Hindraf seeks a fresh start

The founding members of the outlawed Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) want to erase the militant image created by those who hijacked the movement for their own political interests.


RAMACHANDRAN Meyappan may not be a familiar name among Malaysians but he is a respected figure within the country’s largely Tamil and Hindu community.

Lesser known is the fact that he is one of the original founders of the outlawed Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf).

Legal action: Regu (left) and Waythamoorthy in front of the London High Court registry after filing the suit.

The 50-year-old bearded Hindu scholar and law graduate is also known to many Hindus in the South-East Asian region and in parts of India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Hong Kong and even in the West.

He is the man who coined Hindraf, a word that is now deeply entrenched in the Malaysian political vocabulary.

Ramachandran, popularly known as Ramaji, is currently on a new mission – to put the movement back on the right and original path.

Ramaji started his working life as a civil servant in the early 80s before moving on to become an officer in a bank.

He eventually ended up dedicating his entire life to religion, working full time at the Hindu Sevai Sangam (HSS) in 1988. (He set up the HSS in 1983.) A year later, he took up law and finished his studies in 1993 but did not go into legal practice.

Ramaji, who is always dressed in traditional Indian clothes, said Hindraf was meant to be a non-political non-governmental organisation.

Original group: Representatives of 48 Indian non-governmental organisations attended one of the first meetings after the formation of Hindraf in Dec 2005.

He explained that it was set up primarily to oppose unfair religious conversions, wanton demolition of Hindu temples and shrines and to champion the rights of marginalised Indians.

He said he and founding secretary V. K. Regu actually invited the five personalities who later assumed the helm of Hindraf – P. Uthayakumar, M. Manoharan, K. Vasantha Kumar, V. Ganabatirau and R. Kengadharan –to be speakers for the movement.

However, he said, the five who were later detained under the Internal Security Act and have since been released, effectively hijacked the movement to further their own political aspirations.

“It is a great disappointment that they failed to stick to the Hindraf ideals and fulfil the expectations of the community to fight for their rights.

“We are also sad that they now seem to be accusing each other and making contradicting statements. They must realise that they are who they are today because of the support from the community.”

In the beginning

Recalling the birth of the movement, Ramaji said it began with 48 Indian NGOs meeting and deciding to work together in the aftermath of the Dec 2005 “dead body” snatching of Projek Malaysia Everest 1997 expedition member M. Moorthy who had converted to Islam without the knowledge of his family.

The meeting also decided to appoint P. Waythamoorthy as Hindraf chairman, by virtue of him being a lawyer.

He said it was Waythamoorthy who brought in his brother, Uthayakumar, who was then heading an NGO movement called Police Watch to represent Hindraf in several cases of temple demolitions and religious conversion.

After more meetings and discussions, the group decided to set up a legal team to collate documentary and historical evidence to file a class action suit on behalf of Malaysian Indians against the British government in July 2007 for its failure to protect the minority community’s rights when it drafted the Malaysian Constitution 50 years ago.

“The HSS spent about RM70,000 to send Uthayakumar, Waythamoorthy and Regu to the United Kingdom for the task,” he said.

“Kengadharan compiled the affidavit which was jointly filed by Waythamoorthy and Regu at the London High Court registry an hour before Malaysians started celebrating the country’s independence on Aug 31, 2007.”

Upon their return, road shows were organised throughout the country in which Uthayakumar, Manoharan and Kengadharan spoke, and Vasantha Kumar and Ganabatirau were also roped in as speakers later, Ramaji recalled.

He said Hindraf had, on Aug 12, 2007, presented an 18-point memorandum on the issue to then Prime Minister (now Tun) Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi but there was no response from the Government.

The movement decided to go ahead with a planned demonstration on Nov 25, 2007 as it appeared that no one, even those at the highest levels of authority, wanted to listen to its pleas.

The massive demonstration was to present a memorandum to the British High Commission on the suit filed by Hindraf.

The five were eventually detained under the Internal Security Act on Dec 13, 2007 while Waythamoorthy fled to London, purportedly to file the supporting documents for the case there.

According to Ramaji, the community was relieved and elated when Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak released Kengadharan and Ganabatirau as soon as he took office in April and the other three a month later.

However, its expectations that grievances would be resolved through a “united” Hindraf were soon shattered, he said.

“The fact is, the plight of the community is no different from the pre-Nov 25 days. The only difference is that there are now more political parties claiming to represent the 1.8 million Malaysian Indians.”

Indians who supported Hindraf almost wholeheartedly before and after Nov 25 also look at the movement very differently these days, especially with the focus and reverence given to some personalities over others.

Supporters of Uthayakumar, for example, are known for not taking any negative perception of him lightly from anyone, including from the media.

Last Monday, supporters of Uthayakumar stormed the office of the Makkal Osai newspaper after it reported that the launching of his new Human Rights Party (HRP) and a book written by the lawyer during detention was aimed at raising funds for him.

(Uthayakumar had also formed Parti Rakyat Insan Malaysia after walking out of the Reformasi movement in 1999 but the party did not progress beyond the pro-tem stage.)

Uthayakumar and Waythamoorthy also appeared to have lost ground among the non-Indian supporters of Pakatan Rakyat after they initiated a protest against the DAP government over the Kampung Buah Pala issue in Penang.

Questions have also been raised about former Hindraf coordinator R. Thanenthiran, who set up the Malaysian Makkal Sakthi Party (MMSP) and reportedly wants to hand the new party to any of the five leaders if they are interested.

Participation in Hindraf certainly helped to revive Manoharan’s political career. Despite being in detention, he was elected to the Kota Alam Shah state seat in the last general election. In the 1999 and 2004 elections, he had contested the Segambut parliamentary seat and lost on both occasions.

Surprisingly, he was not among the DAP leaders who came out to support the party and its secretary-general and Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng over the Kampung Buah Pala land issue, unlike Ganabatirau, who is believed to have been promised a senatorship as a reward for his stand.

S. Nagarajan, a former journalist who is now an independent scholar and researcher on Indian affairs, said there was already a rising tide of anger over the grievances felt by the community when the five jumped on the bandwagon.

He said they started doing things on their own without consulting Hindraf leaders and NGOs.

“The Government made the mistake of arresting them and making them a symbol of the Hindraf movement. If they had not been arrested under the ISA, they would have exhausted themselves and would not have achieved anything,” he said.

Nagarajan said this was because they did not have clear political thinking and problem solving strategies in a multi-ethnic environment.

The way forward

Ramaji said the original leaders of Hindraf have decided to start all over again and want to promote the true objectives of the movement and its vision for the community to the Government.

He said the movement felt that Najib is sincere in wanting to right the wrongs and is committed to being fair to all races, as exemplified by his 1Malaysia slogan.

He also voiced hope that other ministers in the Cabinet too would be equally committed to the Prime Minister’s concept of unity and fairness to all.

“We believe Najib’s government will be reciprocal and listen to us. We are not a militant group but a NGO looking after the interests of the community. We hope the Government will consider our request to legalise Hindraf.

“Everyone has a role to play. There should be no heroism here,” he said.

Ramaji said Hindraf wants to be a pressure group and bring its concerns to both the Barisan Nasional as well as the state governments under the Pakatan Rakyat.

“We know that as a political party, we will have to be aligned to either Barisan or the Opposition as no single Indian party can play a significant role on its own.

“The days of Hindraf being dependent on the emotions of the Indians for support are over. We need to win them over them with sound policies and actions,” he said.