Friday, June 16, 2006

'Temple Cleansing' in Malaysia and Pakistan

An Indian blogger in Malaysia named Sharanya Manivannan recently posted an open letter to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (thanks BitchPhD), asking him to take a stand on the Hindu temple demolitions that have been occurring in the country:

But I ask you this: when temples that stood for over a century are destroyed, what really dies? Not stone and statues. Not bells and prayers. Not – thankfully and thus far – people. You see, what frightens me is not the loss of these temples themselves, though architecturally speaking, that too is often a disappointment. What frightens me is what these temples are taken to represent, and by extension, what their demolitions therefore represent. (link)

Elsewhere in the letter she points out that the Indian government did send a letter of "official displeasure" to the Danish government following the publication of the anti-Islamic cartoons. Why the silence so far on the "temple cleansing" in Malaysia? She also makes some poignant comments about how Indians are treated as a whole in Malaysia, which I'll come back to below.

Some background: In the past few months, Malaysian authorities have demolished a number of Hindu temples in different parts of the country, stating that they were built without a proper permit. But local Hindus have complained that they had applied for permits, sometimes waiting as long as 30 years for a response! Moreover, according to the BBC, at least two of the temples destroyed were more than a century old, which clearly suggests that getting a permit to build is not at all the issue driving the demolitions.
Indeed, it seems pretty clear that these demolitions are part of an organized campaign in a country that is growing increasingly intolerant of religious minorities. (Churches and other religious structures have also been demolished along the same lines.)

Indians make up about 8% of the settled population of Malaysia, which amounts to about 2 million people, and the majority of Malaysian Indians are Hindus. For the most part they have lived in Malaysia in peace (communal violence is very rare), but Indian Malaysians do often complain of discrimination and mistreatment. They have traditionally been a working class population, who came to Malaysia initially to work on rubber plantations.

This turn is especially sad, as Malaysia (like Indonesia) has ancient connections to India and Hinduism. Tamil traders established settlements there as far back as the third century A.D., and ruins of ancient Hindu temples have recently been discovered.

Which brings us back to Sharanya Manivannan. In her blog post, she talks about a picture she saw in the newspaper that encapsulated for her the emotion these temple demolitions provoke in her. It was a picture unrelated to the demolitions, but somehow it triggered her to finally take some positive action:

It was a newpaper picture of a retired gardener, S. Sarimuthu, whose only daughter had died on June 11th as a result of viral eningoencephalitis and secondary pneumonia contracted while at National Service camp. In this picture of him, which I can't find online, he looks profoundly forlorn. He looks like his heart had been wrenched out of his body, pounded to a pulp, and then poured back inside.

This picture made me cry and cry and cry, and then write this letter. And cry even more the morning after I did, as I explained to someone what made me do it. The family wasn't Hindu. The girl wasn't the victim of genocidal hate-mongering. But I saw that picture and in my mind I saw that father at hospitals, at home -- I saw the way the nurses looked at him, the way the doctors spoke to him, the way hospital authorities dismissed him as she slipped into a coma. I saw him throughout his life, I saw the way this [f-ing] state in one way or another has taken away even this, even her. I saw the colour of his skin and the sheer, unmitigated loss in his eyes, the way his loss and the loss of these temples were entwined, and I could not not write this letter. (link)

Hindu groups are starting to organize and actively protest. The Indian Financial Express reports that Indian groups have been appealing to the Malaysian Prime Minister.

Also, in some of the press coverage of the temple demolitions, some Malaysian authorities have begun to express concern that Hindus may begin to turn violent in resisting the demolitions. In fact, the tenor of the resistance is already changing: several people were injured and arrested when they refused to vacate the premises of a temple that was about to be demolished. I wouldn't advocate violence, obviously. But it may be time to get Gandhian on their asses: mass public demonstrations, and a campaign of nonviolent resistance. (And yes, Sharanya, keep blogging about it: make it personal, tell the world your version of the story.)

Two additional wrinkles:

While the Malaysian press, according to the blogger Sharanya I quoted above, has remained silent about the Hindu temple demolitions occurring in the country, I did find articles in Malaysian newspapers about the Hindu temple demolition that recently occurred in Lahore. [UPDATE: The temple may not have been demolished after all...]

Secondly, a version of this has been occuring in recent months (in reverse) in India itself, as an important 300 year old Sufi Dargah was pulled down in Vadodara (formerly Baroda), leading to communal riots that left six people dead. To be clear, Mandirs were also demolished in this campaign (now halted) in the interest of "development," but the lead-in to the Express India story reminds us that India is itself far from immune to indifference to the concerns of religious minorities:

Two demolition drives, and two different ways of going about it. So while in Gujarat’s cultural capital Vadodara, the BJP went about doing a "balancing act" by razing a 300-year-old dargah, in Rajkot, the BJP fought the Municipal Commissioner tooth and nail for removing a small temple that was encroaching on RMC land. (link)

[Cross-posted at Sepia Mutiny]


Blogger Ms. World said...

Great post! I've been to Malaysia twice. I've definitely heard Malaysians, usually Chinese, speak with negative biases about the nation's Indian population.

10:30 AM  
Blogger Amardeep said...

Thanks Ms World.

I gather the sense of discrimination or aggrievement might have something to do with Malaysia's "New Economic Policy", which was a kind of aggressive affirmative action program for the native Malays instituted in 1970s.

12:30 PM  
Anonymous vkrishna said...

I read the Pakistani denial. It sounded fishy, and I would not be surprised if a temple in Pakistan was actually demolished. The Bhumiputra policy in Malaysia is a discriminatory policy against non "native" Malays. However, the Malaysian temple demolitions have more to do with religion than Malay vs non "Malay" discrimination. There is a rise in Islamic fundamentalism and associated terrorist activity in Malaysia.

The letter writer makes a very pertinent point, in my view. There are hardly any Islamic nations where religious minorities are not persecuted. The persecution is often a lot more severe than the simple demolition of a church or a temple. In this light, it is somewhat craven for the Indian govt to keep silent about this, while officially objecting to a bunch of cartoons published in a newspaper with a tiny audience. I think the letter writer is right to be apprehensive of what these demolitions portend. Finally, inspite of the demolition of the Dargah in Baroda (which was stupid and plainly communal), the position of religious minorities, both politically and legally, in India is not exactly comparable to the corresponding situation that minorities find themselves in countries like Malaysia.

1:02 PM  
Anonymous vkrishna said...

BTW, as further proof that the Pakistanis are liars, here is an article from the Hindustan Times:
"Court Breather for Pak Temple":,0035.htm

So much for the claim that the structure was not a temple and was some sort of residential place instead.

5:50 PM  
Anonymous vkrishna said...

I think I spoke too soon: The GoI has
taken a position on the Pakistan temple issue, and hopefully will do the same with Malaysia.
"India takes up temple demolition with Pakistan".,0008.htm

5:54 PM  
Blogger ana beynaam said...

amardeep, great post. and could you point me to where you got the update that it may not have been a temple after all from? i just read in one of the pakistani papers that the lahore high court has ordered a stay at the site.

6:04 PM  
Blogger Amardeep said...

Ana, I saw it here.

And Vkrishna (any relation to 'VK'?), thanks for the links, and the update on the Government of India's position. I'll send that link to Sharanya, who will I'm sure be happy to hear it.

6:26 PM  
Blogger Amardeep said...

Oops, cancel that -- the position is just on the Lahore temple issue

6:27 PM  
Blogger Mahesh said...

i have a few malaysian friends of indian and chinese origin. at the beginning they all talk about how malaysia is a wonderful hormonious multicultural community, but as you get to know them better, they tell you the real story and why they are in australia, desperately trying to move their generations of accumulated wealth out of malaysia. the temple destruction is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to islamic chauvinism. it is a mere outward symbol of the direction malaysia is heading in. sharanya makes a telling point when she states that the killing of non-islamic people has not begun, thus far....

8:38 PM  
Blogger apu said...

That link was very saddening. While this is based i think more on religious tha ethic lines, I've also see the other side of the coin where Malays are concered. I singapore for e.g which is often held up as best example of harmonious co-existence betwee races, still, I have see may Chinese look down upon both Indians and Malays. Not sure how widespread this is though. The Bumiputra policy's original grounds I think started off due to these plus ofcourse the economic disparities. Though its relevance today has become a big issue

2:57 AM  
Blogger ana beynaam said...

thanks, amardeep. i usually don't put too much stock into what pakistani government ministers have to say. true or false, it brings attention yet again to the fact that some minorities and their places of worship have not always been treated fairly.

ejaz ul-haq (btw, isn't this general zia's son?)isn't entirely incorrect in correcting advani about religious freedom for minorities, but freedom to what extent? this always gets me in hot water with my fellow pakistanis though, who point out the accomplishments and advancements of minorities, so perhaps the less i say on this matter, the better.

10:38 AM  
Anonymous Filmiholic said...

I've been following this story and couldn't help but remember a trip to Kuala Lumpur last year and a stop at a shopping mall that had actually been built around a small Hindu temple (this was pointed out to me by a Tamil Christian driver).

10:45 PM  
Blogger Qalandar said...

Good post Amardeep.

I think one other thing to remember is that much as nationalists of all stripes might wish to imagine that "their" countries can be hermetically sealed, they almost never can be. Thus temple demolitions in Pakistan or Malaysia or wherever increase pressure on the Indian socio-political fabric, enabling certain ideologues to exploit and propagate the notion that India is already a de facto "Hindu-stan", by dint of its neighbors' actions. It's unfortunate, but it's a mindset that many Indian liberals have themselves been complicit in, when they (for instance) hail the Indo-Pak peace process as "good for communal peace" in India; the problem is one can't have it both ways, and say the Sangh Parivar is wrong to posit a Muslim = Pakistani equation, and yet it's a great thing for Hindu-Muslim relations if India and Pakistan share friendly relations. The two are sides of the same coin, and one can easily (and siturbingly does) shade into the other.

The Gujarat BJP example you brought up is instructive: because the Gujarat BJP wishes to make Gujarat the sort of polity that Pakistan already is (where minorities "know their place"); which explains the (to outsiders, paradoxical) fact that in Pakistan there are hardly any communal riots between Muslims and non-Muslims. The sad truth is that no-one bothers, as the minorities are politically irrelevant.

Gujarat serves as a reminder (because, given the "right" ideology, this sort of thing can happen anywhere) that the political future is still very much up for grabs in India (and far more hopeful signs do also exist on the communal front outside Gujarat; inside that state the picture is bleak indeed). In Pakistan what's depressing is the absence of any large-scale introspection on this issue, and the response of the government was typical: first deny that the relevant structure was a temple, and then simultaneously raise distracting issues. But nor can we simply blame the government; where are the protests? We keep hearing of Pakistan's vibrant civil society, and certainly on my own trips to Pakistan I have always been struck by the fesitiness of the media there -- yet minorities are not seen as an issue for Pakistan all too often (i.e. "minorities" only surface when there is a riot in India that is being covered, one might add often with an unseemly glee, of the "we always knew secularism was a sham" kind), with the result that (at least in my experience) many Pakistanis will simply say with a straight face that minorities aren't an issue, "because there are so few of them." The issue, of course, is never the number, but the justice of a particular arrangement -- though one might nevertheless consider the reasons why there are in fact so few minorties in Pakistan, a direct result of the inhospitable nature of the state's foundational ideology (alive and kicking, to the point where the only Bollywood films that have received permission for public screenings in Pakistan over the last few decades have "Muslim" themes: Mughal-e-Azam, Anaarkali, and now Taj Mahal; a Reena Roy film in the late 1970s got through-- except the film was dubbed, and all Hindu characters' names were changed to Muslim ones!) I do not see this situation changing for the better anytime soon, as the big difference from India is NOT the violence or lack thereof in any particular situation, but the fact that any steps to address the situation necessarily undermine the two-nation theory on which the state is premised. A thorny problem, as no state actively undermines its own founding principle.

1:45 AM  
Blogger Qalandar said...

This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:48 AM  
Blogger Qalandar said...

On the two nation theory and how that plays into the Pakistani state's policy on Bollywood, an interesting discussion:

1:50 AM  
Anonymous Ron said...

Temple & all other religious symbolic places should be well protected by the government.

12:18 PM  
Anonymous suaramalaysia said...

Have you ever watched the old Cowboy Westerns where a mob of enraged self-righteous people "seek to carry out justice" and conduct a public-square lynching? Change the time and place and a couple of names plus the props and put Malaysia's Hindraf(Hindu Rights Action Force) in the plot as the chief evil black hoodlums. I wonder if it would make a good box-office hit?

It is a dangerous sign to monitor the current scenario and plot unfolding in the land of mainstream goverment controlled media. None of these media organisations has given Hindraf or its leaders an equal opportunity to present their views or to respond to the overwhelming tirade of accusations levelled against them.

Instead, there has been a calculated, slanted and selective barrage of insinuations as well as maximum coverage on unsubstantiated allegations. Djs thought to have joined the march were fired from radio stations, a company with the same name lost its buisness license and the intensity of this momentum is liken to a massive vigilante.

* If sciologists were to evaluate the Barisan controlled-media's turnspeak on Hindraf, it would be entitled "the lust to demonize." It is almost impossible to conduct a meaningful dialogue with a media bound by a Printing Act leash dangling around its neck.

As a second generation Malaysian Indian I am reminded of the statesman Dr Tan Chee Khoon, (a Malaysian of Chinese descent) he was one of the few who had the capacity to speak for the downtroden without fear or favor, and that was in an era where the media was not emasculated.

Certain government-controlled media have conveniently camoflouged the whole Hindraf March recently and dissent as an incidious racial issue, and pre-judged it as a volatile attempt to stir unrest in the country.

It is a winding road often travelled, yet Malaysians are not as gullible as the establishment envisions it to be. All government newspapers are tools of state propaganda. Even a first-year Universiti Sains Malaysia student of journalism can tell us that. Even a padi farmer in Arau can preach that pertinent point to his children.

Those who buy and read government-owned newspapers are news junkies subjecting themselves to Official Knowledge crafted to suit the need of the owners of the means of producing propaganda. However, it is interesting to monitor the scope of how far the media has become agents of the executive.

All government newspapers are used to skillfully silence and kill opposing viewpoints, albeit couched in some proclamation of free speech. It has been used to engineer risings, uprisings and downfalls. It has been bought and sold by those who have the means to buy and sell politicians.

The same goes for the government-owned television stations. They are shapers of consciousness, they will condition those unwilling to unplug themselves from the propaganda of the regime, and uncritical citizens end up victims of the establishment agenda of racial and religous subjugation.

As you have rightly pointed out in your column "Comment" the Indians have been crushed for decades. The tarred roads they laboured over have almost become a painful reflection of their marginalisation, while others have long passed that road to acheive their dreams.

For decades the community, their children and peoples continue to face the same cycle of poverty, discrimination and disenfranchisement.

The Indians have often stood with others in the cause of fighting against injustices, often to the point of losing the little finances they have. They have often walked championing the cause of emancipation for other minorities while losing their own, and often at the expsense of their own lives. Invariably, when Indians stand up for their own plight, they stand alone.

This predicament after five decades of oppression will not get them any standing ovation, other than continued “Police prison lock up mystery deaths” and a stoic establishment silence. There is no just solution or determination to prosecute those who perpetrated brutal killings of their families in slums such as Kampong Medan.

Selective journalism has been with us long before the oldest profession. And it does exhibit its “assets” for maximum appeal. It amuses me to varying degrees of hilarity and sorrow as to how far some would go to legitamize their prejudice and religous bigotry against Malaysian Indians who have been marginalised.

The Printing Press Act table could have had an adverse effect on institutionalised loyalty and allegiance. Rice bowl journalism however does create a dependence that is hard to disenggage from.

It is interesting to observe that none of the goverment-controlled media has dared to break ranks from the establishment leash or to feature an independent non-biased interview with Uthayakumar. On the contray they sought to seek some high profile exclusive interviews with both royal and common subjects on the road to deliver the goods.

Invariably, the Hindraf march has been portrayed as the arch enemy and villan, one that is both seditious and militant in orientation. The whole issue of multiple deaths of Indians in prison or the Kampong Medan killings is avoided as it were a contagion. Will the Indian politicians in India wash their hands over this ethnic cleansing here?

So far none of the State owned media has taken Umno Youth keris waving politicians to task of inciting racial or religous sentiment. Threats of ethnic cleansing made by keris waving and flag burning are prominently highlighted by these media organizations, while the less influential minorities with little economic clout on the other hand are admonished and coerced to apologize for using their voices.

In other words, the marginalised Malaysian Indians is only qualified to be the nation's top candidate for the heaviest possible crush.

Should the marginalised Malaysian Indians and other minorities smile and politely nod and sing praises to the goverment's "ketuanan Melayu" concept? It was and is being championed as an ethic of wholesome value, while any hint of protest against it will be construed as an anti-national threat to nation and security that will result a quick confrontation and deportation to Kamunting.

Perhaps it is a silencing Malaysian Indians and other minorities will eventually be legislated "to get used to". The subliminal reasoning postulated is that the non-bumis will eventually come around and embrace ketuanan Melayu just like a keris that is raised with "pantuns" and choruses that call for it to be bathed in blood.

Are there any journalists left in the mainstream media with professional and journalistic chutzpah to critic such blatant racism?

Legitimate issues brought up by Hindraf should not be eclipsed by selective journalism or propaganda. None of the goverment-controlled media dared to report how the Police and FRU bulldozed the Batu Caves temple and shot chemical-laced water jets and tear gas into captive crowds.

The establishment potrays all foreign media including the BBC and other independent news agencies as "enemies" united against the government. Such allegations will no longer influence or work against Malaysians who wish to get a balance and fair coverage of issues.

The local Press failed its readers and took their support for granted when they launched a tirade of unconfirmed “scoops” like the allegation that Hindraf members had attacked an Indian restaurant in Brickfields(Paandi). Even in their retraction (when the restaurant owners had confirmed that the report was false and that he had not spoken to any reporter or news agency), the Star failed to print a retraction. Sri Paandi Restaurant boss Mr Thomas and Mr Kumar denies making any allegation against Hindraf or to indicate that they were responsible for an attack by thugs at his restaurant. Nevertheless, Tv1, Tv2, Tv3 or NTV7, Bernama and The Malay Mail quoted that he did.

Such media abuses and maneuvering will lead people to further distrust it. And the beat goes on.
In my opinion, Indians of various religous background and persuasions will stand with Hindraf for the following reasons:

Firstly, Hindraf has a legitimate right to speak out against the systematic ethnic cleansing of poor and marginalised Indians that has manifested over the past three decades. There is irrefutable evidence of this in the aspect of multiple deaths or “Police related lock-up deaths” and the involment of other personnel in carrying out such dastardly attacks. Uthayakumar himself has documented death threats against him and the destruction to his car and property over the years he has spent exposing these injustices

Secondly, Indians of other religous and ethnic persuasions have witnessed similar violations against them, the destruction of churches and property including the removal of crosses and statues in Christian schools and Convents as well as attacks against the Orang Asli in the interior.

There is documented evidence of these and other violations and the goverment must demonstrate sincerity in its claim to openess to executing justice for these oppressed groups.

Thirdly, the current MIC leadership has failed to bring economic, social or cultural emancipation to the community. There needs to be a new impetus and reformation in seeking development and breakthrough for the community.

Investigate and make public the real culprits who attacked and killed the 5 Indians and injured over 100 others in the Kampong Medan racial attacks tragedy from March 8th 2001 to March 22nd March 2001.

Malaysians owe themselves the duty to investigate the 1,000 over police reports against the various authorities for the shoot to kill of hundreds of suspects and the mysterious deaths of hundreds in police custody (60% estimated to be Indians who only from 8% of the population).

Hundreds of Indian “suspects unlawfully arrested, detained, beaten-up and tortured, hundreds of hindu temples demolished at the rate of one hindu temple in every three weeks and scores of hindu temples forced to relocate next to sewerage tanks.

Investigate the unreported information on Hindraf's letters,(over one thousand), memorandums, appeals protest notes scores of Civil Suits to the Prime Minister Ministers, Attorney General, Inspector General of Police, Chief Ministers and the other Malaysian authorities. Detailed reports on racism, marginalization and captive colonialism of the Indians in Malaysia.

This continued media demonization of Hindraf is counterproductive and serves only to promote the narrow racist policies. Fear and intimidation should not be the motivation in dealing with greviances of any community. Is the promise given by Prime Minister to hear the truth even if it hurts still valid?

Hindraf’s track record of legal and peaceful struggle is verifiable and the campaign to mislead the Malaysian public that it has links to terrorits groups is a pernicious political ploy to divert attention from atrocities faced by the Malaysian Indian community.This continued media demonization of Hindraf is counterproductive and the culture of fear and intimidation should not be endorsed.

When media control becomes interlocked with political parties and business interests, the selling of lies and half-truths become more savvy, sophisticated and salivating. The story of poverty and why people become poor will not be told - the truth will hurt and bring governments down.

We are all, in our own way, turning into journalists telling our own truth. In my definition truth is an objective verifiable criteria independent of viewpoint or consensus.

Why independent of a goverment-controlled media? Because true non-selective journalism conforms to the constitution of reality, and a knowledge of things as they are. The people is entitle to that.

We no longer need a media that present us with half-truths. We need our cell-phone cameras, our blogs, and our will to speak truth without apology. The fast rate of Internet penetration in Malaysia will see the proliferation of ‘citizen journalists and commentators’ who will continue to exercise their rights to free speech.

Nothing can stop the bloggers from providing alternative truths or truths that matter. It is pivotal that other communities stand with Hindraf in their struggle to liberate the Indian community from its captive status.

When one chooses to remains silent when a minority is being crushed, it may reap silence when if falls on them. Now is the time to make the choice to use your voice.

2:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The New Economic Policy (NEP)aimed to help Malays gain economic front at the expense of it's chinese population. In the past Chinese and Indian were good friends in Malaysia because Indians helps them during the Japanese occupation (WW2). Ever since Samy Vellu became the leader of MIC and supports the government plans (NEP), many chinese grew bitter.

7:43 AM  

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