In a major overture to its Indian-origin citizens (mainly Hindus of Tamil stock), the Malaysian government lifted its four-year ban on the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf), on the eve of the auspicious Tamil month of Thaipusam, on January 25, 2013. The Registrar of Societies informed Hindraf chairman P Waythamoorthy that Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein had lifted the ban imposed on Oct 14, 2008, under Clause 5 of the Societies Act 1966, which gives authorities absolute discretion to ban any organization in the interests of national security and public order.
Hindraf is a voluntary organization of the descendants of the Tamil indentured labour brought to work on the plantations of British landowners in the colonial period. In the decades since independence, they have suffered much State-sponsored discrimination and oppression.
On Nov 25, 2007, Hindraf brought 30,000 Indian Malaysians out on the streets of Kuala Lumpur to protest against the growing marginalisation of the community; the rally succeeded despite a government ban and was one of the largest ever opposition rallies in the city. It resulted in a crackdown by the then Abdullah Ahmad Badawi led-government and the arrest of five key Hindraf leaders under the Internal Security Act. They remained in detention for two years. As Waythamoorthy was then abroad, he became an exile for five years before returning to
in August 2012 despite the ban on Hindraf. Malaysia
In protest, the Indian community which had long supported the ruling Barisan Nasional, turned to the Pakatan Rakyat opposition combine in the March 2008 elections, as a result of which the ruling coalition lost its two thirds majority for the first time since 1973, along with five states. In October 2008, the then Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar banned Hindraf, on grounds that it was a threat to public order, security and sovereignty of the country and racial harmony.
Hindraf was caught unawares by the sudden upturn in its fortunes, which is certain to have political implications in an election year. The lifting of the ban has been linked to overtures made by chairman Waythamoorthy to both Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat. While the opposition met with Hindraf, the latter refused to meet with the BN till the ban was removed.
The lifting of the ban comes just prior to the March 5 hearing at the Federal Court where Hindraf is seeking registration as a legal body. Hindraf lawyer M Manoharan, a member of the Kota Alam Shah assembly, has advised it to seek an apology and damages from the government as the ban caused grave hardship to many activists. Lawyer P Uthayakumar feels that “in the spirit of the lifting of the ban,” the Attorney-General’s Chambers should drop the cases against the 54 activists charged for being members of an illegal body after they took part in Hindraf’s anti-Interlok rally of 2011, which protested against racial slurs against the Hindu community in Malaysian textbooks. His supporters demand that the sedition charges against Uthayakumar also be dropped immediately.
The question now is whether Hindraf will fall for the bait thrown by the Barisan Nasional, which clearly desires their votes, though the party once arrogantly stated that it did not need non-Malay (Muslim) votes. But now, the presence of a powerful opposition has convinced Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak and the BN to conciliate the Indian community. Some observers feel that by opening talks with Hindraf and conceding some major demands in terms of education and economic opportunities, the Barisan Nasional will secure the critical Indian vote in many federal and state constituencies.
Others feel it may not be easy to overcome the deep sense of injustice and anger felt by Malaysian Indians in the over four decades of BN-sanctioned institutionalized racism and discrimination. The Hindus also faced religious persecution, destruction of clan temples and icons, and forced conversions.
Dr. Lim Teck Ghee, director, Centre for Policy Initiatives, notes that Hindraf leaders have made tremendous personal sacrifices to fight for equal rights and opportunities for all Malaysians (i.e., including those of Chinese origin), particularly Indian Malaysians. Since the 2007 rally and the 2008 general election in which Hindraf caused a major upheaval in the polity, its leaders and supporters have suffered enormous persecution.
It seems likely that Hindraf will move cautiously as the Barisan Nasional is known to renege on election promises. Its five-decade rule has resulted in the sustained decline of the Indian community in terms of socio-economic indicators and political participation.
Hence, Hindraf’s central objective is a quest for reconciliation which will bring closure to some of the major grievances of Indian Malaysians, rather than settle for some economic crumbs at election time. This will mean bringing the poor and marginalised communities out of the “neo-slavery” conditions in which they have been living for over five decades and into the mainstream national economy. This is why Hindraf outlined an 18-point demand charter after the 2007 rally, and more recently, a Blueprint.
Together, the two documents call for a dismantling of the racist and discriminatory system and state; addressing the plight of hundreds of thousands of displaced plantation workers and stateless Indians; ensuring adequate and equal educational, employment and business opportunities for Indians and other minorities; eradicating the racism that is rampant within the police and other sectors of the civil service and which has especially targeted poor Indians; and raising the standards of human rights practices to ensure a free, just and fair nation. The now-legal movement specifically calls for scrapping Article 153 of the Federal Constitution, which outlines the special privileges and positions of the Malays.
The Barisan Nasional and Pakatan parties are eager to woo Hindraf as both realise that Indian voters hold the key to power in the states of Kedah, Perak, Selangor and Negri Sembilan and can influence the outcome in Johor, Malacca and Pahang if the contest is close.
Much, however, will depend on how the Barisan Nasional takes its initiative further. In November 2012, Perkasa chief Datuk Ibrahim Ali had indicated the government’s willingness to meet with Hindraf despite the prevailing ban, “as everyone was entitled to voice out concerns plaguing their community”. But he did not want the organisation to raise “sensitive issues such as the interests of the Malays, Bumiputeras and Islam as the official religion”. Rather, he said, Hindraf should focus on improving the lives of the Indian community amidst the escalating cost of living. But chairman Waythamoorthy insisted on the ban being lifted first.
So far, the public reaction to lifting the ban has been less than euphoric, and Hindraf will have to tread cautiously while responding to government overtures. The Indian community’s top demand is that the 450,000 Indians denied legal citizenship papers and thus rendered stateless be given their rights. Some want a Minority Ministry to implement Hindraf’s blueprint, and for BN to allot 48 seats for Hindraf in the next general elections, a commitment that should be given in writing.
The development is a big boost to Hindraf, which had split into several factions after the rally of 2007 and subsequent repression. An offshoot party, the Malaysian Makkal Sakhti Party, sided with the Barisan Nasional in the 2008 elections, while other groups went along with the Pakatan combine, mostly to DAP or PKR. But now, if it plays its cards well, Hindraf could emerge as a major political force in its own right.