Assaults on Free Expression and Inquiry

Via Easily Distracted, Ngugi wa’ Thiongo, the author of novels such as The River Between and Petals of Blood, was assaulted upon his return to Kenya from a tour. His wife NjeEri was raped. Ngugi has been an outspoken critic of the Kenyan government and a dissident.

“Violence is one theme of his books, which explore Kenyan society from colonialism to independence and the corruption and disappointment that followed.”

Ngugi had been in exile for 20 years after having been imprisoned for a year. The assault may have been an act of politics intended to intimidate and humiliate a dissident, instead of a random act of violence. The African Literature Association has issued this condemnation, which clearly sees the act, among other things, as an assault on free expression.

“The African Literature Association therefore strongly condemns these acts of violence on Ngugi and Njeeri. It is a travesty of all the fundamentals of human rights, including freedom of expression, to be subjected to these violent acts upon returning home after twenty-two years of promoting Kenya internationally.”

One Kenyan commentator has linked this to a wider attitude of corruption and social decay.

“The fact that it happened is not so much an indicator of how crime-ridden Nairobi is, but how much the political problems and economic deprivations of the past two decades have destroyed social order. In other words, blame politics. . .

[I]t’s very frustrating doing research in the vast library at Makerere University in Kampala. The few good books that haven’t been stolen have many of the pages ripped out. The story is much the same in the Dar es Salaam and Nairobi university libraries, I am told. It is in places like the libraries, not so much on the streets, that you get to best measure how much damage has been done to our psyches by the difficulties that have battered our societies in recent years.

Societies where someone like Ngugi is attacked in the way that he and Njeeri were, begin to rot by tearing a page out of his book in the library – or not reading him altogether.”

The destruction of knowledge and the hostility to open expression and inquiry is not peculiar to Kenya, to places where authoritarian kleptocracy is the order of the day, or even new. In one sense, the Lysenko affair may be a sad paradigm of one common type of relations between modern politics and scholarly knowledge. In India, this politics is not born of an authoritarian clique but of a large populist and fascistic movement in a democratic society.

Martha Nussbaum offers this example in her recent Boston Review article on the mutilation of Muslim women in Gujarat.

“[T]he historian James Laine of Macalester College impugned the purity of a prominent woman of the past by mentioning in his biography of the 17th-century Hindu emperor Shivaji that, because Shivaji’s father traveled for most of his life, there were jokes that the son was the product of an adulterous liaison of his mother’s. Laine did not even credit the allegation; he merely reported it. Nonetheless, the mere mention of a slur against the reputation of Shivaji’s mother brought an attack on Laine’s Indian collaborator, who was physically assaulted and his face painted black. Part of the institute in Pune where Laine did his research was burned; the book was banned by the state government; and its Indian edition was promptly withdrawn by a timorous Oxford University Press. Laine has been charged with a crime against public order, and Prime Minister Vajpayee himself (now ex–prime minister), on campaign in Maharashtra, has suggested that Interpol ought to go to the United States to arrest Laine. “

The attack destroyed 30,000 ancient manuscripts including a clay tablet dating to 600 B.C. The Indian government’s response has not been heartwarming.

‘The Congress-led Democratic Front (DF) is seeking expert legal opinion on whether action can be initiated against American author James Laine for his ‘negative portrayal’ of Chhatrapati Shivaji in his book A Hindu King in Islamic India.’

Butterflies and Wheels offers many links and insights into the general assault on scholarship and science underway in India.