Open letter to Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharya,
Chief Minister of West Bengal,
25 November 2007,
Dear Chief Minister,
I am writing this letter to bring to your notice the grave injustice and irresponsibility of the stand taken by your party and your government on the residency in this city of the writer Taslima Nasreen. As a fellow writer, I wish to put on record my disgust and horror at the way your party functionaries have trampled over the principles of democratic tolerance, free speech and common justice in condemning Taslima and urging her to leave this city or face the wrath of the mob. You have allowed vandals, rioters and troublemakers, who are disowned by the very people they claim to represent, to hold this city to ransom over a principle that no rational and humane person would support. I have not heard any of your party members or yourself reassuring people that the innocent would be protected from violence. Surely this should be the first duty of a government faced with such a crisis? If you do not condemn and repudiate the calls for a public lynching of Taslima Nasreen, how can the citizens of this state conduct a rational and fair debate on what she has to say?
Even if you personally, or your party collectively, think that what she has said does not deserve debate, you cannot abrogate our right to debate it merely for that reason. One would think this would be obvious to a democratically elected government, but we have learned from bitter experience in this state not to expect the obvious from you. When your government banned Dwikhandita on extremely flimsy grounds in 2004, you laid the powder trail that was ignited last week. We are still waiting for the report of the final explosion from it.
I would like to say that Calcutta has haemorrhaged enough writers, thinkers, and creators already. Enough of us have left over the years, some voluntarily, others as victims of circumstance, to shine in other skies. There are only a handful left, and even they are slipping away. Now, apparently impatient at the prevailing rate of attrition, you have taken to shipping them out under threat of assassination. Soon the rest of us will have no option but to leave and take our careers elsewhere. If our lives and liberty are are as valuable to you as Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel Prize, then Bengal is indeed fortunate, and we can best serve her by staying as far away as possible while we shower honours on her from afar. The credit, I am afraid, will shine but dimly on you, and your contribution will be limited to garlanding people on the tarmac of Dumdum Airport. You may not realise it, but the world is a big place, and you can no longer keep us penned up in your tattered crimson-festooned idyll. Indeed, Taslima has left before, although she has been unhappy; she is not the kind who can write from anywhere, and needs the nourishment of Bengal’s air and water to keep her ticking. And why should she be denied this by those who should protect her? Besides, would you really like to have her travelling the world, telling people exactly how you treated her, and undoing all the work you’ve done to project Bengal as a happening, modern, forward-looking, lean, mean machine? It’s already happening inside the country.
There is something deeply ironic about the fact that Bengal’s shame has come through your intolerance of a writer. Ask any ‘non-Bengali’ what the stereotype of a Bengali is, and he’ll describe someone with their nose in a book. Perhaps all those Bong jokes have convinced you that we need to change that stereotype. The monkey cap is probably welded on with rivets of steel, but we can lose the book, oh yes, that’s so much easier. In any case you have spent two generations destroying the capacity of our youth to learn English, and left them only with inward-looking eyes. And so all the writers in English have gone, barring two or three. Now you’ve started on the Bengali ones. Would you like a day to come when Bengalis no longer read? Would you like them to lose the capacity for reading, and for those few who struggle to retain it, for them to have nothing and no one left to read? You are already destroying the language of your people by shutting it up in a museum case. Now you want to attack even those who fight the retrograde forces at work in our culture to make new stories, new discourses. There was a time when your cause naturally enlisted writers and artists to it; you would like to think it’s still the same today. But how many of those who you count as your own are truly read with pleasure, and really have something to say? And how many of them are stars because the brighter lights have left in disgust? Don’t you think it’s time you really looked at what you’ve done to the creative life of your people? Or do you want us to continue to think you don’t care?
There is still time for you to do something about this. The damage may not yet be irreversible. Please call Taslima back, giving her every assurance of security and support. If you think it unwise to bring her back to Calcutta, then arrange for her to stay somewhere close by. If you wish, keep the location vague, or a secret, for now, and let her issue only recorded statements until the threat to her safety is properly neutralised. And make sure that it is neutralised, and that we can invite her without fear to speak at the next bookfair and sign copies of her books. But don’t hand this issue on a platter to the right wing for them to posture and crow over. We don’t like them any more than you do.
If you resort to the venal old calculus of vote bank credits and debits, I think you will still find that even those who dislike Taslima and her words are angered and shamed by your stand. You will please no one with the circus you’ve cracked your whip over since Wednesday. Please tell the ringmasters it’s time to go home. There is enough to mourn over in this state without a public display of ignorance and intolerance greeting us every day from our television screens or on our way to work or school. Please don’t tear to shreds whatever small illusions we had left about our status as a people who valued ideas and culture.
Or perhaps you should tear them to shreds. Perhaps those illusions were the cover you used to carry out your programme of cultural sterilisation while we applauded in the dark auditorium that yawned upon the lighted stage. Perhaps that’s why creatively speaking Bengal is a nation of aged parents with absent children, reduced to reading about the achievements of the next generation on the international pages of newspapers. Only those of us crippled by idealism still flop about, spending fortunes on dodgy broadband, STD calls to publishers and courier charges for weighty manuscripts. Soon we too will shut up or ship out, and Bengal will fall silent, perhaps for ever.
Well, Mr Chief Minister, are you truly prepared for that?
Rimi B. Chatterjee
Author and academic