KEEP INTERLOK; EXCISE THE P-WORD
The Cabinet has to make a firm and fair decision on the use of the novel Interlok as a Malay literature text for form five students in the shortest possible time. Ethnic controversies in the public arena should not be allowed to drag on and on. Long-drawn ethnic controversies encourage individuals and groups to adopt hard and rigid positions. They tend to poison the atmosphere. Just solutions become more difficult in such situations.
To withdraw Interlok as a school text would be unjust and unfair. Literary experts, including academics from the Indian and Chinese communities have pointed out that the book does seek to promote inter-ethnic unity through its central characters. A work of fiction which attempts to understand the travails that the different communities had to undergo in an earlier period of our history, it makes a contribution, in its own way, towards a better appreciation of the situation of ‘the other’ in our multi-ethnic society.
But this does not mean that the book should be accepted as it is without any changes. The P-word – as Yayasan 1Malaysia(YIM) emphasised in an earlier statement— should be removed for at least five reasons.
One, by the time Abdullah Hussain’s Interlok was published in 1971, the P-word had already lost its significance in academic and literary writings, and in politics and public life in India. Since the Indian Independence struggle in the early part of the 20th century and the proclamation of the Constitution of the Republic of India in 1950 which commits the nation to equality and prohibits caste practices, terms such as ‘Harijan’ and ‘Dalit’ have gained much more prominence in the land that gave birth to the caste system. (Of course, caste attitudes continue to express themselves to this day, especially in parts of rural India). Simply put, Abdullah need not have used that obnoxious word. He had a choice. This makes his situation different from Mark Twain’s, whose 1884 classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn uses the derogatory word, “nigger” a number of times because that was the only term in vogue at that time for the African-American populace. In this regard we must remember that why certain terms — however demeaning — gain acceptability even among those who are at the receiving end is a question of power and the nexus between power and language.
Two, whatever the uses of the P-word and the contexts in which it is employed, it is indisputably one of the most pejorative terms that exists to describe a category of human beings. Besides, as a term it is no longer confined to the diabolical Hindu caste structure. It has evolved into a metaphor to describe the “outcast” in whatever circumstance. Thus, the not infrequent references to a pariah in some social setting or to a pariah state in international affairs.
Three, in Malaysia the P-word has been in currency for a long time. It is used not only within the Indian community but also by non-Indian Malaysians against their Indian compatriots. Since ethnic relations are at a low point today, should we lend legitimacy to the P-word via a national secondary school text and further exacerbate the situation? What would be the political repercussions of such deterioration in ties?
Four, since it is 17 and 18 year-old fifth formers who will be exposed to the P-word in Interlok, it is quite conceivable that it may have an adverse impact upon their understanding of, and interaction with, their Indian schoolmates. The communally inclined among them may seize upon the term to denigrate the status and ancestry of all members of the community.
Five, if the P-word should be excised from the book, it is also because pejorative language has no place at all in most of our spiritual-moral philosophies. Taking Islam as an example, the Prophet found language that demeans the other so abhorrent that he is known to have admonished his close companion, Omar Ibn Khattab, who later became the second Caliph, for using a racial epithet against the black Abyssinian slave, Bilal, one of the most revered figures in Muslim history. In his farewell sermon, Muhammad reminded humankind that no one is superior or inferior because of ancestry or ethnicity, colour or gender. It is not surprising therefore that early Muslim scholars and travellers like Al-Biruni and Ibn Battuta were revolted by the structure and culture of caste in India.
This is why there should be zero tolerance for caste epithets, racial prejudices, ethnic slurs and communal stereotypes in our society. Each and every Malaysian should combat these evils within his own community and in the larger nation. It is true for instance that traces of caste consciousness persist within segments of the Hindu community in Malaysia. The community should eradicate this. It will enhance its credibility as it joins hands with other Malaysian communities to excise the P-word from Interlok.
Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Yayasan 1Malaysia and Professor of Global Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia(USM).
24 January 2011.