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The mammoth rally initiated by the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) on Nov 25 may have noble aims to highlight the plight of Indian Malaysians. Nevertheless, it has backfired on the organisers who were chastised as anti-national and troublemakers out to incite racial riots.

Although some of us may not agree with the way the protest was carried out, the vast majority of Malaysians would sympathise with the deplorable and desperate state of Indians. It is a fact that over the last 50 years, the Indians as a whole, have been marginalised from the mainstream of national development.

I am not a legal expert and cannot fully understand what had actually transpired between the British and the newly-formed Malayan government during independence. In fact, most Malaysians do not know the details of the agreements and what was promised to the various communities then. All we know is that with the departure of the British colonialists, we became legitimate citizens of this newly-independent and sovereign country where the constitution guarantees certain rights to members of the various communities.

It does not take an expert to realise that the Indians have lost most of what they had then, such as jobs in the estates, government and private sectors. Today, educational and employment opportunities are hard to come by. The public sector is monopolised by Malays and the private sector by the Chinese, leaving Indians in a limbo. Poverty rates and social ills are the highest among them. The general increase in affluence has by-passed the vast majority of Indian Malaysians.

Who is to blame for the socioeconomic deterioration of the Indian community? Is it the British who brought them here, the Umno-led BN government, the MIC or the Indians themselves? All these groups have to a certain degree contributed to the pathetic state of Indians today. The British might have been responsible for bringing the Indians to Malaysia but I do not think we can take them to task now as their role in the plight of Indians has become history today.

The mammoth demonstration is an indication that all is not well as far as the Indian community is concerned. It should be wake up call for all concerned - the Umno-led BN government, the MIC and the Indians themselves - to make amends before it is too late.

The Umno-led alliance and subsequently the Barisan Nasional government has contributed drastically to the deplorable state of Indians. In a hurry to uplift the socioeconomic status of the Malays, Umno has overlooked the needs of the other races. The New Economic Policy (NEP) aimed at restructuring society as a whole was over-enthusiastically implemented in favour of the Malays. In the process, the Indians who dominated the civil service at the time were neglected.

Umno as the ruling party must bear in mind that it also has the moral obligation to take care of the minority groups. It must protect the interests especially the security of the minorities. Otherwise in the long run, a neglected community will not only be a liability but a threat to their own security. There are already fears that a Sri Lanka-like state may ensue if the Indians are further neglected. The more successful Indians may migrate leaving behind the unskilled and lower categories. Being pushed against the wall, they have no alternative but to turn against the authorities.

The Hindraf rally must serve as a lesson to the government that it should be responsible to the all the races. Poverty exists not only amongst the Malays, it transcends race and religion. It has to be tackled without bias or prejudice. A neglected group, however small, would be a liability to all. It is time for the government to look into the grouses of the Indian community, a community that had stood loyally by Umno through thick and thin.

We have reached a state where only Umno, not the MIC, can help overcome the predicaments of the Malaysian Indian community. The MIC, despite being a senior partner in the BN government, has failed miserably in uplifting and safeguarding interests of the Indians. Greed, nepotism and corruption have gained strong footholds in the party, causing a serious split in the already-small minority. The fiasco at the recent Maika Holdings annual general assembly is a clear illustration of the split that is deepening by the day.

The MIC is fast losing its appeal among the younger generations. S Samy Vellu, after being at the helm of the MIC and the government for more than 25 years, is still unable to improve the wealth of the Indian community as planned. In fact, the Indian community’s share of national wealth has decreased over the years. If the present trends continue, they will lose the present 1.5 percent equity. This would further aggravate social ills prevalent in the community such as poverty, unemployment, gangsterism, alcoholism and even terrorism.

The Hindraf rally should be a wake-up call for Samy Vellu and his MIC. They do not enjoy the people’s support as they did before. In fact, they are slowly deserting the MIC out of frustration, anger and despair. It is time Samy Vellu and his comrades who have been there for so long to make way for younger, more capable, talented and zealous Indians. It is also time for the younger generations of Malay, Chinese and Indians to re-negotiate and chart a new course for the nation.

Indians, regardless of their religious beliefs, seem to spend too much time, energy and money to maintain their cultural and religious traditions. I do not deny that these are good and necessary but they must also develop their socioeconomic well-being. There is a need to strike a balance between the two, as the latter is equally important in today’s world.

In the past, they were too dependent on government handouts for their economic development. This could have worked well before but not anymore. The economic race is tough and very competitive. Nobody is going to help them achieve their economic targets if they themselves do nothing about it. Gone are the days where Indian expertise and skills were sought after by other communities. Today we see a situation where businesses and trade are confined to one’s community.

The Indians are right to continue fighting for their constitutional rights. It is a struggle that must continue. At the same time, they have to revise their strategies in keeping with the realities of the times. This can only be done by acquiring the latest knowledge and skills in the economy, science and technology and by applying modern concepts to their endeavours to achieve prosperity. Depending solely on divine help will not lead them anywhere as God only helps those who help themselves.

What has the Hindraf rally achieved? I am sure that the Hindraf leaders are well aware that being a minority group that comprises only 8 percent of the population, they cannot fight the mighty BN government. They know that confrontation would only bring disaster. Violence is not their way, as seen from the Mahatma Gandhi portraits displayed at the rally to signify non-violence. They tried to take their plight to the highest levels but were ignored at every stage. When their sole representative in the government, the MIC, has no time for them, can they expect Umno and the government it leads to do so?

The condition of the Indian community was going from bad to worse. The last straw was the temple demolition and the desecration of deities which stripped them of their dignity. They only way to make their voices heard was a public show of dissatisfaction by taking to the streets in open defiance of the government and the police.

What was amazing about the whole affair in general was the peaceful manner in which the demonstrators conducted themselves. If the police had not intervened, they would have marched peacefully to the British embassy, delivered the petition and dispersed. They have proven that the accusations leveled at them - as gangsters, criminals, thugs, trouble-makers, traitors and stooges of the opposition - are uncalled for.

Another encouraging outcome of the Hindraf rally was the reaction from other races especially the Malays. There were fears that the Indian’s actions could trigger a racial conflict. Despite attempts by certain irresponsible politicians to make it a racial problem, the Malays generally appear to sympathise with the plight of their fellow Indian citizens. In fact, many of them are in a similar poverty-stricken situation.

The prime minister should be commended for his repeated assurances that the government would be fair to all. His reluctance to use the Internal Security Act despite pressure from his party should also be appreciated. His willingness to meet the Hindraf leaders despite all the negative publicity about them is also praiseworthy. This is in deep contrast to the combative attitude of his predecessor. Does the prime minister’s softer and more conciliatory stance indicate the beginning of an era of tolerance to public opinion?

The issue in question here is not whether the Hindraf leaders had uttered seditious words or whether they have committed an offence by organising the illegal rally. The real issue is that more than 30,000 Indian Malaysians from all walks of life and all corners of the country had risked their lives to descend onto the streets of Kuala Lumpur on Nov 25 pleading the government to help them out of the doldrums. They want the government they helped elect to restore their legitimate and constitutional rights. For every person who turned up, hundreds more were not be able to for whatever reasons. All of them cannot be wrong or stupid.

Samy Vellu and his MIC should not pretend nothing is happening and that all is well with the Indians. The MIC and the Umno-led BN government should come out of denial, acknowledge the pleas and take measures to overcome the problems that plague the Indian community.