Sunday, October 19, 2008

Hear Hindraf's cry for freedom

Hear Hindraf's cry for freedom
Sim Kwang Yang | Oct 18, 08 3:17pm

The Hindu Rights action Force (Hindraf) has been banned under the Societies Act 1966 as of Oct 15.

When making this announcement, Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar declared that, if left unchecked, Hindraf could pose a threat to public order, peace, security, and morality in Malaysia. When I read this in the Star, I could already hear the uproar of outrage exploding all over the Malaysian blogsphere.

That itself is interesting. With the expansive influence of the internet in Malaysia, the BN government can no longer monopolise the right to interpret public events, or manufacture synthetic truths to pass moral judgement on citizen-based social movements in the country.

In the hearts and minds of many Malaysians, the emergence of Hindraf prior to the March 8 general election this year has been one of those critical phenomena that turned an important page for Malaysian history.

The peaceful but massive street protests that responded to Hindraf’s call for action then signaled a spontaneous groundswell of anguish, resentment, and quiet anger among the Indians against decades of arrogant neglect by the government over many political social and economic woes plaguing the community.

The Hindraf leadership and their protesters were probably from the middle class within the Indian community. But they must have plucked a sensitive nerve of all Malaysian Indians, including all the far flung, widely scattered, and hitherto long-suffering silent Indian underclass.

Far bigger political clout

Finally, the Indians broke their silence and spoke out where it counted the most - at the ballot box. During the March 8 general election, they voted as a bloc overwhelmingly against the BN, helped drive the ruling coalition from five state governments, reduced MCA to a mosquito party, practically retired MIC supremo Samy Vellu, and ended the myth of power sharing among ethnic communities within the closed doors of the BN supreme council conference room.

In doing so, the Indians have proven that they have far bigger political clout out of proportion with their numerical percentages. They can become king-makers. Hindraf has proven itself as the most empowering social movement in the half-century history of multiracial and polyglot Malaysian society.

A smart government in an enlightened democracy would recognize the message of the Indian voters. Political leaders would try to win back their hearts and minds by engaging the Hindraf people in serious, inclusive, and meaningful dialogues. The Indian problem would indeed have to receive urgent and comprehensive attention.

Unfortunately for the Indian community, the BN government is not all that smart, and our democracy is not all that enlightened.

After the general election, the BN government has rewarded the Hindraf people with more oppressive responses. Five Hindraf leaders were detained under the much hated ISA. Now, it has been banned, with official insinuation as if Hindraf is no better than organised criminals, fakers of passports, or even the communists of old.

With this punch of the iron first, is Hindraf therefore destined to fizzle out like a burst balloon?

Hindraf national coordinator RS Thanenthiran did respond the day after the ban by saying, “The government can ban Hindraf but it can’t silence the majority of the Indian community who feel marginalized”. As he pointed out, the ban can only aggravate the situation.

I am sure that Hindraf leaders are now taking stock of the situation and counting their many options. Perhaps they are waiting for feedback from people like you and me.
Words of Martin Luther King

The Hindraf predicament suddenly reminds me a lot of Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights Movement. In his letter from Birmingham city Jail (printed in 1972), King wrote:

“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed ... Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The urge for freedom will eventually come”.

King, like Hindraf leaders in recent months, had just been arrested and jailed for leading an “illegal” protest march against racism in America. But he knew he needed more than noble dreams and haughty rhetoric. He needed a strategy for action.

He explained how his non-violent campaign consisted of four steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive, agitation, self-purification, and direct action. He wrote, “So we had no alternative except that of preparing for direct action whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and national communities. We started workshops on non-violence an repeatedly asked ourselves this question, “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating? Are you able to endure the ordeals of jail”?

When queried why he advocated breaking some laws and obeying others, King had this to say; “The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws. There are just laws and there are unjust laws. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St Augustine that ‘An unjust law is no law at all’.”

I suspect most Malaysian lawyers are influenced by legal positivism, which states that a law-legislated legally is a law, and must be obeyed. But I do agree with King and St Augustine - a law is not just a law; a law is either a good law or a bad law. Any piece of legislation may be legal, but it can also be highly immoral, and so must be changed peacefully at the earliest possible opportunity.

By now, we should know that, whatever the superstructure of the State may say about Hindraf, it is not a secret society out to ruin social stability and public security. It is a spontaneous movement of citizens trying to right socio-political wrongs through non-violent peaceful means. There is no denying that Hindraf does threaten the survival of the BN government. What’s wrong or illegal about that?

We should also know that the banning of Hindraf under the Societies Act of 1966 is an injustice that has made the Act into a bad law. It has become a law that denies the fundamental human rights to free association and free expressions, inalienable rights which are enshrined in our constitutions.

The Hindraf leaders may go to court and challenge their banning on constitutional ground. I don’t know. There may be a small later amendment to say that whatever decision a minister makes under this law cannot be challenged in a court of law.

It is good to see that the Hindraf leaders are now coolly calculating their odds and weighing their options. Their hot actions require cool heads.

They may end up adopting the philosophy of Martin Luther King, or they may not. They can also draw inspiration and courage from their ancient and rich Hindu traditions. There was Gandhi who could also provide them with some bright ideas.
Whatever they do from this point on, the worst choice is to get into an acrimonious factional fight over their next course of action. This would cripple their movement, as it did to the Socialist Front a few decades ago. They must guard against the infiltration of agent provocateurs into their rank and file to divide and rule them. This is a time that would indeed test their wisdom and courage to the limit.

A national problem

I see the Hindraf movement not merely as one involving Malaysian Indians only. The Indian problem is a national problem; it is your problem and my problem.

Once again, I would like to quote Martin Luther King. He wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects us indirectly.”

In short, we Malaysians of all ethnic origin must do whatever we can to defend the Hindraf movement in whatever way we can. The least we can do is to pray for them.

We must take note that the central concept that drove King’s Civil Rights Movement is “freedom”. Although the word “freedom” has been made to sound like a dirty word in Malaysian mainstream discourse, it is an idea behind the Hindraf movement.

As I see it, Hindraf is a struggle of the Indian community to be free from poverty, neglect, marginalisation, and from many social ills that are the direct results of socio-economic backwardness. Above all, theirs is a struggle for freedom from political oppression and persecution by the multi-racial ruling class. It is this same cry for freedom that an increasing number of Malaysian can share these days.

We all badly need a reformation in our country.