Taslima Nasreen is a writer, free thinker and humanist, who was driven out of Bangladesh—her country of birth. Now, India is her home. In this rather emotive piece, Taslima writes how she continues to be on edge due to uncertainties in her resident permit by India.
Twenty-five years ago, the government of my country had driven me out of my home and my land. Had I committed a murder, a rape, a burglary of some kind?
I had simply written books.
In those books, I had written about democracy, secularism, humanity, human rights and the equal rights of women.
In those books, I had laid bare my dreams of an equal society where all manner of discriminatory practices, injustices and oppression have been abolished.
In the past 25 years, there have been numerous changes in the government in Bangladesh — but none of them have allowed me to return home, and neither has anyone given me a reason as to why I cannot.
A significant portion of the first half of this quarter century, I spent in Europe and America. But I was desperate during those years to return to my country — and since the doors to my homeland were closed for me, I would repeatedly visit West Bengal to get some semblance of taste and smell of home.
The Bengali language is my one true home after all.
Thus, in order to find an environment of the Bengali language and Bengali culture outside Bangladesh, I had chosen West Bengal as the closest approximate for my home. It was not possible to set up a home somewhere with a tourist visa but fortunately, one day, I did get permission to make Kolkata my permanent home. That was the day I earned a residence permit to live in India — something that can be renewed at regular intervals. I started living in India from 2004.
In the beginning, residence permit would be renewed every six months, which was changed to a year in 2008. Instead of the tedious application process every year, would it not have been easier to issue a permit for five or ten years at one go? In fact, Rajnath Singh had once promised me a 50-year visa. But that was only talk — nothing has come of it and my residence permit has remained subject to annual renewals. Although many foreign nationals have been living permanently in India with extended residence permits for a number of years, unlike mine, for many of them, their permit needs to be renewed every 5 or 10 years.
In 2007, when the CPI (M) government of West Bengal drove me out of the state in order to appease Muslim fundamentalists, the UPA government in the centre put me under house arrest in a cantonment in Delhi — and coerced me to concede leaving India in 2008.
From 2008 till the beginning of 2011, even though my residence permit was regularly renewed, I was not allowed to live in India.
Around that time, many people had told me that when the BJP would come to power, I would no longer have to worry about my residence permit, and that I would be made a citizen and allowed to live in Kolkata again. I had thought so too.
So, imagine my utter surprise when, after coming to power in 2014, the BJP government reduced the duration of my residence permit from a year to two months. And after coming back to power for the second time, they have yet again revised it from one year to three months. I don’t know why they have chosen to do so. After living in this country for 14 years, does the BJP government want to snatch away the ground beneath my feet yet again?
I don’t know what these three months signal for me.
I remember how, after I was driven out of West Bengal, Narendra Modi, who was then the Chief Minister of Gujarat had declared in a speech that if Bengal could not give security to Taslima, then they should send her to Gujarat where he would give her security. During his electoral campaigns in Kolkata, he had demanded to know why I was driven out of the state and why the Trinamool government that had replaced the CPI(M) had done nothing to help me return.
Few Indian politicians have ever spoken in favour of me in public with any authority, like Modi ji has.
Even though I have no favourites when it comes to politics, I have been grateful to him for having unhesitatingly supported a persecuted, exiled, truly secular writer such as I.
So, naturally, I assumed I was going to be free of the ordeal of having to renew my residence permit annually if he came to power, that I was finally going to be able to live in this country for real, free to live out the rest of my days and write without any worries or anxieties.
But even after Modi ji has come to power, my troubles have remained the same. Rather than worrying less, this reduction of the duration of my residence permit has only served to augment my anxieties.
I have done nothing wrong. I have just been writing. I have been trying to inspire women in our society to become educated and aware. Despite being a Swedish citizen, a resident of the European Union and a permanent resident of the US as well, I have chosen India as my home. All because I speak in an Indian language, I write, think and dream in it. India truly is my home in that sense — the only place in this subcontinent where I can think of living. People of this subcontinent are usually desperate to move to Europe or the USA — I have done the exact opposite, simply because of my love for this land. I have ignored the promise of fame and security abroad and chosen to plunge into the uncertainties of living here.
Yet, even after a quarter-century of exile and nearly fourteen years of living here, I still feel shivers crawling down my spine when I see my residence durations reduced abruptly.
I cannot help but worry if one day it will yet again come down to zero.
Many people believe that the government of India sustains me — that I am their guest. That’s absolutely not true. I live with my own money — that is how I sustain myself, and I also pay a considerable amount in taxes. I am not personally acquainted with any of the ministers, neither do I know any influential people. I am decidedly a commoner who lives a very average, regular life. I mix with the common people, they are the ones who are my daily companions. Since my own country has moved far away from me in these twenty-five years, since its doors are forever closed for me, India is my country now.
I have never thought of it as a foreign land since I truly believe that mere birth does not make a location someone’s nation — a nation is born of love.
I believe that I love India much more than many citizens of this country. I am also aware that should they get citizenship from the EU or a green card from the USA, many so-called patriots would not blink twice before emigrating.
And here I am, having chosen this land even after being offered other such options. If India values love at all, I am certain there will be no problems for me living here in the future.