Open expression of Indian concerns over the alleged discrimination against Malysian citizens of Indian origin by the government of Malaysia has been ill-advised. The expression of Indian concerns has come from Shri M.Karunanidhi, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Shri Pranab Mukherjee, minister for external affairs, and even the Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh.
Their comments have evoked strong ripostes from two ministers of the Malaysian government--Mr.Nazri Aziz, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, and Syed Hamid Albar, the foreign minister. The foreign minister has pointed out that the recent demonstrations in Kuala Lumpur were by Malaysian citizens of Indian origin and added that Malaysia would deal with its citizens according to its laws and no other country should interfere in its "domestic" matter. He said: "I hope there is no misunderstanding of what is happening here. If they are talking about Indian citizens, we would understand the concern, but what happened involves Malaysian citizens."
There are three categories of Indians or persons of Indian origin in Malaysia. The first category consists of Indian citizens, mainly from Tamil Nadu, going on short visits--either as tourists or to visit their relatives. Malaysia attracts a large number of Indian tourists. The short-term visitors do not face any problems provided they go with valid travel documents.
The second category consists of Indian citizens--again mainly from Tamil Nadu-- who go to work there as limited-term contract labour. One would find a large number of Indian contract labour in jobs such as bearers in restaurants, porters etc. This category consists of two groups--those who go with valid employment orders and travel documents and those who go on tourist visas, overstay there and manage to get jobs without valid papers. These illegals often complain of ill-treatment by the Police and the immigration authorities when their illegality is detected. Where limited-contract workers from India--legals or illegals--have genuine grievances against the Malaysian authorities, the government of India and our diplomatic mission in Kuala Lumpur have every right to take them up with the Malaysian authorities. Consular conventions give them the right to do so.
The third category consists of persons of Indian origin and their descendents, who migrated to Malaysia during the British colonial rule to work in the plantations and other jobs and who have since taken up Malaysian citizenship. If they have any grievances against the Malaysian government, they have to take them up directly with the local authorities. If their grievances are of a serious nature and if the Malaysian authorities are indifferent to them, they have every right to take them up with Malaysian and even foreign human rights organisations. However, consular conventions, which apply only to Indian citizens, do not give the government of India any right to take up their case officially. The government of India has no locus standi in the matter.
Of course, in the light of the friendly relations between India and Malaysia, the government of India can informally take up the matter with the Malaysian authorities, but this has to be done tactfully so as not to give the impression that the government of India is seeking to intervene in the internal affairs of Malaysia.
Malaysia has the Malays, who are the sons of the soil, and Malaysian citizens of Chinese and Indian origin, who had migrated during the British colonial rule and taken up local citizenship. The Malaysian citizens of Indian origin constitute about ten per cent of the population and the Malaysian citizens of Chinese origin about 25 per cent. The remaining 65 per cent are the Malay sons of the soil. The Malay Constitution adopted at the time of Malaysia's independence had itself provided for special treatment to the Malays in matters such as education and employment. This treatment was expanded under the Bhumiputra policy vigorously pursued after the violent anti-Chinese riots of the 1960s.
What is perceived by the Malaysian citizens of Chinese and Indian origin as the unjustified indefinite continuance of these special privileges to the Malays has come in for criticism from them from time to time. After the violent anti-Chinese riots of the 1960s, which were provoked partly by the overtly activist policy of the Chinese in Malaysia and even by the Chinese authorities during the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese have been more careful while raising this issue and China avoids giving rise to any suspicion of interfering in the internal affairs of Malaysia.
The current agitation in Malaysia by Malaysian citizens of Indian origin on the question of the alleged discrimination against them is not an agitation by the Indian-origin community as a whole, but by the Hindu members of the community, who constitute about 75 per cent of the community. The remaining 25 per cent are largely Tamil-speaking Muslims plus a small number of Sikhs. The indications are that the non-Hindu component of the community has kept away from the agitation. The agitation is spearheaded by a coalition of non-governmental organisations called the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF). Significantly, they don't call themselves the Indian Rights Action Force.
They have two kinds of grievances. The first relates to their social and economic hardships due to the indefinite continuance of the policy of special treatment to the Malays even 50 years after Malaysia became independent. The second relates to the demolition of a large number of Hindu temples by the local authorities on the ground that these were got constructed illegally by the migrants from India in government or municipal land. It is alleged that the Malaysian authorities, who did not act against them for decades, have now suddenly started demolishing them in disregard of the feelings of the Hindus. More than the economic and social grievances, what seems to have triggered off the current agitation is the anger over this demolition.
These grievances should be taken up by them through local organisations of Indian-origin people and NGOs in a responsible manner. However justified their grievances may be, this is not a matter on which India can take a public stand in support of the agitators.Some of the leaders of the agitation have been irresponsible in issuing threats of the Tamils emulating the LTTE if their demands were not conceded. This literally amounts to blackmail and no government can succumb to such blackmail.
Any open expression of Indian support to the agitators can not only damage India's friendly relations with Malaysia, but can also cause a polarisation between the Malays and the Malaysian citizens of Indian origin and between the Hindus and Muslims in the community of Indian origin. This will be detrimental to India's interests and to the interests of the community of Indian origin itself.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies.