By Carolyn Hong, Malaysia Bureau Chief|
The Straits Times
CONTROVERSIAL FIGURE: Hindraf chief P. Uthayakumar (right) has tapped into the discontent felt by Indians. -- PHOTO: AFP
LAWYER P. Uthayakumar, who recently roused thousands of Indians to take to the streets in a protest against their plight, is a man who stirs up a lot of mixed feelings.
He speaks like a machine gun going off, is confrontational and has the lawyerly knack of hammering home his points through repetition.
The 46-year-old is louder than some of the most strident pressure groups.
And he has turned off some Malaysians, especially the elite, who view him suspiciously as a maverick or even a publicity hound.
Yet even they have sympathy for the issues that he articulates. And the Indian march that he led on Nov 25 shows how his message has resonated with the working class.
'A lot of people do not like the way he does things, and it does affect his credibility, but it gets the message out,' said human rights lawyer Edmund Bon.
Mr Uthayakumar, who is unmarried, is a key leader of the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf), a previously little-known organisation.
He grew up in rural Kelantan, the son of a locomotive driver and a housewife.
His younger brother, Mr P. Waytha Moorthy, is chairman of Hindraf. Mr Uthayakumar said his elder brother and three sisters are supportive of his campaign and turned up for the mass rally in Kuala Lumpur.
Hindraf became a household name after it led thousands of Indians in the Nov 25 march that drew the attention of the international media.
The New Straits Times has described its plan to hand over a petition to the British government asking for financial compensation as a 'quixotic mission'.
It is precisely this sort of mission that has led some to question Mr Uthayakumar's credibility and purpose, as do his charges of the 'mini genocide' of ethnic Indians.
In 2004 he sought political asylum in London, claiming that police were harassing him over his work on deaths in police custody.
When he ran his Police Watch and Human Rights Committee to demand action on deaths in custody, mostly of Indians, it was as high-profile as Hindraf is now.
Hindraf emerged about two years ago when Mr Uthayakumar switched focus to the demolition of Hindu temples built without permission and the struggles of the Indian community.
He was quoted by The New Paper yesterday as saying that Hindraf's protests were inspired by the monks in Myanmar, and included some who 'were prepared to die for their cause'.
'I've shown slides of monks getting shot and killed during my road shows, and I think it struck a chord with the people,' he said.
Asked whether he was inspiring his followers to turn to violence, he replied: 'I think it's quite unlikely we'll head down that path towards a civil war, but there's always the possibility. Some of the uneducated may resort to violence.'
Indians form about 8 per cent of Malaysia's population, but only up to a third of them are well-off. The rest, mostly Tamils, live on the margins with little access to good education.
'He is very much issue-oriented, and these are matters that are very important to the Indians,' said Mr M. Kulasegaran, an opposition MP.
Mr Uthayakumar told The Straits Times he has been researching on these issues since he opened his law firm in 1994, and half his income has gone to his causes.
He claims his work is funded by donations from working-class Indians.
That thousands of Indians - traditionally a safe voter base for the governing party - are challenging the authorities must be a cause of worry for the government.
But it is unlikely to cost it many seats because Indian voters are a minority and Hindraf's confrontational stance repels many would-be supporters.
It would, however, be a blow to the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition if its popular vote were to be hit.
What Hindraf wants
HINDRAF has issued a long list of demands to the government, the latest coming last Saturday.
Compensation of £1 million (S$3 million) from the British government for each of Malaysia's nearly two million Indians.
Halt temple demolitions. Those demolished to get RM10 million (S$4.3m) compensation each.
Equal rights in education and employment.
More aid to 523 Tamil primary schools.
A meeting with Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi by Sunday.
A new committee to look into Indian grouses.
Release of Indians held without trial in a notorious Johor jail.
Appointment of a non-Malay to a new post of second deputy prime minister.
Finance minister's post to be filled by a Chinese.
20 per cent of top posts in government and private sector for Indians for the next 15 years.
A minimum of 20 opposition MPs to be elected by the Indian community.