‘Botak protest’ by Indians at Batu Caves

A GROUP of minority ethnic Indians shaved their heads yesterday to protest against the imprisonment of five community leaders who had campaigned for equal rights in Malaysia.

About 100 Indians gathered at the Batu Caves temple compound outside Kuala Lumpur to pray for the release of the leaders, who were arrested last week under the Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows indefinite detention without trial.

Sixteen of them had their heads shaved on the banks of a nearby river and walked to the temple, carrying posters of Mohandas K. Gandhi, India's independence leader who led millions in non-violent protests, said Mr S. Jayathas, one of the protesters.

Shaving their heads was 'a sign of protest against the ISA and to pray for their (leaders') freedom,' he said, sporting a bald head.

Hindu Indians often shave their heads during religious ceremonies to show devotion to their beliefs.

The five leaders arrested under the ISA belong to the Hindu Rights Action Force, or Hindraf, which this year began galvanising Malaysia's Indians, who account for 8 per cent of the country's 27 million people and are at the bottom of the economic and social ladder.

Muslim Malays, who form about 60 per cent of the population, dominate politics and the civil service.

Indians complain they are not given a fair share of Malaysia's wealth and are deprived of jobs, education and business opportunities. They have also been angered by the demolition of several Hindu temples in recent years.

The government denies it discriminates against any race, and says most Indians are better off than many poor Malays.

Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak on Wednesday reaffirmed that the government will continue to help Malays increase their share in the nation's corporate equity, but will not deprive other races.

Malaysia's affirmative action plan, better known as the bumiputera policy, aims at improving the economic well-being of the majority Malays by giving them preference in education, jobs and business.

'We will not do anything that is seen as depriving other races of their rights,' Datuk Seri Najib was quoted as saying by The Star newspaper yesterday.

'We will only demand whatever rights the bumiputera has. That is all.'

The Hindraf leaders in jail are accused of threatening public security and inciting racial hatred after they organised an unprecedented protest rally on Nov 25. About 20,000 Indians took part in the march, in defiance of a government ban.

The government has also accused the five leaders of having terrorist links but has not provided any evidence.

A charge of attempted murder was slapped against 31 people arrested during the rally for a non-life threatening injury to a policeman, but prosecutors dropped the case after a public outcry and appeals by civil society groups.

Malaysia's top Indian politician, Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu, on Wednesday acknowledged that the Hindraf demonstrations had to a certain extent affected the loyalty of Indians towards the government.

He said he had asked Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi to 'give a bit more' to the Indians in development programmes. He added that the Premier had agreed to consider this.