Everyone in India knows Indra Nooyi or Mira Nair. But how many know Basudeo Pande or Jagennath Lachmon? Hardly any. These are all children of indentured labor who were cheated to travel to distant and unknown horizons in South and East Africa, the West Indies, Mauritius, Fiji, Ceylon and a score of exotic islands in the Pacific Ocean to toil and die on plantations of the colonizers. Our governments ritually remember them on Bharatiya Pravasi Diwas. Their apathy to the state of these people is shared by our media too, fresh evidence coming from the blind eye they turned to recent events in Malaysia.
How long ago did you see a news item in the Indian media about these people? We however read about Mike Tyson going to jail for a day or the latest peccadilloes of Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan. For our media Indians reside only in the US, UK, Canada and Australia. Neither our media have space nor has our Foreign Office time to see what is happening to ethnic Indians who are the poorest segment of the Malaysian population. Worse, they are disenfranchised. They are stereotyped in Malaysian media as alcoholics and gangsters. Our newspapers are as loathe to posting correspondents in these countries as our journalists are loathe going there except in the company of the prime minister.
In Malaysia, temples are razed to the ground and we learn about it first from the International Herald Tribune. It is not a sudden development that has taken the Indian media by surprise. The plight and persecution of Indians in Malaysia has been there since the country became independent in 1957 and became a religious state. The IHT reported on 23 November arrests of Indian leaders who were planning a mass rally on 25 November before the British High Commission demanding reparations for bringing them to Malaysia as indentured labour. The rally plans were also a response to the demolition by the government of a 100-year old temple, the Malaimel Shri Selva Kaliamman temple. Of this, The Times of India alone carried a Reuters report about rally plans.
Our media hands were too full of how the UPA and West Bengal governments are struggling to ward off charges of minority appeasement following the Taslima episode to pay attention to a community of plantation labour. The only person who was moved to write in the Business Standard about the plight of these indigent people is Sunanda Datta Ray, the country's most respected journalist. Malaysia's Islamization drive included a ban on secular courts from overruling verdicts by Islamic courts in cases where non-Muslims are involved. Datta Ray wrote how Islamization began with the disgraced Anwar Ibrahim mobilized Muslim youth to enforce Islamic values. Hindus and to a lesser extent (since they are richer) the Chinese have since been victims of competitive Islam, said Ray.
Sunday's unprecedented but peaceful demonstration by tens of thousands of ethnic Indians came in defiance of warnings by the government that it would be suppressed ruthlessly. Suppress they did, with the help of teargas, water cannon and pepper spray. Leaders have been charged with sedition, though freed later. Nearly all Indian newspapers reported the rally, courtesy Reuters. Many carried a picture. The only newspaper to make a comment, Hindustan Times, wrote a very effete edit, affectionately describing the Malaysian police action as alleged. But I haven't seen the Indian TV covering it or borrowing clips from the BBC. They perhaps have more important events like the visit of Bachan family to the Dwarakadheesh temple or when and how Tendulkar will overtake Brian Lara.
The UPA government did not seem to know the happenings in Malaysia until Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karunanidhi wrote a letter to Prime Minister Manomhan Singh on Wednesday, expressing deep concern at the treatment meted out to Malaysian ethnic Indian community. Karunanidhi himself was ignorant of the events till activists of Hindu Munnani, a Tamil Nadu based religious and cultural organization, staged a protest demonstration in Chennai.
The police in Kaula Lumpur detained over 240 ethnic Indians. Malaysia's Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi warned he may invoke a security law sanctioning indefinite detention without trial to curb street demonstrations. Datta Ray said, 'Though the (Malaysian) constitution's Article 3(1) says "other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony," Article 121(1A) subordinates the judicial system to Islamic courts. The implementation of Article 121(1A) is the last straw. Every so often a Hindu family is plunged into despair with the mullahs claiming that the father or mother converted to Islam, possibly when dying. There is no redress against their ex parte verdict as was highlighted with the forced burial of a 36-year-old Tamil Hindu soldier and mountaineer, M Moorthy, as a Muslim, over the protests of his Hindu wife.'
Malaysian news agency Bernama quoted Badawi as saying that the Internal Security Act, which permits detention without trial, is a preventive measure to preserve peace and order. 'Many Malaysians, both Hindus and non-Hindus, are in protest mode with increasing signs of lack of proper respect for all religions in the country and especially after the insensitive and sacrilegious demolition of the temple,' said opposition leader Lim Kit Siang.
Neither the Government of India nor any political party raised its voice. A 40-member Malaysian delegation is now in Delhi. Nobody from the media cared to ask them about what's happening to Indians in their country. Datta Ray pointed out how Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew speaks for the Chinese minority in Malaysia and lamented, 'No one does for Indians.' Is it because they are children of indentured labour? Compare this to Hillary Clinton's appeal to her government to ask the Saudi administration to be fair to a 19-year-old rape victim sentenced by a shariat court to 200 lashes and six months in jail. The US government spoke to the Saudi prince who was in the States to attend a Middle Peace summit.
Our media and foreign office make us believe that there are minorities only in India and not elsewhere. Our secularism is so pristine that Indian minorities in Muslim countries are not its concern. Are they children of a lesser God? Our embassies and consulates come to life only when a minister from India is visiting. People of Indian origin are not their concern. Indian media in the US are full of stories about the arrogance, indifference and inertia of our embassy and consulate officials.
Has our government protested to Kaula Lumpur? Can any newspaper send its reporter? Or, do they send reporters only to Cannes to cover film festivals or Frankfurt to cover a book fair? Hindustan Times edit does not even ask the government to protest and demand that the Malaysian delegation now in the capital be asked to convey our displeasure to their government. I hope our secular policies do not come in the way of doing so. But what is the Hindu doing when the majority of Malaysian Indians are Tamils?
Parliament is as silent as everyone else.