France and India are two countries that proudly proclaim the secular nature of their democracies. The principles of church-state separation and state neutrality towards religion are the same. But somehow the accents were different when French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited India last week. While they both were dealing with the concept called “secularism” in English, it was clear that Sarkozy’s thinking was based on the French word laïcité while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh clearly had the Hindi term dharmanirpekshta in mind.
The visit focused mostly on expanding investment and defence cooperation, with much gossip on the side about whether the freshly divorced president’s new flame Carla Bruni would join him at the Taj Mahal (much to the chagrin of the paparazzi, she didn’t).
Hidden behind the headlines, though, was a fascinating disagreement about Sarkozy’s plan to present Taslima Nasreen, an exiled Bangladeshi writer living in India, with the “Simone de Beauvoir Prize For Women’s Freedom.” This prize sponsored by CulturesFrance (part of the French Foreign Ministry) and a Paris publisher went this year to Nasreen and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, two women of Muslim background who have been threatened with death by Islamists because of their forceful criticism of the religion.
Sarkozy wanted to present the award to Nasreen in New Delhi, presumably at a ceremony to be broadcast back home where he is under fire for allegedly violating French laïcité. He was even thinking of doing it at the safe house where she is hiding from death threats. This caused considerable concern in the Indian government, which worried about a possible Muslim backlash over any honour for the award-winning writer they accuse of blasphemy. The Indian army had to be called in to quell anti-Nasreen riots by Islamist groups in Kolkata last November.
In the end, it didn’t happen. The grand French gesture was reduced to a request to India to “facilitate Ms Nasreen’s journey to France” to pick up her award.