The demonstration by hundreds of thousands of ethnic Indians in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, organised by the Hindu Rights Action Force is a testimony to the fact that things are not going for them in the country.
In the recent years, the Indian community has been traumatised by the discrimination of Indians in the public sector, the denial of business opportunities in the private sector, the lack of promotion in employment and the destruction of temples in the name of development.
Moreover, the lack of effective representation by the Malaysian Indian Congress means that Indians face the prospect of losing whatever little they have gained through their hard work.
In 1967, thousands of Indian plantation workers spent about a week marching from Asahan in Malacca to Kuala Lumpur demanding better working conditions in plantations and for the reinstatement of dismissed workers. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, hundreds of thousands of plantation workers waged protests to prevent the fragmentation of plantations. In the 1980s and 1990s, Indian urban and plantation workers staged many wildcat strikes to seek better wages and living conditions. Although the nature and intensity of Indian protests have differed over long periods, Indians in Malaysia have a record of organising resistance towards attempts to suppress them.
Since political independence in 1957, things have not been going well for the Indians. In the earlier decades, confined to the plantation sector, the Indian workers lacked the consciousness to articulate their main concerns. However, with the fragmentation and commercialisation of plantations in the last few decades, more and more Indians have migrated to urban areas. While they might not have ended up with decent employment, they have become more conscious of their plights and how the Umno-dominated Barisan Nasional government has denied them opportunities available to other Malaysians.
In the recent decades, the rise of Islamisation and attempts by some leaders to label Malaysia an Islamic country has caused serious concerns to non-Muslims, particularly ethnic Indians who are largely Hindus. The declaration that Malaysia is an Islamic country has created problems for freedom of worship. Since the 1980s, many Hindu temples in the country have been removed on the grounds of their illegality or to make way for development. Only in a few cases, alternative temples sites have been provided. While Indians have been politically, economically and socially marginalised for some time, in the last few years it was the destruction of temples that have aroused the anger of the Indian community.
Since the MIC or other pro-government Indian organisations were unable to represent the community in the religious realm, it took Hindraf to articulate the serious concerns of the community. Hindraf might have been formed to address the religious plight of the Indian community, however its platform is much more broader. The hundreds of thousands of protestors who converged in Kuala Lumpur had all kinds of reasons to take part in the demonstration.
While earlier Indian demonstrations were mainly composed of the working class, this one comprised all classes - working class, middle-class and professionals. Demonstrations by Indians is nothing new in this country. What is new is that more and more middle class and professional Indians are taking part in demonstrations. The mixed composition of demonstrators is testimony to the fact that all classes of Indians have become victims of the government's racial or pro-Malay policies.
The very fact that Indians could converge in Kuala Lumpur despite the intimidating presence of the police and the warnings sounded by the MIC and other organisations indicated that they were able to overcome their fear. The MIC, the self-proclaimed representative of the Indian community, seems to be most troubled by the recent events. Its complete lack of credibility in articulating the concerns of the community and its inability to prevent the occurrence of the demonstrations have put it in a bad light with the government.
While the party boasts that it prefers to work with the government to resolve the problems of the Indian community, however, to date it has not done anything concrete for the community. It has failed to increase the national equity of the community, prevent the over discrimination of Indians in the public sector, prevent the destruction of temples and what is more failed to present any credible plan for the progress of the community.
The MIC, formed in the late 1940s, remains a poor alternative for the Indian community today. In fact, its existence in the BN has nothing to do with the Indian community. It has to do with the politics of Umno projecting propaganda that the country is run by a multiracial coalition. The demonstration organised by Hindraf is another powerful reminder that the presence of the MIC or the PPP has nothing to do with the well-being of the Indian community. These parties are merely composed of politicians bent on enriching themselves in the name of the Indian community.
The mobilisation of Indians was based on an ingenious strategy. The US$4 trillion suit against the British government for abandoning the Indian community gained worldwide publicity for Hindraf. Indians were mobilised to converge in Kuala Lumpur to present a petition to the British High Commission in Jalan Ampang on Nov 25.
Given the overwhelming response Hindraf's call, the authorities feared the worst. This explains why they took the necessary measures including the use of violence against women and children. However, despite facing all kinds of obstacles, Indians defied the odds by gathering and protesting against the injustices perpetrated by the Muslim-dominated Barisan Nasional government of Malaysia.
The protests were peaceful in nature. Pictures of Mahatma Gandhi were displayed to drive home the point that they were engaging in civil disobedience and the Malaysian flags signified that they were Malaysians who expected equal rights. A community that was once described as meek and weak was aroused by the racist policies of the regime.
There is no turning back for Indians anymore. They have found strength in defiance and in numbers. It would be difficult for the government and the MIC to re-apply their politics based on old forms of control.
Ultimately, whether Indian resistance subsides largely depends on the government. If its leaders are bent on continuing their racist and religious bigotry, then Indians have to prepare for a long battle. If such a battle takes shape, there is a possibility that civil disobedience could be severely tested. If the state authorities are going to unleash violence on the Indian community, there is a possibility that Indians would have to rethink the limitations of civil disobedience strategies as preached by Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The next time around, there might be pictures of Prabakaran, leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE).
It is rather strange that members of the unregistered Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) are pouring cold water on the Indian community's new found strength, when the Indian community has been sufficiently mobilised to empower itself after decades of enslavement. Dr Jeya Kumar's recent comment on the need to pursue a class-based approach sounds pathetic, to say the least. Jeya Kumar fails to understand that while class-based approaches might be useful for homogenous societies, a nationalist perspective might be more useful to capture the politics of minorities in places were a majoritarian tyranny exists, Malaysia being a prime example.
Anyway, I would like to find out whether PSM has raised issues of ethnic and religious discrimination of Indians in the past. Despite PSM's hard work and dedication in some areas, the party has been trapped by its mechanical application of the class-line.