[Reader-list] The Attack on Taslima Nasrin in Hyderabad I

Shuddhabrata Sengupta shuddha at sarai.net
Fri Aug 17 08:05:36 IST 2007

Dear all,

I would like to begin by thanking those of you (especially Arnab, 
Atreyee, Kshmendra, Anjalika) who responded to my post on the attack on 
Taslima Nasrin in Hyderabad, as well as Yogi Sikand for posting 
additional material on other responses (by C.M. Naim, and Firiz Bakht 
Ahmed)to the same attack.

I think some very important questions have been raised by Arnab and 
Atreyee, and some flippant and not so flippant charges have been made in 
some of the other correspondence. Forgive me for asking you to be 
patient as I respond to each of these in turn, not 'to clear the clouds' 
because I am not at all ready to play the role of the 'cloud clearer', 
and claim for myself, (contrary to Anjalika's assertion) no authority or 
expertise in the matters at hand. (and that seems to be part of the 
problem, as I hope to demonstrate immediately). I am not a card carrying 
member of the Rationalist Society of India, though I retain a certain 
admiration for the eccentric excesses of one Dr. Abraham Kovoor, so I 
cannot by any means admit to being the 'self declared' or otherwise 
'voice of reason'(as suggested by Kshmendra). Some of the things I 
believe in, such as a more or less absolute commitment to the idea of 
freedom of speech, have been deemed highly unreasonable by many 
reasonable people.It is not a description that I am willing to take 
exception to. Perhaps it is in fact more, 'unreasonable' and 'illiberal' 
even immoderate,in some ways, than it is 'reasonable'. Even the length 
of my responses tonight may well be called unreasonably parrhesic. So be 
it. And I am not going to try and stretch my politeness too thin.

In fact the nature of precisely what (especially what subject position) 
I can claim for myself in making the remarks I have made is the subject 
of some debate in this correspondece (and it has been raised by 
Kshmendra and by Anjalika) and I want to attend to that briefly before I 
turn towards attempting to respond to the substantive question about the 
relationship between censorship and editing that Arnab has raised.

So here goes, bear with me.I am going to deal first with Kshmendra and 
Anjalik' remarks, and hopefully try and grapple with some of the 
questions that Atreyee has raised (about limits) and then (in the next 
mail) I am going to turn to Arnab's questions.So this response is going 
to come in two parts, for the sake of reader friendliness. This is part one.

Kshmendra wrote: - (and this time I am putting quotation marks before 
and after each paragraph, just so that no one will make further 
complaints about the difficulty of closely reading quotation and 
attribution in a lengthy posting)

So first, the problem of who has the right to say things, which 
Kshmendra alludes to when he asks?

K:"How do you categorise yourself Shuddha? Which grouping do you belong 
to? Your answer would be very interesting...Who does your voice 
represent Shuddha? Are you the "self appointed" voice of reason while 
others are "venom" pourers? I see a lot of "venom" in your own words."

Venom, yes, maybe. Everyone is free to choose their poison. I choose 
mine with care.

First of all, let me state that I actually refuse to process myself in 
categorical terms. As of now, it is confirmed that I am a human being, 
that I am male, nearing forty, that I present an Indian passport when 
asked to identify myself by immigration officers and that I grew up in 
Delhi to Bengali migrant non practicing Hindu parents,  speaking, 
reading and writing Bangla, Hindustani and English (in that order). This 
much, sir and madam, is certain.

Now, whom do I represent? Actually, no one. I refuse on ethical, 
philosophical and political grounds to play the game of representing any 
'category' that can be read off the bare facts of gender, sexuality, 
race, ethnicity or nationality. This does not mean that these categories 
are not germane to my life, it means that I do not wish to speak on 
behalf, or be heard as speaking on behalf of the millions of others who 
share to greater or lesser degree, the accidental and not so accidental 
constellations of race, gender, nationality, language, ethnicity 
sexuality, ideology, religion (or lack thereof).

This does not mean that there is no such thing as discriminatory or 
prejudiced, or hateful speech and expression. Of course there is. People 
abuse and heckle black people, jews, muslims, hindus and queer folk all 
over the place. But the answer to that cannot be that we ban such 
expressions in the name of ALL hindus, jews, muslims or martians. How 
can we ever know what ALL hindus, jews, muslims or martians think. If 
something offends us, all that I personally think we can ethically do, 
is to argue against that which offends us. And each person can do so 
separately, or in cohort with others who feel the same way and say that 
they feel the same way. But the moment we say that something should be 
banned, or prevented from being heard or seen without interruption in 
the name of all the martians in the galaxy, or all the Bengali non 
practicing Hindus in West Delhi, or all the Muslims that can be fit into 
a halal meat shop, or all the Kashmiri Pandits in the whole wide world, 
then we enter into a tricky territory.

It means that whenever someone says to me that what they say represents 
the 'hurt' sentiments of the Indian Hindu, Kashmiri Muslim, Kashmiri 
Pandit, Dalit, Homosexual, Hetersexual, British Asian or Martian 
populations that are arrayed behind them in solid phalanges, I am 
tempted to ask, 'How they are so sure, and what gives the people who say 
these things to read the minds and interior experiences of others just 
because they happen to share a demographic bracket with them. How, in 
other words, does one statistical datum, which is what a Kashmiri Pandit 
or Hindu Bengali or Hyderabadi Muslim is, know the innermost soul of 
another stastical datum. I would be able to have a conversation with 
these worthy people if they said, that 'they' personally, as discrete, 
private individuals are hurt, have been damaged, or have suffered 
because of a particular speech act. But imagine, someone calling for 
Tagore, or Taslima Narsin, or Iqbal or Nagraj Comics being banned 
because 'x', individual has bad dreams whenever they read 'Teen Kanya'. 
All that one would have to say to such a person is that they should not 
expose themselves to contact with that which offends them so. Its like 
telling a person who has a gluten allergy that they should abstain from 
stuff that has wheat in it. Now instead, if a person with gluten allerdy 
decided that no one should eat rotis and modern bread, because they are 
human beings, and thus all beings who are human like them must be denied 
roti and modern bread, then we would have a situation similar to what 
happens when the representatives of the 'offended sentiments' of 
themselves and unnamed, unnumbered generalized others call for 
restrictions on speech. If you think you cannot stand to read Taslima 
Nasrin, go home, dont read her, or, hang around, read her, hear what she 
has to say, without interruption, and then criticize her or endorse her 
with as much intelligence and acuity that you can muster.

K: "Shuddha, if instead of an Indian citizen you see yourself as a 
Netizen please be aware that in the cyber space domain also you have 
only as much freedom as will be "allowed" to you whether by those who 
run the "servers" or those who arrange the Bits and Bytes."

The answer to this question is very simple. I do not think that there is 
any such thing as a 'Netizen'.The word 'Netizen' does not offer us an 
adequately realistic description of any person or entity, for any 
purposes of semantic clarity. It is only a colurful figure of speech. 
The net is neither above, nor below, nor beside physically lived life. 
There are people who live some parts of their lives 'online' (as 
workers, viewers, readers or practitioners) and there are people who do 
not. Just as as some people have to travel a lot on buses, trains, 
planes and cargo ships and others do not, but that does not mean that we 
talk about 'Passengers' as opposed to 'Citizens' as related, existing 
and valid political and conceptual categories. So all talk of 
'netizenship' is only so much cyber-hokum. Not too many people read 
science fiction, because if they did, then they would have it figured, 
that the word 'Cyberspace', which is spoken of loosely as if it were a 
volcanic island republic off the coast of California with enclave 
colonies in Bangalore and Gurgaon, was originally qualified by the 
author (William Gibson) who coined the term in the novel called 
'Neurmancer' as a 'consensual hallucination'. I see no reason as to why 
I should debate the nuances of a hallucination without having a few 
hallucinongens. Unless Kshmendra (namesake of the eleventh century 
Kashmiri poet and philosopher whom I really admire for the pornographic 
delicacy of 'Narma-Mala' his Sanskrit satyricon is mainlining a chemical 
substance that I would love to, but am currently unable to, get my hands 

As for how much "freedom" system administrators would, could or should 
allow - these are highly technical questions. But suffice to say, that I 
would expect a competent system administrator to protect the servers he 
or she administers from hack attacks that damages or corrupts the data 
under his or her custody, insulate his/her users from spam attacks by 
mailbots (robots). None of these by any stretch of imagination is a 
regulation on the freedom of speech. We have at present in India a bad 
set of laws which I think deliberately confuse the tecnical function of 
system administration with the subjective matter of content regulation, 
and the above

K:"What you might want to consider is that there is no such animal as 
"unbridled freedom". The foundations of "free" organised societies are 
"regulated freedoms". Freedom without any curbs on expression or action 
are "animalistic".

K:"I should correct myself; even in the non-human domains whether by 
genetic imprinting or instinct or some primordial intelligence, 
creatures at most time define the limits of "freedom" they allow each 
other within the species they belong to. Even the inter-species cosmos 
exists with it's own checks and balances."

Now this is where things really get serious. Freedom, regulation, 
humanity and animality.

Thank you Kshmendra for bringing up questions about the necessity of 
limits to freedom and the parameters of unfreedom that different kinds 
of people are willing to countenance. And I admire the acrobatic 
elegance of for your ambitious attempt at almost simultaneously 
maintaining as well as transcending an inter-species ontological barrier 
between human beings and other animals. I mean either humans are 
different from animals because they 'regulate' their freedoms, or they 
are not. We can't be both. I am quite happy to maintain that we are in 
fact animals, albeit given to our own species specific pathologies, but 
that is another debate altogether.

Let us for the moment consider the nature of 'regulated freedom'. The 
whole debate hinges around which freedoms need to be regulated and why. 
I would argue that the freedom to amass property to the extent that the 
commons are expropriated is something that I would regulate, while the 
freedom of expression is something that I would advocate the least 
regulation of. This difference arises from different evaluations of the 
consequences of the amassing of property and the freedom of expression. 
We can debate this separately if anyone so desires, but right now, I am 
mentioning this just to demonstrate that I am not someone who believes 
that 'anything goes' in all circumstances.

Even within the arena of 'freedom of expression' I could accept that 
there should be redress for erroneous or particular kinds of damaging 
speech. For instance, if someone erroneously, or with mala fide intent 
calls someone who is not a thief a thief, then the person who gets 
called a thief should (in my opinion) have recourse to relief and 
redress on the grounds that their reputations have been attacked and 
damaged. So, on this count, those who say that the individual called 
Sanjay Kak 'censors  voices critical of his on the blog that accompanies 
the film he has made could be (in my view rightly) criticized for the 
ordinary and banal act of defamation. All you need to do is to check for 
entries tagged 'abuse' under the responses to postings in the said blog 
to see what I mean. The blog is moderated, true, but that does not 
automatically mean that all critical content is blocked. This 
distinction between moderated, edited and censored is something that we 
will return to when I respond to Arnab's questions in my next posting.

But to return to the current argument - calling for relief from 
defamation is not tantamount to censorship. Similarly, if someone were 
to say on this forum, or elsewhere that 'X' individual should be killed, 
and then announce a reward for his execution, and furnish details of the 
targeted individual's address, whereabouts and movement, then I would 
certainly call for the removal of that message from the list, and from 
the archive of the list, because it would be an instance of a specific 
and verifiable threat to someone's life.

Or, if a private dispute, involving the private or professional (but not 
public) affairs, were to blow up on this list, I would advocate that at 
least an appeal be made for that exchange to be carried on (if at all it 
has to, off the list) for the sake of the protection of the right to 
privacy of the concerned individuals.

Similarly, if someone were to post photographic representations of 
children or animals in a pornographic form on any web forum or any other 
platform, I would call for its censorship, not because it is 
pornographic but because its implies sexual actions with implicitly 
unverifiable consent. Here, i would maintain that a drawn or written (as 
opposed to photographic) representation would not qualify in my view for 
censorship, though I would strongly criticse such a representation. 
Similarly, I would personally call for the censorship of the snuff 
videos of acts of beheading that jihadist groups in Iraq and elsewhere 
in the world are so fond of displaying on internet forums, or the 
photographic representations of hangings and public executions that the 
fascist and totalitarian regimes in Iran and China sometimes put out 
Not because I have a problem with the representation of violence per se, 
but because in these cases the act of representation itself is a 
violation of the liberty of those who are being killed. No one has asked 
them (the executed) for their consent to have their beheading or hanging 
put on public display.

In each of these cases, i would call for the regulation of speech and 
expression because I believe that in each of these cases there is a 
direct harm to the life, or health, or liberty. or personal well being 
of a person or persons that can be solely attributed to the relevant 
speech act. And these are the only forms of speech or expression that I 
would be willing to endorse the censorship of.

I do not believe that what Taslima Nasrin has written or said  meet 
these criteria and therefore I disagree with the call for censorship of 
her writing. This does not mean I either agree with, or admire what she 
writes. Nor does it mean that I disagree with, or abjure what she 
writes. My opinion and what I think about the quality of her writing is 
actually irrelevant.

Kshmendra has tried to argue that my drawing an analogy between the 
attempts by some self declared representatives of the Kashmiri Pandit 
community to obstruct screenings of Jashn-e-Azadi and the verbal threats 
to kill Taslima Nasrin by the leadership of the MIM in Hyderabad is 
unsound. He goes further to say that if, by saying that loud verbal 
interruption and obstruction is as threatening as the threat to kill, I 
take critical speech acts per so to be violent, why do I object to 
people objecting to the violence that some people (here some Muslims) 
read into Taslima Nasrin's writing.

Lets get this straight. I do not object to anyone criticising any film 
at all. I object to people interrupting a screening. Interrupting a 
screening by loud slogans deprives not just the filmmaker from showing 
his film, it also deprives the audience from watching it, while a 
screening is in progress. This happenned when some representatives of 
Kashmiri Pandits interrupted a screening that was happenning in Delhi. 
Incidentally, and to set the record straight, I can state that the same 
thing happened when some representatives of some Kashmir Muslims also 
heckled and interrupted the screening in Srinagar. For opposite but 
similar reasons (these representatives of the Kashmiri Pandits took 
umbrage at the presence of Yasin Malik in the film, while the 
representatives of Kashmiri Muslims took offence at the presence of a 
gentleman called Pervez Imroze in the film). In both cases, I witnessed 
the filmmaker appeal to the sloganeers (in the Srinagar screening they 
also distributed pamphlets against the film - no doubt they would have 
seen the filmmaker as a divisive Indian agent) to let the screenings not 
be interrupted, but to voice whatever points they had to make during 
discussion in a manner that did not intimidate others.

IN both these instances, what the represntatives of those who claimed 
were the people 'injured' by the film, effectively wanted the film to be 
stopped. They did not criticize the film with arguments, they attacked 
the filmmaker and his intentions. In a similar manner, when the MIM 
attacks Taslima Nasrin, they want her to stop speaking, and want to 
prevent other people from reading her, or from listening to her. That is 
what makes these actions of the same order, albeit different in degree.

Censorship occurs when a work of art or literature or any expression is 
prevented from being accessed in any manner. The MIM and the 
representatives of the Kashmiri Pandit community (note, that I never say 
'Kashmiri Pandits'because I cannot vouch for what every Kashmiri Pandit 
thinks or feels) have both arrogated to themselves the position and the 
function of the censor, and that is why I am constrained to point out 
the remarkably parallel nature of their actions.

Taslima Nasrin has not from what I can gather, censored anyone, nor has 
she prevented anyone from speaking. So if her work represents a textual 
or verbal violence, then it is one of a totally different order. And so, 
in this case, it would be completely inappropriate to say that the 
offender and the offendee are both culpable for the same kind of 
action.I hope I have made myself adequately clear.

Morover, Taslima Narsin's remarks on religion or any religious personage 
cannot be said to come under the class of speech acts that damage or 
harm the life, health or private well being of any specific person or 
persons. If someone decides to start a riot because of her book, then 
the person who should be prosecuted is not the writer, but the person 
who starts the riot.

Therefore I do not believe that her speech or expression needs 
regulation. There are specific instances in some of her books where she 
has named people whom she claims she has had sexual relationships with. 
If someone takes offense on the grounds that they believe that those 
facts are distorted or untrue, then the proper recourse that such people 
can take is to challenge the book and the author (if the work is a work 
of non fiction) in a court under the relevant laws that apply to 
defamation. To do so is not to censor a book, it is to correct a 
deliberate distortion of matters that can be found to be either true or 

So, this is just to clarify that I actually apply very strict and rigid 
normative criteria to what kinds of speech and expression I would agree 
to have regulated.

The regulation of any other form of speech, in my opinion, leads to 
decreased opportunities for the expression of difference, which I value, 
because I think that it is only when we are faced with difference that 
we are in a position to determine the best or most suitable choices 
available to us. If a person does not have the opportunity to consider 
whether or not a personage valued in a given religious tradition, should 
indeed be their exemplar, or that a particular religious or political 
belief is best for them, then their belief or unbelief stands 
automatically devalued. A sincere believer and a robust sceptic would 
both welcome tests to their faith or their doubt in the form of the 
representations that he or she would condsider 'offensive'. They would 
then know why they disagreed. And without a sense of what one disagrees 
with, we cannot arrive at any informed understanding of what we agreee

So, when the kind of people who call for fatwas on a Rushdie or a 
Taslima or attack an art student in Baroda say they do so on the grounds 
of their 'faith', I personally find it laughable, because they only 
demonstrate how weak and how shallow their 'faith' is. Frankly, the 
person of faith who interests me is the person who can actually grapple 
with, and live with  (and therefore argue with) things that are deeply 
antithetical and offensive to them. I, who am not blessed with faith, 
would happily spend years with such people.

  " The subject to dwell upon would be whether the "freedoms" are 
allowed with a bias favouring some and prejudicial to others. That is 
not being discussed here."

If by 'here' you mean the list, then I take strong exception to that 
view. There is no reason not to discuss anything at all. Any opinion or 
point of view can be discussed, and has been vigorously debated on this 
list. If (by way of suggestive example) you are alluding to the fact 
that there are many people on this list who vocalize strong 
disagreements with an Indian nationalist position on Kashmir or on 
related issues, you need also to remember that no one has as of now 
called for the removal of those that proclaim their loyalty to the 
'Kashmiri Pandit' cause. I can recall instances on this list when 
Vedavati's right to express what I think is her rabid anti Muslim 
rhetoric has been publicly defended, even by those (myself included) who 
strongly disagree with her views. In fact, I recall the fact that a 
person who made ad-hominem and highly personalized remarks about her was 
reprimanded quite severely on this list for attacking the messenger and 
not the message. The fact that this is an unmoderated list means that 
anyone can say anything,but that there are consequences, which may 
amount to people being shown up for having shallow and flawed arguments 
by their correspondents. This goes to show that the freedom of speech 
can actually have far more severe consequences on the messenger of poor 
quality speech. Freedom of speech automatically brings with it more 
severe and pointed possibilities of criticism. Censored speech has 
recourse to the glamour of persecution, free speech can claim no such 

Finally, let me turn to what Anjalika said in response to Kshmendra.

A:"I really do believe that it is a rhetoric designed to appeal to a 
certain Western art world/ new media  mileu that enjoy hearing the take 
of self defined translatable experts representative of South Asia - who 
always quite tediously use a libertarian discourse that presents India 
as a space that is coherently monitored by the 'police' -  wow ...the 
thought police !!! . This tactic presents India as a place in need of 
liberating, in need of emancipation. But by whom pray is this to be done 
... and to what ends, and whom does all this liberating benefit? It 
always benefits someone right - be it the porn guru, the Hindu Fundo or 
the weapons dealer."

Now, nowhere, in any thing that I have ever written on this matter do I 
find is present an appeal (rhetorically or otherwise) to some powerful 
'western' entities in the art world/new media milieu to intervene, 
liberate or emancipate, 'India'. In fact, if anyone even remotely 
familiar with the current excess of representation of the conceptually 
flawed category of 'Indian Art' in the art world would know, the only 
way to play that game (the 'Indian Art' game) successfully is to also 
play the 'India Shining' game - the 'India turning next digital 
superpower, like an overgrown Finland' kind of game. To actually talk 
about the fact that things are not always rosy in what gets framed as 
contemporary 'India', is currently very, very uncool and unkosher. 
India, 'so sexy at sixty', who would want to spoil that game in the 
current cultural milieu?I am actually both shocked and amused at the 
imaginative leap that Anjalika's assertion embodies.

I am further amused to realize that she, as a British artist should 
assume that any criticism that any person who lives and works in India 
should make of the realities that have an immediate bearing on the 
climate of expression that they inhabit is an automatic appeal to the 
'West' to intervene. I think if nothing else, this statement 
demonstrates the highly exaggerated sense of self-importance that some 
people who inhabit 'western' spaces begin to have, because of the 
exasperated exhaustion that they affect in assuming that the addressee 
of all communication that comes from the so called 'third world' is them 

I am really sorry Anjali to have burdened you with the impression that I 
was actually asking you, an able bodied representative of the Western 
art world, to come and make things nice for me. Please don't bother 
yourself. It will tire you out, exhaust you and really make life 
unpleasant for you. Instead, I recommend that you do something about the 
general banality of British cultural life, caught as it is between Tory 
denial, New Labour spin and multi-cultural masala. If it helps matters, 
we can always export a few south asian censorious types to liven things 
up. You can take your pick, would you like Hindus, Muslims, Christians, 
Secularists, Leftists or any other variety of censors? They would do a 
very good job in complementing the home grown spin doctors who already 
dominate the semantic and cultural landscape of the United Kingdom. I 
also do hope you can keep them in your midst forever. Please do make 
haste and help with their immigration.

Let me end this post by addressing Anjalika's 'who benefits' question 
around - and assume that it is in fact a serious 'qui bono' question 
with regard to the freedom of speech. She said -

"whom does all this liberating benefit? It always benefits someone right 
- be it the porn guru, the Hindu Fundo or the weapons dealer."

Right, if liberation means greater freedom of speech, then it does 
benefit the porn guru, the Hindu Fundo and the weapons dealer. But we 
also have to ask who else it benefits? I am not too familiar with porn 
gurus, but I do know that a lot of Hindu Fundos and weapons dealers are 
powerful people. When considering any act of speech or silence we have 
to ask, how much power does the speaker hold while they are speaking (or 
refusing to speak).And yes, powerful people use the liberty that they 
have to extend their power.  Naturally, the freedom of powerful people 
to speak as they wish, or not speak as they wish extends and amplifies 
their power. Sometimes they will amplify their power to the extent that 
they ensure that no one else gets a hearing.

But freedom of speech has another corollary consequence. Which we can 
understand better if we try and see the consequences of its negation. In 
the absence of conditions that enable, support or guarantee freedom of 
expression, those who have no power have no possibility at all to make 
themselves heard. So given that those who are affected by the actions of 
Hindu fundos and weapons dealers are usually less powerful than them, 
the absence of freedom of speech effectively ensures that the opposition 
to Hindu fundos and weapons dealers are automatically consigned to silence.

The only way in which Hindu fundos and weapons dealers and other 
powerful people can be challenged is if the opposition to them is able 
to communicate its point of view, (or to refuse to disclose itself - 
which I call the freedom of silence) and consequently, perhaps be able 
to protect itself and mobilize a critical mass  to an extent that 
effectively negates the power of the powerful.

So, yes, freedom of speech (and of silence) benefits the powerful.
But the absence of the freedom of speech and silence benefits the 
powerful absolutely, because only the presence of the freedom of speech 
(and silence)enables those less powerful to mobilize effectively against 
the more powerful. Only the presence of freedom of speech (and silence) 
offers the possibility that those who are not powerful might just be 
able to scrape together the conditions of getting their voices heard.

There is a simple enough mathematics to this, for those who want to work 
it out, and if you are interested, please refer to a very modest piece 
of work by the Raqs Media Collective - called - 'The Mathematics of 
Anacoustic Reason' that actually refers to the calibrated dynamics of 
power, speech and silence . Google, and ye shall find.

thanks, and apologies if I have offended anyone else's sentiments in 



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