2 Dec 2007, 0021 hrs IST , SWAPAN DASGUPTA , TNN
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The controversy over Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen has forced Indians to confront a larger question: what sort of an India do we want to live in? The answers are neither easy nor uncontested.
For a start, there is the weight of inheritance. When minister of external affairs Pranab Mukherjee invoked ''civilisational heritage'' in Parliament to define the government's policy of sheltering the persecuted, he probably had Swami Vivekananda's Chicago address of 1893 in mind: ''I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth.''
From the time it accorded sanctuary to harried Jews and Parsis, India has played willing host to the persecuted. Armenians escaping ethnic cleansing, Chakmas dodging Bangladeshi settlers, Tibetans at odds with Chinese occupation and Afghan opponents of the Taliban have at various times made India their home. And this is not to include the three million people who fled East Pakistan in 1971 to escape army retribution.
Unlike western powers that knowingly sent back tens of thousands of Lithuanians, Estonians, Ukranians and Tartars to certain death in Stalin's Soviet Union after World War II, India has allowed compassion to prevail over both realpolitik and even economics. The present government may be wary of the Dalai Lama but, unlike Nepal, India is unlikely to forcibly handover a Tibetan asylum seeker to the Chinese authorities. The information that the government overruled the Left Front's objections to give Taslima an Indian visa is reassuring.
The question of sanctuary apart, the agitation over Taslima's writings has thrown up another complex question: what constitutes legitimate curbs on free expression? The...