Friday, February 29, 2008

Hindraf roses nipped in the bud?

Nipped in the bud

In Kuala Lumpur

The announcement of snap elections overshadows ethnic Indians' "roses campaign" against the government.


Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Prime Minister, announcing the dissolution of Parliament on February 13. Elections will be held 15 months ahead of schedule, on March 8.

Malaysian Indians, numbering two million and forming about 8 per cent of the population of an upscale developing country with an uneven distribution of incomes and wealth, have begun to make waves in South-East Asia. They are doing this not by triumphalism of any kind but by the display of peaceful "people power" on a small but telling scale.

The ethnic Indian minority in Malaysia is "a historical accident" brought about by the callous British imperialists of a bygone era. Today, nearly 70 per cent of these people are in the "poor under-class" in the eyes of the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf), a voluntary group that the Malaysian authorities have refused to recognise, and also many independent observers.

The plight of the ethnic Indians is an unresolved challenge facing the 'Barisan Nasional' (National Front), the multiracial coalition that has ruled Malaysia since its independence in 1957. As the coalition braced for the snap general elections called by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi for March 8, Hindraf brought this issue into sharper focus.

Abdullah called the poll by his political watch, 15 months ahead of schedule, despite commanding the loyalty of almost the entire Parliament. Clearly, he wanted to seek a fresh mandate before Anwar Ibrahim, a once-imprisoned former Deputy Prime Minister and a present-day star campaigner on the opposition circuit, could stand for an elective office again. Anwar's disqualification, the result of his imprisonment on corruption charges, expires in April.

The sudden announcement of elections also gave a new sense of urgency to Hindraf's roses campaign, which it had decided upon in January. As conceived and first announced by the self-exiled Hindraf chairman, P. Waytha Moorthy, his five-year-old daughter, Vwaishhnnavi, was to lead a group of about 200 children and 1,000 or more adult Malaysian Indians on a short "walk" to the Parliament House in Kuala Lumpur on February 16. They would carry red and yellow roses to be presented to the Prime Minister.

Red roses were meant to be a gesture of "goodwill" while the yellow ones signified Hindraf's demand for "justice" for the community. The group also wanted to re-emphasise its demand that five of its top leaders, in detention since December without formal charges and trial under the Internal Security Act, be set free. But the authorities nipped the campaign in the bud.

The "roses campaign", which Hindraf was averse to describing as a political rally or even a protest march, was planned as a sequel to the massive demonstration by ethnic Indians in Kuala Lumpur on November 25. According to unofficial estimates, over 20,000 ethnic Indians, perhaps even 30,000, participated in the demonstration. The message of the protesters, as was clear from poster-pictures of Mahatma Gandhi and the banners proclaiming peaceful intentions, was that Malaysian Indians ought to be treated as equal citizens alongside the majority Malay-Muslims and the largest minority of ethnic Chinese.

The authorities, denying any discrimination, banned the rally with the help of a pre-emptive court order. It was in line with the practice of the Malaysian state of not allowing street protests or rallies by any ethnic group or political party. While this rule was not without exemptions, the Hindraf rally, which was brought under "control" by the use of tear gas and water cannon, was preceded by a similarly subdued multiracial rally, led by Anwar Ibrahim, for electoral reforms and fair polls. Incidentally, in the March 8 elections, Malaysia will, for the first time in over half a century of freedom, use transparent ballot boxes and indelible ink as proof of voting.

Four significant trends came into focus between Hindraf's November rally and its "roses campaign" in February. First, the Malaysian authorities, not very conversant with the unity of ethnic Indians in their cultural and linguistic diversity, opted for the old-fashioned law-and-order approach in seeking to contain Hindraf and its burgeoning constituency.

There was an instance of a well-placed ethnic Indian (not the long-time Minister Samy Vellu) saying in the public domain, in the presence of Abdullah, that Malaysian Indians are indeed a "marginalised" community. A Malaysian Indian source, who is among the experts Abdullah turned to after the November 25 rally, indicated that the small but really affluent "creamy layer" of the ethnic Indian society has skewed its overall economic indices.

Seen in this perspective, the problem of underprivileged circumstances pertains largely to the Tamil-Telugu-Malayalee sections rather than the other Indian or Sri Lankan segments of the overall ethnic Indians in Malaysia. At another level, this source and also others are of the view that Abdullah, with a reputation for basic decency in politics and an agenda of "civilisational Islam", may still be a good bet for the ethnic Indians to engage in their campaign for a "fair deal".
Tough on Hindraf


In Kuala Lumpur on February 16, ethnic Indians protest against discrimination.

The second trend, evident since last November and closely linked to the first, is the government's determination to act tough on Hindraf's top leaders, all well-educated professionals, and draw a line in the sand between them and their followers, most of whom are not in the same category.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, there was no move at all, until at least the "roses campaign", to reconsider the detention of the leaders – P. Uthayakumar, V. Ganapati Rao (whose name is also spelt as Ganabathirau), M. Manoharan, R. Kengadharan and T. Vasanthakumar.

There was a move to portray them as the Malaysian associates of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, but the authorities stopped in their tracks after leaders like Lim Kit Siang of the multiracial opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) exposed the absurdity of the proposition in the absence of hard evidence.

Ganapati Rao and Manoharan are DAP activists besides being Hindraf leaders. And, Ishwar Nahappan, a prominent leader of the Samy Vellu-led Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), joined the DAP in early February. In yet another trend since the rising resonance of Hindraf among Malaysian Indians, the Abdullah government began engaging Official India more vigorously than before on the purely bilateral front.

Negotiations for the India-Malaysia comprehensive economic cooperation agreement began in February. Defence ties, too, received a boost during Defence Minister A.K. Antony's visit to Kuala Lumpur in early January. In a sense, the new Malaysian attitude of befriending Official India suits it, as it prefers quiet diplomacy on the ethnic Indian issue, which the Abdullah government has emphatically projected as its sovereign concern. Significantly, responding to a question from this correspondent, during Antony's visit, Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak said India was aware of the political situation in his country.

Last but not the least of these new trends on the ethnic Indian scene is the emergence of the temple as Hindraf's political theatre of choice. Waytha Moorthy, camping in London, told this correspondent that temples were the only places that Hindraf could now use as it was being routinely denied permission to hold any gathering anywhere else in Malaysia. In his view, such recourse to temples should not be seen as communalisation of politics by Hindraf and its ethnic Indian supporters.

In early February, Najib Tun Razak apologised for the Deepavali-eve demolition of a famous Hindu temple in the Klang area. This demolition was the flashpoint that led to the Hindraf rally in November. If, however, Najib's intention in tendering the apology was to prevent the further use of temples for politics, the events on February 16 unfolded a different tale altogether.

A well-known Vinayaka temple at Pudur Raya in Kuala Lumpur served as the scene of a defining event of "people power" in the face of "state power" on that day. The authorities, overnight, imposed a ban on Hindraf's "roses campaign", and the police, armed with water cannons and tear-gas gadgets, were out on the streets.

Apparently aware of the incongruity of banning a "walk" led by children carrying roses for the Prime Minister, the Malaysian police said the presence of children would pose a "security concern" in dealing with the law and order problem being created by Hindraf. Also in focus was Malaysia's political "norm" of not encouraging protest demonstrations in the public arena, especially those against the "established order". Yet another reason cited was the status of Hindraf as an unregistered group with no entitlements to permission for public events.

Even after the imposition of the ban, and until the police were actually spotted in strength on the streets on February 16, Hindraf kept open the option of fielding children holding flowers in the vanguard of the "walk" to the Parliament House. Nearly 200 children, accompanied by their parents, were housed at a theatre near the City Hall, but, as Hindraf events coordinator Kannan Ramasamy explained later, they were not deployed in view of the heavy police presence.

Waytha Moorthy had earlier defended the plan to field children for political purposes. Under guidance, Vwaishhnnavi had written to Abdullah requesting him to accept floral greetings from her and other children at the Parliament House and also ensure their security during their "walk" to his office.

Hindraf, separately, informed the authorities of its willingness to greet the Prime Minister in smaller numbers at any place, day and time of his choice. The authorities did not respond to the Hindraf pleas, and Abdullah described the group's mobilisation of protesters as an "illegal" act that "disrupts the election process".

As nearly 200 supporters of Hindraf sought to break the roadblocks on the routes to the Parliament House, they were chased away by the police. At about the same time, several hundred protesters made their way to landmark sites such as the Merdeka (Freedom) Square, the building housing Malaysia's Human Rights Commission, and a few other places. They held aloft banners seeking a fair deal for Malaysian Indians and also posters calling for the abolition of the Internal Security Act and the release of Hindraf's top leaders.

The protesters were targeted with water cannons and tear-gas at different places. This correspondent, who witnessed the action near Merdeka Square and felt the impact, was reminded of a similar police response to a protest near the same place when Anwar Ibrahim was sentenced in April 1999.

Over a hundred protesters gathered at the Vinayaka temple at Pudur Raya even after the group formally called off its programme for the day. As their shouts of "people power (makkal sakthi)" reached a crescendo, a lone woman walked up to a riot-control officer on the scene and presented a yellow rose.

Another officer was seen declining a similar offer, as the crowd began cheering her. Shortly thereafter, Hindraf national coordinator Thanenthiran Ramankutty made a surprise appearance at the temple and asked ethnic Indians to vote against the Abdullah government as it had "failed" and "insulted" them.

Finally, as the police-protester standoff near the temple ended without any action by the police, one was left wondering whether the lone woman's act of presenting a yellow rose to a security official at the height of tensions could yet prove a defining moment for the future of ethnic Indians in Malaysia.

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