P. S. Suryanarayana

Speculation is rife that the current ban on Hindraf is an aspect of Malaysia’s national security update.

Of unusual international importance is the fact that Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak has, with a topical political touch, extended Deepavali greetings to the ‘Hindus’ among the country’s ethnic Indian minority.

Unlike in India, where even the greetings of interest to only some sections are extended to all citizens regardless of their sub-national identities, it is customary in Southeast Asia to specify the target group on such occasions. This, of course, is not the real issue at stake now in Muslim-majority and multicultural Malaysia, insofar its two-million-strong ethnic Indians are concerned.

The relevant point is that Mr. Najib, who has been designated by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to succeed him next year, linked the mystique of Deepavali to the challenges faced by the Indian-origin citizens today. Noting that the festival marked a traditional celebration of the triumph of good over evil, Mr. Najib expressed the hope that Malaysian ‘Hindus’ would, in that “spirit,” seek to “resolve any problem in the best way possible.” Why has he chosen to strike this line? The answer is not far to seek.

Malaysian Indians, many of them mobilised by the recently-banned Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) for over a year now, want to keep their grievances in global focus. And, Mr. Najib is equally determined to reassert the supremacy of the state. The authorities have recently taken actions that the opposition parties in the country see as a political “offensive” against an outfit with “a core human rights agenda.”

An alternative view, favoured by the Malaysian government, is that Hindraf, which began making its presence felt at the time of Deepavali last year, is divisively communalist, as different from being merely ethno-centric. The country’s social contract has fostered power-sharing among race-based political parties that are drawn from the ranks of either Malays or ethnic Chinese or, indeed, the people of Indian origin. However, these predominantly ethno-centric parties have, by and large, fought shy of readily accepting religion as the wellspring of a political or social outfit.

Striking example

A striking example is the general hostility of race-based parties in the ruling coalition towards Parti Islam-Se Malaysia (PAS). Over a noticeably long period, PAS stridently advocated Shariah-based Muslim polity as the best model for the country. In the run-up to the recent snap general election, though, PAS publicly gave up its political patent — the advocacy of an Islamic state. This aspect clearly helped the fast-changing party endear itself to secular voters across the spectrum. And today, PAS is a proactive member of the three-party opposition alliance, the People’s Pact, at the federal and state levels. Two of the Pact’s constituents are multi-racial in outlook, while PAS fielded an Indian-origin candidate for a state seat in the last poll.

Viewed in this perspective, Hindraf leaders have not tried so far to distance their outfit from its religious mooring. They have instead specialised in using the Hindu temple as “a safe sanctuary” to carry forward their campaign for a “fair deal” for the Indian-origin minority. The temple, they say, is the only platform accessible to them in the face of a “state-sponsored crackdown.”

Debatable as this argument might be, especially so in the eyes of the Malaysian government, the fact remains that Hindraf, proscribed with effect from October 15, had not adequately disputed its ‘religious orientation.’ On the other hand, Hindraf activists are often accused of having capitalised on the sentiments that gripped the ethnic Indians when an ‘unauthorised’ temple was demolished, for ‘development’ purposes, before Deepavali last year. Soon thereafter, this outfit, led by lawyers and other professionals, began articulating an ethnic Indian political agenda of seeking rights “on par” with those of the other communities. And, after Hindraf’s campaign picked up momentum, evident during a mass protest rally in Kuala Lumpur last November, a senior Malaysian Minister apologised for the temple demolition which had served as a ‘flash point.’

Five proactive Hindraf leaders — P. Uthayakumar, V. Ganapati Rao (also known as Ganabatirau), M. Manoharn, T. Kengadharan, and T. Vasanthakumar — were served with two-year detention orders last December under the Internal Security Act. The law provides for detention for prolonged periods without any formal charges and judicial trial. Another leader, P. Waytha Moorthy, who was abroad at the time his colleagues were detained, remains in self-imposed exile.

Political speculation is rife that the current ban on Hindraf is an aspect of Malaysia’s national security update, with or without reference to the ongoing preparations for a smooth transfer of power to Mr. Najib.

On a parallel track, Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has publicised his “plans” to unseat the present Prime Minister and form an alternative administration. Sympathetic to the cause of ethnic Indians, Mr. Anwar wants the equality-agenda articulated in a non-polarising fashion in multi-religious Malaysia. In another development in the opposition camp, PAS, shedding its ‘Islam-exclusive’ image, has now offered to mediate between Hindraf and the authorities.