“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.

WTF Friday, 6/6/2014

Good afternoon! Today is the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, and also the 5th Anniversary of me getting married, so I think we can all agree that it’s an important occasion. And what better way to celebrate than by expressing outrage at this week’s WTF Friday? NO BETTER WAY, I say.

This week’s entry comes once again from India, which is basically devoting itself full-time to trolling this blog now.

And I must congratulate them on their success, because in a week that brought us news of peacekeepers implicated in torture and forced disappearances in the Central African Republic, and Yet Another Honor Crime in Pakistan, the BJP still managed to scrape into first place at the last minute with this gem:

“Within days of being elected to parliament, new MPs of the Bharatiya Janata Party have announced a campaign to drive illegal Bangladeshi migrants out of Assam.

“The campaign will be initiated by the youth wing of the party within next 15 days,” Kamakhya Prasad Tasa of the Jorhat constituency announced on Sunday. “In the first phase of the campaign, we will appeal to illegal immigrants to leave our land voluntarily in next 15 days. We will also launch a house-to-house campaign urging people not to engage the immigrants in any kind of work.”

Sending the youth wing of a party already associated with sectarian pogroms “house to house” in search of “illegal immigrants” and those who harbor them? What could possibly go wrong?

(Oh, and about those “illegal Bengladeshi migrants”? They are, of course, neither illegal nor migrants. Talk amongst yourselves.)

Mass Atrocity Monday, 4/14/2014

Over the next four weeks, more than 800 million voters will go to the polls in India. It’s a landmark event in the world’s largest democracy, but global news coverage of the elections has focused almost entirely on the controversial candidacy of Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Since 2001, Modi has served as the Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat. He had been in power for only five months when terrible ethnic violence broke out.

On February 27, 2002, a train carrying Hindu pilgrims and activists stopped at Godhra in Gujarat. They were returning from Ayodhya, where construction of a Hindu temple was about to commence on the disputed site where a mob had destroyed the Babri Mosque 10 years previously. Their train pulled into the Godhra railway station at 7:43am. Less than an hour later, the train was on fire and 59 people were dead. Over the next three days, a deadly ethnic pogrom was unleashed against Muslims, who were believed to be responsible for the fire.

These are the facts everyone agrees on. Everything else is contested.

The train burning was immediately denounced by Modi and other Hindu leaders as a premeditated attack by a Muslim mob. Gujarati police alleged that members of the mob arrived armed with rags pre-soaked in oil. But journalists investigating at the time revealed a more complicated chain of events. As the Washington Post reported on March 6, 2002, Hindu activists on the train “carried on like hooligans” throughout the journey, harassing the other passengers and shouting anti-Muslim slogans. On arrival at Godhra, they refused to pay the Muslim tea and snack vendors. But the vendors were ready for them, and some boarded the train and pulled the emergency brake. Stalled in a Muslim neighborhood, the train drew a crowd that quickly turned violent, trading insults and hurled stones with those on board.

The source of the flames that took 59 lives remains a mystery. In the immediate aftermath, railway officials reported that members of the mob set fire to the train, but that the attack was “not preplanned”. An inquiry conducted by retired Supreme Court Judge Umesh Chandra Banerjee concluded in 2006 that the fire was the result of an accident. But a Gujarati commission empaneled in 2008 stuck to the initial story, finding that the burning of the train was the result of a “conspiracy”. In 2011, a local court sentenced eleven of the alleged conspirators to death.

Whatever the cause of the fire, its effects were clear. Hindu mobs rampaged in a frenzy of unchecked violence, egged on by government officials’ and local press’s scapegoating of the Muslim community. According to official estimates, 790 Muslims were killed in the following three days. Other sources suggest that the deaths numbered in the thousands. Horrific sexual attacks were systematically perpetrated against Muslim women, and businesses and homes were destroyed, and infants and children were burned alive.

As the violence unfolded, state security forces failed to intervene. One intelligence official described this as “a calculated decision by the state’s Hindu nationalist government”. As Human Rights Watch documented, calls to police, firemen, and even emergency medical services were met with the chilling response: “We have no orders to save you”. Other human rights groups reported that the security sector not only stood by as Muslim civilians were raped and murdered, but actively participated in the attacks.

Modi has escaped criminal charges for his role in the violence. But cases related the events of 2002 are still winding their way through the Indian courts, and the question of Modi’s complicity remains live. For the victims of the 2002 atrocities, the prospect of Narendra Modi as India’s next Prime Minister is surely a sick joke. And yet for many Indians, his success in promoting rapid economic development during his tenure in Gujarat outweighs the blood on his hands.


*For more info on the Gujarat violence, and Modi’s role, check out these extremely disturbing interviews with the perpetrators:

WTF Friday, 2/14/14

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!  I was going to put up a WTF Friday about this batshit insane story, but I thought that might spoil the mood. So instead, you get this gem:

“There has been chaos in the lower house of India’s parliament after an MP used pepper spray to disrupt proceedings.


Mr Rajagopal smashed a glass and used pepper spray on his colleagues when Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde tried to table the bill to create Telangana, which will be carved out of Andhra Pradesh state.

Some unconfirmed reports said another MP pulled out a knife. Several other MPs were reportedly involved in clashes with their opponents.

Mr Rajagopal told Indian media he had acted in self-defence after being attacked.”

State monopoly on violence, ur doin it wrong.

WTF Friday, 1/18/2012

Charles Taylor’s story where he escapes from prison (with help from the US Government) by tying bed sheets together and climbing out of a window is all of a sudden gaining some credibility. Actually, this kind of thing is surprisingly common.

Oh, that’s rich. You know what’s also like colonialism? Colonialism.

I’m really looking forward to this.



In Which Pigs Fly, and I Defend Lindsay Lohan’s New Trafficking Documentary

It’s Passover this week, a time when our minds turn to thoughts of slavery and wine.

Speaking of which, did you hear that Lindsay Lohan made a documentary about child trafficking in India for BBC3?

This clip leaked online a few weeks ago, but journalists in the UK have apparently just gotten a look at the full-length documentary, and have wasted no time in tearing LiLo to ribbons. Here’s Amelia Gentleman, in the Guardian:

“There are a lot of contenders for most uncomfortable moment in Lindsay Lohan’s upcoming BBC documentary about child trafficking in India, but I think the bit that will have most viewers kicking their televisions is when Lohan is hugging a very young girl on her knee, listening to her describe a life spent begging on the streets of Calcutta.
The shaven-haired girl is explaining that her parents would beat her unless she went out every day to earn money, but it’s hard to concentrate on what she’s saying because what’s happening behind her is so distracting. Lohan is rubbing her already-red eyes, spreading mascara around the place, twitching her eyebrows.
“Um. Um. Oh my God,” the film star says, her lips wobbling uncontrollably. A disembodied hand pops into the screen to pass her a tissue. “Um. How did she feel? Um. How did they treat her?” she asks, beginning to sob.
The small girl turns to look at her in bemusement. The translator gives an embarrassed laugh and says to the girl: “She’s crying for you. Why don’t you comfort her?” So we watch as the puzzled child dutifully strokes Lohan’s long mane of golden hair.”

Xeni Jardin pronounced this a “celebrity advocacy fail,” and BBC3 Controller Danny Mair was grilled on Britain’s Radio 4 last week about his decision to use Lohan in the documentary.

But I have to say, I don’t think it looks so bad. (Stop the presses: Wronging Rights is being less snarky than the rest of the internet about something!)

I only know what I’ve seen in the clip above, and read in Gentleman’s article, but as far as I can tell, Lohan behaved as any interested, kind, and previously-uninformed person would have in that situation. Reading between the lines of Gentleman’s eyebrow-wiggling and mascara-smearing prose, it sounds like Lohan, upon hearing the small child on her lap describe a life of exploitation and suffering, began to cry. And we’re supposed to think this is a sign of what, exactly? Weakness of character? Crying when faced with tragedy is hardly a reaction limited to hard-partying starlets.

Likewise, I’m not inclined to pounce on Lohan for stumbling over her words a bit in the confrontation with the trafficker that’s shown in the clip. Yes, it’s hardly the case that only “the attractive ones” need to worry about being sexually abused, or forced into prostitution. But Lindsey Lohan isn’t an expert in human trafficking, or women’s rights. If she’d parroted the talking points perfectly, then we’d know that she’d been well coached. But as it was, she had an awkward, slightly weird, somewhat inaccurate conversation with a woman who admitted to selling children. At worst, that’s an interesting thing to watch. And at best, it offers the similarly-uninformed viewer someone to identify with. (Hell, the informed viewer, too. There but for the grace of not being followed around by a video camera during my intern years go I.)

In other words, Lindsay Lohan is kind of a weirdo, and a layperson when it comes to trafficking in children, and acted accordingly. I fail to see the problem with that. It seems far, far preferable to the alternative mode of celebrity causemongering, in which stars opine on substantive policy matters, and are treated like the experts they are not.

Your thoughts?

X-Judy 7: India Will See Your Lawless Mayhem, and Raise You Some Bollywood Stardom

Video clip of “Shootout at Lokhandwala.”

Do you know what really spices up an extrajudicial killing? A jazzy musical number!*

In India, “encounter” and “encounter killing” are euphemisms for “shot by the police.” The term implies that the victim was armed, and shot first – if the police shoot an unarmed person and plant a weapon on the body, that’s a “false encounter killing.”

In the 90s, encounter killings were so common in Mumbai that some officers became known as “encounter specialists” -specialists in shootouts. Human rights groups have long criticized the practice, noting the high civilian death rate and few positive results to show for it.

The encounter killings have also caught the attention of India’s media and its vast film industry, known as “Bollywood.” And let the result be a lesson to all of us who seek to “bring attention” to human rights violations: encounter specialists were lionized in Bollywood movies like Shootout at Lokhandwala, Risk, and Encounter: The Killing. The movies depict police officers heroically taking on massive criminal cartels in bloody shootouts, fighting for justice ten thousand bullets at a time. And then taking a break to sing a song, do a dance, and get the girl. From Wikepedia’s description of Shootout at Lokhandwala:

“A long and devastating gun battle begins. The criminals launch RPG (rocket propelled grenade) from their flat and try to escape. But they are overwhelmed by police fire and all five criminals are eventually slain. The battle lays waste to the entire building: film shots show the staircases, hallways and several civilian flats completely pulverized by gunfire. […]

Charges are brought against Khan and the ATS. But when [Private Prosecutor] Dhingra rises to defend them as their appointed counsel, he, in a surprising twist, presents an unconventional argument as defense. The film ends with Khan and the ATS being acquitted”

Everyone loves a good musical number, but the heroic, all-singing, all-dancing image of encounter specialists has served as a screen for the much darker truth.

There is substantial evidence that police have used “false encounter killings”to conceal extrajudicial killing, torture, and other abuses on a massive scale. Ensaaf recently analyzed police reports of more than 20,000 alleged encounter killings in Punjab:

“Punjab Police released press reports almost daily to local newspapers, detailing the civilians, security forces, and alleged militants killed. Alleged militants were most often reported killed in encounters involving an exchange of gunfire. However, human rights groups have documented hundreds of cases in Punjab where victims were arrested, abducted, or executed by security forces in the presence of witnesses – but then would be reported a few days later as a “suspected militant,” killed in an “encounter” with security forces. These reports suggest that many such reported encounters were falsified. So-called “fake encounters,” in fact, were so prevalent that the practice has been remarked upon by the U.S. State Department and widely acknowledged in the media. Empirical findings from our report are also consistent with qualitative findings that reported encounters were often faked. ”

In other words: bummer about being kidnapped and murdered, but maybe Amitabh Bachchan will play you in the movie version!

*The embedded clip is from Shootout at Lokhandwala, but I’m not actually sure what it’s depicting. These particular singers/dancers might be playing gangsters, not encounter specialist cops. More information would be much appreciated, commenters!

On Reading an Article in The New Yorker, and Wishing It Told Me Some More Things

This morning on the subway I read “Serving the Goddess,” William Dalrymple’s article about India’s Devadasis. The Devadasis are women, nearly always illiterate and of the lowest caste, who live as sacred sex workers after being dedicated to the goddess Yellamma. Their lives are difficult and, since the coming of AIDS, usually very short. However, they do enjoy a different social status from other sex workers. According to one woman interviewed, they still receive customary gifts and blessings (the first milk from a cow who has just given birth, five silk saris a year, special ceremonies to mark weddings and births in their communities), and enjoy the support of the Devadasi community, which enables them to work from home in safety, rather than from more dangerous streets or brothels.

The article was fairly good. It’s well written, and I like that Dalrymple allowed the women to speak in their own words about their lives, keeping brief the obligatory Interview With A Concerned Western NGO Employee Who Knows Better. However, I could have done with a little less coverage of all the family members dying of AIDS, and a little more discussion of -you guessed it- the legal angles. More specifically:

“Unlike other women, we can inherit our fathers’ property.” (pg. 39) I profess complete ignorance of India’s current inheritance laws, but this is an interesting rule, and I wonder where it came from. Is it because the Devadasis do not marry, so the father’s property is not being transferred to another man’s family? Is it a sign that the women’s connection to the temple renders them “men” in that they are no longer the property (from a legal perspective) of their fathers and husbands? I am DYING to know, Dalrymple. I can’t believe you left me hanging.

“If it wasn’t for [Yellamma], how could an illiterate woman earn two thousand rupees in a day? Yellamma is a very practical goddess.” (pg. 40) Really? Do the Devadasis earn more than conventional sex workers? Why is that? According to the article, the sex work itself is not different from what is offered outside the Devadasi system; “fucking is fucking.” Is there some cachet, or at least less stigma, attached to frequenting Devadasis rather than conventional sex workers? If not, why do they earn more?

If anyone can enlighten me, I’d be very interested to know the answers.

The Most Surprising Thing I Read Today

This New York Times article discusses the problems that the poorest children in India face when trying to get an education in the failing public school system there. It’s pretty standard stuff: lack of funds + lack of accountability + lack of political clout for the lowest castes/classes = lack of decent education prospects. Yawn.

What surprised me was this line, meant to underscore the importance of education, and the negative consequences of having to do without one:

“Among the poorest 20 percent of Indian men, half are illiterate, and barely 2 percent graduate from high school, according to government data. By contrast, among the richest 20 percent of Indian men, nearly half are high school graduates and only 2 percent are illiterate.”

Wha?? 2% of the men in India’s richest 20% are illiterate? Half of the richest 20% have not graduated from high school?

Just so we’re clear, that is a huge number of people: India’s population is about 1.29 billion. Assuming conservatively that men make up only 50% of India’s population, that means that the line could have read “Incredibly, nearly 56 million men have managed to find their way into the richest 20% of the population without ever completing high school. Even more incredibly, 11.25 million have managed to do so despite being illiterate.”

I want to know more about that! What is going on there? The possible explanations I’ve come up with, listed after the jump:

1) The statistic is just wrong. (Always worth considering.)

2) The statistic is technically correct, but misleading: perhaps there is such a large gap between the top top 10% and the next 10% that these men have not actually overcome their lack of education as much it appears? I’m not sure that this explanation makes much difference, though: even if it’s true, they’ve still beat out the other 80%. I would like to know how.

3) Wealth arising out of owning land that has suddenly become more valuable (I say “suddenly” because I would guess that families that are already in the top 20% would educate their children. However, I don’t know much about land ownership in India, so I could be way off base here.)

4) Oh. Corruption and crime. Sigh….