HINDRAF — BANE UPON THE NATION
by Chandra Muzaffar
No single episode in Malaysian society in recent years has had such a negative impact upon Indo-Malay ties as the actions and allegations of the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf). Its reckless, scurrilous allegations have hurt and angered a lot of Malaysians in all walks of life.
It is utterly ludicrous to accuse the UMNO led government of embarking upon the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Indian community. Is there an organized, systematic attempt on the part of the State to eliminate the Indian minority which is what ethnic cleansing is all about? Do Hindraf leaders even understand the term and what it implies?
By the same token, how can one talk of the marginalization of the entire Indian community? While it is true that 2.9 percent of Indian households live below the poverty-line—-the national average is 5.7 percent—- aren’t Indians well represented in the middle and upper echelons of society? They constitute 11.5 percent of the professional and managerial class, which is above the percentage of the Indian population in the country that stands at 8 percent.
For a community which does not command a majority in any parliamentary or state constituency in the country, Indians are not only members of parliament and state assemblies but also occupy places in the federal government and in most state executive councils (state cabinets). They are executive council members even in those states where the Indian component is less than 5 percent of the population. Would a government that is bent on marginalizing and cleansing Indians accord such a significant role——in relation to its population percentage—- to the community in national and state politics?
If the government pursued a goal as diabolical as ethnic cleansing, would the principal language of the Indian Malaysian community, namely Tamil, be a medium of instruction in the government managed national primary school system? Would Tamil be a language medium in the public broadcasting system? Would Deepavali, the main religious festival of Indian Hindus, be observed as a national holiday? Would a community that has been completely marginalized and is threatened with ethnic cleansing be able to practise its religion and its culture in relative peace and harmony? If Hindus are facing annihilation, how does one explain the glaring fact that in the state of Selangor, on a per capita basis, there are more Hindu temples than mosques and suraus put together? The total Hindu-Indian population in the state is about one quarter of the total Malay-Muslim population.
Even on the demolition of a Hindu temple in Shah Alam on 15 November 2007—- the one issue that triggered a massive emotional backlash against the government—- Hindraf leaders and their supporters have been less than honest. It was not widely made known within the community that the temple was on private land and that the developer had offered cash assistance to the temple committee to build a new temple on an alternative site. The temple was not the only place of worship that was brought down; a surau was also demolished. In most instances, when temples or other places of worship are forced to yield to development projects, alternative sites are made available.
As structures, temples in particular are somewhat problematic since a number have been constructed without obtaining prior approval from relevant local authorities. Because they are illegal structures, the authorities have been forced to act. This is a problem which the Malaysian government had sought to address more than two decades ago. A committee was established under the aegis of the Prime Minister’s office in 1980 comprising government officials and NGO leaders (I was a member of that committee) to formulate guidelines on the construction of places of worship. Unfortunately, these guidelines have been breached on numerous occasions by both representatives of the religious community concerned and local authority officials.
Instead of explaining the complex sensitivities involved in the whole question of the construction and demolition of temples, Hindraf appears to have exaggerated and distorted the real issues at stake. Together with other issues such as Hindu-Muslim legal tussles over conversion and custody, the deaths in police custody of some Indian prisoners and the Kampong Medan incident of 2001, demolitions have provided grist to the Hindraf mill. They have served to fuel baseless allegations about the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the community.
At this juncture, we should ask why Hindraf leaders and certain politicians have chosen to dramatize specific –sometimes legitimate—- grievances via wild allegations about ethnic cleansing and marginalization? Dramatizing the alleged ‘oppression and suppression of a people’ through exaggerated claims is a technique which unscrupulous individuals and groups resort to in order to win popular sympathy. They also serve to smear and shame one’s target—-in this case the UMNO- led government and perhaps indirectly the MIC leadership.
What this suggests is that there may also be a political motive. Of the three communities in Peninsular Malaysia, it is the Indian community which has, in the course of the last three decades, provided near unanimous electoral support to the Barisan Nasional. With the twelfth General Election just around the corner, certain politicians linked directly or indirectly to Hindraf are perhaps seeking to weaken the BN’s electoral strength by exploiting genuine Indian grievances against the government.
Whatever the motives, the genuine grievances of the community should be addressed in a sincere and rational manner. Some of them I have alluded to. Others are linked to the ethnic approach to nation-building, the camouflage of the underclass in Malaysian society, the limited scope for democratic protest, the role of Indian political leadership and the long-term debilitating consequences of a plantation culture upon a segment of the community. To resolve these and other challenges, there has to be a truly national effort that goes beyond ethnic perspectives.
How can one expect the nation to commit itself to such a mission when Hindraf’s communal pronouncements and postures have poisoned the atmosphere?
Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is a Malaysian political scientist.