Cry from the margin

Published : Dec 21, 2007 00:00 IST

Ethnic Indians stage a rally in Kuala Lumpur in protest against the marginalisation of the community.

in SingaporeEthnic Indians duck

MALAYSIAN Indians have finally placed the issue of their marginalisation on the countrys mainstream political agenda and in the wider focus of the international community. They have done so by choosing the occasion the ongoing celebration of the countrys 50th year of independence from Britain and the just-concluded Commonwealth summit and the target, post-imperial Britain.

The multiracial Malaysian government was quick to rebut the charges from this sizable section of the countrys population. Numbering about two million, Malaysian Indians constitute roughly 8 per cent of the countrys diverse population, which has a core Malay majority, and form the third largest group after Malays and ethnic Chinese.

Surely, not all Malaysian Indians, many of whom are known to be poor, have participated in the current effort of the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF) to bring to the fore their overall marginalisation. Samy Vellu, a long-time, high-profile leader of the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), has distanced himself from HINDRAF and its latest protest actions. As Works Minister, he has for long been a key member of the countrys multiracial brains trust at the helm of affairs. Samy Vellu is known to command a large following. Not only that. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi asserted, after the Commonwealth summit in Kampala on November 25, that poverty was not unique to ethnic Indians in Malaysia. There were rich and poor people in all Malaysian communities, he emphasised.

Earlier on the same day, HINDRAF mobilised several thousand Malaysian Indian activists for a protest rally in Kuala Lumpur. The rally, for which the authorities had declined permission following a court order, was designed to shine the spotlight on HINDRAFs attempt to submit a petition to the British High Commission.

The police and the civil authorities had braced themselves for the occasion by the time the protesters gathered. The protesters carried a banner proclaiming their intention to march peacefully to the British embassy. For the authorities on the scene, though, the issue was not whether the protesters, some of whom displayed prominently poster-pictures of Mahatma Gandhi, would keep their word about marching peacefully. As the gathering was illegal ab initio, the police wanted the crowds to disperse.

That did not happen, mainly because HINDRAFs call for a rally had gained momentum. It also appears that this umbrella forum of non-governmental activists had planned to capitalise on the power of citizen journalism to get the message across to the wider world. Few political activists would be unaware of the magnifying impact of the Web-driven and externally inspired coverage of the recent spontaneous protest in Myanmar. Surely, Malaysia is not in the category of military-ruled Myanmar, but the organisers of the rally could not have asked for a better public impact. As this report is written, there is no explicit move by HINDRAF to seek Indias intervention or moral support.

As the standoff between the protesters and the Malaysian authorities did not end quickly, the police used water cannon and tear gas to disperse the crowds. The graphic images of this end-game, punctuated at one stage by the action of some protesters who turned violent and hurled sundry missiles of the non-militant kind, linger as witness to an emerging story of undefined proportions.

In the event, the primary purpose of the rally the submission of a petition to the British embassy was not accomplished on that day despite the diplomatic missions apparent willingness to receive it on a Sunday. The petition was said to have been signed by almost 100,000 people.

Unsurprisingly in the context, Abdullah said pointedly that if they wanted to submit a memorandum, there were other ways of doing it than by resorting to an illegal rally to drum up support.

Prime Minister

What did the memorandum contain for it to have raised passions of expectations among Malaysian Indians and an equal degree of resistance from the authorities? In essence, HINDRAFs effort was to seek the British monarchs intervention for the appointment of a counsel on behalf of Malaysian Indians.

The bigger context was the lawsuit that HINDRAF had filed in London, towards the end of August. (Malaysia attained independence on August 31, 1957.) The objective was to seek reparations to the tune of $4 trillion from the present British government for some deeds of its bygone imperial predecessor. At stake is the deeply human story of how the rulers of the old British Raj behaved.

Giving no thought to the trauma of mass human displacement, British imperialists transported underprivileged sections of South Indians to the Malaya peninsula to work as indentured labourers in the plantations there. Needless to say, it was a highly controlled exercise by a ruthlessly efficient imperial Britain, whose writ extended to Malaya and other places in South-East Asia. Most of the Malaysian Indians are the direct descendants of these early immigrants, and this should explain the logic of their demand for reparations from Britain, although not the delay in seeking that.

It is this delay that rankles with the authorities, and thereby hangs a not-so-subtle tale. HINDRAF leaders have sought to use their lawsuit and their appeal to the Queen as the means to put moral pressure on the Malaysian government. The purpose is to get a fair deal for ethnic Indians from the Abdullah government.

Abdullah has taken the line that the Malaysian government will continue to help the ethnic Indian community through the MIC, a long-time constituent of the ruling coalition. HINDRAFs demand for a fair deal covers not only educational and job opportunities but also protection to Hindu temples. Samy Vellu said the MIC has been working within the system, and it has proven to be successful. Street demonstrations, in his view, are not the Malaysian way of resolving problems.

The Malaysian authorities face a fundamental poser in this context. Can an enduring political pact among different parties representing Malays, ethnic Chinese and Malaysian Indians serve as a long-term social contract among these communities? This has to be pondered over, as none of these communities has put out a separatist agenda.

A significant development, coinciding with the latest rally, was the discharge of three HINDRAF leaders P. Uthaya Kumar, P. Waytha Moorty and V. Ganapati Rao in a case under the Sedition Act. They were accused of making seditious remarks at a restaurant on November 16, and each pleaded not guilty. Their discharge has boosted the morale of the Malaysian Indian community.

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