Sunday, December 09, 2007

Left intellectuals attack CPI(M) ...

... for the way it "handled" Taslima Nasreen and the Nandigram issue.

The statement in Kafila signed by Mahashweta Devi et al is a response to the largely pro-CPI(M) letter from a group led by Noam Chomsky urging the Indian Left to go easy on the party on the Nandigram issue. Nasreen figures in it only peripherally.

On the other hand, this Outlook column by Priyamvada Gopal hauls the Left Front government over the coals for the callous way it treated Nasreen. It starts off by drawing ironic parallels between a set of writers (who were members of CPI) seventy five years ago and Nasreen now:

In 1932, a young woman named Rashid Jahan was denounced by some clerics and threatened with disfigurement and death. She and three others had just published a collection of Urdu short stories called Angarey in which they had robustly criticized obscurantist customs in their own community and the sexual hypocrisies of some feudal landowners and men of religion. The colonial state, always zealous in its support of authoritarian religious chauvinists over dissenting voices, promptly banned the book and confiscated all copies under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code. Rashid Jahan, as a woman, became a particular focus of ire. A doctor by training like Taslima Nasreen, she too had written about seclusion, sexual oppression and female suffering in a patriarchal society.

What has changed in three quarters of a century? Periodically, we witness zealots of all faiths shouting hysterically about 'insults' to religious sentiments and being backed by the state while little is done to address more serious material injustices that affect members of their community.

But in the light of the Taslima Nasreen controversy, the Angarey story has particularly ironic resonances. For Rashid Jahan and two of her co-contributors, Mahmuduzzafar and Sajjad Zaheer, were members of the Communist Party of India who would go on to help found the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) in 1936. The PWA was to be a loose coalition of radical litterateurs, both party members and 'fellow travelers', who would challenge all manner of orthodoxies and put social transformation on the literary map of India. Unsurprisingly, many PWA-linked writers had run-ins with the law, constantly fending off charges of obscenity, blasphemy and disturbing the peace. Challenging these attacks with brave eloquence, they defended the task of the writer as one of pushing social and imaginative boundaries. The then beleaguered undivided CPI too faced constant attacks, including censorship, trials and an outright ban.

Today, heirs of that same Communist party, the CPI(M), find themselves on the same side with the state and religious orthodoxies whose excesses they once challenged. ...

And there's more in Gopal's piece:

There's an odd kind of condescension in maintaining that some sentiments are more fragile than others and that some forms of belief are less resilient and, therefore, beyond questioning. Critique and dissent are essential, particularly when they come from those most affected by particular forms of religious and political practice.

When CPI(M) leaders commend the withdrawal of passages from Taslima's book and insist on the objectionable nature of some of her writing, they would do well do remember that a good many people in this world claim to find communism profoundly objectionable, even deeply offensive to their most cherished sentiments. The right of the left more generally to articulate critique and opposition has been hard won and remains under siege in many parts of the world.

Finally, there's this Telegraph column from the well known CPI(M) baiter Ram Guha.

It was speculated — probably rightly — that the Left Front’s decision to send Taslima Nasreen away was prompted by the fear of losing the minority vote as a consequence of Nandigram (where the vast majority of the victims of the latest round of violence were Muslims). Will the opinion polls that show a vast majority of Calcutta residents wanting to have Taslima Nasreen back in their midst cause them to rethink? Or will Narendra Modi’s cleverly brazen invitation to the writer to take refuge in Gujarat embarrass the CPI(M) into rescinding the expulsion order? Or will these facts and provocations be disregarded and the fundamentalists win after all?