January 19, 2011
Censorship and Book Burning: The INTERLOK controversy
by Umapagan Ampikaipakan
THERE is something deeply ironic about Hindus burning books. It is, after all, a religious and cultural tradition that places such a high value on knowledge, on education. So much so that in the hierarchy of things to be worshipped, God comes only after teacher. So much so that its teachings prohibit its followers from even touching a book with their feet, let alone set it ablaze.
There is a growing gulf, between thought and action, between reason and recklessness. There is a lack of engagement between belief and the practice of it. We have spent a lot of the last few weeks embroiled in controversy. In heated debate. We’ve been talking about the ethics of book burning. We’ve been talking about the pitfalls of censorship. We’ve been talking about the role of literature and the responsibility of those who teach it. We’ve been talking about the importance of historical and geographical accuracy in fiction.
The knee-jerks have been depressing at best and downright reprehensible at worst. The lack of proper discourse, of actual debate, among those involved is inexcusable. Threats and ultimatums will only ever be met by further threats and ultimatums. Often resulting in a game of chicken, with each side waiting to see who will flinch first.
Because if this recent controversy has highlighted anything, it is the distinct lack of leadership in and among Indians in Malaysia. This stems from a community divided. Left to fend for themselves and all alone in the night.
More so since 2008 with an election that resulted in a more vibrant democracy but also in the further splintering of our body politic. The Indians in Malaysia were left stranded, lacking proper guidance and adequate representation. There were suddenly too many voices, all of them screaming for attention. They weren’t dissimilar but they were distinct. Each one reacting to a specific problem rather than addressing it.
It is a disconnect that has left Indians doomed to the kind of social and political disintegration that will eventually and inevitably affect the nation as a whole. Because they remain disparate. They remain fragmented. Tamils stand apart from Ceylonese who stand apart from Malayalees who stand apart from Sikhs. There are social barriers between them. There is the burden of that institutional memory left behind by the British.
And so they remain desperate. Each group seeking to carve out its own little space. Failing to realise that with every fracture comes only weakness. That it will eventually lead to the disintegration of the whole.
Now there is little doubt that Indians in Malaysia have come a long way since Merdeka. They have shed the squalor of their humble beginnings. Socially. Politically. It is progress that has been fuelled primarily by education, but also by economics, by a deep seated desire to rise above one’s station. They have become an actual influence. They have become a genuine partner in plotting the course of this nation.
It is something apparent in the way their attentions are being sought, and in every which way, by political parties looking for votes, by non-governmental organisations looking to increase their influence.
Because all of this recent controversy had less to do about the usage of the word “pariah” than it did with trying to regain some political clout. It was about being a worthy competitor. It was about contributing something to the national debate.
Which gives rise to that unavoidable question of what’s next? Where do they go from here? Because now, after coming so far, they have begun to languish in political wilderness. This is the real Indian dilemma. This lack of direction.
And it is a problem that can be solved only by proper leadership. Not of the political kind but of the intellectual kind. Because they’ve matured politically. Because they’re thriving economically. But there is still a distinct lack of thought leadership, of intellectual guidance. It is the missing link required in uniting the community. In making them an indispensable cog in the machinery of Malaysia.