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Between Fanatic Secularism and Religious Fanaticism-the case of Tasleema Nasreen

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Submitted by Swati Parashar (India), Aug 11, 2007 at 07:03

The secular credentials of India were questioned yet again when Bangladeshi writer, Tasleema Nasreen was attacked in Hyderabad, by none other than those who are considered as the law makers of the country. In a deplorable act of vandalism, three MLAs of the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) hurled abuses at Tasleema and even threw pieces of furniture at her while she was attending the launch of the Telugu version of her new novel, Shodh, in Hyderabad on August 9, 2007. The three MLAs of MIM and four other party activists were arrested by the police but later released on bail. Far from any repentance, even more alarming are their proclamations that Tasleema got what she deserved and that it could be worse next time. In a television debate, the unrepentant MIM MLA, Akbaruddin Owaisi said that, "She has hurt the sentiments of 20 crore Muslims. We are bothered so much about one person who is not even an Indian but we don't seem to care about the lot of Muslims in this country who are disgusted with her."

Among the reasons attributed to this outrageous behaviour of the MLAs is the claim that this is a publicity ploy to strengthen their vote bank and their dwindling political fortunes in Hyderabad. Whatever may have been the real or perceived intentions behind this attack, it goes without saying that it completely makes a mockery of the secularism and tolerance that India has proudly been preaching to the rest of the world. It is in the same genre of attacks against intellectual freedom which we have witnessed plenty in the recent times and which most of us who believe in tolerance and freedom of expression have condemned and rejected. However, this particular attack on Tasleema Nasreen raises a number of uncomfortable questions which have been bothering liberal individuals like me. Having signed a number of online petitions usually initiated by left leaning intellectuals who have vociferously defended intellectual freedom for people like M. F. Hussain, I cannot help wonder whether our leftist comrades will take up cudgels against the guilty this time. One has not heard anything from them as yet, and one is not very hopeful that comrades Karats and their colleagues who are busy debating the nuclear deal will stand in solidarity with Tasleema. One is not even hopeful of any official statement by the government in her defence. The government and the Indian intellectual community, which raised a hue and cry (justifiably so in my opinion), over the human rights violation of Dr. Mohammed Haneef in Australia, will have nothing to say about this gross violation of freedom of speech and expression of a foreigner and above all an asylum seeker, on Indian soil. Reasons? Call it anything – pseudo secularism, vote bank politics, minority appeasement. In blatant words hypocrisy backed by ‘fanatic secularism'!

Our present UPA government, with its left allies has constantly shoved ‘secularism' down our throats. Dr. Singh and his colleagues have repeatedly reminded us about how the Congress has been the biggest and perhaps the only bulwark against majority communalism and Hindu fundamentalism. It is time to remind them that MIM as their trusted ally abstained from Presidential elections 2007 to protest against UPA's nominee Pratibha Patil's reported remarks that the 'purdah' system came into India because of Muslims. The MIM has a long history of communal politics in Hyderbad which includes violence against the Hindus as well as the communists who opposed the Nizam's decision to form an independent Muslim state. It is also well known that the MIM members participated in the communal riots that hit Hyderabad in 1979. Violence, thus, has been their mode of politics even in the past, the attack on Tasleema being no exception. There is also a need to refresh our memories of the great escapades of the Congress Party and its left allies who have in their over zealous efforts to promote secularism often sought support from fundamentalist and communal elements within the minority communities. They perhaps agree with what Asaduddin Owaisi, the leader of the MIM's legislature party has said in the past, "How can an independent articulation of minority interests and aspirations be termed communal?"

Even as I write this article, the predictable political responses to the Tasleema episode have started pouring in. While the UPA Government has still not issued statements or strong condemnation of the attack, here is a glimpse of the responses that have come from the secular political leadership of this country. The Delhi Minorities Commission Chairperson Kamal Farooqui while condemning the attack reminds us that the "government should also ensure that Nasreen is not allowed to do or write anything, which hurts the sentiments of Muslims. The government should immediately cancel her visa and make her go out of the country. She should realise that this is not Bangladesh or Pakistan, but India where the sentiments of all communities are respected." Ghulam Nabi Azad, Chief Minister of Jammu & Kashmir, and a veteran secular Congress leader reportedly responded to the Tasleema issue by stating that "Writers have other subjects to write. Why just religion?'" Samajwadi Party which harps on its secular credentials more than the Congress had its leader Shahid Aqla responding that, "I will ask the government to get her (Tasleema's) visa revoked. She should be thrown out of the country." Please contrast these responses to the ones that have been issued against the cancellation of the work visa of Dr. Mohammed Haneef in Australia. Isn't there blatant double standard here even if the two cases are different in their content and issues?

When painter M. F. Hussain was subjected to acts of vandalism by the Hindu right wing, for his painting of Hindu Goddesses in the nude, did Ghulam Nabi Azad still say the same thing then that painters have other subjects to paint, why only religion? Thankfully, for the democratic traditions of this country, there was no dearth of support for M. F. Hussain. Not long ago a fine arts student in Baroda was jailed and his works vandalised by the Sangh Parivar activists for painting what they saw as blasphemous images of Hindu deities. Once again the liberal and secular minded citizens and human rights activists came together in support of the student. I also participated in the initiatives against moral policing by the Hindu fundamentalists and in support of freedom of artistic expressions. Clearly, this will not apply to Tasleema's case because the moral policing this time comes from a minority community. The MIM MLA's statements that they are Muslims first and then MLAs have been vindicated by the silence of those in constitutional positions and upholding the secular credentials of India.

It is deeply disheartening to note how the labels of communal, fundamentalist and secular are being assumed to serve political interests. I am aware that after this article I will also be branded as a right wing supporter. Only, it ceases to bother me, as I witness the hypocrisy that is rampant in Indian political and intellectual life. Noted scholar Ramachandra Guha says Hindu fundamentalism is the biggest threat to India today. I believe it is not religious fanaticism of either the Hindus or Muslims that threatens the country today but the "fanatic secularism" upheld by the large mass of our political leadership and intellectual community that will foment communal passions and threaten the unity and integrity of India . Between these two extremes of ‘religious fanaticism' and ‘fanatic secularism', freedom of speech and expression will continue to be sacrificed at the alter of political correctness, and in the name of community sentiments. However, it might not be such a good idea to end on this pessimistic note. Once again, truly secular Muslim intellectuals like Shabana Aazmi, Javed Akhtar, Nafisa Ali and even our Vice President elect Hamid Ansari have condemned the attack on Tasleema Nasreen and the use of violence as a method of protest. Perhaps true Indian secular and liberal ethos may survive the onslaught of religious fundamentalism and even ‘fanatic secularism'. We shall wait and watch

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