A protest aborted

Print edition : March 25, 2011

The racist tenor of a novel, to be included in school curriculum, rankles ethnic Indians, but the government thwarts a protest.

in Singapore

Najib Tun Razak, Malaysia's Prime Minister.-BUOY GHOSH

THE detention of more than 100 human rights activists in Kuala Lumpur on February 27 may not have caught much international attention amid the political ferment across the Arab world. However, the relevant issue at stake in Malaysia is nothing less than a public allegation of racism or racist overtones against the country's minorities.

Significantly, the Malaysian authorities acted with considerable restraint in dealing with the protest planned by the activists, almost all of whom belong to the minority ethnic Indian community. Not only that, even before the protest was nipped in the bud the Malaysian government headed by Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, who prides himself on his 1Malaysia policy, announced that it would look into the issues at stake.

In particular focus is a controversial novel Interlok, written in Malay, the language of the Muslim-majority Malays in the multiracial South-East Asian country. The education authorities have been trying to introduce Interlok (or Interlock in English), in the high school curriculum. Leading the protest against this move is the outlawed Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF), a maverick but educated and proactive group at the forefront of efforts to create a new and modern identity for Malaysian Indians. The protest march planned for February 27 was given advance publicity, with HINDRAF even internationalising the issue to some extent by alerting several worldwide human rights groups. It was to have been led by P. Uthayakumar, pro tem leader of the Human Rights Party Malaysia (HRPM), which straddles a grey area of the law by being an organisation that has been neither registered or accredited nor outlawed formally. In any case, in the eyes of HINDRAF, Uthayakumar, as its founder, was the right person to launch the protest.

However, Uthayakumar was arrested outside his residence when he was about to proceed to the venue of the protest. Other would-be protesters were also taken into custody at different places across Kuala Lumpur, including the points of entry into the city from elsewhere in Malaysia. As a result, the protest march did not take place, but there was no outbreak of violence.

The Malaysian authorities treated the protest call as an illegal act ab initio because the police had rejected a relevant application on the grounds of avoiding interracial tensions. HINDRAF's counterpoint, though, was that Malaysia's federal Constitution guaranteed the freedom of assembly and expression of peaceful protest.

After the arrests, even as HINDRAF tried to keep the issue in focus, the Malaysian authorities thanked non-governmental organisations of ethnic Indian origin for prevailing upon the minority community to avoid street demonstrations. The NGOs were also credited with counselling ethnic Indians to get the primary issue addressed through democratic dialogue with the relevant authorities.

As such a largely unnoticed battle for the moral high ground was on between the Malaysian authorities and HINDRAF, some of the latter's activists began a vigil outside a police station in Kuala Lumpur where Uthayakumar was believed to have been detained. On the whole, the situation remained firmly under the authorities' control, and the detained HINDRAF activists, including Uthayakumar, were set free, some of them on bail. However, HINDRAF maintained that the supporters who kept vigil were detained in a fresh action late on the night of February 27.

Surely, these events bore none of the hallmarks of the latest political maelstrom in West Asia. However, familiar norms such as people's voice and political change, or some variants of these principles, are acquiring new meanings or interpretations in several countries outside the Arab world. The political ferment in the Arab countries may have either inspired or simply provided, as in the case of Malaysia, a topical context for such a new awareness in these countries. But the issues at stake in Malaysia are obviously far different from those in West Asia or in China, where the authorities, coincidentally, went on a security alert in Beijing and Shanghai on February 27 following some mysterious Internet calls for protest.

Malaysia, which is marginally coming into focus in this new-wave politics across the world, is already an upscale developing country with a strong track record of overall stability at home and reliability as an international player. The country has at least two very distinctive minorities to cater to Chinese immigrants and ethnic Indians. Since its independence, Malaysia has functioned under a social contract centred on power sharing among some political parties in an invariable ruling coalition called the National Front. Each of its constituent parties traces its roots to and derives its daily sustenance from a distinctive social group the majority Malay-Muslims or one of the other native communities or the ethnic Chinese or the people of Indian origin.

Until the advent of HINDRAF a few years ago, the political space in this minority domain was dominated almost entirely by the long-established Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). As a key component of successive National Front governments led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) at the federal level, the MIC is still a formidable force despite some latent challenges to its primacy from within the ethnic Indian spectrum.

Members of the Hindu Rights Action Force at a rally against racism in Kuala Lumpur on February 27.-LAI SENG SIN/AP

The ethnic Indian community is often seen as a distinctive group with external cultural practices and social mores. However, today's Malaysian Indians, with no political link whatsoever with India, do not wish to be seen or treated in that fashion or in that fashion alone. They do not wish to be regarded as merely the descendants of Indians who were brought from southern India by the British to work on plantations. This aspect of the Malaysian Indian identity, variously seen by the new leaders of the community itself and by some sections of the wider society in Malaysia, is at the heart of the latest unease, if not also large-scale unrest, among ethnic Indians there.

Closely linked to HINDRAF, with regard to a number of agendas and activities, is the as-yet-unregistered HRPM. HINDRAF is led by Waytha Moorthy, who chose self-imposed exile after playing a leading role in organising, in Kuala Lumpur in November 2007, a much-noticed public protest against the alleged marginalisation of Malaysian Indians in national and provincial fields. The Malaysian authorities outlawed HINDRAF after a detailed political analysis of the movement following the November 2007 protest, which captured unusual international attention.

The HRPM, on the other hand, has aspirations of catalysing political reforms through an advocacy of human rights for all Malaysians, but more especially for ethnic Indians. HINDRAF was founded as an NGO to work for ethnic-Indian causes in Malaysia. Uthayakumar, along with other HINDRAF protagonists such as V. Ganapathi Rao (also known as Ganabathi Rau) and M. Manoharan of the Democratic Action Party, was detained under Malaysia's Internal Security Act in the wake of the November 2007 protest.

Over the years, HINDRAF has been widely criticised in Malaysia, including in the ethnic Indian circles such as those of the MIC, for advocating what could easily be dismissed as a sectarian agenda. HINDRAF has not so far evoked the kind of political resonance its leaders have been looking for in India, where the secular credo, in name and deed, often dominates the political landscape. Aware of this, Uthayakumar sought to place HINDRAF on the map of overseas Indians at the recent Pravasi Bharatiya Divas held in New Delhi.

Conceding that the words Hindu and Action Force in HINDRAF's name might not hold any appeal for the secular conscience of the Indian polity, Waytha Moorthy and others who share his line of thinking argue that exclusivist labels are not at all uncommon in Malaysian politics. Moreover, HINDRAF is aware that New Delhi considers the issues concerning ethnic Indians to be entirely Malaysia's internal matter. Successive Malaysian Prime Ministers have also maintained this and acknowledged India's attitude of non-intervention.

Within these parameters, Malaysian Indians ought to be, in Waytha Moorthy's view, concerned about the totality of the racist tenor of Interlok. Outlining HINDRAF's position on this issue, he told Frontline that it would not suffice if some offensive racist words were deleted from the novel before its planned introduction as a textbook in schools. In his view, the tenor of the entire novel itself was unacceptable.

RIOT POLICE WAIT and watch on the premises of a police station as dozens of ethnic Indians (not seen in the photograph) march to file their complaint against the arrest of HINDRAF activists.-SAEED KHAN/AFP

While it will be inappropriate to reproduce passages from the novel considered to have racist overtones since a review of it is pending, Interlok is said (or alleged) to portray, in some passages, aspects of the lives and experiences of those who spoke Tamil or Telugu or Malayalam in the Malaya heartland during the British colonial era. In part, HINDRAF's argument is that such passages might produce negative images for the present.

There are said to be passages derogatory of the ethnic Chinese, as well. But the Chinese have not made common cause with HINDRAF. Another debatable point is whether HINDRAF should have waited for the government's review of the novel before planning a protest.

Far-fetched though it is, the resonance of the Arab anger in Asia cannot be missed.

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