Taslima Nasreen says under Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh turning fundamentalist

File photo of Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen in New Delhi

We speak to author Taslima Nasreen whose third autobiography released in English in March starts from her job as physician till the time a fatwa was issued against her in her home country, Bangladesh

How do you begin to describe a life where you are constantly watched; where you have police officers screening everyone who comes to see you, maintaining a record of each visitor. And her fault? Writing. It can’t be understood by most of us and maybe that is why exiled Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen is reviled and loved in equal measure. No one remains indifferent to her.

Evoking her free spirit, she has the deep red-shaded Charlie Hebdo on her Quran stand, and beside it a mixed bunch of flowers from her own terrace garden in her Delhi apartment. As someone who believes in freedom of speech, she even defends the rights of those who troll her on social media. “Even vicious comments on social media is freedom of speech. They try to offend me. Offending someone (verbally) is part of freedom of expression. When I criticise religion, religious people said I am hurting their feelings. So many things can hurt their feelings, they can control it,” says Nasreen emphatically.

The third book in her series of seven autobiographies was translated into English and released early last week. In Spilt: A Life, Nasreen begins with her job as a physician and goes on to narrate the period till a fatwa was announced against her in her home country.

Edited excerpts from an interview with Ashlin Mathew.

Why have you called this book Split: A life?

I don’t know why I gave it the title Dwikhandito. I wrote it in 2003 and it was banned in the same year. I have written seven books of my memoirs and this is the third one. Probably the title is because it was the story of the eighties, when Bangladesh’s secular Constitution was being changed to an Islamic Constitution. The state was going to have a religion. The fundamentalists were rising; a fight was brewing between the fundamentalists and progressives; between blind faith and rational, logical thought. In that period, I wrote Lajja and I was attacked by fanatics. Maybe all this triggered the title of the book.

Why have some parts of your book been censored?

I don’t understand why Penguin did this. They have abbreviated names. All the names of people are there in my original and also in all the translations—Hindi, Marathi, Malayalam, etc. The publishers have also left a page blank. That was the page which had the criticism of Islam. I asked the publishers why they did so. What I had written is there in the Hadees. This has happened even though the ban on the book was lifted. People say Taslima is a brave writer, but then they have taken it all out. I don’t know why they did it. It is quite sad. I can understand if a small publisher had to censor, but a big publisher like Penguin shouldn’t do so.

Penguin may have been afraid. I think it must have been because of the controversy surrounding Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s book.

Isn’t it ironic that the very people (the Left) who didn’t stand for freedom of speech in your case are talking about freedom of speech under the present regime?

It is kind of strange. People should laugh at them. They select people whose freedom of speech they support. If you believe in freedom of speech for some persons, but not that of your enemies, then you do not believe in freedom of speech. Who said that they should live their life without getting offended. No one has the right to live their entire life without getting offended. They have to manage it. I do get hurt, but I don’t think they should be killed. If you are angry, write another book.

In your book you have mentioned how former President of Bangladesh, Hussain Muhammed Ershad, resorted to various means to usurp power. Isn’t Shaikh Hasina resorting to the same thing?

Sheikh Hasina has done a few good things, but she has also done a few horrible things. When some atheists were brutally hacked to death in Bangladesh by some Islamists, she didn’t utter a word supporting the murdered or against their killers. Rather, she blamed the atheists for writing certain blogs. Some of them were arrested. Some of them were put into jail and she didn’t reprimand the police to arrest the killers. Not a single killer was arrested. So, she doesn’t believe in freedom of speech at all.

Khaleda Zia is now in jail. She doesn’t want any opposition. It’s not that Khaleda Zia is better than her in any way, but that is the case even here. When someone drew a cartoon of Mamata Banerjee, the person was sent to prison. Hasina is also doing the same. Someone wrote against Hasina, the next day, he was in prison. Now, in retrospect, it is better to make Ershad a friend, than to make Islamists friends. Hefazat-e-Islam is an extremely fundamentalist group and she is friends with them. She created an organisation, Ulema League, within her party; it means all the fundamentalists are now in her political party. Just a couple of days ago, she announced that more than 1,000 Qawmi Alems (people who studied in madrassas not controlled by the government) would get government jobs.

Sheikh Hasina had announced that the highest certificate offered by Qawmi madrasas would be recognised as equal to a general education postgraduate degree. So, even if you have a master degree in science, physics or chemistry, it is equivalent to the degree obtained at these madrassas. This means they are entering government, which means they can become decision-makers.

Where do you think Bangladesh is heading to?

To a totally fundamentalist nation. Hasina should have controlled it, but she is not doing it. She thinks that to oppose or to make Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islaami irrelevant, she created an Islamist group controlled by her. She believes by giving jobs to these fundamentalists, she can remove Jamaat-e-Islaami completely from the political scenario. This itself would be harmful. Her political opposition may die out but she is creating Frankenstein. She is extremely afraid of her political opponents, but she is not afraid of Islamists.

This is Part I of a two-part interview of Taslima Nasreen. To be continued...

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