Taslima Nasrin’s life was radically disrupted by the publication of her novel Lajja, which prompted waves of protest and unrest, and a campaign of violence and intimidation against her. The controversy arose because of the novel’s depiction of sectarian violence between Muslims and Hindus in Bangladesh, and particularly its graphic portrayal of the widespread slaughter of Hindus, following the the demolition of Babri Masjid in India. Lajja, which translates as Shame, is a literary protest against the rising tide of sectarian animosity and prejudice which was sweeping the region at the time, and is dedicated to ‘the people of the Indian subcontinent’.
The 1992 Babri Masjid demolition event in India was the singular, hollow, emotion-evoking event through which Hindu extremists came into power in India, ending the country’s secular image and reigniting the pre-partition animosity between Hindus and Muslims. In Nasreen’s novel this event is refracted through the lens of the Bangladeshi Dutta family, who each interpret the event in different ways. They are split along religious, social and economic lines and thus are a microcosm of Bangladeshi society as a whole, in which the issue of the demolition became a political minefield across which large segments of the population were polarised. The novel questions the allegiances of Bangladeshi people, whether they are more interested in the relative importance of their sectarian communities, or whether they want to preserve the communality of Bangladeshi society as a whole, and to preserve the image of their country as a tolerant and peaceful nation.
After the publication of Lajja, Taslima Nasreen earned the ire of Islamic fundamentalists in both her country and the subcontinent as a whole. Her book was banned in Bangladesh and a Fatwa (religious edict) was issued against her whilst the Bangladeshi Government charged her with defaming Islam.
She fled from Bangladesh, went to France, and sought political asylum. She refused to be cowed by the threats of violence, and in her own softly spoken way, became an icon for freedom of speech. Her bravery in the face of such widespread condemnation and intimidation made her a symbol for human rights across the region, and drew support from people across the world for her fight against fundamentalism.
Nasreen returned to the subcontinent in 2004, and attempted to settle in Kolkata, but was again attacked by fundamentalist parties, and was forced to flee and return to the West. She has however remained defiant and returned to India, but has been forced to settle in New Delhi as the West Bengal government would not grant her entry. She has continued to publish both novels and critical works, and to campaign against fundamentalism and for freedom of speech throughout the world.
By Amrita Dasgupta