09 December, 2007

Malaysia, not truly Asia?

It's the biggest sustained mass movement of humans in history: the great Indian diaspora. If not in sheer numbers, certainly in scope and width and diversity not even the Chinese diaspora can rival it.

From America to Australia, from Brazil to Bulgaria, and right through the global alphabet to Zaire, Zurich and Zimbabwe, there is invariably, and it seems inevitably, a corner of a foreign land that is a far-flung India; the shifting tides of history have created a human archipelago of many Indias strewn across the Earth. These many Indian worlds within the world are both strikingly different and yet similar, thanks to their common point of origin and the tenuous links that continue to bind them to it. Some were created by indentured labour sent out to work on the plantations and farms of empire. Others were formed by successive waves of migration — of unskilled workers, agriculturists, artisans, entrepreneurs, cab drivers, doctors, teachers, nurses, scientists, IT professionals — whose ripples continue to spread across the planet.

The diaspora is not one, but many narratives, told by many voices. Some are strong and resonant with success as echoed in media which exult in a Swraj Paul, or the poster boys of Silicon Valley, or the 'potels' of America. Others are anguished, such as those currently protesting against ethnic discrimination in Malaysia where their forebears were forcibly brought generations ago and whose plight today has provoked an international debate.

But the majority of the diaspora is silent and unsung, its unrelated stories mute and unheard. Yet together with its more visible and vocal counterparts, this scattered community of many Indias annually remits some $25 billion to a home country which, like a benignly neglectful parent for the most part, accepts it absent-mindedly as its due.

India has the third largest Diaspora in the world after Britain and China. These two countries have never fought shy of taking up cudgels on behalf of their scattered brood. When Indonesia under Suharto banned public displays of Chinese culture and asked its Chinese population to change their names to Indonesian ones to get citizenship, China broke off diplomatic ties for years. "The English too take care of their own across the globe, including in Australia," says Jamia Millia vice-chancellor Mushirul Hasan.

"India has taken the correct stand on Malaysia. Persons of Indian origin are culturally bound to us. We cannot wash our hands of them simply because they do not have Indian passports."

In the past, too, India has spoken up--when Mahendra Chowdhary was deposed as prime minister in Fiji in 2000, New Delhi expressed its concern. But, equally, it has always worried about crossing the thin red line from concern to interference. A dithering that angers the Indian Malay. "If India does not protest against the unfair treatment of Malaysians of Indian origin do you expect Mongolia and China to do so on our behalf?" asks an indignant P Uthayakumar, legal adviser to the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) which is leading the movement. "For God's sake, we in Malaysia have the closest links with India. If a wife is unfairly treated by her husband, she can only go to her parents. India must intervene because human rights have no boundaries."(?)

G Parthasarthy, former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan points out that whenever there has been a massive violation of human rights of Indians, such as in Fiji, the Indian government has taken cognisance. "This has been our policy since the time of Jawaharlal Nehru," he says. "The problem is that if we start making statements other countries can do so too when there are communal riots here. Therefore, we have to be objective."

India's early Diaspora has its roots in colonial oppression. In the 19th century, boatloads of indentured labour were forcibly transported to work on the rubber plantations of Malay. Today, the descendants of the boat people may not be watering rubber fields but their lot is still very much that of the marginalised migrant, they claim. Since its independence in 1957, Malaysia has powered ahead and is often held up as the exemplar of Muslim development. But for the Indians who make up a little less than 10 per cent of the population, prosperity has stayed stubbornly out of bounds.

Hindraf says that the job reservations for ethnic Malays effectively cut the Indians out leaving them to be "labourers, industrial workers, office boys, sweepers, beggars and squatters". The only index on which ethnic Indians lead is suicides (?). The crime rate of the group is also shockingly high. The Tamil schools are largely dysfunctional. "The conduct of the Malaysian authorities has been particularly offensive," says India's former external affairs minister, Yeshwant Sinha. "Even the country's official history starts with the 14th century after the last Hindu king converted to Islam. They want to obliterate their past."

On November 25, nearly 8,000 Malaysians of Indian origin gathered in the shadow of Kuala Lumpur's iconic Petronas Towers to demand equality. Instead they were brutally beaten with batons, bombed with tear gas and flung into jail. An anguished Tamil Nadu chief minister M Karunanidhi wrote to Manmohan Singh urging him to intervene diplomatically. He did. Malaysia reacted swiftly. "This is Malaysia. We'll deal with our problems and issues according to our laws. Other countries should be mindful of our rights," said Syed Hamid Albar, Malaysia's foreign minister.

"I can turn around and ask, what business was it of Malaysia's to protest the Babri Masjid demolition or even the Danish cartoons of Prophet Mohammed," rebuts Dr Subramanian Swamy, known for his efforts to improve Indo-Chinese relations in the Eighties. "Malaysia should be the last country to tell India to lay off."

Those who advocate caution say that India cannot take on the burdens of its Diaspora, and that fighting for Malaysians of Indian origin will only open a Pandora's box. After all, there are millions of Indians in Fiji, South Africa, and the Caribbean Islands. Others say that since India is quick to tom-tom the achievements of its Diaspora--V S Naipaul, Bobby Jindal, Sunita Williams --it should also look out for them. Moreover, since they are victims of colonialism, the government owes them the support of the mother country, says Ormila Bhoopaul, an activist lawyer of Indian origin from Guyana, who now lives in Canada. "What first needs to be acknowledged is that these PIOs were forced to leave, they were tricked into going by the British," she says. "Why didn't they all return? The reasons are many and when examined, they are not to be blamed for not returning. And the British must take some responsibility too."

Hindraf still hopes that old blood ties will move the mother country. "Every few weeks a temple is being razed. Last year, 79 temples were demolished or faced legal action," says Uthayakumar. "We are grateful that India has expressed concern. We hope now for more concrete action. India is a growing power. Malaysia is bound to listen."(?)


Malaysiakini reported that The police have arrested the Bar Council human rights committee chairperson Edmund Bon allegedly for preventing local authorities from performing their duty in removing banners outside the lawyers' headquarters, read here.

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