It is important for the Government of India not to take a public stand in criticism of the policies of the Malaysian Government towards the Malaysian citizens of Indian origin, which have led to considerable anger in the community of Indian-origin Malaysian citizens, resulting in a huge demonstration. Since these persons are Malaysian citizens, the Government of India has no locus standi in the matter and expression of open concern by the Governments of India and Tamil Nadu could prove counter-productive.
2. At the same time, well-wishers of Malaysia and advocates of close India-Malaysia relations cannot but be disturbed over the reports, which keep coming in at regular intervals for some months now, over recurring instances of disrespect for Hinduism and disregard for the feelings of the Hindus in different parts of the country. It has to be highlighted that in Malaysia Hindu religious festivals are respected. Diwali, for example, is a public holiday for all Malaysians and the Hindus celebrate it with the same gusto as their co-religionists in India do. So too other Hindu religious observances, which are of special significance to the Tamils, such as Thai Poosam and the fire-walking associated with it.
3. In spite of such examples of the generous attitude of the authorities towards their Hindu citizens, there have been growing signs of disquiet, if not anger, in the Hindu community due to two reasons. The intellectual sections of the community feel perturbed over what they allege to be attempts to deny the historic influence of Hindu religion and culture over the evolution of civilisation and culture in Malaysia. Ever since Pakistan became independent in 1947, history has been re-written in Pakistan and Pakistani children are being taught that civilisation and culture came to the sub-continent with the advent of Islam, as if there were dark ages in the sub-continent before Islam came.
4. It is alleged by some of these Malaysian Hindu intellectuals that there has been a similar attempt in Malaysia for some years to project as if civilisation and culture came to Malaysia only after Islam came to the country and to deny the impact and role of Hinduism before the advent of Islam. The pre-Islamic role and influence of Hinduism was equally strong in Malaysia and Indonesia. The Indonesian Muslims feel quite comfortable with this influence. They retain the impact of Hinduism and Hindu culture. They have preserved the impact of Ramayana and Mahabharata on their art forms and proudly exhibit them to the foreign tourists. It is a tribute to the tolerance and generosity of the mindset of large sections of the Muslim civil society in Indonesia that Bali has continued to maintain the pristine purity of its Hinduism and that Christians have done well in many walks of the Indonesian society. Of course, there have been instances of shocking brutality against the Chinese, but these were not due to religious reasons. These were due partly to economic jealousies arising from the Chinese dominance of the local economy in certain areas, partly to the past association of the Chinese with the pro-Beijing Indonesian Communist Party and partly to suspicions that many of the Chinese still have extra-territorial loyalty to China.
5. In contrast to this, in Malaysia one finds that while the impact of contemporary Hindu religion and culture (Bharata Natyam, Tamil films, Tamil language etc) is proudly admitted and even displayed in the promotional films of their Tourism Department, the pre-Islam impact of Hindu religion and culture is sought to be down-played. One finds few references to the Ramayana and Mahabharata traditions, for example. I have heard in seminars attended by me some highly-respected Malay Muslim intellectuals living abroad express their disquiet over the direction Islam is taking in their country. One of the examples cited by them is the down-playing of the pre-Islam Hindu influence. In Malaysia itself, Mr. Anwar Ibrahim, former Deputy Prime Minister, has had the courage to express his disquiet over what he sees as the growing Arabisation of Islam in Malaysia.
6. It is also alleged that the policy of preferential support to the Bhumiputras (sons of the soil) discriminates not only against Malaysian citizens of Indian and Chinese origin, but also against Bhumiputra Christians. According to the critics, many natives of Malaysia embraced Christianity during the British colonial rule, but they are not doing as well as the Bhumiputra Muslims.
7. The second reason for the anger is seen more amongst Hindu Malaysians in the lower strata of the Hindu society. Their anger arises from frequent instances of demolition of Hindu temples in the plantation areas and elsewhere built by their ancestors. These temples are allegedly demolished on the ground either that they were illegally constructed or that the land on which they were located was required for a public purpose. Their representations against the demolition have reportedly had no effect. More than even the demolition of the temples, what has angered them is the fact that the authorities bulldozed not only the temples, but even the idols of Hindu Gods and Goddesses kept inside, after rejecting their plea to hand them over to them so that they could keep them in their houses or send them to their ancestral villages in Tamil Nadu for re-installation.
8. The Mariamman tradition is very strong among the sea-faring Tamils. They look upon Goddess Mariamman as their protecting Diety. Tamil fishermen, before they set out to sea, pray to Mariamman. Tamil Hindus, who went to South-East Asia, before the advent of Islam, used to take idols of Mariamman in their boats or ships. Whenever they reached a place, they would instal the idol and build a temple over it. That is why one finds a number of Mariamman temples all over South-East Asia where Tamil Hindus have gone over the course of their history. It is alleged that many of the idols thus bulldozed were of Mariamman brought by their ancestors from their native villages in Tamil Nadu hundreds of years ago.
9. The perceived failure of the authorities to heed the sentiments of these Hindus and of the Malay Muslim elite to support the Hindus have aggravated the anger. In India, there are many instances of violation of the religious and other human rights of the Muslims and excesses committed against some Muslims. Large sections of the Hindu elite— writers, journalists, human rights activists, lawyers etc— have been in the forefront of those rushing to the protection of the Muslims. Similarly, in Pakistan, there are many instances of the violation of the religious and other human rights of the Hindus. Sections of their Muslim elite immediately take up their grievances and try to protect them.
10. Barring some exceptions such as Mr. Anwar Ibrahim, one hardly hears of the Malay Muslim elite taking up the case of the aggrieved Hindus and demanding that the causes of their anger should be addressed. Many Malay Muslim intellectuals are in the forefront of those demanding that the root causes of the anger of the Muslims in different countries should be identified and addressed if we have to vanquish jihadi terrorism. They also rightly stress the need for a hearts and minds approach to the angry Muslims.
11. But, I have never heard them talk of the need to identify and address the root causes of the growing anger of the Hindu citizens of Malaysia and to adopt a hearts and minds approach to them. The time has come for an introspection by all sections of Malaysian society in order to contain and remove this anger.
12. It has to be mentioned that one notes with concern that the leaders of the present agitation of Indian-origin Malaysians in Malaysia have been using excessive rhetoric. Such rhetoric will damage their credibility and introduce an element of poison in the inter-ethnic relations. This must be avoided.
(The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E-mail: email@example.com)