Malaysian Indians are Malaysians

The Indian government must not intervene in Malaysia. But surely India is more than just its government.

The Indian government should not intervene in Malaysia’s domestic politics…

So the Malaysian government is using strong-arm tactics to suppress protests by the country’s ethnic Indian minority. The good citizens of India would be appalled not only to see non-violent protestors (carrying placards with images of Mahatma Gandhi) being teargassed and water-cannoned but also to hear that country’s highest leaders threatening to arrest protesters under internal security laws. The manner in which the Malaysian government is handling the protests grates against democratic political norms that we are used to. Since the protests involves people of Indian origin, Tamil ethnicity and Hindu faith, should India intervene or intercede on their behalf?

That depends on what we mean by “India”. The Acorn has strongly argued against a foreign policy based on racial, communal or ethnic interests: French Sikhs are French and Fiji’s Indians are Fijians. Similarly, Malaysian Indians/Hindus/Tamils are Malaysians. The Indian government is obliged to protect the interests of its own citizens wherever they might be. It has no such obligation to protect the interests of people of Indian origin who are more often than not proud nationals of another country. Unless India’s national interests are involved—for instance, as in Burma—India would do well not to involve itself in the domestic affairs of other countries. Those who argue that the Indian government must do something about the plight of Malaysia’s marginalised ethnic Indian minority are perhaps unable to shed the mindset that sees the state and the government as the Grand Solver of Problems.

But it does not mean that the Indian media, civil society groups and non-governmental organisations (NGOs)—like their counterparts across the world—cannot play a role in bringing the Malaysian events to wider international attention. Indeed many Malaysians themselves disagree with their country’s systematic discrimination:

For the information of all and sundry, those temples that were bulldozed were not ‘Indian temples’ but Malaysian temples, built on Malaysian soil, frequented by Malaysians, paid for by Malaysians and they were part of the Malaysian landscape. There are no ‘Indian Temples’ in Malaysia- Indian temples exist in India and if you don’t believe me then fly to India and check them out yourself. Likewise the only ‘Indians’ in Malaysia are the tourists, expats and workers who come from India and happen to be Indian nationals bearing Indian passports. Those Hindus who marched in the streets of Kuala Lumpur on Sunday happen to be Malaysians…. [Farish Noor/The Other Malaysia]

As Farish Noor writes, “the plight of Malaysia’s Hindu minority is a singular Malaysian problem and the responsibility for it falls on the Malaysian government itself. In the meantime, while the government wrestles with yet another instance of people’s power taking to the streets, another local demonstration has gone global”. Whether this will be sufficient to compel the Malaysian government to better engage the protestors is difficult to say. But it will certainly make the Malaysian government more aware of the costs to its own international reputation.

Update: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh makes a bizarre (clever?) statement. “‘This is a matter which concerns us. Whenever people of India run into difficulties, it is a source of concern,’ Singh said when asked to comment on the developments in Malaysia”. Huh?

Update: As predicted, the Malaysian foreign minister volleys back. This was an entirely avoidable diplomatic row.

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