Writers across the world are being persecuted, whipped, tortured, incarcerated and exiled.– Taslima Nasreen in Exile: A Memoir. I am a refugee, too, forced to live far away from my own country. As my father says, we might be the world’s best-treated refugees, in a nice house with everything we need, but we still yearn for our homeland.
Malala Yousafzai in I am Malala.
The South Asian region, particularly the Indian subcontinent, has been a target of terror especially in the past sixseven decades or so. From the exodus of Dalai Lama of Tibet, the issue of fatwa against the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, the assault on Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan’s Swat valley, the killings of Pandits in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir to the more recent recurrent brutal killings of a writer like Malleshappa M Kalburgi in Karnataka and bloggers in Bangladesh – the list of victims is an endless one.
However, few persistent queries seem to flummox readers: what prompts terrorists of a particular ideology or politicians of a particular state to target a creative individual in society? In this context, it is also imperative to ponder what threats individual writers pose to terrorist or political ideologies in specific cultures of South Asia? An exploration of the memoirs and writings of some of these displaced authors testifies to their resilience.
Noted peace activist Dalai Lama who has been living in India for decades, was coerced into political exile following the oppressive subjugation and invasion of a neighbouring state. Speaking of his own experience of exile, the Dalai Lama observes in his autobiographical memoir Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama of Tibet: “I fled Tibet on 31 March 1959. Since then I have lived in exile in India. During the period 1949-50, the People’s Republic of China sent an army to invade my country.
For almost a decade I remained as political as well as spiritual leader of my people and tried to re-establish peaceful relations between our two nations. But the task proved impossible. I came to the unhappy conclusion that I could serve my people better from outside.” The Dalai Lama’s reminiscences about homeland are filled with a deep sense of nostalgia. Nostalgia in itself perhaps imparts a healing dimension to the scar-ridden troubled mind of the displaced soul.
As Dalai Lama observes in his memoir: “When I look back to the time when Tibet was still a free country, I realise that those were the best years of my life.” Writing in exile, the Dalai Lama felt convinced that he could serve his people effectively from a distance. His untiring efforts bore fruit, as he narrates in the chapter ‘A Wolf in Monk’s Robes’ of his memoir: “the end of the 1960s coincided with the first signs that my dream of resettling all 100,000 Tibetan exiles in India, Nepal and Bhutan could be achieved.”
He describes the developments in Tibet post Chinese occupation as ‘very depressing’ as he looked forward to the coming years ‘with a sense of real and well-founded optimism.’ While political terror perpetrated by a neighbouring state contributed to Dalai Lama’s exodus, for a writer like Taslima Nasreen terror was unleashed by radical fundamentalists in her own country. Hailing from a middle-class Muslim family in Mymensingh (in the northern part of Bangladesh), Taslima Nasreen was brought up on liberal education by her parents.
Being a doctor, she toiled away among the penury-stricken masses of Bangladesh, simultaneously writing extensively for various periodicals. She continued her writing even after moving to practise in public hospitals in Dhaka, the capital. Emerging as a successful author, she however, caught the attention of the western media when Islamist fundamentalists in Bangladesh issued a fatwa against her in 1993, on charges of blasphemy. With the generous support of Western governments, Taslima managed to survive by living in rotatory exile in countries like Sweden, Germany, the United States and France.
Two of her books Lajja or Shame and Amar Meyebela or My Girlhood (both of which are autobiographical) have been banned in Bangladesh. Narrating problems she faced with the fundamentalists she asserted: “I started writing a newspaper column in 1989 based on my experiences as a doctor and on my observation generally about the plight of women and their oppression in the male-dominated society of Bangladesh. I defended the rights of women against religion and patriarchy, which I see as the causes of women’s suffering… Many of my countrymen, fundamentalist Muslims and ordinary religious Bengalis alike, did not agree with what I wrote, and started to hate me. The fundamentalists organized demonstrations and processions against me from 1990 on; they attacked and sacked the newspaper office where I used to write my columns, they burnt my books in public, and finally they filed a case against me in the courts.”
As a writer confronting the belligerent radical opposing forces of her country, she displayed immense fortitude against all odds. As a single woman, she singlehandedly confronted radical forces, paying no heed to their threats and fatwas. The spate of attacks multiplied with the appearance of her fourth novel Lajja in February 1993. The novel almost served as a documentary, chronicling the plight of the Hindu minority community living in Bangladesh in the aftermath of the destruction of the Babari Masjid in Ayodhya on 6 December 1992. As she observed in her interview: “It is a documentary novel about the precarious existence of the Hindu minority in Bangladesh especially in the aftermath of the destruction of the Babri Mosque… I was writing about the oppression of the Hindus by the Muslim majority in the name of religion.”
In 1994, Muslim fundamentalists issued fatwas declaring her an apostate. They demanded her execution and called for banning of all her books. Cases were also filed against her editors and publishers. The charged atmosphere in her country ultimately led the government to file a case against her. However, under pressure from Western countries and several human rights groups, Bangladesh gave consent to grant her bail if she left the country. Taslima managed to leave her homeland and get asylum in Sweden. But ever since she has been a target of attacks from fundamentalists.
In Poems from a Safe House, Taslima aptly sums up her position in the twenty third lyric: “I was human; I had a family, and dreams. I too had my terrace garden, my markets, my afternoon theatres, and friends’ houses. Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, because of a handful of people, I became a forbidden object.” However, as a writer and a creative thinker Taslima has not been the sole target of radical terrorism in Bangladesh in the recent past. A spate of killings of Bangladeshi bloggers by Islamic extremists has recurrently captured the headlines in the past few years or so, most notable among them being Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi American blogger and an engineer.
Prior to the attack, Roy, an outrageous proponent of secularism and free thought, had declared on social media: “I have profound interest in freethinking, scepticism, philosophy, scientific thoughts and human rights of people”. In 2015 alone, five secular bloggers were murdered in separate attacks in Bangladesh. Each of these incidents sparked outrage and anguish throughout the world, but the violence continued. The attacks on writers and free thinkers in Bangladesh have been matched by other countries of the sub-continent. Yet of all these activists and free thinkers, one voice that stands out is that of Malala Yousafzai – the Pakistani child activist espousing the cause of female education and the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace prize.
Hailing from Mingora, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan, she too wrote a blog under a pseudonym for BBC Urdu exploring her life during the tenure of Taliban occupation of the Swat. It was on 9 October 2012 that Malala became a direct target of terror, when she was shot at by Taliban gunmen. She was flown in an air ambulance provided by the UAE to the UK, where she recovered at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. Post her recovery, she played a key role in the establishment of peace and child rights. In her autobiographical memoir I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban, Malala narrates the chilling circumstances in which she was shot at – the heavy price she had to pay for pursuing education against all odds, defying the recurrent threats of the Taliban.
Today Malala is a global ambassador of peace. As a messenger of peace, she fulfils her commitments, actively asserting the right to education of the girl child throughout the world. What is also remarkable is her vindication of the right of education for the girl child on religious lines: “Today we all know education is our basic right. Not just in the West; Islam too had given us this right. Islam says every girl and every boy should go to school.” But at the end one wonders what threat exactly does an individual writer or creative thinker pose to be a terrorist target? Inevitably, it is the clash of ideologies that paves the way for such showdowns.
Unfortunately, the radical reactionaries or the fascist polities believe that by silencing an individual, independent creative voice their cause would be furthered. On the contrary, threats, fatwas, attacks, intimidation and displacement seem to strengthen the cause of the writer or the activist resisting in exile. In spite of repeated threats and recurrent violent attacks on their lives, these writers have been relentlessly obdurate in offering resistance to the parochial cause of the polities and religious fundamentalists.
(The writer is currently the Dean of Arts, St Xavier’s College, Kolkata)