What Has Happened To Hindraf? Can Paham Replace It?
By Kenny Gan
The call by Hindraf to mobilize its supporters to demonstrate against Pakatan Rakyat over the Kampung Buah Pala affair must have BN leaders smirking in glee.
The thorn in their side is now turning against its onetime ally and now the opposition will have a taste of the rowdy Hindraf medicine. Will thousands of angry Indians gather and storm DAP offices around the country?
But as it turns out the call to action by Hindraf was a non-event.
The demonstration by a mere 15 persons in front of the DAP headquarters at Petaling Jaya fizzled out in 10 minutes when police who outnumber the demonstrators arrived to scatter the tiny group.
What has happened to Hindraf? Is it a spent force now?
Before we answer this question, it is worthwhile going back to recapitulate the events that led to the formation of Hindraf and the journey it has gone through.
The Birth of a Mass Movement
Hindu Rights Action Force or Hindraf was originally formed with the objective to fight the wanton demolition of Hindu temples and shrines, which the BN government had given scant regard to in the headlong rush for development.
Its objectives soon expanded to champion the rights of downtrodden and marginalized Indians all over the country.
Hindraf caught the government’s attention when it mobilized a huge demonstration of 50,000 people in Kuala Lumpur on Nov 2007.
Soon after the event, five of the Hindraf leaders were detained under ISA , referred to as the Hindraf 5, including Uthayakumar. His brother and Hindraf chairman Waythamoorthy fled to London to manage the movement by remote control.
Hindraf managed to tap into a deep undercurrent of discontent in the Indian community which had generally fallen behind the Malays and Chinese in economic development.
But instead of engaging Hindraf in dialogue, the government made the mistake of detaining its leaders under ISA which angered the Indians.
Then came the general election of March 2008 which dealt BN a humiliating loss of 5 states and their customary two-thirds majority in Parliament. The Indians swung strongly against BN from 83% support in 2004 to 48% in 2008, leading many MIC leaders including Samy Vellu to lose their seats.
Hindraf leaders are fond of saying that Hindraf caused the 2008 political tsunami but this cannot be the sole reason or even the main reason.
The movement may have raised awareness amongst the Indian community that they have been marginalized but with Indians comprising less than 8% of the population and no Indian majority seats, the tsunami could not have been caused by Hindraf. It was caused by all races.
The Race-Based Politics of Hindraf
In the post-tsunami period, Hindraf popularity began to decline.
Hindraf decline would have been faster had the government not unwittingly sustained it by continuing to keep its 5 leaders under ISA detention and continually harassing the movement.
The aftermath of the 12th general election saw a paradigm shift from the communal politics of BN to a preference for the multi-racial politics of PR.
But Hindraf was unable to adjust to the new paradigm. It continued to push a mono-ethnic agenda of championing Indian rights only.
Initially, Hindraf enjoyed multi-racial support from all races but as it was unable to move out of its mono-ethnic agenda, support has begun bleeding away from non-Indians and even from the Indians themselves.
The race-based objectives of Hindraf is actually a reflection of the racial politics of BN, where each race is championed by a race-based political party. Such a system has resulted in rewarding the strong and marginalizing the weak.
But instead of moving away from this system by fighting for issues irrespective of race, Hindraf is unable to break out of the racial silos set up by BN since Independence.
To the Indian community, the militant, radical and extremist methods of Hindraf employing the use of threats and mass demonstrations are clearly unsustainable.
If Hindraf had been successful in uniting the Indians into a radical ethnic group to demand for their rights, it would have alarmed the other races to unite and demand for their rights as well. The Indian community may be beginning to feel uncomfortable with Hindraf and rightly so.
Hindraf and Pakatan Rakyat
Soon after the general elections, Hindraf began to attack and condemn the young PR state governments as not doing enough for Indians.
This despite the fact that in the PR governed states, Indians have been appointed to important government positions and assistance given to Tamil schools and Hindu temples as part of an encompassing program to assist vernacular schools, religious schools and places of worship.
The clash was predictable due to the differing ideology between PR and Hindraf.
PR agenda is to assist the underprivileged of all races based on need so that all races are uplifted together, while Hindraf demands that Indians be given special treatment.
Hence to Hindraf, PR can never do enough for Indians as long as it does not give special affirmative action to Indians.
Affirmative action based on any criteria other than need alone is of course a recipe for disaster as resources are soon hijacked by the privileged few who are strong enough to grab them. This has happened to BN affirmative action for Malays, so Hindraf is again unwittingly propagating a defective system which would have created another Samy Vellu.
In Hindraf view, the Indians have been left so far behind that they require special help. This is unnecessary as any affirmative action based on need will automatically distribute more help the most needy.
If indeed Indians are the most needy, they will get the most help. Besides, one must not forget that the poverty exists in all ethnic groups including Malays, Chinese, Orang Asli and East Malaysian natives.
Hindraf is also on the wrong track as the future of the Indian community cannot be uplifted by fighting for piecemeal issues such as Hindu temples, Tamil schools, civil service employment and other demands by Hindraf.
The race-based political system has failed the Indians and for them to be drawn back into the mainstream of national development, it requires nothing less than a change of federal government and a new multi-racial political system which discards the baggage of the past.
But Hindraf has lost its way. Instead of helping PR effect sweeping political change, its myopic and parochial vision has caused it to attack PR instead and even worse, to help propagate a system which has marginalized the Indian community.
A Hindraf Political Party
Turning Hindraf into a political party will kill whatever is left of the movement but despite this, Uthayakumar is set to launch a new political party called Parti Hak Asasi Manusia or Paham on 19 July.
The Malaysian Makkal Sakthi Party (MMSP) formed by former Hindraf national coordinator Thanenthiran hoping to ride on the Hindraf popularity should not be mistaken with Hindraf. None of the top Hindraf leaders have endorsed this party.
As a pressure group, Hindraf can do what a political party cannot – straddle both sides of the political divide.
An Indian based political party will have to be aligned to either BN or PR as no independent Indian party can make any headway due to unfavourable demography and the lack of any Indian majority seats.
The likes of IPF and MUIP now have MMSP to keep them company in the political wilderness.
It would be illusory for anybody to imagine that as political party, Hindraf can act as a third force. It cannot run with the hares and hunt with the hounds. Neither can it hope to play off one political coalition against another. Once a political alignment is chosen, it is by no means easy to change sides.
As the mono-ethnic agenda of Hindraf makes it a better fit to BN communal politics, such a political party will probably be aligned to BN but Hindraf is mistaken if it thinks it can twist the race based politics of BN to its advantage.
But the crux is that any association with BN may drive away whatever support Hindraf has left, as the MMSP can testify to. The mere suspicion of association with the ruling party due to the swift approval of its registration has turned out to be toxic.
Where to, Hindraf?
With the release of all the Hindraf 5 leaders the emotional linkages between the Indians and Hindraf will gradually wither away.
Hindraf cannot continue to depend on the support of the Indians community based on emotional sentiment. Whatever support Hindraf can continue to command must be the result of its policies and actions.
A wholly ethnocentric approach to the Indian problem will find no multi-racial support which it sorely needs and may not even appeal to the majority of Indians who like many other Malaysians prefer a multi-racial approach.
Attacking PR is a mistake and the Hindraf response to the Kampung Buah Pala issue is a culmination of that mistake.
More support has been lost with Waythamoorthy and Uthayakumar threatening the Penang government with harsh words and mass demonstrations although the state government was trying its best to help the villagers within its powers and the law.
One wonders if the harsh stance Hindraf is taking towards PR over this issue is a prelude to it moving closer to BN.
But the days when Hindraf can mobilize thousands of Indians to the streets are over. Hindraf has lost steam and it will continue to flounder unless it can discard its racial lens and more importantly, find new ways to tackle issues instead of resorting to hard approaches.
Unless of course, Waythamoorthy returns from exile and the government puts him under ISA. This will then be bound to give the movement a much-needed second wind!