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Defending Taslima Nasrin

ajosephs Icon Posted by Ammu Joseph

August 11th, 2007

The latest twist in the tale of the recent, shocking attack on Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin is that the police in Hyderabad (India) have registered a case against her! Fortunately they have also, rather belatedly, initiated the process of booking a case against her attackers, led by politicians who are members of the state legislative assembly.

The Indian media have extensively covered the incident and the fallout from it. All five of the nationally circulated English dailies I subscribe to (and others accessed online) immediately published editorials condemning the attack in strong terms. However, as in other instances of moral policing and censorship by mob — typically spearheaded by organisations practising politics based on the exploitation of religion to advance conservative ideologies — even media generally assumed to be broadly liberal reflect certain biases. The more subtle the distortions the more insidious their effects are likely to be.

For example, despite the spontaneous and vociferous protests by a wide range of individuals and groups, including journalists and many members of the Muslim community, some commentators have suggested that “liberals” who are quick to criticise Hindu right-wing groups for similar behaviour have, as usual, been soft on Muslim fundamentalists. Shades of Bias and Slander in another context? Such disinformation and misrepresentation merely serve to deepen the divide between citizens who uphold constitutional rights and the underlying principles of a secular democracy and interest groups of various kinds seeking to undermine India’s long and valued history of diversity and plurality.

Part of the problem is the fact that the media tend to respond to such incidents in a knee-jerk, fragmented manner, often failing to provide the context necessary to enable citizens to understand news in the context of broader issues and trends. In its statement on the latest attack on Taslima Nasrin, some of us have attempted to contextualise the latest outrage:

“The Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI) strongly condemns the recent violent attack on Bangladeshi writer, Taslima Nasrin, in Hyderabad. The attack highlights the security concerns that writers in general and women writers in particular face from fundamentalist forces of all hues.

This attack was clearly politically motivated – dramatically executed by politicians masquerading as guardian angels of a religion, in the full glare of media attention, at a time when the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation elections are imminent. The law-makers were clearly law-breakers in this instance.

We believe it is also significant, in this context, that the mob led by MLAs barged into and violently disrupted an event at the Press Club. We salute the journalists present who risked harm to themselves to protect Ms. Nasrin and commend the immediate protests registered by local journalists’ organisations.

By attacking a woman and a champion of women’s rights at a quiet book release function, the fundamentalists have drawn attention to themselves in an ugly and desperate manner. The perpetrators are at large now - having got bail after a token arrest - and are possibly enjoying the media coverage they are receiving.

Unfortunately, this brand of politics has become all too common in India today. Both the media and the creative fields are increasingly under attack from the forces of intolerance and bigotry. The vandalism perpetrated at the Faculty of Fine Arts of the M.S. University in Baroda, the arson committed at the offices of Dinakaran and Sun TV in Madurai, etc., are other recent examples of this alarming trend.

The NWMI deplores all such anti-democratic activities and demands that the laws of the land be applied to the perpetrators of what are, very clearly, criminal acts. No one should be above the law and political considerations should not come in the way of prosecuting crime whoever the accused may be.”

Incidentally, Taslima Nasrin participated in a South Asian Women Writers’ Colloquium in Delhi in February 2007 at which various forms of censorship that affect writers in general and women writers in particular in the region were discussed. On Saturday organisers of the Colloquium held a public meeting in Hyderabad to condemn this latest assault on freedom of expression.

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