The case against the UK government is for real. Win or lose, the Malaysian people will win with this case just for coming to the fore.
On July 2, 2012, Hindraf filed a civil action on behalf of the marginalised Indian community in Malaysia against the UK Government in the High Court of Wales and England calling into account the British government for its role in the antecedents leading up to the severe marginalisation of the Indian poor in Malaysia today.
The key questions that Hindraf seeks answers for in this civil action are:
1) If the British are solely responsible for the presence of most of the Indian poor in Malaysia today, do they also not share responsibility for what is happening to the Indian poor in Malaysia today? After all, the Indians were brought into the country by them under their watch for over 150 years. It is now just over 50 years since they left.
2) Knowing the British deftness and skills in running their Empire can we accept that they did not recognise this possible turn of events to an enfeebled community upon their departure? Or was it also a part of their post-colonial imperial design to leave these people in this enfeebled and exploited state to maintain ongoing divisions in the colony?
3) Is what happened in 1957 so remote from what is happening in 2012 to render Hindraf’s case academic? Namibia is calling into account the genocide of several hundred thousands of their people by the German colonialists today, what happened in the early 1900s. Armenia is still calling into account the Turks for the Turkish genocide of more than a million of their people again in the early 1900s. The Jews are still calling into account all those responsible for the Holocaust of the 1930s and 1940s. In this case, the aggrieved Malaysian Indians are calling into account the devastating effects on several generations of Indians that has left them without systemic protection as an enfeebled minority.
4) The UK was instrumental in establishing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1949 at the United Nations. Are we to take it that such a declaration which is not even a legally binding one on nations can be more circumspect in their statement of human rights than one which defines a whole new nation. What they left Malaya with was an entrenched two-tiered citizenship in perpetuity, defying relevance to the most fundamental of these human rights principles. In the process they created a politico-legal basis that has led to the development of an institutionalised racist regime here in our country.
These are only the key issues and questions that will be raised. There are other issues and questions that Hindraf seeks answer for as well – and those will come out in the course of the case. Armed with documentary evidence collated from archives around the world, it is now making a claim in the British courts for declarations by the British courts about the reneged role and responsibility of the colonial British government to the Indian marginalised poor in the country that they and only they, were responsible for creating in Malaysia.
When history came calling and the British had to pack up and leave Malaya in 1957, how did they leave, after reaping huge profits on the backs of the people of this country. Did they recognise their full historical obligations to all the peoples of the country? A significant portion of the Malayan population – their creation had been uprooted from India and brought here to an alien land.
Did they recognise any obligations to these people? Did they not anticipate or think about what would happen to this enfeebled community after they left? As long as they were around, the Indian coolie was still an asset to the Empire. The dynamics would certainly shift after they left – were they not savvy enough to recognise this?
Yet even as the British colonialists left in 1957, they only cared about their strategic and security interests in the region, so that their wealth in Malaya, Singapore, North Borneo, Sarawak and Brunei would be protected. They had just lost India, Burma and Sri Lanka. To achieve this narrow end, they did what they always knew best – to collude with the local elite of the day.
They left a politico-legal system that took only the convergence of interests of the departing British and the new elite to whom they would hand over power into consideration. They saw no reason to see any more. They justified everything they did to achieve this with their typical imperial manipulations.
But the processes of history cannot be substituted by these treacherous manipulations. Surely we see the outcome today of that manipulation, a steadily deteriorated institutionalised racist system – a subtle, pervasive and increasingly aggressive racist system, that today denies equal opportunities to a large section of the Malaysian people and in its worst manifestation basic life opportunities to those at the tail-end of the whip – the marginalised and poor Indians.
Hindraf is calling into question the role of the British colonial government in creating a politico-legal system in Malaya upon their departure, when they knew full well they had all the political and military muscle they needed, to do otherwise. The British obsession of the day was however only narrowly circumscribed around securing their wealth after their departure.
They chose to play the ethnicity variable to this advantage – created two-tiered citizenry in their usual ambiguous imperial style to please an elite and to protect their interests post 1957. If you look at the departure of the British throughout their former dominions, it is striven with the results of this kind of imperial manipulations – large ethnic, sectarian, religious and linguistic divisions persist in this so-called British Commonwealth.
Three important factors
Three major historical processes and factors have to be clearly understood in order that the responsibility of the British/Malaysian Indian problem of today can be fully grasped. This is necessary to understand why Hindraf is pursuing the matter in the British courts – so far away and on a matter that took place a long time ago. Without knowing these truths it will be easy to pass off Hindraf’s initiative as mere political theatrics.
The first factor and the most significant factor was the growth of capitalism in Great and Greater Britain, fuelled by the industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. Significant accumulation of capital and expansion of demand and consumption occurred during this period even after the loss of their American British colonies in the late 18th century.
The industrial revolution produced many significant innovations that accelerated these developments. Great Britain produced the largest ships of the time, produced the most lethal of guns, created increasingly powerful machinery for industry, connected the British Empire with telegraphic connectivity and produced a finance industry that both grew on and fed these innovations while creating new enabling opportunities for these developments. These together created the conditions necessary for the acquisition of a large empire by a geographically small nation.
The demand for the raw produces of far eastern colonies of tin, coffee, sugar, tea, pepper, spices and rubber increased substantially with profits skyrocketing in this trade. The trade in these commodities was originally carried out by the East India Company – a monopoly joint stock company established in the 1600s which effectively governed slices of the globe on behalf of the British Crown.
Only after the Indian Sepoy Mutiny in 1857 was the power formally transferred to the Crown directly – to Queen Victoria and her representative Governor-General as the head of the British’s possessions in India. With the demise of the monopoly of the East India Company, trade began to accelerate between the colonies and Great Britain. India then became the centrepiece for the growth of the British Empire post Americana. This is the second of the factors that must be understood.
India served as the bulwark for the Empire in providing a multifaceted second base for the control and growth of the Empire. India was the second administrative centre, a second military base; a second base for labour after Africa was lost on the abolishment of slavery, a second huge market for the expanding production at home. India besides providing a steady feed of revenues to Great Britain effectively paid for all these services to the burgeoning Empire all by herself – what a deal!
The imperial need for profits found synergistic opportunities in factors prevailing in the colonies – land, climate, labour and political control. The British government created new policies in the colonies facilitating British investments – one of the key ones was the labour policy.
Shortage of labour
The abolition of slavery created a shortage of labour in the colonies. The local labour force in most of the colonies resisted moving out from their traditional vocations in large enough numbers to serve the growing British appetite. Britain decided to emigrate a very large amount of labourers from their second base in India initially to the sugar producing colonies – Mauritius, Fiji Island, Caribbean islands of Jamaica, British Guiana, and Trinidad, Grenada, St. Lucia, Natal in South Africa, Ceylon, Burma and Malaya– most of these colonies having neither strong local political and administrative organisations nor an economic base beyond their rivers, coasts and fields and herds.
And very conveniently, British India successfully satisfied the needs of the voracious British appetite for labour in the plantation enterprises and for the infrastructure works needed to facilitate the exploitation of the colonial opportunities.
The Indian “coolies” (indentured labourers) sent into Mauritius from 1834 came to be regarded as the most important early immigrants of this type. In 1844, emigration was increased to include Jamaica, British Guiana, and Trinidad. Emigration was legalised to Grenada in 1856 and St. Lucia in 1858. In Natal, one of the early South African republics, the system of indentured labour began in 1860.
Indentured labour migration to Malaya actually began in the 1830s but only accelerated after 1874, when the British expanded their control to the Federated Malay States of Perak, Selangor and Negri Sembilan. It was after the effective takeover do we see an exponential rise in investments from the UK and the migration of Indian coolies into Malaya. This is the third factor to be understood – the creeping colonial control of Malaya.
By 1913, British capital investments in Malaya amounted to 40 million Straits Dollars, by 1923 it had risen to more than a 100 million. The area under rubber cultivation grew rapidly from 20, 200 hectares in 1900 to 219,000 in 1919 and 1,320,000 hectares in 1938.
Correspondingly the population of Indian coolies brought in by the British Colonial Administration and settled in Malaysia rose from 268,269 in 1911 and 470,180 in 1921 and 612,487 in 1931. By 1918, exports of rubber from Malaya amounted to about 50% of the world’s total rubber consumption.
What better explains the presence of a large impoverished population of Indians in the country than this correlation between the needs of the plantation enterprises in Malaya and the growth of the Indian coolie workforce?
Two streams of migrants
However, it must be said that there were two streams of migrants that came in from India. One was the indentured stream or assisted migration which brought the workers in as coolies which accounted for the largest portion. The other was the unassisted stream that came in, both driven by the opportunities afforded by the presence of a large pool of Indian labourers already in the country and by the need the British had in the other sectors and services in the country. India again provided the base for such labour to run the colonies. The British used to boast that they ran their colonies with only a few thousand of their own kind.
Therefore what happened in Malaya was the Malayan play of the imperative of the British Empire for profits. All entirely and only for the profit of British enterprises. All other explanations proffered are just to obscure this one fundamental historical fact to absolve the empire of any ongoing responsibility. This was without any doubt a British design.
In summary, Hindraf is really alluding to the basis of our nation through this case. These are large issues of international significance, of international law, of historical threads, of moral and historical obligations and it surely takes a sweeping breadth of the mind to even conceptualise this, let alone to take it to the courts. Only a weak mind will pass this off as trivial. Hindraf is really doing a great service to the nation.
Do we want a nation based on racist principles or do we all want a nation that is truly free and truly democratic and just to all its citizens regardless of skin colour or the customs at home. It is our opinion that there is not enough political will across the political spectrum today to address this question. Change cannot therefore be expected to happen from within any time soon. The issue has to come to a fore; Malaysia has to be seen to be what it is becoming, in the international fora, as a racist state, if only for the interest of Malaysia and Malaysians.
This change is sorely needed today, because institutionalised racism is a socially sanctioned value in Malaysia. Unless there is a change in this social value across the entire Malaysian polity where racism will be seen as a scourge rather than as a protective mechanism against the other, will there emerge a truly modern Malaysia.
The alternative scenario is a continuation of the status quo. We are doomed to see a further deterioration of our performance as a nation if status quo prevails for much longer. But the subjective conditions have to align with this objective need. The social values have to first change.
The articulation of the issues during the case will bring these developing tendencies out in full view and we are hoping that this will provide the impetus we all require to reopen the discourse for a more robust basis for our nation on a bolder, more futuristic and a substantially inclusive platform.
We hope these openings that Hindraf provides will catalyse this change.
This is Hindraf’s case in its essence – if you care to understand it in its depth and with an open mind. We are human rights defenders of a different order and we use the little resources we have the best we can, for the interest of all Malaysians – myopia which is so abundant just does not help this understanding.
This case against the UK government is for real. Win or lose in the courts, the Malaysian people will win with this case just for coming to the fore.
N Ganesan is Hindraf’s national advisor