CAIRO - As election season looms in Malaysia, controversy is building on a decades-long novel about the Indian minority in the Muslim-majority country, threatening a possible change of the political landscape in the multi-racial south Asian nation.
It's one of the only books that has tried to address the complexities of ethnicity in Malaysia," Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, head of the Institute of Ethnic Studies at the National University of Malaysia, told the Los Angeles Times on Sunday, April 8.
Written by Abdullah Hussain, the novel, interlock, first appeared in Malaysia in 1971.
Set in the first half of the 20th century, the story follows three characters Seman, Chin Huat and Maniam as their lives eventually intertwine during British occupation.
In one passage, the book describes the migration of Indians from the southern subcontinent, where some were members of the pariah caste.
But the novel began to irk the Indian minority after the Ministry of Education added it to the syllabus of public high schools in the Kuala Lumpur area in late 2010.
Parents of Indian students who read the book were outraged by the use of the word "pariah" and descriptions of Indian characters as black-skinned.
"The book is designed to indoctrinate Indian children that they are immigrants in this country, that they should be grateful to the Malays for letting them stay," said Thasleem Mohamed Ibrahim, who became an organizer of the anti-"Interlok" movement, which has collected 50,000 signatures demanding that the novel be removed from the syllabus.
As the protest movement gained support from Chinese and Malay groups, the government created an amended version before finally agreeing to remove the book entirely for the 2012 school year, a move celebrated by activists as a victory.
"In the past, we have not been able to see issues like this to completion," said N.S. Krishna, a videographer who created short films about the issue for YouTube.
But this time, we completed the mission.
Experts, however, believe that the removal of the controversial novel was a political maneuver by the ruling party ahead of the elections.
"They're desperate to hold on to power, and they need the Indian vote to win, Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia expert at Singapore Management University, told the LA Times.
Everybody sees the withdrawal of 'Interlok' for exactly what it is: as an act of political desperation.
Malaysia's general elections are set for early 2013. However, speculations are running high that the government will call early elections in May or June.
The removal of the novel also sparked accusation for the government of playing politics to win supporters.
"Today you stop the book and tomorrow what are you going to stop?" asked Indian author and academic Ambigapathy Pandian.
"The Indian community should be mature enough to accept these criticisms."
Critics argue that the sensitive words such as pariah were in use during the period when the book was set, and that the characters' attitudes toward race are historically accurate.
The writer too, 92-year-old now, remains puzzled by the controversy over his novel.
Hussain maintained that his book was not insensitive to Indians, and that its characters were based on real people and extensive research.
"They politicized my book," he wrote in reply to the LA Times.
Dubbed the "melting pot" of Asia for its potpourri of cultures, Malaysia has long been held up as a model of peaceful co-existence among its races and religions.
Muslim Malays form about 60 percent of Malaysia's 26-million population, while Christians make up around 9.1 percent.
Buddhists constitute 19.2 percent, Hindu 6.3 while other traditional Chinese religions make up the rest of the population.