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Malaysia ethnic Indians in uphill fight on religion

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - It was supposed to be a day marking the triumph of good over evil, but Malaysia’s Hindu followers ushering in Deepavali on Thursday said they were in no mood to celebrate.

Malaysian Hindu devotees recite prayers during Diwali celebrations at a temple in Kuala Lumpur November 8, 2007. REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad

Just a week ago, city hall workers backed by riot police pulled down a squatter colony in central Malaysia and demolished a revered Hindu temple that sat in its midst. A standoff ensued when Hindu devotees tried to halt the demolition, resulting in 14 arrests.

The 14, including four lawyers, were later released. But the issue highlighted a growing racial and religious unease in Malaysia, this time among the small ethnic Indian community over a government-backed drive to pull down temples as illegal structures.

“The Indians are being marginalised in many ways,” said an ethnic Indian stockbroker, who declined to be named. “We lack both economic and political powers and the temple issue is very upsetting.”

The unhappiness over the temple demolition boiled over in a recent threat -- although it was quickly withdrawn -- by the sole Indian minister in Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s cabinet, who called for a boycott of Deepavali, the festival of lights.

“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.

“Such a backdrop makes Deepavali even more significant for it must be a day to fortify resolve for light to overcome darkness and good to triumph over evil in order to end the long list of injustices and wrongs in our nation,” he said.

The incident follows recent reports of demolition of Hindu temples which have stirred outcry from the ethnic Indians, feeding minority communities’ fears their rights are at risk among a largely Muslim population.

At a party assembly this week political leaders of the ethnic Malay majority told the nation’s Chinese and Indian minorities to stop questioning Malay privileges or risk hurting race relations, a touchy issue in a country that has suffered race riots.

Abdullah, expected to call an election by early 2008, on Wednesday warned the country’s dominant Malays and its Chinese and Indian minorities against playing with religious and racial issues.

“The harmony between the various communities and religions in Malaysia is not an optional luxury -- it is a necessity,” he told a meeting of his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the key party in the ruling coalition. “We have no other choice.”

“Our calculation shows one temple being demolished in every three weeks,” P. Uthayakumar, a lawyer for the Hindu Rights Action Task Force, a Malaysian rights group, told Reuters.

“The UMNO government is not following the Constitution, which guarantees the freedom of religion.”

“There’s a Tamil proverb which says never stay in a village which has no temple,” he said.

British colonial rulers brought Indians and Chinese into what was then called Malaya to work in rubber estates and tin mines.

The plight of the Indians, mostly Hindus, underscores a deeper malaise: They account for just 8 percent of Malaysia’s 26 million people and own only 1.5 percent of the national wealth.

Most lack upward social mobility because of poor education and remain as labourers although some are losing out to cheaper foreign workers.

“It’s a working class problem, there’s a lot of school dropouts,” said Baradan Kuppusamy, an ethnic Indian journalist specialising in Indian issues.

Ethnic Indians say a decades-old affirmative action plan put in place after deadly race riots in 1969 continues to discriminate against them.

The policy favours politically dominant Malays in state contracts, businesses, jobs, education and housing.

“There is no right at all in the first place,” said a 35-year-old Indian businessman as he stepped out of a temple outside Kuala Lumpur.

“I have to get a Malay as a partner in order to get government contracts. Somehow we have to live with it.”