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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Will Hindraf ignite another saffron blaze?

Tomorrow’s storyline reads like a page out of the past. Indians are once again being called to assemble beneath the Twin Towers on a Sunday morning.

KUALA LUMPUR: Four years ago a fledgling coalition of Hindu NGOs sent word to Indians nationwide that it was time to make a stand against racial discrimination.

At the time scant was known of this coalition which called itself the Hindu Rights Action Force or Hindraf. But by the evening of Nov 25, 2007, the movement had become a household name.

Its mission was outlandish but its plan was simple.

On Malaysia’s 50th Independence Day, Hindraf leader P Waytha Moorthy accused the UK government of “withdrawing after granting independence and leaving us (Indians) unprotected and at the mercy of a majority Malay-Muslim government that has violated our rights as minority Indians”.

He filed a lawsuit against the UK government for US$4 trillion which would translate to US$1 million for every Malaysian Indian. The lawsuit also sought to strike out Article 153 of the Federal Constitution which acknowledged the special position of the Malays.

The group planned to bring the rally to the British Embassy where it would hand over a 100,000-signature memorandum to the British High Commissioner.

Unsurprisingly, the rally was denied a permit and three Hindraf lawyers – Waytha Moorthy, his brother Uthayakumar and V Ganabatirau – were arrested on sedition charges on Nov 24.

Kuala Lumpur was sealed off as police began setting up the obligatory roadblocks. But no one could have predicted what would enfold once the clock struck midnight.

A small group began to gather at the iconic Hindu shrine in Batu Caves. Gradually, the crowd swelled. But when the protesters attempted to march towards KLCC, they were restrained by the police.

While the rest of the city slumbered, the group at the foot of the Twin Towers steadily grew in numbers and by the time dawn broke, the crowd had run into the thousands.

Men and women had flocked from every corner of the country to demand what was owed to them in terms of both money and rights. They hoisted banners and placards, and shouted fiery slogans with extra vigour each time a camera swung their way.

Media reports put the crowd at 20,000 strong but observers claimed that it was several times more than the official version.

But their jubilation was short-lived when the police released torrents of chemical-laced water and lobbed tear gas at them.

The quietly rumbling crowd exploded into an angry mob. Most fled with stinging eyes and bruised bodies while a brazen few hurled the tear gas canisters back at the police.

The highly anticipated march was over even before it began. And yet victory lay with Hindraf that day.

It might have failed to attract the attention of the British but it had seized the attention of a more important group – the Malaysian Indians.

In the aftermath of that mammoth rally, considered as the political awakening of the Indian community, five Hindraf leaders, including Uthayakumar, were detained under the Internal Security Act and the movement was banned.

But there was no containing the brief flash of empowerment which Hindraf unleashed and it snowballed into an avalanche that helped bury Barisan Nasional’s two-thirds majority in the 2008 general election.

And now Hindraf – now known as Hindraf Makkal Sakti – had decided to reignite the saffron fire and tomorrow’s storyline reads like a page out of the past.

Indians are once again being called to assemble beneath the Twin Towers on a Sunday morning.

Hindraf put out the word weeks ago but this time supplemented the verbal call with elaborate leaflets. Running above the faces of prominent world leaders are the words “Solidarity Against Racism” in bold print.

This time around, Hindraf is out to slay the controversial book Interlok as well as the perceived racism perpetuated by Umno.

The route for the march is from the Twin Towers to the Dang Wangi police station, where the group would attempt to lodge reports against Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak and the government.

‘Marginalised from womb to tomb’

Like four years ago, the potential magnitude of Sunday’s rally is anyone’s guess.

Text messages are circulating that the Special Branch is preparing for a crowd of 50,000. But Uthayakumar isn’t letting his imagination get the better of him.

“The 2007 protest was a once in a lifetime event,” he told FMT.

“It was the first such rally in 40 years which is probably why it drew such a response. This rally will not be anywhere near that but we will still make our presence known.”

He explained that the decision to choose the same venue was because the Twin Towers symbolised Malaysia’s prosperity and it would be in stark contrast to the reigning poverty in a large part of the Indian community.

“The Indians are still being marginalised,” Uthayakumar stressed.

“From womb to tomb they are riddled with fundamental problems. They are denied solid education, skills training, good employment opportunities and even a proper burial ground.”

“This is our first rally against Umno racism particularly for the Indian poor. We have moved beyond Interlok to standing up against the most racist government in the world.”

Once again a police permit had been denied. But like the last time, Hindraf would not let the mere absence of a document silence it.

Uthayakumar also reiterated that the rally would be non-violent.

“Najib called on (Libyan leader) Muammar Gaddafi to stop using violence. I make the same appeal to him to ask the police force to refrain from using violence against us on Sunday (tomorrow). And to also stop making false allegations of Hindraf’s links with international terrorist organisations.”

The impact of tomorrow’s rally, however, would run deeper than the anti-racism message it carries. The turnout would also be a strong indicator of where the current Indian support lies.

But much had changed since 2008, with Hindraf dismissing the Anwar Ibrahim-led opposition as being no better than BN.

Although Uthayakumar might disagree, the crowd size would also reflect Hindraf’s relevance among the community for which it is fighting for. - FMT

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