By Baradan Kuppusamy
KUALA LUMPUR, Sep 11 (IPS) - As Malaysia marked 50 years as an independent nation on Aug. 31, a team of Malaysian lawyers were in London filing a lawsuit against the British government for abandoning minority Indians to the mercy of majoritarian Malay-Muslim rule while granting independence in 1957.
The extraordinary lawsuit backed by the Hindu Rights Action Force or Hindraf, a Hindu grassroots movement that is beginning to win wide support from ethnic Indians here, blames the British colonial government for the many woes the community faces in Malaysia today.
"We were removed by duplicity and force from our villages (in India) and taken to the then Malaya and put to work to clear the forests, plant and harvest rubber and make billions of pounds for British owners," said Malaysian lawyer Waytha Moorthy Ponnusamy who filed the suit in London.
"After a century of slaving for the British, the colonial government withdrew after granting independence and they left us unprotected and at the mercy of a majority Malay-Muslim government that has violated our rights as minority Indians," he told IPS.
The class action suit on behalf of Malaysia's two million ethnic Indians names the current British government as the sole defendant. The claimant demands that the court hold the British colonial authority liable for shipping millions of Tamil-speaking South Indians to Malaya and later abandoning them without adequate safeguards for their position, rights and future.
The suit is demanding one million pounds as compensation for every minority Indian in Malaysia for the "pain, suffering, humiliation, discrimination and continuous colonisation". It also wants the court to declare Malaysia as a secular state and not an Islamic one.
Ponnusamy, who is also Hindraf's chairman, said the majoritarian political rule is backed by a Malay-dominated civil service, police and armed forces which together fail to respect and uphold the basic human rights of ethnic Indians. "Very little opportunities for employment, study and business are offered for minority Indians as compared to the extensive aid created for native Malays," he said.
Most Malaysians are likely to dismiss the suit as a "gimmick" to "shame" the government for trampling on minority Indian rights, but political analysts said there are real grievances underpinning the suit that the Malaysian government ought to address.
‘’The British government is not the proper authority to hear minority problems that are peculiar to Malaysia. Besides Malaysia is an independent country and has been independent for 50 years," said Yap Swee Seng, executive director of SUARAM, a leading rights NGO. "However the suit touches on many problems faced by minority Indians in Malaysia such as lack of opportunities, destruction of Hindu temples, right to an education in their mother tongue and lack of avenues for advancement," he said.
"The Malaysian government must address these issues. Minority Indians are Malaysians and they have a right to a fair share of the national resources," Yap told IPS in an interview. "The suitability of suing London aside, the grievances raised are long-standing and wholly valid and need urgent solutions from the Malaysian government," he said.
The suit also seeks to strike out Article 153 of the Malaysian constitution which provides for Malay special privileges on the grounds that it contravenes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Labour Organisation which bar racial discrimination.
Malay special privileges is an emotive issue in this multi-racial country with non-Malays, who make up about 40 percent of the population, in favour of either ending it or extending affirmative action help to all Malaysians who need it. Chinese and Indians, who began migrating here in the early 19th century, make up 26 percent and 8.0 percent of the population, respectively, of the 27 million population.
In a press statement to local and international media Ponnusamy also said the suit is necessary to draw world attention to the plight of minority Indians.
"The British government cannot detach itself permanently or partially from the many problems it left behind," he said. "It has a moral, legal, social and political responsibility to ensure there existed fair governance throughout her former colonies and any violation of rights must be attended to immediately before it becomes a menace causing an international crisis.’’
"Minority Indians today are the underclass not only in Malaysia but in other former British colonies," he said, adding there was no "mechanism" under the present Malaysian system to remedy the injustice.
Although Malaysia had advanced phenomenally since independence in 1957 the gains have not reached minority Indians who suffer from poverty and marginalisation. Rapid development that uprooted rural Indians, who form about 60 percent of the Indian population, turned many of them into urban squatters.
"They were neglected, abandoned and left to fend for themselves," said cultural historian Eddin Khoo. "The problems of poverty and marginalisation are severe among the Indian underclass."
"I don't want to discuss the merits of the suit but the problems of minority Indians are real and valid and the Malaysian government must attend to it," Khoo said. "They could have filed the suit in London out of sheer desperation at not getting an airing and discussion here," Khoo told IPS. "It shows the situation of the Indian poor is desperate and worsening."
According to government statistics nearly 40 percent of convicted criminals are from the Indian minority. Marginalisation is also reflected in annual university intake which on an average is under 5 percent of the total university intake of over 45,000 annually in 15 public universities.
Nearly half of the 523 Tamil vernacular schools are also not funded by the government and left in a dilapidated condition without basic modern facilities like computers, proper library, sports and recreation facilities and textbooks.
According to Hindraf the percentage of Indians in the civil service fell from 40 percent in 1957 to under 2 percent in 2005.
The suicide rate among Indians is a high 21.1 per thousand in comparison to 8.6 among Chinese and 2.6 for Malays, Hindraf argues.
"Indians predominate as labourers, industrial manual workers, office boys, road sweepers, beggars and squatters," said lawyer and civil rights campaigner P. Uthayakumar. "We want the world to sit up and see our plight and bring pressure on the Malaysian government," he said.