Taslima Nasrin & "Free Speech"


Znet:26 February 2008

I would like to caution us all against looking at this issue, in particular the issue of Taslima Nasrin, through the single lens of a battle between religious fundamentalism and secular liberalism. Taslima Nasrin herself sometimes contributes to that view. On her website, she says: "Humankind is facing an uncertain future.”  In particular, the conflict is between two different ideas, secularism and fundamentalism.”  To me, this conflict is basically between modern, rational, logical thinking and irrational, blind faith. It is a conflict between the future and the past, between innovation and tradition, between those who value freedom and those who do not."

How strange it is then, that it was the West Bengal Government - led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), a party that sees itself as the vanguard of secularism, modern, logical, and rational thinking - that banned Nasrin's autobiographical novel Dwikhandita, not once, but twice. Twice the ban was successfully challenged in the Calcutta High Court. The book was published, and for four years people in Bengal read it and Taslima Nasrin lived in Calcutta. And there the matter remained - without incident.

Then Nandigram happened. Muslims and Dalits bore the brunt of the government's attack. The CPI(M) began to worry about losing the "Muslim vote." So it played the Taslima card. A report by Mohammed Safi Samsi in the Indian Express (December 1, 2007) tells the story.

The government launched its operation to "recapture" Nandigram at the end of October 2007:

On November 1, Path Sanket a CPI(M) magazine published an anonymous letter supporting Taslima Nasrin, adding some gratuitous insults of its own against Prophet Mohammed. On the November 8, the government banned the magazine and a member of the editorial team called printing the letter a "historic blunder." But, of course, vernacular newspapers republished the letter. Photocopies of the letter were then distributed in Muslim-dominated localities.

On November 21 - a week after more than 60,000 people marched on the streets protesting the government's actions in Nandigram - the little-known All India Minority Forum organized a protest that then "erupted" in violence. The army was called in. The government deported Taslima Nasrin from West Bengal.

And today, on February 13, we are all gathered here to discuss "free speech." Not the recapturing of Nandigram or the continuing terrorizing, humiliation, and rape of the people who live there.

It seems pretty clear that the threat to free speech comes as much from chemical hubs and iron ore mines - and from the project of land grab, enclosure, and mass displacement - as it does from religious fundamentalism. To not see this is to fall into a trap that has been cleverly laid for us.

Religious fundamentalists, especially those from minority communities, are often inadvertently playing out a script that has been written for them. Their outrage, genuine though it may be, has become a dependable, predictable, and an extremely useful political device to further the agendas of others.

The principle of free speech and expression has to negotiate many, many fundamentalisms.  Religious fundamentalism, ultranationalist fundamentalism, market fundamentalism, among others. Sometimes they are intertwined in the strangest ways.

Liberals often make the mistake of believing that free speech is a fundamental right given to us by the Indian constitution - and that when it is curbed either by the state or by vigilante militias and thugs, the constitution is being subverted. This is not true. Free speech is not our constitutional right. It is a contained right, beset with caveats, caveats that are always used by the powerful to control and dominate those who are powerless.

Now, we have a slew of new laws that make not just free speech but freedom itself in India a pathetic joke, a distant dream. There is the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), which incorporates some of the worst provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) and Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA). There is the Maharashtra Control of Organized Crime Act, the Madhya Pradesh Control of Organized Crime Act, and the utterly draconian Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act (CSPSA).  Some of these laws contain provisions whose sole purpose seems to be to criminalize everybody and then leave the government free to decide at leisure whom to imprison. Under the CSPSA and the UAPA, for example, the government is free to arbitrarily ban any organization without giving any specific reason for placing the ban.

Here is how the CSPA defines an organization: "  'Organization' means any combination, body or group of persons whether known by any distinctive name or not and whether registered under any relevant law or not and whether governed by any written constitution or not."

Remember, the vaguer the provisions in the law, the wider the net it casts, the greater the threat to civil and democratic rights.

Here is how the CSPSA defines an "unlawful activity": "Any action taken by such [banned] individual or organization whether by committing an act or by words either spoken or written or by signs or by visible representation or otherwise."

And then there are some sub-clauses that widen the net:

(i)  which constitutes a danger or menace to  public order, peace or tranquility

(ii) which interferes or tends to interfere with maintenance of public order

And, remarkably

 (vi)     of encouraging or preaching disobedience  to established law and its institutions.

In Section 8(5) it says that "Whoever commits or abets or attempts to commit or abet or plans to commit any unlawful activity shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to seven years."

So now they have mind readers in the Chattisgarh government, as well as seers.

How can there be even the pretense of free speech or freedom under laws like these? All over the country, not just journalists and writers, but anybody who disagrees with the government's plans is being arrested, tortured, and imprisoned.  Sometimes murdered.

Govind Kutty, the editor of People's March, a publication banned for being sympathetic to Maoist ideology, has been arrested and imprisoned. The Maoists have as much right to the freedom of expression, as much right to place their ideology - however abhorrent the government or anybody else may believe it to be - in the public domain, in the so-called marketplace of ideas as anybody else does.

I believe that the ban on People's March should be lifted immediately and its editor unconditionally released.

Finally, I would like to say that the battle for free speech must not turn into a battle that limits itself to the freedom of writers, journalists, and artists alone. We are not the only ones who deserve this right. A friend from Chattisgarh recently told me of a doctor who had been arrested because a prescription of his had been found in some "Naxalite kit," whatever that means.

In Chattisgarh, 644 villages have been evacuated of their inhabitants. That's more than 300,000 people - displacement on a mass scale, which is eventually intended to clear space for corporate mining interests. Fifty thousand people have been moved into police camps and have become recruits for the dreaded Salwa Judum (the supposedly anti-Maoist "people's militia" created and funded by the state government). Tens of thousands of people have fled to neighboring states to escape the horror. Nobody is allowed to go back to their villages or to cultivate their land. What is freedom of expression for a farmer? The buzz in town is that a new law is on the anvil which says that if farmland has not been cultivated for two years, it can be diverted for non-agricultural purposes.

Every form of resistance, peaceful or otherwise, is being shut down by the state. Of all the cases on the anvil, the goldfish in a bowl, the dire, menacing warning to us all and to anybody who may be entertaining the idea "of encouraging or preaching disobedience to established law and its institutions" is the continued imprisonment of Dr. Binayak Sen under false charges, underpinned by blatantly fabricated evidence.

Dr. Binayak Sen, who has worked as a civil rights activist with the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and a doctor in the area for more than 30 years, was arrested last May, charged under the CSPSA, the UAPA, and the Indian Penal Code (IPC). He has been in prison for eight months, denied bail even by the Supreme Court.

 By imprisoning someone like Binayak Sen, the government is trying to close out the option of peaceful resistance, of democratic space. It is creating a polarization along the lines of the Bush Doctrine - "If you are not with us, you are with the terrorists" - in which people only have the choice between succumbing to displacement and destitution or resisting by going underground and taking up arms. This is the beginning of either civil war or the annihilation of the poor. Once that genie is out of the bottle, it won't go back. There are reports that the Chhattisgarh state government has asked for 70 battalions of paramilitary forces beyond the 17 battalions that are already there. A fourfold increase. I fear the worst.

And so, from this platform I would like to ask for the granting of citizenship to Taslima Nasrin, for the immediate and unconditional release of Binayak Sen, Govind Kutty, and the other journalists whose names have been mentioned at this press conference, experienced journalists and peaceful activists who understand that reporting the realities of these situations is the only hope of righting this ship that is tilting dangerously and about to tip over. If it does tip over, everybody will suffer, the poor definitely, but the rich too. There will be no hiding place. I urge those present here to pay keen attention to the specter that is looming before us. And to begin a campaign demanding the repeal of these very frightening new laws that do not merely threaten free speech, but freedom itself.