'Temple Cleansing' in Malaysia and Pakistan

An Indian blogger in Malaysia named Sharanya Manivannan recently posted an open letter to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (thanks BitchPhD), asking him to take a stand on the Hindu temple demolitions that have been occurring in the country:

But I ask you this: when temples that stood for over a century are destroyed, what really dies? Not stone and statues. Not bells and prayers. Not – thankfully and thus far – people. You see, what frightens me is not the loss of these temples themselves, though architecturally speaking, that too is often a disappointment. What frightens me is what these temples are taken to represent, and by extension, what their demolitions therefore represent. (link)

Elsewhere in the letter she points out that the Indian government did send a letter of "official displeasure" to the Danish government following the publication of the anti-Islamic cartoons. Why the silence so far on the "temple cleansing" in Malaysia? She also makes some poignant comments about how Indians are treated as a whole in Malaysia, which I'll come back to below.

Some background: In the past few months, Malaysian authorities have demolished a number of Hindu temples in different parts of the country, stating that they were built without a proper permit. But local Hindus have complained that they had applied for permits, sometimes waiting as long as 30 years for a response! Moreover, according to the BBC, at least two of the temples destroyed were more than a century old, which clearly suggests that getting a permit to build is not at all the issue driving the demolitions.
Indeed, it seems pretty clear that these demolitions are part of an organized campaign in a country that is growing increasingly intolerant of religious minorities. (Churches and other religious structures have also been demolished along the same lines.)

Indians make up about 8% of the settled population of Malaysia, which amounts to about 2 million people, and the majority of Malaysian Indians are Hindus. For the most part they have lived in Malaysia in peace (communal violence is very rare), but Indian Malaysians do often complain of discrimination and mistreatment. They have traditionally been a working class population, who came to Malaysia initially to work on rubber plantations.

This turn is especially sad, as Malaysia (like Indonesia) has ancient connections to India and Hinduism. Tamil traders established settlements there as far back as the third century A.D., and ruins of ancient Hindu temples have recently been discovered.

Which brings us back to Sharanya Manivannan. In her blog post, she talks about a picture she saw in the newspaper that encapsulated for her the emotion these temple demolitions provoke in her. It was a picture unrelated to the demolitions, but somehow it triggered her to finally take some positive action:

It was a newpaper picture of a retired gardener, S. Sarimuthu, whose only daughter had died on June 11th as a result of viral eningoencephalitis and secondary pneumonia contracted while at National Service camp. In this picture of him, which I can't find online, he looks profoundly forlorn. He looks like his heart had been wrenched out of his body, pounded to a pulp, and then poured back inside.

This picture made me cry and cry and cry, and then write this letter. And cry even more the morning after I did, as I explained to someone what made me do it. The family wasn't Hindu. The girl wasn't the victim of genocidal hate-mongering. But I saw that picture and in my mind I saw that father at hospitals, at home -- I saw the way the nurses looked at him, the way the doctors spoke to him, the way hospital authorities dismissed him as she slipped into a coma. I saw him throughout his life, I saw the way this [f-ing] state in one way or another has taken away even this, even her. I saw the colour of his skin and the sheer, unmitigated loss in his eyes, the way his loss and the loss of these temples were entwined, and I could not not write this letter. (link)

Hindu groups are starting to organize and actively protest. The Indian Financial Express reports that Indian groups have been appealing to the Malaysian Prime Minister.

Also, in some of the press coverage of the temple demolitions, some Malaysian authorities have begun to express concern that Hindus may begin to turn violent in resisting the demolitions. In fact, the tenor of the resistance is already changing: several people were injured and arrested when they refused to vacate the premises of a temple that was about to be demolished. I wouldn't advocate violence, obviously. But it may be time to get Gandhian on their asses: mass public demonstrations, and a campaign of nonviolent resistance. (And yes, Sharanya, keep blogging about it: make it personal, tell the world your version of the story.)

Two additional wrinkles:

While the Malaysian press, according to the blogger Sharanya I quoted above, has remained silent about the Hindu temple demolitions occurring in the country, I did find articles in Malaysian newspapers about the Hindu temple demolition that recently occurred in Lahore. [UPDATE: The temple may not have been demolished after all...]

Secondly, a version of this has been occuring in recent months (in reverse) in India itself, as an important 300 year old Sufi Dargah was pulled down in Vadodara (formerly Baroda), leading to communal riots that left six people dead. To be clear, Mandirs were also demolished in this campaign (now halted) in the interest of "development," but the lead-in to the Express India story reminds us that India is itself far from immune to indifference to the concerns of religious minorities:

Two demolition drives, and two different ways of going about it. So while in Gujarat’s cultural capital Vadodara, the BJP went about doing a "balancing act" by razing a 300-year-old dargah, in Rajkot, the BJP fought the Municipal Commissioner tooth and nail for removing a small temple that was encroaching on RMC land. (link)

[Cross-posted at Sepia Mutiny]