New Delhi: Controversial writer Taslima Nasreen expected her stay in India to be a cakewalk under the Modi government, but she is shocked at what she describes as the looming prospect of “homelessness”.
A Bangladeshi by birth, Nasreen has been in exile since 1994, when she fled the country in the wake of threats from radical Islamists about her controversial book, Lajja. Now a Swedish citizen, she has been living in India over the past few years, on residence permits.
Renewed regularly for a year under the first Modi government, the permit has been extended by just three months by incumbent Home Minister Amit Shah, leaving Nasreen worried.
“People had told me that when the BJP comes to power, things would be easier,” Nasreen, 56, told ThePrint. “But the UPA government put me under house arrest and forced me to leave the country, and this government is giving me permission to stay for just three months.”
‘In exile for 25 years’
Nasreen is a vocal critic of Islam, which has frequently landed her in controversy, especially since her views are seen as being in consonance with Hindu radicals in India.
Under the Congress-led UPA government, she was kept at a secret security facility in New Delhi — a stint she has likened to “solitary confinement”.
Her presence in India has been controversial, even stoking protests by Islamists that forced her to flee Kolkata in 2007-08.
Then the Gujarat chief minister, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had thrown his weight behind her when she was “placed under house arrest” in 2008, Nasreen told ThePrint.
“The CPI(M) government threw me out of West Bengal… Kolkata – the city which speaks my language, the city which was my second home, the UPA government forced me to leave the country… I thought when the BJP comes to power, my problems would end,” she said.
However, her repeated pleas to the Modi government for a five-year permit have failed to yield results. In 2014, she said, the government gave her a two-month permit, after which she had to seek a meeting with the then home minister Rajnath Singh. She has been granted year-by-year extensions since then.
Nasreen said she did not think the government’s decision had anything to do with the Indo-Bangladesh bilateral relationship, and appealed to the Modi government to grant her the permit.
“As an author, I should be allowed to be creative, write… I shouldn’t be concerned about whether I can come home or not.”
“I have lived in exile for 25 years… I don’t want to live in a constant sense of fear and worry now,” she added.
Asked why living in India was so important for her even though she has Swedish citizenship, she said, “Mentally, physically and psychologically, I belong to India… India is my home.”
“I come back here despite everything, for the love of my language, my land,” she added.
‘Government not responsible for fundamentalism’
In the course of the interview, Nasreen also weighed in the deepening polarisation around India. However, while she agreed that fundamentalism is on the rise in the country, she did not attribute it to the government of the day.
“There are some incidents, which I speak out against as well, but I don’t think the government supports them in anyway,” she said, “Lynching is not the government’s agenda.”
According to Nasreen, the Indian government will ultimately remain secular, and never become religious.
While she argued that she was not one to keep silent on the excesses of the minority community – a tendency she associates with “pseudo-seculars” – she said it was the majority community’s responsibility in any country to make the minority feel safe.
A fierce votary of women’s rights, which she feels are threatened by all religions, Nasreen urged the Indian government to come up with a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) immediately.
“Just the way, the Muslim minority does not want a UCC in India, in Bangladesh, the Hindu fundamentalists say they want to follow Manu’s law or the shastras and not have a UCC,” she said.
“In Bangladesh, Hindu women cannot inherit property, cannot marry or divorce out of their choice… It is the same fundamentalism,” she added.
“India needs a UCC, which is based on equality and justice… The BJP has been talking about it for some time, I don’t know why they are not bringing one,” she said.
Nasreen added that UCC would be better than taking a piecemeal approach to women’s rights by bringing in a law on separate issues, like ‘triple talaq’ or ‘nikah halala’. “If you have religious law anywhere – of any religion – you cannot have human rights,” she said.
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