Charlie Hebdo loves being in the news. After shooting to international prominence in January 2015 following a terrorist attack on its office in Paris, which killed 12 of its staff members, people around the world came to know more about the magazine. Initial reaction to the atrocity was one of horror, followed by solidarity -which led to je suis <insert persecuted entity here> becoming something of a meme- and yet another round of debates over the limits to free speech and expression. People also started reflecting over whether or not minorities and their cultural claims being disproportionately targeted for criticism made them victims to cultural bullying in unfamiliar lands. Nevertheless, Charlie Hebdo, by and large, captured media attention in all parts of the world. What was a small throughput French magazine read by probably a few thousand people in Paris became an internationally recognized satire magazine known for its irreverent satire and dark humor. When they made a comeback not long after the tragic episode, they were praised the world over for their bravery. This now means that Charlie Hebdo‘s readership has conceivably taken an upward curve in parts of the world where French is spoken and understood, apart from having its works being translated into different languages. Continue reading “Charlie Hebdo, laïcité and Italy”
It’s very tempting to fall into linguistic traps, especially when the words being spoken have content that is emotive. Sometimes it’s very difficult to separate what is actually to be taken issue with from what isn’t. Words like “murderer”, “terrorist”, “rapist” etc carry emotive content, apart from their criminal implications. Tag a person’s image with any one or a combination of these words, and it is likely to evoke a deep sense of disgust and hatred towards someone you have never seen before and whose (real) antecedents you have no idea about. The average person -even the average skeptic- is unlikely to look for further evidence that the person in the image actually is what the tag represents.
“It is cold at six-forty in the morning on a March day in Paris, and seems even colder when a man is about to be executed by firing squad.”
– Frederick Forsyth, The Day of the Jackal
The issue of capital punishment has been a matter of great debate for centuries, and it intensified ever since there emerged a subculture of humans which realized that people were entirely responsible for their own actions. Dishing out the death penalty began to be considered abhorrent to collective human conscience, and it began to be understood that capital punishment wasn’t effective as a deterrent of crime in any case. In Frederick Forsyth’s bestselling fictional thriller The Day of the Jackal, he mentions how he would feel if he were hypothetically to witness an execution by firing squad in the quote above. You might want to forgive the author for missing out on the words “calculated” and “chilling.” Here is a description of what execution by the firing squad looks/has looked like in the United States:
For execution by this method, the inmate is typically bound to a chair with leather straps across his waist and head, in front of an oval-shaped canvas wall. The chair is surrounded by sandbags to absorb the inmate’s blood. A black hood is pulled over the inmate’s head. A doctor locates the inmate’s heart with a stethoscope and pins a circular white cloth target over it. Standing in an enclosure 20 feet away, five shooters are armed with .30 caliber rifles loaded with single rounds. One of the shooters is given blank rounds. Each of the shooters aims his rifle through a slot in the canvas and fires at the inmate.[…] The prisoner dies as a result of blood loss caused by rupture of the heart or a large blood vessel, or tearing of the lungs. The person shot loses consciousness when shock causes a fall in the supply of blood to the brain. If the shooters miss the heart, by accident or intention, the prisoner bleeds to death slowly.[….]
It’s the new year…according to the Gregorian calendar, which is accepted as the standard almost everywhere in the world. Different calendars have different “New Year days”. That’s one reason why I always find it difficult to take the phatic platitude of “Happy New Year” too seriously. The other is that new years are unlikely to be too “happy”. There is too much going against that possibility. For India, the new year began in a way similar to the way it did for France last year , as it did for Afghanistan and Iraq. It began with the threat of sadomasochistic suicide – murdering, commonly known these days as Islamist terrorism. It’s never in short supply when you are lucky enough to have a neighbour who suckles and nurtures terrorists or -luckier still- have them at home.
So the year last began with a ghastly spectacle motivated by religious offense – taking place in an arrondissement in Paris. It was a perfect attention – seeking stunt by murderous, ghetto – dwelling hicks who wouldn’t be given any attention otherwise. Nor would the object of their ire grab international attention. How, then, could 2016 not begin with another bout of offense taking? The Indian cricketer MS Dhoni in a new avatar:
The cover of a business magazine trying to be a bit creative, perhaps. I mean, it’s really a “meh, whatever” kind of picture. Some people with a sense of humour might even find it a bit quaint and funny. Not what some people seem to think, though. Late last year, he was summoned by a court in Anantpur, Andhra Pradesh after a VHP leader filed a case against him for allegedly hurting Hindu sentiments.
In May 2013, Jayakumar Hiremath, a RTI activist filed a case in Bangalore under Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code – intent to insult the religion of any class – for “hurting the sentiments of the Hindu community”.
In May 2014, Rajinder Singh Raja, national general secretary of the Shivesena Hindustan filed a case in Delhi saying Dhoni had insulted the Hindu religion and Lord Vishnu because he had “been portrayed as God Vishnu and instead of showing religious things, the magazine is showing products of various companies including a shoe in his hand.”
“Neither did he pose for the picture, nor were we aware of such a picture being published,”says Dhoni’s manager. Dhoni’s lawyer says he never got the summons. Whatever happened, the court couldn’t get MS Dhoni to appear before it. The result? A non – bailable warrant . Really.
There is no crueler tyranny than that which is perpetuated under the shield of law and in the name of justice.– Charles de Montesquieu
Earlier this year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, on the 70th anniversary of Japan’s official admission of defeat in WWII, gave a speech in which he made an oblique reference to the atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers on South Korean “comfort women“, or women forced into sexual slavery by Japanese soldiers:
We will engrave in our hearts the past, when the dignity and honour of many women were severely injured during wars in the 20th century. Upon this reflection, Japan wishes to be a country always at the side of such women’s injured hearts. Japan will lead the world in making the 21st century an era in which women’s human rights are not infringed upon.
While not a direct apology, there is an air of repentance there. Many wondered if an apology was forthcoming. After all, in the same speech, Shinzo Abe also said:
We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize. Still, even so, we Japanese, across generations, must squarely face the history of the past. We have the responsibility to inherit the past, in all humbleness, and pass it on to the future.
We now know that Abe was not paying lip service to that commitment. Japan has now officially apologized to the comfort women -many of whom have died, and the rest are now very old- and had lived with the scars without any form of emotional closure. Japan has also announced a compensation package of $8.3 million, purportedly to “restore the dignity” of the women. Such a rather old-fashioned view of female dignity notwithstanding, at least steps are being taken in the right direction. The least governments can do for the crimes of their predecessors is apologize. Differences persist, however, but that is expected when atrocities were committed on such a large scale. If anything, this gesture should begin to restore Japan’s own dignity, which had been greatly besmirched by its fascist past.
News from Thailand is that the US Ambassador to that country Glyn Davies is under investigation for having candidly raised concerns about the draconian lese majeste laws prevalent there, at a conference recently. It was just last month that Davies was posted there, and it didn’t take him long to point out that this piece of legislation was being used to suppress dissent, and that the sentences handed out to offenders were indecently disproportionate to the grade of crime committed.
In August, a 48 year old man was convicted for apparently having committed the grave offence of insulting the royalty, by posting messages and pictures deemed to be defamatory to the 87 year old monarch of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej. It was also in direct violation of Article 19 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights , which guarantees the “right to freedom of opinion and expression….. freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” As it happens, Glyn Davies is in danger of being charged with lese majeste himself, and we can’t be certain that his diplomatic immunity will be respected. It wasn’t long ago that I had come across this vulgar excuse for a law myself, and raised my own concerns about the potential for its abuse.
Thailand is one of the hottest tourist locations in Asia. Apart from being home to plenty of tourist attractions, it also has to deal with the problem of a booming sex tourism trade which is leading to a variety of problems , not least of which is a spread of the HIV. Nevertheless, the tourism industry is one of the greatest contributors to the Thai GDP, contributing almost 20 percent to it. Thai food is also an attraction, and authentic Thai cuisine in itself is enough of a reason to make a pilgrimage to Thailand for.
It also is a place of historical significance, being the only South East Asian country to not have come under any imperialist influence, among other things. In many ways, that seems to have a flip-side. Apparently there has been no motivation for a popular revolution in Thailand, which might make it a tempting idea that people have not felt like changing the system. This would seem to be true, if there weren’t any coups by the military, and if the democratically elected leader of the executive weren’t arrested on corruption charges. Even though the country is effectively run by a military junta, there has been no dismantling of the monarchical system of governance. Officially a constitutional monarchy, the political system in Thailand is seriously lacking in credibility. After Aung San Suu Kyi’s landslide, and landmark, victory in Myanmar recently, which is likely to make it more difficult for the military to control policy making, Thailand, being another South East Asian country, can probably take heart. However, there is a difference. As mentioned before, Thailand is a monarchy, unlike Myanmar. The monarch might not be making policy decisions, but he is nevertheless the figurehead. Named Bhumibol Adulyadej, he is the longest reigning monarch in Thailand’s history. Quite a feat.
There is a problem though:
I found this in the newspaper Bangkok Post. Needless to say, I found it quite striking. There are lèse majesté laws in Thailand, which means that no one in Thailand has the right to say anything that offends the monarch. A clause in their constitution says: “The king shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the king to any sort of accusation or action.” This is basically deification of an individual. An individual is above all criticism, by virtue of being the symbolic leader of the nation. This is definitely against democratic principles. For one thing, a monarch is not democratically elected. There is not a whit of evidence that the monarch at all cares about the welfare of the people. As Jack London very evocatively mentioned in his 1902 book The People of the Abyss: “There is a Chinese proverb that if one man lives in laziness another will die of hunger; and Montesquieu has said, ‘The fact that many men are occupied in making clothes for one individual is the cause of there being many people without clothes.’”, describing his emotions while witnessing the extravagant coronation of a new king in England. He knew what it was like, having experienced the plight of the people of the streets and in the workhouses in London himself. The other thing is that such a constitutional dictate has the potential to be abused. What constitutes offence towards the king is very vague, just like the sedition laws in India.
You could argue that Thailand is a high HDI country. But that doesn’t say anything about the poverty and disease that plagues the country. It doesn’t say anything about the desperation of the women who are driven into the sex trade, and who end up either contracting, or spreading HIV. It doesn’t say anything about the communal violence that people who are on the lowest rungs of the survival ladder experience. As I have opined before, such statistical measures rarely take individual factors into account, and hence tend to be seriously flawed sometimes. But coming back to my point, in a country which could use more equitable distribution of its wealth, lavish spending on retaining an undemocratic figurehead is a bit rich. What’s worse is that one cannot point out this flaw in their system if one wanted, because they would be prohibited by Thai law to do so. This kind of cultism persists in quite a few countries, most notoriously in North Korea. Whenever you are supposed to “worship” a mortal, you know things are not right. In the 21st century, monarchical systems are anyway out-of-place, if not unseemly. I really do hope that the Thai people have something to say and do about this. Like the Nepalese people did.