Edited excerpts from the interview follow: Malaysiakini: Can you gauge the success of Hindraf rally - did you achieve what you set out to achieve? Uthayakumar:
To us it was a success. It was above my expectations because we targeted 10,000 but towards the end we knew that the numbers were a lot more higher. Our estimate was about 100,000 although Malaysiakini
estimated it to be 30,000 and the local press made it 5,000-10,000.
The floodgates were broken. We didn’t expect that [...] there was a lot of excitement on the part of Indians in particular to attend the peaceful assembly. I do not know why but it was the talk of almost every Indian in Malaysia. They felt that they had a duty to attend the assembly and it was a historical day in Malaysia in a sense that people in such large numbers turned up. Where were you that day? People said you did not appear until 1.30pm. Why was there a lack of leadership during the rally?
About 7am, I left my house and by 7.30am I was right in front of KLCC (Kuala Lumpur City Centre). We were telling the crowd not to do anything but keep quiet because we are officially suppose to start at 9am, we would wait for everybody to come.
We were waiting for 9am and we wanted to go and tell the police we wanted to hand over the petition (addressed) to the Queen but before we could do anything, the police started firing tear gas into the group to break them up.
I was particularly concerned with the safety for the assemblers because as I told Malaysiakini (in an interview the night before the assembly that) I would take personal responsibility because whatever happens, I have to take responsibility.
There were pictures of me with the British Council in the background - that’s in Jalan Ampang (left). From right in front of KLCC we moved into Jalan Ampang and I believe that was the major crowd, the bulk of the crowd was there.
We have no experience in organising a large assembly so there was problems with coordination. We originally wanted people to gather in front of KLCC at the last minute but the crowd was too large so we could not really coordinate properly.
Do you think the poor coordination led to the violence and people getting injured?
No, I think the police attack on innocent peaceful assemblers was what caused the violence.
But that was to be anticipated, wasn’t it?
No, we have warned the police that we are assembling peacefully, our big banner said kami aman, polis jangan ganas (we’re peaceful, police don’t be violent’). We were exercising our right pursuant to Article 10 of the Federal Constitution (right to freedom of assembly). Who are the police to tell us not to gather? Who is the government to tell us not to gather?
So are you saying you’re placing constitutional superiority over people’s safety?
No, the people came against all odds. The prime minister (Abdullah Ahmad Badawi), the deputy PM (Najib Abdul Razak), the inspector-general of police (Musa Hassan) had warned them not to come every day for the past week with the media going full blast with their headline news on the radio, TV, the press in particular the Tamil press (all saying) ‘Don’t go’ but yet 100,000 [sic] people defied the PM, the DPM, the IGP.
Normally the media propaganda works but this time it did not work. The floodgates were opened. People came out in large numbers because they have been suppressed, oppressed, marginalised for 50 years. We are against the practice of racism by Umno [...] on the Indians. They have already been pushed to the wall and they come out in large numbers to peacefully register their protest against the Umno-led Barisan Nasional.
On the issue of racism, people allege that Hindraf is racist in nature. Why do you take such a communal approach when poverty affects Chinese, Malays and other minorities as well?
Umno’s racial mindset has in fact spilled over to the opposition, NGOs and civil society in Malaysia (which have) begun to play to the gallery. They don’t go according to the seriousness of violation of human rights or the issue (but) by what gets them political mileage (because) the Malays and Chinese form 90 percent of the population.
If you take the latest example of the Hindraf peaceful assembly, people were arrested and beaten up and remanded for three days [...] and they were charged immediately. None of the other supposedly multiracial opposition parties, NGOs or civil society (groups said anything) - there was pin-drop silence from them because the victims were Indians.
If you see the issue of temple demolition - if only Anwar Ibrahim, Dr Wan Azizah (Wan Ismail), Lim Kit Siang, Lim Guan Eng, Nasharudin (Mat Isa) and (Abdul) Hadi Awang condemned the Umno government for demolishing temples [...] they put their foot (down) strongly and tell (Abdullah), ‘Look, this is wrong, how can you go and demolish somebody’s temple’, I am sure the Umno government will back off.
But DAP, PAS and PKR will lose Malays votes so they don’t want to make a stand. If at all, they should be more multiracial. Maybe I shouldn’t use the word ‘racist’ against them, they should be multiracial. (When) the temple in Padang Jawa was demolished Kulasegaran moved an emergency motion (in Parliament but) why couldn’t it be Lim Kit Siang (as the parliamentary opposition leader)? [...] it is a national issue, it is not an Indian issue.
[...] So if the opposition party, NGOs and civil society doesn’t want to do (Indian issues) [...] if we don’t do, nobody would do it. So we are left with no choice but to focus on Indian issues, temple demolitions, Indians schools not being fully aided [...] many schools look like a cow shed. I have not seen one Chinese or Malay school which looks like a cow shed.
The press don’t highlight the issue according to the gravity or the seriousness of it. So here we are, we are saying it’s a serious problem, please pay attention to it but it is unfortunate that we are Indians and we champion Indian issues because the other communities are not interested so we are left with no choice but to do it ourselves. So who is racist-lah?
I was brought up in Kelantan where 99 percent (of people) are Malays, 0.9 percent Chinese and 0.1 percent Indian. Until today I speak fluent Kelantan Malay; not many people know that and I don’t look like someone who can speak Kelantan Malay. I was brought up with the Malays. I’ve got nothing against the Malays.
You want to know a little secret? I once went out with a Malay girl for five years. I have got people who say I’m a racist, I’m anti-Malay but no I’m not. But because of religious considerations I could not convert to (Islam). She is a wonderful lady [...] converting was something I could not accept. I told her from the beginning and we went our separate ways. It was sad, very sad but it had to happen. But I am no racist. Hindraf is no racist.
Do you think you could broaden your struggle, fight for rights of all poor people and not polarise races?
You see when it comes to the poor, the Chinese poor they have their guilds, associations and they are taken care of. The Malay poor is taken care of by the government. Chinese control 50 percent of the business in this country, they own a certain amount of political clout, they own about 30 percent of the votes. The Umno-led government takes the Chinese seriously. The Orang Asli they have an (Orang Asli Affairs Department), international bodies and NGOs which take care of aborigines. There are groups that take care of the foreigners.
But if a local Indian suffers some form of violation, these people will not speak up. I think that is not right. I think the onus is on the multiracial community to address the most serious violations of human rights. So if the Malay and Chinese communities do not want to support the Indian poor, there’s nothing we can do about it. We can’t help it. It is beyond our power. It is up to them now.
There is criticism in a blog that describes Hindraf as "sheer idiots" for thinking they can change Indian Malaysians by walking [...] to the British High Commission on a Sunday. People are saying Indians can be changed by education, eradicating toddy, eradicating gambling and others.
To me, if the writer has a better solution he should have put it in his comments. Anybody and everybody can criticise. They should have come up with constructive criticism saying ‘don’t walk on a Sunday, this is what you should do’.
To me we’ve talked about it, we are on the ground, we’ve been doing work for the last 10 years we do not have any other choice but to stage a peaceful assembly. I wish the writers and other commentators have better solutions for us, we would follow that, we would listen to them.
What do you expect out of the lawsuit against the British government?
The British are not like Malaysian. They do not have the Malaysian mindset. We have confidence in the British courts. We cannot say the same about Malaysian courts. [...] So these people who have doubts about our suit, they are basing it on a Malaysian mindset. If at all we lose the suit, so what? So be it. We have got the best chance at justice.
What has happened to the 10-member delegation to deliver the petition to the Queen?
On Nov 27, the PM threatened us with the Internal Security Act and there was a real danger of Hindraf leaders being arrested. We had to devise a new strategy (for) one person to leave the country to carry the torch on the assumption that the others will be detained under ISA. So now (Hindraf chairperson) P Waythamoorthy (photo) is on an international lobby to India [..] he will then proceed to London, Geneva, Brussels, Washington DC, New York, Atlanta.
For the sake of transparency, how much does Hindraf get through donations? How much is being spent on Waythamoorthy’s lobby?
We will take it as it comes. We have never done this before. Maybe about RM50,000 (for the trip). Since it’s public funds, I think until yesterday we have collected about RM150,000 already. We were surprised. We wanted to take stock of the exact amount before we make the announcement because we are accountable to the public. We have got almost zero foreign funding. This is also good because we maintain our independence.
What is this vendetta against Umno about?
You see Umno has been very successful, (it) has been trained by the British who are very good and astute politicians. They conquered three-quarters of the world, they trained the Umno leaders [...] to be very good politicians; they divide and rule.
The way they rule the Indians is that they create a system with MIC (and) leave the two million Indians’ problems to Samy Vellu (photo), the MIC, Hindu Sanggam.
They’ve got a structure [...] so any problems regarding the Indians, Umno will say ‘go see your MIC leader’. The MIC leaders are powerless. Samy Vellu is the most senior cabinet member; he qualifies to be the PM but he is not because of his ethnicity, he cannot be PM.
During the Padang Jawa temple issue Samy went to the ground (and told) the enforcement chief, ‘please don’t break the temple’ and the enforcement chief told him pergi dah (go away). I’m breaking the temple’.
What powers does Samy Vellu have (if) even the enforcement chief of the Shah Alam City Council doesn’t want to listen to him? To me, that enforcement officer is more powerful than the most senior minister in the cabinet. That’s the reality because (the officer) is a Malay and Samy Vellu is an Indian. That’s a fact.
You can say I’m a racist but you see in Malaysia, people avoid talking about the realities about race. So Samy Vellu is a proxy of the Umno government. He is suppose to cheat and mislead the community. Samy Vellu has no power, he’ll only tell you three things: ‘I will bring this up with the cabinet’, ‘I will bring this up with the PM’ or ‘I will bring this up in Parliament’ because beyond this he cannot say anything.
To me even if you remove Samy Vellu and place me in his position, I will not be able to do anything. I’m powerless. Only PM and Umno have the power. Umno rules this country not Barisan Nasional. It’s a game Umno has played for 50 years so the Indians will end up fighting among themselves, it’s exactly what Umno wants.
Have you tried engaging Umno?
Of course. We have written over 1,000 letters over the past 10 years to the PM, chief ministers, mayors, the attorney-general, IGP (about) all the atrocities (done) to Indians (but) they just don’t (give) a damn. They don’t even bother replying save for a few letters acknowledging they have received our letters, thank you very much, full stop. That’s the first and last we hear from them.
The PAS-led government in Kelantan has not broken a single Hindu or Buddhist temple. In fact the largest sleeping Buddha in Southeast Asia is not in Thailand but in Kelantan in Kampung Neting, Tumpat, where I grew up. The PAS-led government does not break temples, only the Umno-led government breaks temples.
Why didn’t Hindraf raise the issue of the 'surau' that was also demolished and show you're not racist?
Because the surau was already replaced with a bigger surau, fully funded by the government. It is a non-issue. [...] Until today, none of these groups - political parties, NGOs or even Umno - have said anything (about the fact) that no Hindu temple has been given government land or is fully funded by the government. There is zero. Nobody talks about it.
But there are also claims that there are many temples built illegally.
Most of these temples were built before Independence. Similarly mosque and suraus were built before Independence [...] but they have all be legalised. So they become legal. Now these Hindu temples, you do not legalise it and then you say they are illegal. Where is the justice? Article 8 of the Federal Constitution states there is equality before the law. Why one rule for the surau and one rule for the temples?
There is a Tamil proverbs saying that ‘you should never live in a village with no temple’. The Encyclopedia of Britannica define the Tamils as a ‘temple-building race’. It is their culture, it goes to the heart and the core of their culture. So (over) the issue of illegal temples, just make them legal, like how you make mosques and suraus legal, the problem is solved.
In the post-independence temples, the government has not made any allocation of land, so they (Indians) built temples which are (located near their) houses, whatever. But if the government had given them land, as it gave to Muslims, there would be no issue of illegal temples.
Why isn’t Hindraf lobbying to legalise the temples?
That is what we’re doing now. We are asking the government to gazette all Hindu temples. Take stock of all the Hindu temples, give them the land, gazette them as Hindu temple reserve and let’s move on from there. Any new temples, we deal with separately. The power is not with Hindraf, the power is with the government.
(The Umno-led government) insults Hindu temples by relocating them next to sewerage ponds. Really demeaning, really insulting. If you don’t call that ethnic cleansing, then what is? They are insulting us saying, ‘that’s where you belong’.
What is Hindraf’s relationship with Parti Reformasi Insan Malaysia (Prim)?
Prim’s registration has never been approved. We at all times have been operating under (human rights NGO) Police Watch. It was only because of the recent Hindu temple demolitions that we started doing work under the Hindraf platform. That’s all.
Past Umno ministers have said we are doing it because of political motivation [...] but because of the Umno-led government manoeuvering and gerry-mandering of parliamentary constituencies, there is not a single parliamentary or state constituency with an Indian majority. There is none. We can’t contest anywhere in Malaysia; we will lose because we do 99.99 percent Indian issues. So we can’t win.
As you can see I criticise Umno and I also criticise the opposition, so we are non-partisan. If we fight for Malay issues, it means we are fighting Umno’s racist policies. We are fighting against Umno’s Malay supremacy thinking. Of course, PAS and PKR will not support us because they will lose Malay votes but that is not our concern. We are fighting for justice, equality, fairness for all communities.
As we see it now, politics is not important to us. The issues are more important. And I think we will lose credibility if we join a political party. We will support candidates who are sympathetic to the Hindraf cause and we will work behind them.
Maybe you can win if you become a political party by taking a less communal stand...
Maybe we will take a less communal stance and focus less on Indian issues when the Malays and Chinese fill in the blanks and take up Indian issues on a serious and equitable basis. If they had done it before, we would not be focusing on Indian issues [...] we would (strike) a natural balance.
People do not know about the non-Indian work we do. Even my lawyers friends have told me, ‘eh, this is a Chinese case, a Chinese victim of police brutality, eh, you get Chinese papers coverage you know, you must do’. I don’t go by that. I don’t go by the mileage we get. I go by the seriousness of the issue.
How do you feel about the PM’s statement that Hindraf is spreading lies and causing hatred? He wants proof that genocide and ethnic cleansing have taken place in Malaysia.
I started off my letter (to British PM Gordon Brown) with (a reference to) Kampung Medan. Six people were killed, (more than a) hundred (were) injured (in May 2001).
But your letter states ‘100 over Indians were slashed and killed’ but you just said only six were killed...
No, the 100 over includes the six. Six were killed but 100 were slashed and (sustained) grievous bodily injury.
Aren’t you worried that this statement ‘100 over Indians were slashed and killed’ is misleading people to think hundreds were actually killed?
I’ve made this allegation about genocide and ethnic cleansing seven years ago and I have repeated it many times but it (only) caught fire at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kampala, Uganda (last month). It caught the attention of the British PM and the press in Kampala, the (Malaysian) government is upset.
But to me Hindu temples being relocated next to sewerage tanks - that is ethnic cleansing a la Malaysia. Every three weeks, a temple is demolished. If you don’t call it ethnic cleansing, what is it then? In Bosnia, you kill people. (But ethnic cleansing) a la Malaysia is worse because you are living and suffering on a day to day basis.
Don’t you think your choice of words is what’s getting you in trouble?
No, if they want to charge me for sedition, then so be it, but the court must give me a chance. I would like to produce hundreds of do*****ents and media reports to justify that it is ethnic cleansing. Let the court decide whether it is ethnic cleansing or whether it is sedition but the court must hear me out. I have the evidence, I have the proof.
Is it true you got your law degree in United Kingdom through MIC-owned Maju Institute of Educational Development (MIED) loan?
Certainly not. My mother sold a house in Brown Garden in Penang for RM91,500. MIED gave me a subsidy of 10 percent which is about RM12,000 - it was given to me by MIC (for) which I was thankful. But upon completion of my studies, I paid it back in full.
Why did you say Umno leadership was behind your car tyres being slashed recently?
Because they are now attacking me. Currently, who is attacking me? I have no enemies except Umno and the police. So it’s either one of them. I have no other enemies. Who else would do it?
But you don’t have evidence. It is because of such statements that people attack you and calling you an extremist.
Then you tell me, who else? No, I don’t have any enemies - at all. I have zero enemies. I maintain a very low profile because of my work - I go home, I have no social life. I don’t go to pubs, I don’t go to disco, I don’t go for birthday parties. I don’t interact much with society, I’m a homely person.
Tell us more about the political asylum you tried to seek in UK in 2004?
It was at the height of the Francis Udayappan (missing police detainee) case. There was an attack on me, done with razor-sharp precision. That kind of thinking can only come from the police. [...] They smashed my car windscreen and I hit a lamp post and somebody pulled out a gun and pointed it at me. I had all the evidence.
I would have easily qualified for asylum but in the meantime the (de facto) law minister Mohd Nazri Abdul Aziz told me to come back, ‘Malaysia is your country please come back’ and he assured me my safety. I came back to Malaysia [...] and the asylum application was withdrawn.
But with the current (situation) my life is back in danger again. But if you ask me whether I will seek asylum again, the answer is ‘No’. I will stay back and fight this time.