Taslima Nasrin’s speech at the convention was unique in the emotional engagement it engendered (Gary Bryson has described this in a previous post.) The audience gave Taslima Nasrin a lengthy standing ovation following her peroration:
I am in other words a stranger in my own country Bangladesh and a stranger in neighbouring India and a stranger in the West , where I am now living, Where can I go, nowhere. ….But I have a home, a home that consists of a family of people, men as well as women, who bravely oppose the forces of darkness and ignorance. These represent my true home. The hearts of people are my home and my nation, my only safe haven, my shelter and my refuge.
….. My home is love, the love I receive from women all over the world, that is my home, the love I receive from atheists, free thinkers, secularists, and humanist[s] is my home, the love I receive from you, that is my home. I do not regret what I have done so far, I do not regret anything that I have written, come what may. I will continue my struggle against all the extremists, fundamentalists, intolerant forces without any compromise to my death. I am all the more committed to my cause.
Taslima Nasrin prefaced her speech with brief reference to riots in the State of Karnataka on 1 March, just a fortnight before her appearance in Melbourne. Fifteen thousand people took to the streets, she told the audience, and two people died, “because a local newspaper published an article of mine about the burqa…” ”The editors wanted to have a healthy debate about the burqa so they published the article.”
In the remainder of her address Ms Nasrin canvassed her childhood arrival at atheism, Mohammad’s deficiencies as a model, and the Quran as a series of injunctions to violence and sexism. She gave an account of her displacement from Bangladesh and of her subsequent difficulties living in India. Islam was at the root of her homelessness, and not only fanatics, but liberal intelligentsia who defended the rights of Muslims, threatened her continued security in India.
My interest here is not Islam, the Quran or Mohammad. That’s for a different post. Suffice to say that Islamic fundamentalism is without question a problem for the security and well being of people, evidently everywhere. And it is a specific problem for women.
But, since the Karnataka events were quoted by Taslima Nasrin to contextualise her criticism of Islam and her ‘homelessness’, I would like to invite you on a tour of the available empirical information. I want to suggest possibilities for more telling readings of the riots than the one offered by Ms Nasrin.
1. On Karnataka: It’s a state (population 53 million) in southern India where the BJP is in power. The BJP subscribes to Hindutva, an ideology that argues all Indians should subscribe to a Hindu ethos. The BJP – nationally – has interpreted Muslim population figures and Muslim identity as a threat to the Hindu ethos prevailing in India. (There’s a strand in Indian secularism which joins in this interpretation.) In Karnataka 83 per cent of the population is Hindu; a mere 12 per cent is Muslim and not quite two per cent Christian. Only 8 per cent of Muslims have government jobs. Politics in the state are dominated by two caste groupings that comprise 15 per cent and 17 per cent respectively of the population: The access of these communities historically to land, education and government jobs; and more recently to the commercial and business opportunities thrown up by economic liberalisation is the basis for their social dominance. One aspect of their power is the connection of Hindu religious leadership within these groupings to unregulated business enterprise. In effect, politics in Karnataka is intra-Hindu, with each party balancing its caste equations carefully before it decides how to recruit Muslim votes or Dalit votes etc. According to the World Bank, political parties in Karnataka including secular parties “have generally not sought to mobilize political support by pursuing welfarist policies.”
Politicians customarily refer to Karnataka is the IT powerhouse of India but this level of industrial advancement is largely limited to the capital Bangalore (a quarter of the State’s economic activity happens there) and to the city of Mysore. Many other areas of Karnataka are highly underdeveloped. In 2005 Transparency International ranked Karnataka as the fourth most corrupt state (of 20) in India, particularly in services such as ‘Income Tax, Judiciary, Municipal and RFI (farming)’.
In Karnataka, therefore, there is a prevailing ideology, an entrenched political and social power structure, and a pattern of uneven economic development – all of which provide sources of outrage aplenty , and provocations for outbreaks of communal violence.
2. On Communal violence: Communalism and resort to riot in India has a long history, much analysed. But religious based communalism is intimately tied to the identity consciousness produced initially by British ‘empirical’ innovations in census taking and their introduction of elective representation along communal lines. Communalism is on the rise in India – where ethnicity, language, religion, caste divide and structure in hierarchies people competing economically and politically.
3. What happened in Karnataka on 1 March?: The Karnataka newspaper The Deccan Herald describes the course of events here: The [Nasrin's] article, about the purported views of Nasreen on the purdah system, led to protest marches in the two cities by Muslims, prompting retaliatory demonstrations by a section of Hindus. The counter-protests, parades and demonstrations worsened the situation and the violence went into a spiral as mobs from various parts of the towns took to the streets, burning police vehicles, smashing cars, stoning buildings and causing damage to public property.
Of the two people who died in the riots, one person was shot by police, the other killed in the crowd violence. In other words, the event was a complex phenomenon; it was not a matter of 15,000 Muslims taking to the streets.
4. What about the article?: Taslima Nasrin did not write an article for the Karnataka newspaper (Kannada Prabha) which published her piece. The paper picked up (for its own good reasons in a Hindu majority state) and translated from English an article published in January 2007, ‘Let’s think about the burqa’ . Update: Taslima Nasrin has informed us that the 2007 version of the article was preceded by publication in a Bengali newspaper, Daily Statesman, in 2006. See Comment below.
Following the riots in Karnataka, Taslima Nasrin issued a statement widely reported in the Indian media: “The incident that occurred in Karnataka on Monday shocked me. I learned that it was provoked by an article written by me that appeared in a Karnataka newspaper. But I have never written any article for any Karnataka newspaper in my life,” she said.
Nasreen said, “The appearance of the article is atrocious. In any of my writings I have never mentioned that Prophet Muhammad was against burkha. Therefore this is a distorted story.”
The author said, “I suspect that it is a deliberate attempt to malign me and to misuse my writings to create disturbance in the society. I wish peace will prevail.”
5. An alternative voice: Irfan Engineer of the Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai has written a reflection on the Karnataka riots. He writes: Minority fundamentalism often becomes existential justification for fundamentalist elements from majority community. Competitive fundamentalism together can erode individual freedoms and threaten democracy. Read the whole article here.
This is a lengthy post. But I hope it suggests that attention to complexity is preferable to staying with the simplistic. And preferable to the essentially solipsistic narrative of the Karnataka event presented by Taslima Nasrin.
Here’s an alternative way of reading communal conflict structured around religious identity. It concerns recent conflict in Nigeria, but it models a way of seeing that illuminates ways forward, rather than reducing us to one impossible but very easy to articulate ‘solution’.
And for a discussion of what goes missing when the detail is ignored of how those two lives were lost in Karnataka, read Gyanendra Pandey, ‘In Defence of the Fragment: Writing about Hindu-Muslim Riots in India Today’. It’s in the Economic and Political Weekly. Vol 26, No 11/12 Annual Number (Mar., 1991)
Listen to Taslima Nasrin [Dur: 43.24; Size: 39.7 MB]