The author is Veena Sikri, a former Indian diplomat, who was High Commissioner in Malaysia from September 2000 to December 2003, which she considers as the “most memorable years” of her career. The benign interaction between the peoples of the two countries, spanning over several centuries, has been dealt with sympathy and understanding. This lucidly written book bears the imprint of rigorous scholarship.
The book is divided into three parts. Part I deals with the pre-colonial period, when trade, religion and culture brought the two peoples together, led to the establishment of Indianised kingdoms and resulted in cultural efflorescence. The linkages did not snap in the 13th century. Recent research bears ample testimony to the fact that Keralites, Tamils and Gujaratis continued to have extensive contacts during the medieval period.
In fact, as Veena Sikri points out, in the Islamisation of Malaya and Indonesia the Muslims from Gujarat, Malabar and Tamil Nadu played decisive roles. This section would have been further enriched if the author had compared the spread of Chinese and Indian cultural influences in Southeast Asia. The spread of Chinese influence in North Vietnam was an offshoot of political subjugation. On the contrary, Indian influences spread in a peaceful way.
Veena Sikri highlights the need to re-evaluate the concept of Greater India. This concept was a product of Indian national movement and naturally it gave Indians a sense of pride. Unfortunately some of its protagonists adopted a patronising attitude and denied Southeast Asian culture autonomy of its own. Instead of looking at Southeast Asia as an extension of India, we should treat the region as an area of “confluence”, in which India unquestionably played an enriching role.
Part II describes the colonial period when Malaya underwent fundamental transformation. The large scale immigration of Chinese and Indians resulted in the evolution of a plural society. The British were interested only in maintaining law and order and made no efforts to integrate the Chinese and the Indians with the Malays. What is more, the three communities were always subjected to pulls and pressures from their homeland. Initially it was economic and large sums of money were sent to China and India. But with the growth of nationalist movement political pressures started exerting in a big way. The Kuomintang (KMT) was supported by the Chinese Overseas. After the Revolution, China adopted a new Constitution in which citizenship was based on kinship and not on domicile. The Chinese in Malaya joined the KMT and later they shifted their loyalty to the Malayan Communist Party (MCP).
As far as Indians were concerned, the Second World War brought about momentous changes. The formation of the Indian National Army, which mobilised the Indian community in Southeast Asia under its banner, gave them a sense of pride and belief that they were in the vanguard of Indian independence. This section is enriched because Veena Sikri has described the roles played by some of the veterans like Lakshmi Swaminathan, Janaki Thevar and James Puthucheary. The Malays were also influenced by the Indonesian nationalist movement and many of them became votaries of political union of Malaya and Indonesia.
The chapter dealing with Jawaharlal Nehru’s visit to Malaya and Singapore in 1937 and 1946 provides insights into Nehru’s thinking on the problems facing the Indian community. Nehru was unhappy with the divisions within the Indian community and exhorted them to unite under one organisation. He also appealed to them to live in harmony with the Malays and the Chinese. He was sensitive to Malay fears that in their own county they were likely to be politically and economically overwhelmed by the Chinese. He was aware that the revolutionary leadership and militant following of the MCP came from the Chinese community. As a result independent India did not support the communist struggle for power though the MCP claimed that it was carrying on an anti-colonial struggle.
Part III is devoted to the post-colonial period — the unprecedented Malay upsurge under the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), formation of the inter-communal alliance and transition to independence, the bargain among the leaders of three communities and the main features of the rapidly changing Malaysian political system. Bilateral relations were on the upswing because of the excellent personal equations between the political leadership of the two countries. A few ticklish problems such as work permits for Indian non-citizens were resolved amicably because of understanding at the highest level. However, with the political ascendancy of Dr. Mahathir bilateral relations changed, the earlier warmth began to fade away.
While Malaysia has made rapid progress, the fruits of development have not percolated to the poorer sections of the Indian Tamil community. The disintegration of the plantation economy has resulted in migration of the Tamils to urban areas, with some of the getting lumpenised. The communal riots between the Malays and the Indians in March 2001 were an eye opener. It highlighted that all is not well with the Indian community.
The author succinctly describes the emergence of Makkal Shakti (people’s power) and the role played by the HINDRAF in Malaysian Indian awakening. What is more, she argues that the Government of India should not view the manifold challenges facing the Indian community as a “domestic matter” of Malaysia. India should involve itself in raising the educational levels and standard of living of these “unfortunate children of Mother India”.
(V. Suryanarayan is former Senior Professor, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras)