This is one of the best stories I’ve heard in a while.
To go back in time a bit, if you were paying attention to world events in the 1990s, then you might remember Anwar Ibrahim, a Malaysian politician and former deputy prime minister who was jailed on charges of corruption and sodomy. Ibrahim, a Muslim who is married with children, called it a bullshit political move instigated by his boss and one time mentor, Mahatthir bin Mohammed. Nevertheless, he got sent to jail and that was that.
This was my first view of Malaysia other than the tales of economic progress (nurtured, incidentally, by Ibrahim who also served as Financial Minister and thus came into conflict with Mohammad who kickstarted the process) brought home by my father. Then, a few years later, I was making my way through VS Naipaul’s books and thus came upon Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey and subsequently, Beyond Belief:Islamic Excursions Amongst Converted Peoples.
I know, right? Naipaul! How could you ever trust anything he’s written, especially about Islam? But here’s the thing about Naipaul – he has an absolute genius for zeroing in on things that bother him and following that thread to its very end without care or concern for such things as feelings or political correctness. It is both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness as a writer. It is hardly unusual for nonfiction novels or travelogues to focus on the experience of the author rather than the experiences of the subject (duh!) but Naipaul and his prose are pretty darn special in that the latter is somehow able to illuminate the darkest recesses of the former’s mind with no attempt at sensationalism, letting the content do the heavy lifting instead. So even if you disagree with everything he has to say or believes in, it is impossible to argue that he uses his prose simply as a tool of his bigotry – it is too carefully structured and well thought out for that.
Coming back to Malaysia, these two books were my second insight into Malaysia (amongst other countries but that’s another story). Even if you separate Naipaul’s interpretation of events he describes in his books, there are signs that something is bubbling beneath the surface. For a long time after that – nothing. I don’t get a lot of opportunities to think about Malaysia apart from the odd news report, notes from my cousin who moved there and perhaps an account like this one.
But now comes this: Malaysia’s ethnic Indians, particularly those of Tamil origin who’re descendants of indentured laborers sent roughly 150 years ago by the British to what was then a colony of the Empire, are protesting racial discrimination. Malaysia, a Malay majority state with significant population of Chinese- and Indian-origin settlers, has faced these sort of allegations before. And rapid Islamization hasn’t helped any:
Analysts said that although they had long been a silent minority, many ethnic Indians have become radicalised by the increasing “Islamisation” of Malaysia, which minorities see as undermining their rights. The destruction of hundreds of Hindu temples in recent years, sometimes with bulldozers moving in even as devotees were praying, has also caused intense anger.
“The Indians have become alienated and that has basically transformed the nature of resistance,” said political analyst P Ramasamy, noting that ethnic Indian professionals were well represented at the protest.
“The character of struggle has changed. It has taken on a Hindu form — Hinduism versus Islam. And this is something that should not have taken place in a multi-racial society.”
While no two sources seem to agree on an exact figure, the number of protesters has been pegged somewhere between 5000 (BBC) and 20,000 (Time). But the best bit about this story is that the Malay Indians know who is to blame for this sorry state of affairs: Britain. The organizers of this particular rally, the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf), have already filed suit in London against Britain for its role in their troubles:
“For over a decade we have been appealing to the government for help to alleviate our poverty but all our appeals had fell on deaf ears,” says Uthayakumar Ponnusamy, Hindraf’s legal adviser. “The British brought us here, exploited us for 150 years and left us to the mercy of a Malay Muslim government. They should compensate us now.”
The amount asked in damages? Only $4 trillion. That’s trillion with a t. But wait, the best is yet to come – Hindraf says it can’t afford to fight the case so it’d like the Queen to pick up the tab, please. In fact, they were on their way to present the Queen with their demand – “THE QUEEN OF ENGLAND — THE SYMBOL OF JUSTICE, WE STILL HAVE HOPE ON YOU” proclaimed placards – at the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur when things turned nasty.
You just gotta love it!
While it’s highly unlikely the “symbol of justice” whose predecessors authorized the oh-so-just relocation of those Indians’ ancestors to Malaysia will lift a finger in their defense, this case does bring up a couple of interesting points.
1. If the British allow this case to be filed, what does this mean for the rest of the former Empire? Can you imagine the floodgates this will open?
2. Friends turned bitter foes, the DMK and the BJP might suddenly be in the same boat. The DMK is, of course, exercised over the Tamil aspect of the issue while I fully expect some profound statement from the BJP about the Hindu part of it. Not that anyone in Malaysia has asked anything of either of these two groups yet.
3. The example Malaysia sets: here is a country that has seen rapid economic progress, has a multicultural identity of which it is very proud, a stable nation that is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary of Independence. But thanks to an affirmative policy that services the majority and it’s policies that favor one religion above others, here’s Hindraf (which is apparently “inspired” by Hindu right wing parties in India) jockeying for their rights. Makes you think doesn’t it? Although if you’re on the right, I’m sure it makes you think thoughts completely different from mine.