Hello and welcome to Devil’s Advocate. How do India’s leading authors respond to the treatment given to Taslima Nasreen over the last 14 days? That’s the key issue I shall explore today with Booker Prize- winning novelist Arundhati Roy.
Karan Thapar: Arundhati Roy, let me start with that question. How do you respond to the way Taslima Nasreen has been treated for almost 14 days now?
Arundhati Roy: Well, it is actually almost 14 years but right now it is only 14 days and I respond with dismay but not surprise because I see it as a part of a larger script where everybody is saying their lines and exchanging parts.
Karan Thapar: She, I believe, has been in touch with you . What has she told you about the experience that she has been through?
Arundhati Roy:Well I have to say that I was devastated listening to what she said because here’s this woman in exile and all alone. Since August she’s been under pressure, she says, from the West Bengal police who visit her everyday saying, “Get out of here. Go to Kerala, go to Europe or go to Rajasthan. Do anything but get out of here. People are trying to kill you,” not offering to protect her but saying get out. On 15th November when there was this huge march in Calcutta against Nandigram, they said, “Now you’re going to be killed so we’re going to move you from your flat to some other place” and they did it but they withdrew most of her security which is paradoxical because on the day when she was supposedly the most under the threat, she had no protection. A few days later they gave her a ticket and pushed her out of the state.
Karan Thapar: Listening to the story she told you about herself, do you believe that the West Bengal government’s behaviour has been unacceptable?
Arundhati Roy: Well it has been utterly, ridiculously unacceptable. I mean, what can I say? Here you have a situation where you’re really threatening and coercing a person.
Karan Thapar: Far from protecting her, they were threatening her?
Arundhati Roy: Absolutely.
Karan Thapar: What about Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee? He is a poet, he is an author; how does he emerge from this story?
Arundhati Roy: He emerges from the story, as far as I am concerned, as the principal scriptwriter who managed, quite cleverly, to shift all the attention from Nandigram to Taslima. Taslima is not the person who is displacing the poor peasants of Nandigram. She is not the person who is robbing people of their daily bread.
Karan Thapar: So he used her as a pawn to take the pressure off himself in terms of Nandigram?
Arundhati Roy: I think very successfully because we are discussing her and not Nandigram right now.
Karan Thapar: So he’s failed to stand by any of the constitutional duties that as a Chief Minister he should have upheld?
Arundhati Roy: I should say at this point that we do not have the constitutional right to free speech. We have many caveats between us and free speech so maybe he has upheld the constitutional rights to us not having free speech.
Karan Thapar: On Friday, Taslima announced that three pages from her autobiography Dwikhandito, which allegedly had given offence to critics, are to be withdrawn. Do you see that as a sensible compromise or a mistake?
Arundhati Roy: Well, neither. She does not have any choices. She is just like a person who has now got the protection of the mafia which is the state in some way. She has nowhere to go. She has no protection. She just has to blunder her way through this kind of humiliation and I really feel for her.
Karan Thapar: You used an interesting phrase. You said she has to blunder her way through this humiliation. Was withdrawing those three pages, admittedly under pressure, a blunder?
Arundhati Roy: I don’t know. Honestly, we can all be very brave in the security of our lives but she has nobody to turn to and nowhere to go. I don’t know what I would have done in that situation.
Karan Thapar: She had no other choice, perhaps.
Arundhati Roy:She really is in a mess. I think it is a reflection on all of us.
Karan Thapar: Let’s come to the issues and the principle that underlie what I call the Taslima Nasreen story. To begin with, do you view freedom of speech as an absolute freedom, without any limitations or would you accept that there are certain specific constraints that we all have to accept?
Arundhati Roy: It is a complicated question and has been debated often. I personally, do view it as something that should have no caveats for this simple reason that in a place where there are so many contending beliefs, so many conflicting things, only the powerful will then decide what those caveats should be and those caveats will always be used by the powerful.
Karan Thapar: So you’re saying that given the fact that many people are vulnerable, freedom of speech for them should have no caveats, it should be absolute and that’s their only protection?
Arundhati Roy: I think so because if you look at the facts, you have outfits like VHP or the Bajrang Dal or the CD that the BJP produced during the UP elections, you see that they do what they want to do. The powerful always do what they want to do. It is the powerless and the vulnerable that need free speech.
Karan Thapar: Let’s explore the position that you’re taking – free speech is an absolute freedom and there should be no limitations on it. What about the view that by criticising Islam, Taslima has offended beliefs which for tens of millions of Indians, maybe for hundreds of millions are sacred? These are beliefs that underlie their dignity and their sense of identity. Should freedom of speech extend that far as to threaten people’s sense of themselves?
Arundhati Roy: I don’t believe that a writer like Taslima Nasreen can undermine the dignity of 10 million people. Who is she? She is not a scholar of Islam. She does not even claim that Islam is her subject. She might have said extremely stupid things about Islam. I have no problem with the quotations that I have heard from her book. Dwikhandito has not been translated into English, but let’s just assume that what she said was stupid and insulting to Islam. But you have to be prepared to be insulted by something that insignificant.
Karan Thapar: Let me quote to you some of the things that she said, not from Dwikhandito, but from an interview she gave to Anthony McIntyre, The Blanket in 2006. She says, “It’s not true that Islam is good for humanity. It’s not at all good. Islam completely denies human rights.” Elsewhere she talks about what she calls the venomous snake of Islam. To me that sounds as if it goes perhaps beyond a simple critique and into deliberate provocation.
Arundhati Roy: It sounds like Donald Rumsfeld or some Christian fundamentalist.
Karan Thapar: And you would rile at him so why not rile at her?
Arundhati Roy: Yeah, but I wouldn’t say ban him or kill him. I would say what a ridiculous person. What a ridiculous thing. How can you start reacting to everything like that? We have an infinite number of stupidities in the world. How can you start having your foundations rocked by every half-wit?
Karan Thapar: Let’s put it like this, does freedom of speech necessarily include the right to offend?
Arundhati Roy: Obviously it includes the right to offend otherwise it wouldn’t be the freedom of speech.
Karan Thapar: But is that an acceptable right in India?
Arundhati Roy: One person’s offence is another person’s freedom.
Karan Thapar: That maybe so in England and America where Western levels of education have allowed people to hear something offensive without reacting violently. In India, where the education levels are so disparate, where religion is so emotionally and passionately held, then if you have the freedom of speech merging into the right to offend, you end up provoking people often to violence, sometimes to death.
Arundhati Roy: First of all, I think we have to understand that education is a very loaded term because modernity is what is creating some of this kind of radical fundamentalism. And it’s not like traditional India anymore. In fact, if you look at any studies that have been done, actually communal riots have increased.
Karan Thapar: Aren’t you evading my point? You’re questioning what is meant by modernity and education but you and I know that the levels of sophistication in terms of being able to handle offence to your religion or criticism of your God vary hugely.
Arundhati Roy: What I am saying is that level of sophistication is far better in rural areas than urban areas.
Karan Thapar: You mean that rural Indians are better able to take criticism of Ram or Allah?
Arundhati Roy: If you look at the kind of riots in rural and urban areas, you’ll see that, historically.
Karan Thapar: Let me give you a specific example. If criticism of Islam by Taslima Nasreen leads to a situation where people come out and riot on the streets and there is a real genuine threat that innocent people could end up killed, what in that circumstance should be the government’s priority — to defend freedom of speech or prevent the loss of human lives?
Arundhati Roy: I don’t think that’s a choice. I think they have to protect freedom of speech and do everything that they can to prevent the loss of human life because here what is happening is that this kind of right to offend or ‘my sentiments have been hurt’ have become a business in democratic politics. Let’s say the political parties are engineering these situations which lead to a loss of life otherwise why should it be that Dwikhandito has been on the bestseller list for four years in West Bengal and nothing has happened and suddenly when there’s a massive march and a massive mobilisation against the CPM, the book suddenly reappears as insulting people’s faith?
Karan Thapar: So you’re saying mischief makers, manipulators whipped up sentiments four or five years after the book was published, to deliberately try and corner Taslima and to create an atmosphere that perhaps worked in some peculiar way to the advantage of the West Bengal government?
Arundhati Roy: Look at who’s benefiting from it. All the anger about Nandigram has now suddenly turned to us asking the same state that criminally killed people in Nandigram to now protect Taslima Nasreen.
Karan Thapar: Are you trying to suggest that perhaps that the West Bengal government was in some way involved in engineering this incident to deflect attention from Nandigram to Taslima?
Arundhati Roy: I would say that it would have had a lot to do with it and I am saying that it is so easy to do these things.
Karan Thapar: When the situation happened, it would have perhaps been judged as Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s dilemma. Perhaps as a poet and author he felt a need to defend or desire to protect the freedom of speech. As a Chief Minister, undoubtedly he knew that he had the duty to stop and prevent the loss of human life. If therefore, by putting pressure on Taslima Nasreen to leave the state for a while, he was able to save ten or fifteen lives that would have otherwise been lost on the streets of Calcutta, did he not do the right thing?
Arundhati Roy: No, I don’t think so. I think that’s the game that they would like us to play. ‘I did it in order to defend innocent lives.’ But I think there’s a deeper script in the understanding of what is known as the deep state. I think that this was a provocation that actually could have ended up creating a loss of lives because, I want to go back to it, why should it be that for four years that book was on the market and no lives were lost. Everything is in the timing.
Karan Thapar: So you really do believe, when you use phrases like the deep state that there was a conspiracy, even though we don’t fully understand it, to deflect attention from Nandigram to Taslima and to perhaps put her in a position where under pressure she was forced to leave and the government didn’t actually have to physically throw her out?
Arundhati Roy: I wouldn’t use the word conspiracy because that sounds like an intelligence operation and I don’t think that something like this needs to go as far as a conspiracy but I would certainly say that you need to examine the timing of this because that’s all we are ever left in India. No one ever gets to the bottom of anything. It is always like, who benefits, why did this happen now. I would like to know, why it happened now.
Karan Thapar: So you’re saying something that’s pretty fundamental. You’re saying that far more simple —as you did at the beginning— that the West Bengal government behaved unacceptably. Now you’re saying that there was almost Machiavellian intent, not a conspiracy but a Machiavellian intent behind the way they have played this game out?
Arundhati Roy: You are making it sound like I have a very deep insight.
Karan Thapar: No, you have a deep distrust and a huge suspicion.
Arundhati Roy: That’s true but I also know that this is the word on the street. You don’t need a rocket scientist to figure this out. It is something that we have seen happening over and over again. It is nothing new or amazing that’s happening.
Karan Thapar: Let’s turn to the Central Government’s response to Taslima Nasreen. Speaking in parliament on Wednesday, Pranab Mukherjee said that India would continue extend protection and sanctuary to Taslima Nasreen and then he added that it is also expected that guests will refrain from activities and expressions that may hurt the sentiments of our people. How do you respond to that?
Arundhati Roy: It is like being sentenced to good behaviour for the rest of your life which is a death sentence for a writer. If I had to live somewhere in those conditions, I would become a yoga instructor or something. I would give up writing because this is such a nasty thing to do. Here is a woman who is a Bengali writer. She can’t function outside. It’s a question of principle anyway. It is not about her, it is about us. What kind of society are we creating? Sure it’s tough to take the kind of things she said about Islam but she should be put in her place, intellectually and otherwise. Not like this where she will become a martyr to somebody else.
Karan Thapar: When Pranab Mukherjee says that it is expected that guests will refrain from activities and expressions that may hurt the sentiments of our people, is he in a very real sense giving Muslim fundamentalists a veto, both over what Taslima can write and say and therefore whether she can stay in Calcutta?
Arundhati Roy:Who does he mean when he says ‘our people’? Am I included for example? Because by saying this he certainly hurt my sentiments. You can’t really match people’s sentiments.
Karan Thapar: You are quite right. ‘Our people’ includes the whole range of people but I suspect that when he says our people he had those who we were protesting against Taslima on the streets of Calcutta in mind. Has he, therefore, given them a veto over what she can write and say, and therefore a veto over whether she can continue to live in Calcutta?
Arundhati Roy:It is not her. He has taken a veto over all of us. I mean I have also been told by the Supreme Court that you will behave yourself and you will write how we ask you to write. I will not. I hope that is extended to everybody here.
Karan Thapar: Given that Taslima’s case is not a unique case, you’ve suffered as you said at the hands of the Supreme Court, M F Hussain has suffered, art students in Baroda have suffered, even people doing cartoons and satires of Gandhi on YouTube have suffered, are we an intolerant people?
Arundhati Roy: We’re just messy people. Either we have the principle of free speech or you have caveats that will fill up this whole room and we will all just be silenced. There will be no art, there will be no music and there will be no cinema.
Karan Thapar: Are you moving in that direction where caveats to free speech are becoming so many that there is no freedom to be artistic?
Arundhati Roy: What I am saying here does not matter. I might believe in this but I know that tomorrow I have to deal with the thugs of the government, courts of the fundamentalist and everybody else. In order to live here you have to think that you are living in the midst of a gang war. So what I believe in or don’t believe in is only theoretical. However, how I practice is a separate matter. How I survive here is like surviving amongst thugs.
Karan Thapar: But then the corollary to what you’re saying is very important. You’re saying that artists, particularly those who see things differently, particularly those who are stretching out and wanting to be new and avant-garde, have to contend with the thugs, as you call them, with the government and the majority that’s trying to push them back.
Arundhati Roy: We do and we will. The thing is that I also don’t expect to be mollycoddled. I know that we have a fight on our hands and how do we survive in this gang war. The state is just another gang, as far as I am concerned.
Karan Thapar: So you’re saying that it is not easy to be different in India?
Arundhati Roy:Well, it’s challenging and we accept that challenge.
Karan Thapar: What’s your advice to Taslima Nasreen?
Arundhati Roy: I really don’t have any advice. I feel very bad for her because, let me say this, her’s is actually the tragedy of displacement. Once, she has been displaced from her home. She has no rights. She is a guest and she is being treated very badly. She is being humiliated.
Karan Thapar: Arundhati Roy, it was a pleasure talking to you on Devil’s Advocate.