on her health, she told me of her decision to leave India. I gently chided her for throwing in the towel. "I wanted to, I still want to, live in India, make it my home. But look at my terrible existence. I can't meet friends; people can't meet me. E kemon bechey thaaka? Is this any way to stay alive?" she responded.
After a pause, she bitterly described her stay in the 'safe house' as "incarceration in a death house", adding, "My hands have been shackled I can't accept these chains any more. I am not doing this (leaving India) of my own volition. I am being forced to leave. It gives me no great pleasure to do so."
Nasreen, whose resident permit was extended on February 14 after keeping her on tenterhooks for weeks, says she is not even allowed access to doctors. "I need to urgently consult a cardiologist. I am suffering from high blood pressure. But I am told that I cannot be taken to any hospital, as it will 'create problems'. So I requested them to bring a doctor (to the 'safe house'). But even this they have refused to do," she added.
Unlike previous occasions when Nasreen would insist that she would not succumb to pressure and that she would stay on in India, on Monday she sounded tired and despondent. "Aami morey jaabo ei bhabey thaakley aami baachbo na (I will die if I continue to remain in this solitary confinement, I will not survive)," she said, adding, "I want to escape to freedom."
Taken aback, I stammered, "But how can you give up your fight?"
"If I don't live to fight another day, how can I continue with my struggle? I tried my best to stay in India. All I wanted was to be in Kolkata. If I can't do that, if I cannot be among my friends and the people I love, what's the use of my staying here?" she shot back.
And then she became despondent again. "Because of high blood pressure caused by stress, I have developed heart disease (hypertrophy) and hypertensive retinopathy, which will eventually cause me to go blind. My blood pressure, if uncontrolled, will destroy my heart and kidneys. Tell me, what should I do?" Nasreen, a qualified doctor who gave up her profession to become a writer, asked me.
I had no answer to her question. All that I could do, as a citizen of secular, democratic, Republic of India, which we believe has an open, free and plural society, was to hang my head in shame.
It's India's shame, too.
(The writer is Associate Editor, The Pioneer)