The moment Kolkata changed

I have known Kolkata since my childhood, through children's books and stories my parents told me. I came to know it better during my youth, when I finished reading the works of as many superb Bengali writers and poets as I could gather, and also when I published the poems of many contemporary Bengali poets from the East as well as the West, while editing and publishing my poetry magazine since 1978. I remember, I visited Kolkata for the first time in the late 1980s and it was like a dream. I felt I knew and loved Kolkata better than many native Kolkatans.

In the early 1990s, I was the first writer from Bangladesh to receive West Bengal's most prestigious literary award, the Ananda Purashkar. Since then I have felt closely related to Kolkata. I got the opportunity to personally meet and come close to many authors and intellectuals whom I held in great regard. I was fortunate to receive their love, sympathy and solidarity. Annada Shankar Ray, Shib Narayan Ray, and Amlan Dutta were the true secular humanist intellectuals in Kolkata.

Something else happened in the early 1990s, too; I was forced to leave my beloved country and live in exile. I could not accept the idea that a Bengali writer had to leave Bengal simply because some ignorant, insane people did not like my writings, and therefore, I made several attempts to return to my country, or at least, to West Bengal, which shares a common history and traditions with my country. Sadly, each time, I failed miserably, which left me no alternative but to stay in Europe or America. But whenever India gave me permission to enter, I did not waste a moment; I rushed to Kolkata and met all my friends there: a homeless felt at home, for the first time, while living in exile. I tried a lot and eventually got a residence permit to reside in India. No more a constrained tourist, I was a resident in this great country, and I thought my travails were over. I received my second prestigious literary award for the first part of my memoir, My Girlhood (Amar Meyebela). But there was to be no respite for me. Just a few years thereafter, the West Bengal government banned Dwikhandito, the third part of my memoir. I personally knew Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, then the chief minister under the Left Front government. He was initially very friendly, and that is partly why it was so shocking to me that he banned my book, which was about my struggle against religious fanatics. Upon being asked, Bhattacharjee said as many as 25 intellectuals had asked him to ban my book.

But that was not the end of it. What I didn't realise in my shock and grief was that this information, involving a few authors in Bangladesh, was a secret and not supposed to come out. The late Sunil Gangopadhyay, an accomplished writer and close friend of Bhattacharjee, was the most displeased and excoriated me, saying that it was bad form to disclose things that happened behind closed doors between two people. Anyway, I didn't think the book was banned because I honestly told my life stories; some other reasons must have been given to justify banning the book. Then I found out it was banned on the charges of "hurting religious feelings of Muslims". Now, Muslims learnt that a book had been written by an author named Taslima Nasreen who hurt their religious feelings. That was when Kolkata began to change. When the government bans your book, the fundamentalists are encouraged and enthused; they are inspired to find you a soft target. They feel the government will side with them. The Islamic fundamentalists started issuing fatwas against me; they set prices on my head. It happened in Kolkata first, and other cities followed suit.

Yes, other cities must have been inspired by the Kolkata fatwa; I was physically attacked by fundamentalists in Hyderabad. The fundamentalists won't dare touch a writer if they are not convinced they would go scot-free. I was a lone exiled writer, not a member of any political party or large organisation; I became an easy target of the fanatics, as well as of the governments of two countries. The West Bengal government used me for diverting attention from the political fallout of their dastardly actions in Nandigram and Singur and then decided to throw me out of the state, eventually out of the country. Fanatics and fundamentalists, amongst the Muslim folks who took to the streets to protest against the killings of Muslims in Nandigram by the goons of the ruling party, had held up a piece of paper that said, "Taslima, go back". This demand by the fundamentalists to deport me was fulfilled with alacrity by the West Bengal government; the officials had been asking me to leave the state since August, and they were desperate to make it happen by the end of November. People's attention was diverted for a few days. Ultimately, however, the CPM could not win the election, but they did successfully send a signal to the fanatics that they managed to throw an "anti-Islam" apostate like me out of their precious state.

The CPM used me to secure Muslim votes; Muslim fanatics used me to demonstrate the strength of fundamentalist faith even in a supposedly secular country. Mamata Banerjee, the current CM of West Bengal, is inexplicably walking the same path as did the CPM.

She may oppose everything the CPM did, but she agreed on one idea that I must not be allowed into West Bengal. Because both political parties do the exact same thing, that is, appease the fanatics in order to retain their votes. Salman Rushdie was not allowed to reach West Bengal. The current government prevented his entry into Kolkata. The Left parties, currently in the opposition, do not object to this decision. How can they? Because what Banerjee is doing with me and Rushdie is not at all different from what they did with me just a little while ago.

I am thankful for the fact that India, as a country, has shown a degree of commendable religious tolerance in my case; I have at least been allowed to live here. Had it been Bangladesh or Pakistan, I would have most likely been dead by now. At the same time, I do believe that had my book not been banned in 2003, I would not have been thrown out of Kolkata in 2007; had I not been thrown out of Kolkata, Rushdie could have gone on to visit Kolkata, this wonderful city of intellectuals with a rich literary history. The sad fact of life is that once a government bows to the fanatics, the fanatics are immeasurably encouraged and emboldened and the trend is set.

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