NEW DELHI (Reuters) - An exiled Bangladeshi Muslim woman writer threatened by radical Islamists has become a victim of political ping-pong in India, bundled from one city to another in a controversy critics say has shamed the secular state.
Authorities rushed award-winning Taslima Nasreen, who criticises the use of religion as an oppressive force, from her home in Kolkata last week after protests against her by Muslim groups led to riots, forcing the army to be called in.
The riots appeared to be the culmination of years of simmering anger at Nasreen. Some radical Muslims hate Nasreen for saying Islam and other religions oppress women and Indian clerics had issued a “death warrant” against her in August.
After the riots, police moved her to a hotel in the western state of Rajasthan and then she was quickly sent to Delhi at the weekend under police protection.
No one seemed to want her.
“Democratic we may be, but liberal we most certainly are not,” wrote Karan Thapar in the Hindustan Times, criticising India for failing to defend freedom of expression enough.
The controversy highlights the delicate social faultlines of India, a nation born out of secular ideals 60 years ago but where communal politics still play a huge role.
Each move led to criticism that politicians were pandering to Muslim votes and were unwilling to take heat for defending her.
In an editorial on Monday, the Economic Times accused the government of being “afraid of offending the Islamist street”.
Critics rallied against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for being silent. Women’s groups have called on the government to grant citizenship to Nasreen, whose visa expires in February.
Nasreen fled Bangladesh for the first time in 1994 when a court said she had “deliberately and maliciously” hurt Muslims’ religious feelings with her Bengali-language novel “Lajja”, or “Shame”, which is about riots between Muslims and Hindus.
Several of her books have been banned in India and Bangladesh because they upset hard-line Muslims. The European Parliament awarded her the Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought in 1994.
While the Indian government said it would give Nasreen protection, The Times of India said officials had pressurised her to leave the country.
India’s main opposition Hindu nationalists, the Bharatiya Janata Party, criticised Singh for his silence and said they would force a parliamentary debate on the issue.
The communist leaders of West Bengal, Nasreen’s home in exile, also came under flak for statements that critics said showed their lukewarm feelings to Nasreen’s right to live in Kolkata.
Nasreen has made it clear she wants to return to the city.
“The craven deference to the sentiments of a mob led by Islamic fundamentalists that had come out on Kolkata’s streets last week should surprise no one,” The Indian Express said.
“The state government’s claim that it is committed to upholding democratic rights now rings hollow.”
Muslims are India’s biggest minority and account for about 12 percent of the population. In West Bengal, they represent nearly a third of voters and prop up the left, analysts said.
“If Taslima comes back, the left will definitely lose the Muslim votebank,” said Nurur Rehman Barkati, a leading cleric in West Bengal. “They will also risk more violence and the government has to choose between us and Taslima.”
India has come under fire for not protecting artists -- and it is not just about Muslims -- in the past as well.
M.F. Husain, one of India’s most famous painters, lives in exile after an often violent campaign by hard-line Hindus.
The Da Vinci Code was banned in some states. Officials have banned Fashion TV and AXN channels for showing too much flesh.
“Both issues (Husain and Nasreen) highlight how vulnerable secular parties feel in India,” said Zoya Hasan, a political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
“They fear if they take a strong position in favour of these people their opponents will accuse them of minority appeasement.”
Additional reporting by Bappa Majumdar in Kolkata; editing by Y.P. Rajesh and Sanjeev Miglani