“Author Perumal Murugan is dead.”

The conflict between respect for faith and freedom of expression has been a hot topic in the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks. But somehow the story of Tamil writer Perumal Murugan hasn’t made much of an impression outside of India.

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Earlier this month, Murugan announced on his Facebook page that he was killing off his identity as a writer and asked publishers to stop selling copies of his work. He had been hounded by hardline Hindu groups over his 2010 novel, Mathorubhagan. The book (translated into English as One Part Woman in 2013) tells the story of an early 20th century couple from the Gounder caste community in the town of Thiruchengode. Childless and desperate to conceive, they turn to a temple festival at which extra-marital sex is permitted in the hope that the wife will become pregnant with a “god’s child”.

Although its initial release was met with critical acclaim, there were objections that the book insulted Hinduism in its portrayal of the licentious temple festival (which oral histories suggest was an actual custom). Then the local Gounder community in Thiruchengode got on board, complaining that Murugan made them look bad. In late 2014, their protests escalated into book burnings, calls for Murugan’s arrest, and a bandh (a strike… ish) in the area.

I asked political scientist and friend-of-the-blog Pavi Suryanarayan to link this episode into the broader politics of speech policing in India.

She explained that India’s constitutional guarantee of free speech has been repeatedly amended to incorporate so-called “reasonable restrictions” to protect religious feelings. But, although there have been high profile cases of the state banning books under this logic (Rushdie’s Satanic Verses for one), recently it’s been happening without the state’s involvement. In the case of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus, for instance, “the publishing house voluntarily took the book off the shelves to avoid being taken to court by Hindu groups”.

Similarly, the silencing of Murugan was driven by non-state actors; even though he offered to change the book’s setting to a fictional town, the protesters refused to stand down. Pavi warned that this may be a sign of a things to come in Modi’s India:

“The strategy of book burning and protests has taken on more credibility amongst Hindu right-wing groups after the success of the Doniger case. With a BJP government in power, with [Hindu nationalist NGO] RSS shakhas (units) growing at faster rates than ever before, and with right-wing parties keen to make forays into new electoral territories such as Tamil Nadu, book banning seem like a tactic that will have good payoffs in rallying potential Hindu voters.”

Speech policing is always a divisive political issue. And as long as we’re all thinking about it this month anyway, we should probably pay more attention to how it’s handled in the world’s largest and most diverse democracy.

Come Hear Me Talk About Sri Lanka

PSA: I’ll be participating in a screening and discussion of “No Fire Zone“, a documentary about the Sri Lankan Civil War, along with the director, Callum Macrae. It’s next Monday (2/2), 12:30-2pm in room 1512 at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. I have it on good authority there will be snacks.

Check out the trailer below, and if you want to come, more details and RSVP info are up on the Pulitzer Center’s website.

WTF Friday, 1/23/2015

Here is a list of things I am genuinely confused about today:

  1. The International Commission of Inquiry for CAR has apparently recommended the establishment of a tribunal to try international crimes committed during the recent conflict there. Is this not exactly why we did this whole ICC thing?

  2. America is super-sad that an extremely old, repressive Saudi Arabian dude had died. Don’t worry though, he’s been replaced by another extremely old Saudi Arabian dude, who will almost certainly be just as good at repressing people.

  3. Nepalese opposition legislators staged a protest in Parliament yesterday (and, apparently, threw their shoes) preventing a long-delayed vote on a new Constitution. I’m not so much puzzled by this one as Nepal has essentially been in “political limbo” since 2008. But I would like someone to tell me what to read to understand the situation there. Anyone?

WTF Friday, 1/16/2015: Sri Lankan Election Edition

Last week, President Mahinda Rajapaksa was unexpectedly unseated in an election in which nearly 82% of eligible Sri Lankans turned out to vote. I was there, and wrote about how exciting it was for the The Washington Post’s political science blog, Monkey Cage.

I left a few highlights out, though, so to supplement that post, I give you my top 5 WTF moments of the Sri Lankan presidential election:

1. In the last week of the campaign, Rajapaksa made a visit to Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka, where he asked Tamils to vote for the “known devil” (himself, the commander-in-chief who presided over mass bloodshed in the region at the end of the civil war) over the “unknown angel” (Sirisena). Shades of Charles Taylor’s “he killed my ma, he killed my pa, I’ll vote for him“, anyone?

2. Campaigning ended on Monday, January 5 at 11:59pm and all campaign posters were supposed to come down at that time. They didn’t. A day or two later, someone got around to blacking out Rajapaksa’s face on billboards around town. This is what it looked like:

campaign poster

3. In the final hours of the campaign, state-aligned media paired coverage of the terror attacks in Paris with graphic footage of LTTE bombings, reminding voters that Rajapaksa had been responsible for the defeat of the insurgency.

4. On election day, Rajapaksa went to cast his vote accompanied by a doppelganger of his rival Maithripala Sirisena (now the president). The look-alike was one of several “joke candidates” fielded by both sides in an attempt to confuse voters. You can see him here.

5. In the days following Rajapaksa’s ouster, a number of things have emerged, not just coup attempt rumors and allegations of corruption, but secret helicopters (actually a persistent campaign issue symbolizing Rajapaksa extravagance) and illicit elephants.

WTF Friday, 12/19/2014

Who’s ready for 2014 to be over?

This week:

But hey, the U.S. is finally rethinking its nutty Cuba policy, so maybe we can do better in 2015?

WTF Friday, 11/21/2014

So:

Gambian President Yahya Jammeh signed that appalling anti-gay law;

Armed bandits stole a cooler filled with Ebola-infected blood in Guinea;

The deaths of 13 Indian women following coercive sterilization surgery was traced to antibiotics contaminated with rat poison;

Bill Cosby turned out to be an even bigger rapist than we already knew;

News broke that the Indonesian National Police requires female applicants to submit to so-called “virginity tests”;

U.S. Ambassador Charles Twining’s car was shot up by a member of the South Sudanese presidential guard;

More than seven feet of snow fell in Buffalo, killing at least 13 people;

And my hipster business name is apparently “Weather & Blood”.

Anyone else ready for the weekend?

WTF Friday, 11/14/2014

2012-08-02 00.14.53OMG you guys, President Obama went to Burma and said “Rohingya” yesterday. And that’s just a day after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon also said it, calling on the Burmese government to ensure humanitarian access to the beleagured minority.

More than a million Rohingya live in Burma. About 140,000 of them currently reside in squalid camps, displaced by attacks on Muslim Rohingyas by the majority Buddhists in Rakhine State in 2012. They lack adequate food and shelter and, since the ejection of Doctors Without Borders in February, their access to medical care is limited.

They are also stateless, denied citizenship by the Burmese government, which claims that they “have never had ethnic nationals called ‘Rohingya'”. In its 2014 official census, the government refused to count individuals self-identifying as Rohingya. Instead, it insists that they are “Bengalis”, illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who should go home. (Population data for Rakhine State reveals no influx of Muslims from Bangladesh, or anywhere else.)

Recently, the regime has stepped up pressure on members of the international community not to employ the term “Rohingya”. In June, it demanded an apology after a UNICEF staffer used the word during a briefing. Many international actors have bowed to the government’s absurd demands, in order to continue working with a population desperately in need of help, or simply to avoid stirring up trouble.

But Obama and Ban’s strong statements suggest the tide may be turning. Yesterday, the Burmese ambassador to the UK conceded that the Rohingya are “people”. Maybe with a little more prodding, they’ll get around to admitting that they have rights.

 

*That’s a photo I took of festival observers at Yangon’s iconic Shwedagon Pagoda in 2012.

WTF Friday, 11/7/2014

In June, around 300 members of Libya’s security forces arrived in the UK for training in “basic infantry skills and military leadership”. This week, they were sent home in disgrace after a string of sex crimes committed in the Cambridge area. Five of them will remain in court custody. Two face charges for the Oct. 26th rape of a male civilian, and three others face multiple counts of sexual assault, and one bike theft charge each.

Following the announcement that the training program would be discontinued, one cadet blamed the British government for the problems, complaining that: “They didn’t tell us about British law and what’s the difference between right and wrong here.”

I have some questions about all this:

  1. WTF?
  2. Why would anyone need advance notice that raping dudes is frowned upon in the UK? Is it legal in Libya?
  3. What’s with the bicycles?
  4. If these guys were “vetted in advance for medical, physical and behavioural suitability“, what did the reject pile look like?
  5. WTF?!

Sudanese Government Now Stealing People’s Blood?

A few weeks ago, Human Rights Watch reported that Sudanese government forces raided a dormitory of female university students in Khartoum, and beat and arrested a number of Darfuri students. Apparently, the raid was conducted in retaliation for the women’s refusal to vacate the dormitory, which the authorities viewed as evidence of “seditious intent“.

The arrested students were taken to the National Security and Intelligence Service (NISS) offices and interrogated about their association with rebel groups operating in Darfur. Several of them ended up in Omdurman women’s prison, and at least one was beaten badly enough to require medical attention. They were also subjected to sexual harassment and assault. According to a women’s rights group, the authorities “forced some women to undress in the dorms, photographed them, and threatened to use the photos against them.”

As if all that weren’t bad enough, one of the young women says that the Sudanese authorities gave her drugs and took her blood.

So, readers, I ask you this: What possible reason could the Sudanese government have for stealing the blood of suspected dissidents?