There will be serious doubts about how Southasian we are if we cannot care for those who are suffering, and then rise to do something about it. In particular, there is a serious empathy deficit among the countries of our region today, where we seem unable to put ourselves in the sandals of someone across the frontier. We are made remote, of course, firstly by the borders that separate us, and the media that largely concentrates on news within those borders. But we also fail the test of rationality, each of us, because our vision is affected by ideological blinkers. Lastly, perhaps we keep quiet because, on many an occasion, we lack the courage of our convictions.
Take the case of Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin, charged with blasphemy and hounded from her own country in 1994 thereafter, thrashing about Scandinavia till finding refuge in Calcutta, from where she was expelled this past September, eventually travelling to Rajasthan and ending up in Delhi. Her portfolio of awards and fellowships are now all from the West. No Southasian (or very few, and none from the mainstream of any sector) dare welcome her, such is the hold of radical Islamist populism.
A country’s politicians and administrators are supposed to be pushed to take stands by its intelligentsia. But too many in the intellectual vanguard seem to take refuge in bogus reasoning. From Dhaka to Delhi and even Lahore, barring a few stalwart conscience-keepers, the prevailing attitude is largely one of, ‘We have enough problems of our own, without this self-promotional lady complicating our lives by deliberately inviting fatwas, beheading threats and exile.’ But, of course, if we are all truly children of the Enlightenment, wherever we may live today, then our duty is to stand up for the rights of those such as Taslima, regardless.
The intellectuals in each of our countries must rise above arguments without merit, and accept the indisputable fact that Taslima Nasrin is an author whose rights have been abused in her own country. And that, as such, any one of the other countries in the region must be pressured to provide asylum. For instance, the Nepali government must be asked by the Kathmandu intelligentsia to provide asylum for Taslima in the event that she is ultimately ousted from India.
Indeed, much of this comes down to the matter of whether supporting Taslima is to be considered a sign of disrespect of the Muslim community, whose sentiments she is said to have hurt through her writings. To begin with, having been born a Muslim, protecting the author should be seen as respecting a Muslim individual. I daresay that the majority of Muslims of Southasia, as well as Hindus and Buddhists, would want Taslima to be allowed to live a life of her own in her own neighbourhood of her own city – not to be hounded the world over by extreme conservatives, cowing everyone down with fear of retribution, verbal and physical. And consider Taslima the woman, born a Muslim: should not the sentiments of Muslim women, and women in general, be considered in all of this, regardless of whether some clerics have decided that she ‘deserves’ all kinds of dire visitations?
These are self-evident truths. But if there is an odd absence of speaking out for Taslima Nasrin due to an intellectual attitude laced with cowardice, then in the case of the Pakistani lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan, it is more a case of distance created by boundaries and nationalist media preoccupation. Aitzaz Ahsan reflects the best in the Southasian politician/activist: with a firm commitment towards pluralism based on a solid grounding in law, he remains one who dares to go against the perceived wisdom of the intelligentsia to actually join a political party – in his case, the Pakistan People’s Party of Benazir Bhutto.
As the Chair of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association, during 2007 Ahsan sided with the beleaguered Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and led the lawyers’ challenge to the autocrat Pervez Musharraf. For his troubles, he was detained and held incommunicado during the course of Pakistan’s state of emergency, before being re-arrested on 21 December at a Lahore restaurant after having been ‘provided’ a few hours of freedom over the Eid holidays. Ahsan has not even received support from his own party chief, Benazir Bhutto, keen on a pragmatic cohabitation with President Musharraf, who has just jettisoned his bardi. He should, today, be the talk of the town and the toast of all who believe in the people’s choice, all over Southasia. Today, there should be meetings in Kathmandu, Colombo, Calcutta, Dhaka and Madras, to applaud Ahsan for the issues and people he represents.
Aitzaz Ahsan is a hero for all who believe in pluralism, democracy and freedom of thought in Southasia. But sadly, Southasia does not seem even to recognise its heroes amongst us. As we go to press, Taslima Nasrin is under virtual house arrest in New Delhi, and Aitzaz Ahsan is under virtual house arrest in Lahore.
— Kanak Mani Dixit is the editor and publisher of this magazine.