Why are the current difficulties of Taslima Nasreen so unsettling' The proscription of books, the hounding of artists by communal bullies (M.F. Husain, Taslima Nasreen herself in Hyderabad not so long ago) and the supineness and complicity of the State in these moments, are things to which Indians should have become accustomed. And yet the story of her eviction from Calcutta and her subsequent flight through several states seeking sanctuary is not just routinely depressing, it is dismaying.
The spectacle of BJP state governments (Rajasthan, Gujarat) stepping forward to shelter a writer when avowedly secular governments will not, isn’t dismaying in itself. An apostate Muslim writer being hounded by Muslim organizations is a gift for Hindu chauvinists, so, while it is ironic that the scourge of Husain should become the protector of Taslima, it isn’t surprising. In any case, whatever the sangh parivar’s motives, someone offering a writer in Taslima Nasreen’s circumstances security and support is better than no one doing it.
At the risk of sounding both stupid and naïve, Taslima Nasreen’s expulsion from Calcutta seems shocking because the decision to expel her was taken by a government controlled by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). In the small universe of Indian liberalism, the CPI(M) is a considerable heavenly body. This isn’t because liberals set much store by the political ideologies of India’s communist parties; they don’t. They have no reason to, given that Indian communists themselves long since abandoned any attempt to set out a distinctive ‘communist’ route for India’s economic development.
The land reforms implemented by the CPI(M) decades ago were that party’s last coherent attempt to initiate leftish social transformation. ‘Leftish’ because there’s nothing uniquely communist about land reform. Nonetheless, in the context of republican India, those reforms did broadly promote the interests of the poor in Bengal and they paid handsome political dividends by creating a loyal political constituency that kept the Left Front continuously in power in West Bengal.
Since that time, the urban and industrial stagnation of Bengal has turned the Left Front government into a commonplace social democratic party that has systematically abandoned any pretence of being socialist as it learnt and adopted the economic orthodoxies of ‘liberalization’. Over the last few months, we have seen this vividly demonstrated as, at different times, armed policemen and armed cadres commanded by the CPI(M) attacked, en masse, the peasants of Nandigram, who objected to the government’s policy of land acquisition.
For the ineffectual, politically well-meaning people who dislike the sinister majoritarian politics of the sangh parivar and who despair of the corruption and opportunism of the Congress, the CPI(M) is (or used to be) important for a single virtue that had nothing intrinsically to do with being leftist or communist, but was, nevertheless, most consistently embodied by the communist parties in India, namely secularism.
For many middle-aged liberals, the pogroms in Delhi and other parts of India in 1984, when thousands of Sikhs were killed by gangs led by Congressmen, was the moment they became leftish fellow travellers. The reason was that West Bengal under the stewardship of Jyoti Basu remained calm. Calcutta, a city populated by thousands of Sikhs, saw no systematic killing because the Left Front government gave the police a free hand to keep the peace. In the two decades after that constitutive event, the communist Left, its front organizations and its fellow travellers were central to the politics of pluralism and secularism. There was a consistency to the Left’s defence of pluralism and its hostility to sectarian politics, whether it was the secessionism of the Khalistan movement or the majoritarianism of the sangh parivar, that made it something of a constant star in the murk of India’s identity politics.
So to read that after violent protests against Taslima Nasreen by conservative Muslim groups, the Left Front chairman, Biman Bose, had declared in a press statement that she ought to leave Bengal if her stay disturbs the peace was disconcerting. It was more than disconcerting to read in the papers that with Taslima Nasreen hidden away in Delhi under the protection of the Central government, the speaker of the West Bengal assembly, Hashim Abdul Halim, asked with the sort of nonchalance that a VHP activist might have envied, “Why talk about Taslima now' The crisis is over.”
It has been suggested that the expulsion of Taslima Nasreen is a sop to Muslims in West Bengal because the Left Front fears that the assault on the substantially Muslim peasantry of Nandigram might cost the government Muslim votes. I don’t know if this is true, but it’s hard to credit that the Left Front is stupid enough to believe that band-aid politics of this sort can recover for it the ground it has lost on account of Nandigram.
Gurudas Dasgupta of the Communist Party of India, aggressively questioned by Sagarika Ghose on CNN-IBN on the Taslima Nasreen issue, was a study in embarrassment and contrition. Head bowed, Dasgupta tried to find a form of words to politely express his disagreement with his own government’s decision. We are now told that the good Biman Bose has ‘revised’ his statement. This revision consists of Bose passing the buck to the Central government: it is for the Centre to decide whether Taslima can stay in India. Cowardly though this position is, it at least indicates that the Left Front is aware of the damage that the Taslima affair has done to its secular credentials.
Liberals mightn’t like it, but in India’s political landscape, they need the communist Left as allies in the struggle against sectarian politics. A Left Front government that tears up its secular calling card by pandering to obscure Muslim groupscules is worse than useless when it comes to critical battles in the future against majoritarian politics. The CPI(M), in turn, could remind itself that the only relevance it has as a national party is as a reliable bastion against communalism. When it loses that cachet, as it has come dangerously close to doing in recent times, it will dwindle into its persona in Bengal: a machine that works to re-elect a bunch of practised political operators, a contemporary Tammany Hall.