Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Taslima Nasreen: The fine line between Private and Public

Something never to hazard is judging a book by its cover, or forming an opinion based on reviews of the same. However in the case of Taslima Nasreen's latest offering "Caw", Bangladeshis faced a virtual blitzkrieg of deft excerpts of the books being blazed across cover stories in front pages of tabloids and serious newspapers. Reaction ranged from angst to the angry. In any event, most people commenting on "Caw" have actually read half or quarter baked newspapers accounts, analysis or opinions than the book itself, and by look of things a storm most unwarranted has hit the sanctified sanctum of Bangladesh's cultural literati, the repercussion's and reverberation to be felt, for a very long time to come.

Importantly a debate on sex and sexuality and what ideally constitutes morality, is hopefully the net gain if at all, in the process. It is yet left to be seen if the parochial Bangladeshi middle class, uncomfortably shuffling between outmoded terms such as `modernity' and `progress' will garner the stamina or `vitality' to carry this debate forward, to effect any imminent or meaningful change in our mindset.

Abjectly "Caw" is about what Taslima does best: a bruising 'tell all' and it is not as if, this is the first time she has done it. Her previous offerings have been titillating tales of her apparently insatiable sexual `appetite'. It wont therefore be an unfair assessment to say that being `long and hard' at it, she has reached a nirvanical point in her career where terms like `slut' or `whore' lashed most rudely across her, are terms she has crossed the threshold of worry, and has probably learnt not to take too seriously at heart. No crusading warrior can or should get bogged down by terms that are meant only to shift the focus, but what is surprising is the Kolkata `duh-duh's who championed Taslima all along are the ones foul mouthing her the most today. Some fall, but a perfectly desirable fall from favor!

A self proclaimed `Wasted Women', where she probably went wrong in "Caw", is a failure to realize that not many in Bangladesh's so-called egalitarian `civil society', the ones mercilessly brutalized this time around i.e. writers, thinkers, poets, pressmen, politicians and other good-for-nothings et al, while privately in agreement with her rights to free speech and actions as to `do' whatever she thinks fit to do with her body, are unwilling to make that fine transition of a PUBLIC stand to the whole gamut of sex and sexuality.

The pain, humiliation, hurt and feelings of betrayals, and the incessant hee-haw start rights here!

In all honesty, and in some perverse way Bangladesh's meandering journey into the realms of a `Global Thought Process' to charge the imagination of the most enlightened of our times have had sordid pitfalls. "Caw"' is unprecedented, because it goes beyond what may be termed bad precedence. It is a glove-off, knuckles bared, hell hath no fury than a women scorned, demolition derby. It signals a wake-up call, that a new generation of men and women will provoke and whiplash society, ask uneasy questions, and will gore no-holds-barred, till such time we have gotten rid of a hypocritical and conceited bunch of shamans who masquerade as `image leaders, role models' while shamelessly beguiling themselves honorific of `conscience of the nation', `do-all-ers and know–all-ers', and the buck simply doesn't stop there.

It permeates civility when gray haired monoliths churn out their fossilized ejaculations in pages after boring pages of newspaper columns, lay siege to all TV channels, and hob-nob with the political hierarchy of every political party in and out of power in Bangladesh's destiny, without realizing that they are only contributing to collective societal hatred of their known, yet unaccounted for impropriety. The grapevine in a sexually repressed republic is often cause for more undoing than do die-hard facts: a sore case of the bad breath in that – the one having it is usually the last to know that he/she has it!

Winds of change blowing far too fast have a singular message - Iconoclasm is the new religion. This irksome routine of playing God at the cost of a hostaged citizenry obliged to mindlessly `wah-wah' the select has crippled truly radical aspirations of the society at large. A society whose unheard and deliberately suppressed pulses wish to demolish the many `sanctioned pretensions' of the so-called powerful, at the first given opportunity. If Taslima is an opportunist, she can rightfully claim credits for seizing an opportunity at age 40 (when some get naughty), a `mid-life' crisis sort of, to take up once for all, many unspoken matters concerning `reproductive organs' sitting pretty in the mid-sections of the Bangladeshi male and female species! For the physician Taslima, it ought not to be any other way.

So there we are – in the do we DO IT or DON'T we flux?

The average Bangladeshi `bhodroloke' will have one ejected from any company solicited, when the slightest hint dropped is a desire to discuss matters of the `below the belt' category, or SEX.

For the Bangladeshi male however, he may wishfully have a coterie of `like minded' chums, rollicking in laughter when the term AIDS for easier understanding means, `Ass infected don't screw', to tongue in cheek inquiries of the Maal or the `new game in town' – and how to make a bee-line to her cell-phone, with opportunities for a `rollicking romp' at a friends apartment in a desolate afternoon. As Taslima will tell you, in selection of a makeshift `love-nest', men have barged in on her privacy to use her bed, and by that, it was not as if, it was always her they wanted to `use'!

For females indulging in such `nongramee' (read filth) is only to have aspersion cast of being `cheap' or `horny', as also the hazardous possibilities of otherwise docile males, to turn into predatorial hyena heat, and in the first opportunity, go for a `plunge', when on the advantageous flip side it becomes difficult to determine the term consensual sex, and really if there is as such a `guilty party' in the two? Date rapes – Bangladeshis haven't even heard about it. The discussion of sex between the male and female species in Bangladesh by the way is taboo, and you certainly don't need a mullah to enforce orders. Our `enlightened' lots (bidhogdojohn's) wield the same powerful yet identical `sword' of authority!

In all probability the above paragraph is drawing a brush far too wide, because what we have here is a common parameter of the man-women relationship in any society, especially ones as sexually repressed as Bangladesh.

To our utter dismay are terms like `progressive' or `enlightened' been played about with wanton recklessness when the issue in question is religion, specially Islam. It was after all fair, to lash out at myopic mullahs when they viewed Taslima's opinion with contempt, when her attack was against the religion she was born into, and caused her ultimate exile from Bangladesh in the nineties. Tragically none were seen to be more vocal in support of her alleged `blasphemy' than the ones Taslima has set to socially murder in "Caw".

After all it was the proper thing to do, everybody has a right to free speech, but then the vicious cycle of `what goes around – comes around' also has this uncanny tendency to hit back mercilessly when it is least desired. It was for instance, perfectly all right for our `progressive literati' to support Taslima's right to free speech and expressions, when debates revolved around the sexual life of Muhammad (PBUH) and have the mullahs screaming for her blood.

What more can we possibly expect from such moron-ized `fun-da-mentalist' i.e. those foolish and `intolerant' enough to scream themselves hoarse about a `mere Prophet' who died some 1400 years back, and is physically unable to defend his reputation or the lack of it, or take Taslima to a Court of Law for slander – how illogical? Yet on the flip side the mentality is: it is NOT perfectly all right to slander a `renowned poet' happily alive and able to defend himself, without an injunction being served on the sale of "Caw", with pains of a lawsuit of nearly 100 million Takas hanging like a chopper over the publishers and publics collective head – very logical? Spoilt sport and party poopers those.

The illogic's of the logic here is it really boils down to the question of who will judge our `intellectual' judges?

In some roundabout way, the public at large has been reduced to accepting whatever the `great' amongst us decide is the RIGHT thing. The media remains entrapped within the trivialities of boon the `great' endorse: commercial contracts, soap-script manufacture, NGO affiliations and commissioned works – and importantly to be savaged by their repetitive `presence' in all matters of our lives, as if they are the end all and know all, of our very existence. The rut that has set in needs a thorough overhaul – a regular dry and wet-wash of the "Caw" variety and possibly even a purge is the demand of the hour. Mere expiation will not help for our `great' have no clue to the existence of the word retirement; neither do they have the urge to buy new eyeglasses to be able to see either the wide OPEN door, or read the sign EXIT marked clearly on top of it!

In breaching the fine line between the private and the public, Taslima unfortunately capitulated to the male status quo. Her `feminism' as such is a product of the male chauvinist establishment. Detailing sexual libidos of the male as much as her own, demonstrates an eagerness to play to the gallery, when a more mature, reasonable and realistic approach would have been worthwhile on her take on sexuality in Bangladesh. A take that would have had academic consistency and weathered the tides of time, instead of being destined to a long list of cheap thrillers.

The US University that has Taslima as a willing student will have nothing to offer a free world, other than an unreliable and peripatetic whistle-blower. A Joan Collins in the US did not change the perspective of sexuality, it degenerated to the concept of `selling sex' to a point, where people started wondering if the next 'great' offer would be for her to bottle and sell her own excrement. Taslima clearly seems to have exhausted her stock of what may titillate readers in the future, and even if it does, the more important aspects of meaningful and responsible discussion on sexuality will have been lost.

Not to be outdone, a news story in a Dhaka tabloid suggest a poet spared the murderous ignominy in "Caw" is so upset about this `oversight' that he has all set detailing into hard words his many sexual exploits with Taslima. As if that is not enough, he claims to have images of Taslima in the flesh, captured in candid camera!

Acceptability of poor taste is set to be the next big Bangladesh middle-class haute couture.

Having said that, in matters of drawing the fine line between what is private as opposed to public, Taslima seems to have gone dangerously overboard. In blasting those with whom she certainly enjoyed her sexual tryst and in naming them while she might have committed a `great service to society,' her insinuations of a poet having an affair with his youngish sister-in-law (which if true, is non of her business in the first place), is devised to wreck havoc and cause immense and irreversible mental agony. Taslima has every right to punish whoever she feels needs punishing, but the consequence of it all on women in our society less well known that her, and the vulnerable children they may have, should have been fathomed with some degree of respect and compassion. Suicides more often than not, is an alternative choice for those humiliated.

Finally the greatest misconception about Taslima is this impression of her being `courageous'.

Courage becomes a misnomer when people have to resort to fleeing than face up to their actions and deed. It is an insult to the imagination of those that are standing their firm ground and fighting fundamentalism or sexuality in Bangladesh, to have somebody create a furor and then disappear. The word agent provocateur is never a term of endearment or respect.

For all practical purpose Taslima should have the temerity to come to Bangladesh, face a Court of Law that jailed her and fight her way out or about, as much as she owes it to the poet that sued her this time around and the people of Bangladesh a clear explanation of what really transpired in a motel room in Rangamati – and to what extent did the 'alleged tryst' really go, or was she gripped by paranoia of her own making, or was she plain LYING?

Unwillingness to answer any of the above in a Court of Law is indication of blackmail most foul.

End of the day; disrespect for the law is not an enshrined credo in the laws of any state. Freedom of expression does not preclude the absence of civility nor does it permit wanton recklessness, and unless Taslima mends her ways, it wont be long before she is either booted out of the US, or rubs somebody so bad on the `wrong side', that extradition proceedings may logically be effected against her.

Caution is a peripheral freedom that must be exercised.

17th November 2003

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Unfinished business: Kumaratunga plays the murky Indian Card

The Sri Lankan move to accommodate India and the US started immediately after the war in Iraq earlier in the year. For instance in April, President Kumaratunga made two unscheduled trips to India within a week to confer with high officials in Delhi, matters of apparent hush-hush confidentiality. She then visited Bangladesh without any agenda for discussion with her counterparts. Other than vague suggestions of 'seeking support to peace initiatives with the LTTE', her most uncalled-for public dressing down on relationship with her estranged Premier to the press in Dhaka left all Bangladeshi worth his or her rice - baffled. As if all of this is not enough, Kumaratunga was set to make another 'personal trip' to India on the 17th November, which had to be cancelled (naturally) due to recent developments of her own making!

Unfinished business: Kumaratunga plays the murky Indian Card

For little over 48 hours last week, the world quickly turned its attention away from the Middle East to events closer to home - in Sri Lanka.

President Kumaratunga was squarely on the offensive, sacking three of her important ministers, all the while talking feverishly about 'security threats'. Making sure her decisions were taken seriously, she deployed the Army to guard installations in and around Colombo, and declared a state of emergency. The 'you know who is the Boss' message was loud and clear. The long suffering Sri Lankan people were aghast, as were many all across the world monitoring events in the placid Island of peace. 'Precipitous move' by the lady in the helms of affairs in Sri Lanka, had the world perspiring.

By look of things, it seemed the President had probably foiled an attempted military coups detat or more sinister, was midway masterminding a presidential coup of sort on her own. Making matters all the more bizarre was Kumaratunga's move was made when her 'estranged' Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe was in the US, on a tour meant to debrief the Bush administration, details of a peace agreement gleaned from/with the LTTE.

Earlier, peace in the idyllic Indian Ocean Island hammered out after decades of strife between the minority Tamils and majority Sinhalese seemed eminently 'workable' on the horizon. It was nonetheless the timing of the Presidents move and statements made by her spokespersons thereafter that left many analysts perplexed.

Afterall who on Gods earth could work against peace, specially a peace negotiated after 2 decades of war and estimated death to over 60,000 Sri Lankan's? What was so 'grave' in the construed 'security threat' that merited the President literally 'snatching' portfolios of Defense, Interior and Information ministry, and take hasty possession and command of the same?

If the President was indeed 'unhappy' with the Prime Minister for making far 'too many concessions' to the LTTE in the proposed peace agreement, this blatant and haughty move is indicative, that Kumaratunga has tricks quite a few up the drapes of her silk sari, that are inherently slippery!

The sensitivity of the portfolios and the frivolity that accompanied the whimsical Presidential decision indicated that things in the power echelons of Sri Lanka are ideally not as 'serene' as they appear on surface, the Presidential-Premier war of ego albeit nothing more that a planned 'ruse of the willing'.

In likelihood of getting scuttled is the $4.5 billion up on offer from the International Community to heal Sri Lanka's war wounds - with very sensible conditions attached; peace with 'fully complaint cease-fire agreement, effective protection of human rights and a verifiable de-escalation, de-militarisation and normalization process'.

The cool Norwegians have been at it for years, and despite the many hiccups that came its way, sometimes with the LTTE rejecting and breaking off peace talks, or the Presidents party harrying them with accusations of 'salmon eating busybodies' - peace seemed pretty much within reach, only that matters simmering beneath the surface were not as clear to many as they are today.

The LTTE being the first non-Islamic outfit to be included in the US list of 'terrorist organization' had decided to cool down its act once Washington told them that the Tamil homeland they were battling for since 1972 was both 'unattainable and unnecessary'. It comes as no surprise therefore that the LTTE has not launched any 'terrorist attack' since 9/11.

LTTE also had to contend with several issues that India in its obsessive gung-ho diplomacy was trying hard to corner them with:

· That it procures arms from Pakistan (to tie the convenient 'Islamic knot'), when in reality it does so from the International black market, funded by the rich Tamil community in Europe, U.S and Canada and a host of countries in South East Asia. The world is certainly not ready for a Trans National or Global LTTE!

· It is the only guerilla force in the world with naval fighting capability, which means that the Sri Lankan coast has all possibilities of becoming deadlier and unsafe for international shipping,

· Overt reminders, that whilst the Norwegian Government was handling negotiations between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Government, it (LTTE) is on the list of U.S 'proscribed organizations' and therefore, despite apparent peace overtures the group is 'unreliable'.

In sharp focus here is India's hegemony in the region and its newly attained stature as an ally of the US in its 'war on terror', which it wishes to flaunt dangerously all across the region, while it seems to have ditched more tenable lessons from Sri Lanka's recent history. It was non else but India in the first place that formed, trained and armed the LTTE to wage the decades old guerilla campaign, and later tried disarming, by sending in a Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) that between 1987 and 1990, were sorely humiliated and forcibly ejected from the Island.

A reminder to readers:

"Originally sent to Sri Lanka as a neutral body with a mission to ensure compliance with the accord, the IPKF increasingly became a partisan force fighting against Tamils. The popularity of Indian forces, which was never high, decreased still further amidst charges of rape and murder of civilians. Despite the considerable experience that Indian troops had gained in fighting insurgencies in India's northeast, the IPKF was at a marked disadvantage in Sri Lanka." [ 1 ]

The Sri Lankan war saw high profile targets in the Indian mainland through the assassination of Premier Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991 by the LTTE, and the 'human bomb' strategy became a phenomenon worth reckoning worldwide, with outfits such as the Hezbollah in the Middle East quickly replicating the same.

Clearly India washed its hands clean off Sri Lanka after creating a demon called the LTTE. It was neither able to fight it back, nor effectively control it for it lost whatever political clout it had with them, thanks again to the IPKF operations on the Island. LTTE's support base inside India, especially among disenfranchised Tamils meanwhile continues to be a major worry.

So wide and all encompassing is Indian fear of the LTTE, that any insurgent outfit she is unable to fight in its own territory of late, gets a 'quick link', quick fix to the Sri Lankan organization. Notably the Maoist Central Committee (MCC) or the Peoples War Group (PWG) in Bihar and Andhra Pradesh emboldened by recent strikes on Indian politicians, have all been branded with having 'links' to the LTTE, a veritable 'non-Islamic' Al-Qaeda for the rest of the world to savor!

Kumaratunga loathes the LTTE for obvious reasons. She survived an assassination attempt carried out by the outfit in 2001, which very nearly blinded her. It would be foolhardy for anybody to expect that she would be ever so ready to 'accommodate' them in a 'peace deal'. It is therefore not surprising that she took flippant exceptions that Wickramasinghe aides sat in the 'same table' with LTTE negotiators, in the Norwegian brokered peace talks.

However, going by events of over the years Kumaratunga has broadly 2 hidden cards to play. Whether these are 'triumph cards', we have no way of knowing at this point of time:

1. Keep India as one of its strongest ally to fight the menace of 'terrorism' by the LTTE, given the International windfall of bounties, the 'war on terror' appears to have heaped in its (India's) otherwise mediocre fortunes.

2. With growing Chinese influence in the sea lanes all they way from the Indian Ocean to the Mallaca Straits, and the average Indian citizens known apathy to any foreign base in its soil, Sri Lanka's known proximity with Israeli intelligence the Mossad, and existence of several secret defense pacts, the island with its strategic location is set to be a viable Indo-American-Israeli 'coalition of the willing' staging point.

A naval base in Trincomalee to go hand in hand with the US base in the Indian Ocean Island of Diego Garcia is no speculation on a distant horizon, it is a definite conclusion. Only time is the blurry mirage in between.

The Sri Lankan move to accommodate India and the US started immediately after the war in Iraq earlier in the year. For instance in April, President Kumaratunga made two unscheduled trips to India within a week to confer with high officials in Delhi, matters of apparent hush-hush confidentiality. She then visited Bangladesh without any agenda for discussion with her counterparts. Other than vague suggestions of 'seeking support to peace initiatives with the LTTE', her most uncalled-for public dressing down on relationship with her estranged Premier to the press in Dhaka left all Bangladeshi worth his or her rice - baffled. As if all of this is not enough, Kumaratunga was set to make another 'personal trip' to India on the 17th November, which had to be cancelled (naturally) due to recent developments of her own making!

It is an open secret that the US is sourcing 'secure areas' around several Indian seaports to be used as strategic reserves for fuel, and should not leave anybody in doubt as to how they will be used. With India being more than willing to provide such services, the stepping stone for US intervention in South Asia, is definitely Sri Lanka.

Which brings us to the WHY's of President Kumaratunga's latest moves.

Since her emphasis consistently has been that Premier Wickramasinghe was moving a bit too quickly than desired to wrap up the peace deal, and giving too many 'concessions' to the rebels, the cruel bottom line seems to indicate that President Kumaratunga wishes to finish off the LTTE - once and for all - before peace can be given a chance, on her mandate, her wishes, and goaded by desires of the US and India.

She know that forces within her control cannot 'go it alone', and she knows all too well the lessons of the IPKF misadventure, lessons that leaves her to seek US help in eliminating the LTTE, and that can only be achieved, if she consolidates all powers in her dictatorial hands solidly, and importantly 'constitutionally', if not democratically.

The apparent Constitutional move of 'removing portfolios' of Defense, Interior and Information from pro-Wickramasinghe Ministers, is indicator of a blue print for restive times ahead for Sri Lanka. One can expect draconian legislation's to fight 'LTTE terrorists' and the fighting will extend beyond Jaffna peninsula to envelop all of Sri Lanka. The conflict spiraling out to mainland India will make it all the more justifiable for India to 'extend moral support' to Kumaratunga's 'war on terrorism'.

In the melee and humdrum, made all the more confusing by newer Kumaratunga tricks, it should not surprise any of us for appeals being made to the US to intervene and sort out the mess. India has a score or two to settle with the LTTE, and this is the opportune moment they have been salivating for years.

The US is undoubtedly assured of winning a huge propaganda victory. They will have convinced a disbelieving world with their intervention in Sri Lanka, that the 'war on terror' - is afterall NO war on Islam!

We have positive 'unprophetic' indicators in those directions. It is now known that Premier Ranil Wickramasinghe has capitulated and wants the President to handle peace negotiations with the LTTE. [ 2 ], as much as the Sri Lankan Government has broken off Peace Talks with the LTTE [ 3 ]

The beginning of end to peace in Sri Lanka has just begun.