Friday, March 21, 2008


Secular Travesty
Times of India
March 21,08

Rabindranath Tagore's poem "Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high... into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake" is taught to schoolchildren all over the country.

It's not a prescription, however, that the government intends to live up to. It kept Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen incommunicado for five months, at an 'undisclosed location' in Delhi, in the hope that she would leave the country even though she had a valid visa to stay.

It had its way at last, with Taslima packing her bags for Europe. The circumstances in which that happened don't do the government much credit.

Her harassment didn't stop at cutting her off from those she wanted to see, in the name of security. She may have been denied access to proper medical care, going by complaints coming from her and backed by International PEN, the global writers' body.

Information and broadcasting minister Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi publicly asked her to "bow down" and apologise to those she had offended. He may have forgotten, for the moment, that India is a secular democracy rather than a theocracy.

Concern about her treatment came not just from international human rights groups but also from the National Human Rights Commission, which sent a notice to the home ministry and Delhi Police on her "solitary confinement".

The UPA government and its leftist supporters claim to be champions of secularism. Forcing Taslima out of the country, however, was a sad day for Indian secularism.

The tactics used replicated those adopted by West Bengal's Left Front government to get her to leave Kolkata, where she had been staying. Her security, apparently, was uppermost in the minds of both central and state governments.

What gives the game away, however, is that there is no official condemnation of those who threatened violence against her, or actually carried it out at a Hyderabad book launch in August last year.

Secularism of this variety amounts to a game of competitive fundamentalism. Someone somewhere claims to be offended on behalf of his community and issues threats. The government, in the name of security, bans the book, the film, or the writer.

It's the equivalent of handing fundamentalists a megaphone.

Someone else, encouraged by the supineness of the government, threatens or undertakes more violence for the sake of his particular peeve.

That not only undermines the constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of expression but creates insecurity all round. Not only would Tagore have been horrified at all this, there's serious doubt about whether it works even in terms of such short-term goals as delivering vote banks.


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