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Feb 16, 2008

Hindraf and the Pluralization of the Malaysian-Indian Community

By Farish A. Noor

Since it came to the public stage of Malaysian politics the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) of Malaysia has been cast as a troubling phenomenon, but to whom? Predictably the reaction of the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) and its leadership has been to respond to Hindraf’s demands by stating that it is a troublesome organisation that is bent on dividing (and consequently weakening) the Indian community. Hindraf however has defended its actions on the basis that the MIC has singularly failed to defend the interests of the Hindus of Malaysia, and that the leadership of the MIC is entirely beholden to the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition instead. The vernacular Malay press in turn has attacked Hindraf on the grounds that it was seen and cast as being “anti-Malay;” though Hindraf in turn has proclaimed its loyalty to the concept of Malaysia as a universal idea while rejecting the notion of Malay cultural and ethnic supremacy.

Needless to say, these manifold configurations and postures has made it difficult to locate Hindraf on the Malaysian political landscape; but it has also expanded that very same political landscape to include a new range of disaffected and marginalized political actors. What many critics have failed to recognise is that despite the verbal pyrotechnics employed by Hindraf, it has actually contributed to the pluralization and complexification of the Indian minority, and by doing so has rendered the simplistic mode of race-based politics in Malaysia more and more difficult.

While Hindraf’s appeal to the Indian minority in Malaysia is primarily communal and sectarian it has also introduce a cleavage – both political and ontological – in the Malaysian-Indian community itself. Hindraf’s sustained efforts to highlight the marginalization, alienation and discrimination in all walks of life did not merely challenge the staid rhetoric of the Malaysian state whose brand of multiculturalism dates back to the mode of race-relations first developed during the colonial era, but more importantly rendered hollow the MIC’s claim to be the main representative, patron and protector of the Malaysian-Indian community.

Many of the accusations levelled by the leaders of Hindraf towards the leadership of the MIC and its President Samy Vellu in particular were based on long-held grouses that were nurtured over Samy Vellu’s long stewardship of the party: During the time of Samy Vellu the MIC expanded its patronage machinery and used its educational outreach unit, the Maju Institute of Educational Development (MIED) to sponsor the education of more than 10,000 Tamil schoolchildren. In 1982 Maika Holdings was created by the MIC to help pool together the economic resources of the Indian minority so that they could collectively invest in Malaysia’s economic development. Maika however was criticised by some as a patronage arm of the MIC, despite the fact that it was built from the collected sum of RM 106 million that was raised by many poor Tamil families. Following a succession of mismanagement scandals, Maika faced serious losses and many of the Tamil families could not recover their investments. In the face of growing criticism of his leadership Samy Vellu maintained a strong grip on the MIC: S. Subramaniam, who was brought into the MIC during the time of former MIC President Manickavasagam, was one of the strongest opponents of Samy Vellu, and accused the latter of mismanagement of the party. Nonetheless Subramaniam was defeated at the MIC Annual General Meeting of 2006, shoring up Samy Vellu’s position in the party even further.

When Hindraf began mobilising its supporters in 2006 in defence of the Hindu temples that were being demolished all over the country, much of its criticism was directed towards Samy Vellu and the senior leadership of the MIC who they accused of betraying the Indian minority and not being able to stand up to the demands of the UMNO party that leads the ruling BN coalition. Linked to the Hindu temples issue were other complaints related to the MIC’s finances, its alleged failure to uplift the economic condition of the Hindus; its failure to defend Hindu culture, language and identity, etc.

As a result of these complaints being aired in public, Hindraf had inadvertently exposed the class divisions that now exist within the membership of the MIC and the gulf of power, wealth and influence between the MIC leadership and the rest of the Indian minority community. This is ironic considering the fact that the MIC was originally set up by Indian activists like John Thivy, K. Ramanathan and Budh Singh in 1946 to defend the interests of the Indian working class and to struggle for economic and social equality in the first place. By emphasising the weakness and marginalization of ordinary Malaysian-Indians and contrasting their lot to the opulence and luxury of those who claimed to be their leaders and spokesmen, Hindraf has actually introduced the fault-line of class difference within the Indian community itself, thereby rendering any simplistic attempts to homogenise the Malaysian-Indians as a singular political constituency more problematic.

Here lies the paradox that Hindraf itself has introduced into the equation of Malaysian politics: On the one hand it is a communitarian and sectarian organisation that seeks to mobilise and consolidate the Indian minority in Malaysia on the basis of an exclusive racial and religious identity; but on the other hand it has succeeded in doing so by adopting the rhetoric and discourse of betrayal and neglect of the community by some of its own; namely the leaders of the MIC. Hindraf has therefore contributed to the problematization of the category of “Indian-ness” itself, making it consequently more difficult for both the MIC and the ruling National Front to maintain its divisive form of communal sectarian politics that has always relied upon the instrumental fiction of neatly divided and compartmentalised racial groupings. What Hindraf has done via its street demonstrations and campaigns to discredit the MIC leadership is to demonstrate that the Indian community is not a singular bloc that can be reduced to one essentialized stereotype or compartmentalised within neatly-defined and hermetically sealed borders.

The responsibility, therefore, falls on the shoulders of the parties of the ruling National Front that have for so long maintained the culture and norms of divisive race and religion-based politics in the country. Malaysia is in need of a new politics that transcends racial and ethnic divisions, or at least one that recognises the complexity of the plural communities that reside in this country. One thing however is certain for now: Hindraf’s very presence on the political stage signals that some sections of the Malaysian-Indian community no longer see the MIC as the sole patron and protector of the Malaysian-Indians of Malaysia.

Dr. Farish A. Noor is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University of Singapore; and one of the founders of the www.othermalaysia.org research site.


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