Jan 182015
 

I write for the @Dna on the 14th of January

I am not Perumal Murugan, but I very well could be. So could you or anyone else, who run afoul of a tiny, vocal, rabid fringe that thinks nothing about hounding people who go against their view of what is right. These are people who are an antithesis to the idea of a plural, diverse, multicultural nation and want this country to embody their narrow view of religion, culture and nationhood. It is important that we pay heed to this now, and stand against it, because this is not just a vague concept of ‘freedom of expression’. If we, the people, let this fester and grow, we will end up with the same kind of restrictions that we see across our borders.

Who is Perumal Murugan and what is Mathorubhagan or One Part Woman about?

Perumal Murugan is a Tamil author, poet and Professor and the author of six books.


Photo posted on the author’s Facebook page

Penguin’s author description of him is:

PERUMAL MURUGAN is a well-known contemporary Tamil writer and poet. He has written six novels, four collections of short stories and four anthologies of poetry. Two of his novels have been translated into English to wide acclaim: Seasons of the Palm, which was shortlisted for the prestigious Kiriyama Award in 2005, and Current Show. He has received awards from the Tamil Nadu government as well as from Katha Books.

The book in question Mathorubhagan, whose English translation is called One Part Woman, narrates the story of a childless couple.

Kali and Ponna’s efforts to conceive a child have been in vain. Hounded by the taunts and insinuations of others, all their hopes come to converge on the chariot festival in the temple of Ardhanareeswara, the half-female god. Everything hinges on the one night when rules are relaxed and consensual union between any man and woman is sanctioned. This night could end the couple’s suffering and humiliation. But it will also put their marriage to the ultimate test. (blurb from the Kindle edition of the book)

(I purchased the Kindle version of the book yesterday, and read it till late at night and am awestruck by the author’s characterisations, his narrative and his empathy towards humanity).

Who wants the book banned?

Lots of groups. According to the author :

I think, for the first time, caste organisations and Hindu organisations have come together on the same platform. The Hindu Munnani and three other caste organisations are running the campaign. Their objective has nothing to do with the book, since they are not ready to relent even after I promised to change the name of the village in the next edition of the book.

The book has ran afoul of the right wing Hindu organisations including the RSS and the Hindu Munani. They believe that Mathorubhagan offends their religious, cultural and caste sensibilities, in addition to insulting their hometown, women in their hometown, and the temple. In December, the Hindu had reported on this issue :

Alleging that Tamil writer Perumal Murugan’s novel, Madhorubhagan, has portrayed the Kailasanathar temple in Tiruchengode and women devotees in bad light, the BJP, RSS and other Hindu outfits have demanded its ban and the arrest of the author. They burnt copies of the book on Friday at Tiruchengode.

What was the impact?

On January 13, after almost a month of protests, which has led the author and his family to flee their home,  Perumal Murugan put out a statement on his Facebook page. This is the translation :

Author Perumal Murugan has died. He is no god, so he is not going to resurrect himself. Nor does he believe in reincarnation. From now on, Perumal Murugan will survive merely as a teacher, as he has been.

He thanks all magazines, media, readers, friends, writers, organisations, political parties, leaders, students and anyone else who supported Perumal Murugan and upheld the freedom of expression.

The issue is not going to end with Madhorubagan. Different groups and individuals might pick up any of his books and make it a problem. Therefore, these are the final decisions that Perumal Murugan has taken:

1. Other than those books that Perumal Murugan has compiled and published on his own, he withdraws all the novels, short stories, essays and poetry he has written so far. He says with certainty that none of these books will be on sale again.

2. He requests his publishers – Kalachavadu, Natrinai, Adaiyalam, Malaigal, Kayalkavin not to sell his books. He will compensate them for their loss.

3. All those who have bought his books so far are free to burn them. If anyone feels they have incurred a waste or loss in buying his books, he will offer them a compensation.

4. He requests that he be not invited to any events from now on.

5. Since he is withdrawing all his books, he requests caste, religious, political and other groups not to engage in protests or create problems.

Please leave him alone. Thanks to everyone.


Books by Perumal Murugan posted on his Facebook page

Historically, there is precedence for this kind of recanting under the threat of violence. Galileo, ran afoul of a corrupt, centralised and dogmatic Catholic Church of his era. They objected to his scientific theories that repudiated the scientific vision of the universe laid down in their scriptures.The Church believed that the Earth was the centre of the universe. Galileo showed that the Earth moved around the sun. For this, the Church ordered him to be placed under arrest and face the inquisition. A 70-year-old Galileo recanted.

After an injunction had been judicially intimated to me by this Holy Office, to the effect that I must altogether abandon the false opinion that the sun is the center of the world and immovable, and that the earth is not the center of the world, and moves, and that I must not hold, defend, or teach in any way whatsoever, verbally or in writing, the said false doctrine, and after it had been notified to me that the said doctrine was contrary to Holy Scripture — I wrote and printed a book in which I discuss this new doctrine already condemned, and adduce arguments of great cogency in its favor, without presenting any solution of these, and for this reason I have been pronounced by the Holy Office to be vehemently suspected of heresy, that is to say, of having held and believed that the Sun is the center of the world and immovable, and that the earth is not the center and moves:

Protesting against a book, a painting, a cartoon, a caricature is par for the course, in a vibrant, diverse democratic republic. But, what is not acceptable, is hounding of artists, writers, and those who dissent against a unified view of a religion or culture.  People have the right to profess their faith and follow their cultural norms. What is dictatorial and intolerant is not just to expect that everyone else does the same, but also threaten to cause a law and order issue until such time that the offending piece of expression is banned.

History tells us that Galileo was right. The Church finally apologised to him in 1992.

What is the role of the State ?

The state has one very important role – to protect the rights of the individual citizen and ensure that politically motivated groups do not impinge on our constitutional rights. The Tamil Nadu state administration has failed miserably in protecting the rights of Perumal Murugan. They have allowed fringe elements to bully, harass and finally exile a writer from his mode of expression. They need to collectively hang their heads in shame.

Do people have the right to protest against books, films and other forms of expression?

Yes, unambiguously so. They have the right to show their ire and objection, it is part of their right to free expression. But, and this is an important caveat, this stops short of violence, threats of violence, threats to life, livelihood and hounding of people till they flee the country or stop writing. Freedoms are not just for people and causes that you like and support, they better be present for everyone. Every time the State fails to protect the right of expression, the right of the individual and allows fringe groups to gain victory, each individual in India loses a little bit of their freedom. This is not about Perumal Murugan alone, it is about all of us and our right to express without fear.

Finally – what is this about? 

An author hounded till he gives up writing. This is not what my religion or culture or nation is supposed to stand for – this is not in my name. As a culture, dissent is a part of our civilisational ethos, as is questioning everything around us. Offence or even blasphemy is not a good enough reason to stifle and strangle expression of ideas and views. We have always been a culture that respected dissent. When Tulsidas wrote the Ramayan in a language people could understand, he ran afoul of the orthodoxy who bayed for his blood; when Dnyaneshwar wrote the Dnyaneshwari (a commentary on the Bhagwad Gita in Marathi) that every one could understand, he faced the same problems. Today, no one remembers the names of those who opposed these great men. All we do, is imbibe from the Ramcharitramanas and the Dnyaneshwari.

Today, we are facing one more push back from the orthodox and those who wish to interfere in our right to religion and free expression (which is both a constitutional right and a civilizational one), it is time we took a stand and asked our government to be steadfast in protecting our rights.

Jan 182015
 

I write for the DNA, 13th of January

Amidst all the international attention on the Paris shootings, and Charlie Hebdo – much of the world missed out the increasingly violent conflict between Boko Haram, the Nigerian extreme Islamist group, and the Nigerian Government. Last week, the Nigerian town of Baga, that lies in the North of the country, saw an armed attack by the Boko Haram on civilians that led to an estimated 2000 plus people killed. It is currently difficult to be precise about the number of killings simply because Boko Haram is still in control of the town, and getting information about the atrocities committed is difficult.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald

Villagers from Baga, a network of 16 fishing communities on the southern shores of Lake Chad, have told of hundreds, and perhaps as many as 2000 locals, being gunned down by militias who arrived on trucks – from which they offloaded motorcycles, to give chase to those who fled on foot, most of whom were children, women and the elderly who were not capable of running.

More than 1000 of 20,000 who are estimated to have fled the villages are reportedly stuck on an island on Lake Chad – with no food and inadequate shelter.

However, the Nigerian Government has disputed the number, and has said this:

“From all available evidences, the number of people who lost their lives during that attack has so far not exceeded about 150 in the interim. This figure includes many of the terrorists who were bearing arms and got killed in the course of their attack and battle with troops.

“It should be noted that Baga and the neighbouring towns have been under a series of attacks and harassment by the terrorists. In the course of this, many residents have left, leaving the population in the town almost seriously depleted. Many were also able to escape while the terrorists’ battle with troops lasted.

“The figure given by sources who claim to be eyewitnesses must be an extremely exaggerated estimate. Unfortunately, this figure is now being bandied about in a section of the media as if it has been authenticated. It cannot be true,” he said

Whatever the figure maybe – the fact remains that Boko Haram is a threat that is taken seriously by both the Nigerian government and the world at large. Boko Haram is on theUnited States’ list of terror organisations

Who or What is Boko Haram?

Boko Haram, literally translated means ‘westernisation forbidden’, is one of the most extreme Islamist groups that operates in Africa, and has, as it’s stated mandate, the establishment of a ‘pure’ Islamic State that is governed by their interpretation of the Sharia. According to the BBC:

Boko Haram promotes a version of Islam which makes it “haram”, or forbidden, for Muslims to take part in any political or social activity associated with Western society. This includes voting in elections, wearing shirts and trousers or receiving a secular education. Boko Haram regards the Nigerian state as being run by non-believers, even when the country had a Muslim president.

Set up at the turn of the millennium by Mohammed Yusuf, the organisation has been spreading its tentacles slowly across Northern Nigeria. The group attracted followers

“….under its roof by offering welfare handouts, food, and shelter. Many of the people the group attracted were refugees from the wars over the border in Chad and jobless Nigerian youths. The source of the group’s money at this stage of its existence is not clear. Members of the Borno religious establishment say that Yusuf received funds from Salafist contacts in Saudi Arabia following two hajj trips that Yusuf made during this time”

Boko Haram Tactics

Boko Haram has been primarily terrorising other Muslims in the northern part of Nigeria. They believe that they, and they alone, have the right to decide what variant of Islam should be taught. They have been at the forefront of bombing mosques, attacking Friday prayers, killing preachers and murdering the devout. Their intention, one could say, was to become the sole voice of Muslims in the area, and they killed those (especially other Muslims) who stood in their way. Termed the Nigerian Taliban, the group came into the limelight when Mohammed Yunus got killed in a pitched gun battle between his supporters and the army.

According to the United States Institute of Peace, the Boko Haram has been escalatingviolence and terror in Nigeria in the last 4 years. And now it has spread its terror further to try and intimidate other communities in Nigeria.

Since August 2011 Boko Haram has planted bombs almost weekly in public or in churches in Nigeria’s northeast. The group has also broadened its targets to include setting fire to schools. In March 2012, some twelve public schools in Maiduguri were burned down during the night, and as many as 10,000 pupils were forced out of education.

It hit the international headlines once again in April 2014 when it kidnapped around 300 school girls, many of whom were converted to Islam and married off to Boko Haram fighters.

A video message from the leader of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau. 

Boko Haram and the Islamic State

As Boko Haram grows stronger in Nigeria, partly fuelled by its own success and partly because the Government has abandoned large swathes of Northern Nigeria to the terror groups, there is genuine concern that they may join hands with the other bunch of brutal, neo fascist Islamist groups such as Islamic State, to cut a swathe across the region.

ISIS, like Boko Haram seems to be interested in conquering territory rather than launching an al-Qaeda-style global jihad. Boko Haram is taking advantage of the lawlessness and lack of border control in the Nigerian borders with Cameroon, Chad and Niger, like ISIS which uses the Syrian-Iraqi region as its safe ground. Nevertheless, there is an important difference. Boko Haram operates within Nigeria which faces state failure signs in its Northern region, ISIS on other hand operates in the absence of any state authority.

Both ISIS and Boko Haram have taken advantage of the political and strong state vacuum in the regions to establish their authority.

Going forward, restoring Government and the power of the State will be an important step in rebuilding legitimate political authority that will restore power back to the people. It is neither going to be easy nor is it going to be quick. It will be a long hard journey, and an already afflicted people are going to be beggared even more. For the sake of future generations in the region, it is imperative that a regional solution is found that checks the advance of these organisations and decimates their foundation. It will be a Herculean task, one filled with human right violations, dead people and shattered societies.

And, the question that everyone needs to ask and answer is this, how do you deal with a bunch of nihilists who think nothing of strapping a bomb to a 10-year-old and turning her into a suicide bomber. How do you deal with an organisation whose members think of death as the ultimate goal? How do you check their advance without becoming all those things yourself? And, finally, how do you rehabilitate a traumatised populace and bring them back to modernity. To win the war on terror, these are questions that need to be answered.

Jan 182015
 

My column in the DNA on the 29th of December,

It is that time of the year when publicity hungry groups go chasing movies they want to ban. Two years ago, it was those who wanted Vishwaroopam to be bannedbecause it affected their sensibility and hurt their sentiments, now it is another set of groups who want PK to be banned because it hurts their sensibility and sentiments. At a very fundamental level, the two sets of groups, despite their affiliations, are similar. What do they want – they want the world to be re-imagined in their own narrow, humourless, intolerant, uniform, black and white view of what is acceptable and what is not. Furthermore, there is this deep rooted arrogance that they are God’s spokespeople and God, for some unknown reason, requires their intervention. If anyone even remotely believes that this is linked to faith or devotion, they would be mistaken. This is linked to piggy backing on a more famous brand name (God, Religion, Stardom) for interested parties to make a name for themselves and establish themselves as a source of unelected power and influence.

Do people have the right to protest – indeed they do. Can people protest about a film that they dislike? Of course. But do people or groups have the right to prevent others from watching a film – a very emphatic no.  A film bothers you – don’t watch it. A book bothers you, don’t read it. A piece of music offends you, don’t hear it. There is nothing and no one forcing someone to consume any artistic product. On the other hand, the groups that protest, try and force the State to ban a film; or prevent an author from a public gathering; or prevent the performance of a play; or ask for a book ban; thereby depriving others of consumption, by threat of creating a law and order situation – do try and force the rest of the world to accede to their wishes. This is intrinsically undemocratic and also goes against a civilizational ethos of not just pluralism, but also dissent. People have the right to express their creativity and their point of view, without threat from outraged hordes.


Protest against PK in Jammu. PTI

Last year, while writing about the outrage over multiple things (including Vishwaroopam), I had written this:

Goethe, the German author, poet and dramatist, observed that the “There is nothing more frightening than active ignorance.” It is a quote that comes to mind every time there are protests about books, authors, paintings, films, music – in short ideas and concepts. Most who protest have neither read, nor seen, nor experienced the object of their outrage. They believe that the idea has profaned what they hold in great esteem. And, they think, therefore, that they have the right to silence this ‘offending’ view so that no one gets to experience it. John Stuart Mill, in his seminal work “On Liberty” (1859), termed this behaviour of wanting to silence a particular view, as evil. He said “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error”.

The government must send out a stern message to all those who are protesting against the film (or any other work of expression). You have the right to protest and the government will defend it. But break the law, and you will go to jail. Vandalism, threats, and trying to shout down the rest of the population will not be tolerated. The message needs to go out loud and clear, for the more these groups are emboldened by inaction, the more they will thrive.

Dec 292014
 

First published in the @DNA
296559-congress-leadersThe Indian National Congress celebrated Foundation Day on Sunday. 130 years ago, the first session of the party was held in Mumbai. In these 130 years, the Congress has fought many battles – lost some, won some others.

But never in its history has it been so bereft of focus and leadership as it is in its current situation. Today, it is less a matter of 44 seats, and more the fact that the party seems adrift, waiting for someone to come by and save them. That is not going to happen. The transformation has to happen from within, and it is not going to be simple. So here are 5 things that the INC needs to do to revive itself (if it so wishes).

Democratise: There was a time that the party attracted the brightest and the best. The most idealistic. It was at its most glorious and its most effective when people from all walks of life associated themselves with the party and worked with it to achieve a certain common objective. The party was home to Jaiprakash Narayan an ardent socialist, and Rajaji- who was not; to Gandhi who believed in the village economy, and Nehru who believed in industrialisation; to Gokhale and Tilak whose ideological clash was legendary; to Patel who believed in a strong Centre and an Ambedkar who believed in a Federal State. It was people from different ideological standpoints who were secure enough in their beliefs and ideals to work with others with differencing ideologies for a larger goal. The party could bring together different strands and weave them to a greater goal. The modern Congress, since the early 1970’s has been failing in achieving this. Pluralism is not just a word. It is a practice.

Get rid of hereditary rule: Republicanism is a higher form of evolution. Hereditary rule is two versions earlier. As a party the Congress has moved from Republican mode to a monarchy. And, it is showing. In video technology there is a simple technical rule – you cannot move from a higher form of anything to a lower form of that something without perceptible loss in quality – ironically it is called ‘gen loss’ or generational loss. With each subsequent transfer, the gen loss is higher – sounds familiar? Look at point one again. The party needs to throw its doors open, and let meritocracy be the governing mantra. While this still does not mean that the best will get to the top, the most adept at survival may. The problem with the principle of dynastic succession is that your leaders have no survival instinct – they never had to fight to get to the top or fight to stay there. It is all too easy for them.

Get rid of High Command culture: If you follow one and two, then this is natural progression. The state units cannot be subservient to the central party. Not if you want the state units to thrive. And if you don’t have healthy state units, it will be very difficult for them to command respect amongst the people, and without respect you cannot win. It is actually quite simple. With the passage of years, the top down mode of leadership no longer works, especially in a dynamic environment. If you need to build strong units – you need to decentralise, and empower your cadre and local level leadership. If you don’t empower your own party workers, how do you propose to empower the people?

Buy a calendar, take a crash course in colloquial language: It is almost 2015. Stop talking like you belong in the 1980’s. People have moved on. Their aspirations have scaled up. They are no longer looking at being saved by you (or any other party). People are looking for service delivery. We are looking for professionalism. Ask yourself one question – if you weren’t the Congress Party, and all other things being equal, would you vote for yourself? Then ask yourself what do you need to do to change that?

Apologise to your supporters: People like my parents have voted for the party all their lives. The party has let them down. Terribly so. Many of their lifelong supporters did not vote last time – they were too angry with the party to vote for you, them, but loved it enough not to vote for others. So they abstained. The party needs to talk to its base to find out how it has erred in its direction.

This is not an easy route, nor is it a guarantee for success. However, if as a party they want to survive they need to try. To build back credibility is not going to be easy, nor is it going to be a cakewalk in rebuilding an organisation ground up. But, if the party needs to celebrate its next decadal anniversary, it definitely needs to heed the wake up call that it has got from the people of India.

Dec 292014
 

The Amnesty US report on the IS’ war crimes – for the DNA on 27th December

AFP

The Amnesty USA Report on “Torture and Sexual Slavery in Islamic State captivity in Iraq” makes for difficult and brutal reading. Amnesty spoke to some of the 300 women and girls, from the Yazidi community who had managed to escape the IS, and the accounts of systematic brutality, torture and rape of girls and women are laid out in a matter of fact manner, that makes it even more impactful.

Narrative after narrative focuses on the utter dehumanisation of prisoners and the treatment meted out to them.
A 15 year old girl Arwa, had this account :

“In Rambussi we were held in a house with five other girls. There they did to me what they did to many other girls. I was raped. My cousin was not molested; they wanted to take her to marry her to a man but in the end they left her with us and then we managed to escape. One of the girls said she was not raped but I don’t know if it is true; I hope it is true. Another did not talk about what happened to her. The others were raped. The men were all Iraqis. They said that if we killed ourselves they would kill our relatives.”

A 16 year old, Randa, had this account:

“I was taken to Mosul and kept there all the time. First in a building which they called the maqarr (headquarters). We were about 150 girls and five women. A man called Salwan took me from there to an abandoned house. He also took my cousin, who is 13 years old; we resisted and they beat us. He took me as his wife by force. I told him I did not want to and tried to resist but he beat me. My nose was bleeding, I could not do anything to stop him. I ran away as soon as I could. Luckily they did not do anything to my cousin, did not force her to marry, and she escaped with me. I went to a doctor here, who said that I was not pregnant and didn’t have any disease, but I can’t forget what happened to me.”

Girls were raped, sold into slavery, sold into ‘marriage’ – the report is unclear as to what happened to the men. It is estimated that hundreds of men were killed in the battle, or forced to convert under the threat of death. The 300 women and girls who escaped, are the lucky ones. It is estimated that 1000’s of women and girls are still being held by the Islamic State and most are facing brutality and violence on an ongoing basis.  Most of the women were taken captive in August 2014 when the IS invaded the Sinjar regions of North West Iraq. According to Amnesty, most of the families in this region have at least one family member missing.

The IS preferred women and girls who were ‘beautiful’, as they did girls who were virgins. One of the accounts by a girl who escaped : ““They kept bringing prospective buyers for us but luckily none of them took us because we are not beautiful and we were always crying and holding on to each other.”

Another escapee said,  “My sister and I told them we were married but they said they would bring a doctor to examine us and those who were virgins and had lied about being married would be punished, so we admitted that we were not married. If we had known that they were going to kill us we would have continued to lie but we were afraid that we would be raped….”

However, being married was no protection from being raped or sold:    “I had my little boy with me and my pregnancy was very visible already but one of the guards chose me to be his wife. He said that if I did not consent to marrying him he would sell me on to another man who would take me to Syria. I let him believe that I would marry him and managed to run away before he could carry out his threats ” is the testimony of 19-year-old Abla, who was pregnant when she was taken prisoner.   Many of the young women committed suicide rather than face a life of sexual slavery. The accounts of their death are chilling.

“Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself. She was very beautiful. I think she knew that she was going to be taken away by a man and that is why she killed herself.”
Not all suicide attempts were successful. Wafa, 27, talks about her unsuccessful attempt at suicide: “The man who was holding us said that either we marry him and his brother or he would sell us. At night we tried to strangle ourselves with our scarves. We tied the scarves around our necks and pulled away from each other as hard as we could, until I fainted. Two girls who were held with us woke up and stopped us and then stayed awake to watch over us. When they fell asleep at 5am we tried again, and again they woke up and stopped us. I could not speak for several days after that.”

The women who escaped are so traumatised by their experience that relatives fear that they may never heal, and watch over them in case they commit suicide. The men who ‘purchased’ Yazidi girls and women, were Iraqis and Syrians and from other Arab nations. They were not necessarily fighters. And, the ‘marriages’ were registered at a shariah court.  One of the escapees said of her husband’s family “His wife was very nice to us and felt sorry for us. She cried with us and wanted to help but she couldn’t.” This is a tragedy on so many levels that it is going to take generations of sustained work to restore some form of rights to women in the region.

While the world collectively wrings its hands and wonders what can be done, the IS is cutting a swathe through the region with tactics like this, that spread fear. And, if we believe that this is against just the Yazidi , we would be  wrong. As the Amnesty report points out, the IS  kills everyone who is not like it and doesn’t support the Islamic state – which means pretty much all sane people. IS “ carried out a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing in northern Iraq. It forced hundreds of thousands of members of ethnic and religious minorities, who had lived in the region for centuries – including Shi’a (who are a minority in northern Iraq),Assyrian Christians, Turkmen Shi’a, Shabak Shi’a, Yazidis, Kakai, and Sabean Mandaeans – to abandon their homes and villages”.

The report makes for hard reading. But, read it, we must, because if nothing else we owe it those who died, who are still in captivity, who are slaves in a modern world. What the IS has committed, is war crimes. But, how do you deal with a force that refuses to recognise the basic rules of the modern world, and is hell bent on burning and destroying everything that is  not in the image of its own distorted view of the universe?  In a world where most modern Nation States are bound by basic rules, which they may bend but not break, how do you deal with an entity that follows none? The more one reads on this, the great fear is that, the rest of the world has to sink to the same brutal levels to put an end to this