KUALA LUMPUR - Police in riot gear and shouting through megaphones recently arrived to move out devotees and pave the way for demolition of a Hindu temple on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, which local ethnic Indians say has stood in the area for more than three generations. A group of angry worshippers who refused to obey orders were doused with water cannons and beaten by baton-wielding security forces.
P Velu was among five Indians who resisted the government's evacuation order. He alleges he was assailed by a handcuffs-wielding police officer, showing three stitches on his forehead while recounting the violent incident. "The government has no respect for Indians," Velu said. "The pain of seeing our temples being brought down is much worse than the beating I took at the hands of the police."
Ethnic tensions are on the boil in multiracial Malaysia as a nationwide government campaign to demolish unregistered Hindu temples gathers steam. Kuala Lumpur-based rights groups estimate Hindu temples are being bulldozed at the rate of about one a week and that the destruction drive has recently accelerated in areas around the capital. Most of the temples are being destroyed on the orders of local councils to make way for new state development projects.
They often contend that the temples, many built before Malaysia won its independence in 1957, are illegal structures because they lack proper registration and are situated on government lands. Ethnic Indians are mostly descendants of Tamil immigrants brought to Malaysia a century ago by the colonial British to work on rubber plantations. They are now among Malaysia's poorest and politically under-represented peoples.
The government has failed to draw up clear policies regarding the status of the more than 6,000 Hindu temples scattered across this majority Muslim country. The demolitions have raised the hackles of some Hindu groups and rights organizations, which believe that the demolitions are ethnically biased and represent a violation of constitutional guarantees that protect freedom of religion.
"Police officers stood watching while thugs tore down temples," said P Uthayakumar, legal advisor to the Hindu Rights Action Force who was recently arrested and later released after trying to stop an arson attack on a Kuala Lumpur-based Hindu temple. Rights groups' efforts to hold talks with government representatives, according to him, have so far remained futile.
Attorney General Abdul Gani Patail has said he will act on recent complaints lodged about alleged police brutality surrounding some of the temple demolitions. The ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) has ordered that further demolitions be stopped - yet the destruction continues, most recently in the state of Selangor. Perceived government inaction has driven at least one Hindu group to appeal to King Seed Sirajuddin Putra Jamalullai to intervene and stop the destruction.
"The government is breaking down [Hindu] temples because they can afford to do it to the Indians," said an opposition source who is tracking rights abuses associated with the demolition campaign. "We have never heard of a mosque being broken down for development."
Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, already embattled on various political fronts, has so far resisted calls to personally intervene in the unfolding crisis. While Abdullah has publicly promoted a secular brand of Islam, on this particular issue he has been restrained from acting by Islamic fundamentalist elements in his party, who have given tacit national backing to local councils that order the demolitions.
As perceptions grow that minority Indians and their places of worship are being unfairly persecuted, some political analysts predict that the demolition campaign could snowball into violent confrontations pitching Hindus against Muslims. "Breaking the temples is dehumanizing the Indian community," said political economist Charles Santiago, head of the local think tank, Monitoring Sustainability of Globalization. "This could unleash a violent resistance that will have serious consequences."
It wouldn't be the first time ethnic tensions have boiled over in multiracial Malaysia, where ethnic Indians represent about 8% of the country's 23 million population. (Malays and Chinese make up respectively 60% and 26% of the population.)
The UMNO-led government has long mandated racial harmony through affirmative action programs that favor ethnic Muslim Malays and various other forced assimilation programs. However, earlier this year the first serious survey of race relations since Malaysian independence in 1957 found that racism still runs deep behind the government-promoted facade of ethnic unity among Malays, Chinese and Indians.
The race riots that broke out over a four-day period in 2001 in the squalid Kapar township on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur served as a stark reminder of just how delicate the social balance is - despite decades of government assimilation policies. At least five Indians were killed and 75 injured during that spasm of violence, which was Malaysia's closest brush to full-blown ethnic strife in more than 30 years.
Former Malaysian strongman Mahathir Mohamad was personally touched by the explosive 1969 race riots that saw ethnic Malays attack and kill hundreds of the country's commercially successful ethnic Chinese population. That orgy of ethnic violence finally required the government to declare a state of emergency to restore order.
On taking power in 1981, Mahathir implemented many affirmative action policies in favor of the ethnic Malay population in a bid to redistribute the national wealth and keep a lid on ethnic tensions. Mahathir also made use of various harsh laws to cow the media and curb dissent, including the draconian Internal Security Act, which allows for detentions without trial, and the University Colleges Act, which was used to curb students from voicing radical or racially charged views.
He also imposed sharp curbs on local media reporting on issues that could cause ethnic divisions. In the early 1990s, for instance, Mahathir blocked regional and international television reports inside Malaysia of ethnic clashes in nearby Medan, Indonesia, where ethnic Indonesians attacked and looted shops owned by ethnic Chinese businessmen.
Many had hoped that Abdullah, who rose to power on a reform ticket, would loosen those old restrictions and allow the country to more openly confront the ethnically charged issues that boil beneath the surface. Yet his muted response to a state-sponsored demolition campaign that appears to single out Hindu temples over Muslim mosques and Chinese Taoist shrines represents the latest strike against his reform record.
Abdullah recently reaffirmed the ethnically biased affirmative action policies that many argue have squeezed ethnic Indians to the margins of society. More than half of Malaysia's Indian population still lives in poverty, mostly on rubber and palm oil plantations, while Indian students have the highest dropout rates of any national ethnic group. Although a minority population, Indian communities have Malaysia's highest crime and suicide rates. And, increasingly, they are even running out of places to pray for a better existence.
*Zari Bukhari is a Kuala Lumpur-based journalist.