Hindu Temples Under Siege

By Allen V. Estabillo

KUALA LUMPUR — The moment he received the eviction notice from the Kuala Lumpur City Hall sometime in May 2006, Hindu priest P. Sivalingam knew the days of the 60-year-old Om Sri Siva Balakrishnan Muniswarar Temple in Mukim Setapak were already numbered.

But when the first of the two bulldozers sent by city hall to demolish the temple appeared at the corner of Lorong Ayer Jerneh I that morning of June 8, he still felt like he was losing a part of his life.

By then the 28-year-old Sivalingam and around a dozen temple devotees were resolved to defend their most hallowed temple by offering themselves as shields. Sivalingam said later, “We knew the risk….It may (have gotten) us killed, but we (were) no longer afraid to face them.”

City Hall, however, was as determined to take down the temple that day, after almost a month and three unsuccessful operations to get it out of the way of an ongoing government project. The temple, which the city’s administrator of office of land and mines said was standing illegally on government property, was allegedly holding up the construction of a new highway leading to the rapidly expanding metropolis of Kuala Lumpur.

City Hall got what it wanted; the temple was demolished, although several devotees were injured and arrested in the process. But the incident was just one among the growing number of Hindu temples being smashed into pieces by the government – a trend that has practically shattered the long years of silence endured by Malaysia’s Hindus, who make up close to six percent of the country’s 25.6 million people.

On May 25, 2006, Sivalingam and around 100 Hindu leaders in Kuala Lumpur made history when they marched towards city hall to protest the demolition of Hindu temples in various parts of the country, including three in this city. They said the destruction of their temples and deities was a curtailment of their freedom to practice their religion as guaranteed by the Constitution of Malaysia.

Three months later, on the 49th anniversary of Malaysia’s merdeka or independence from Britain, the pressure group Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) wrote a formal complaint to then United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan regarding the “unconstitutional conduct of the Malaysian government in demolishing places of worship belonging to minority Hindus in Malaysia.”

Trail of destruction

Hindraf has said that in the last 15 years, numerous Hindu temples had been “indiscriminately demolished” by the government for various reasons, among them supposedly to give way for some development projects. In its letter of appeal to Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi dated November 29, 2006, Hindraf said at least 69 temples were either demolished, torched, or issued with threats of demolition from February 22 to November 29, 2006.

The list included 12 temples and shrines that were 100 to 150 years old. The century-old Malaimel Sri Selva Kaliamman Temple along Patai Dalam in Kuala Lumpur, for instance, was demolished in April 2006, supposedly to give way to a government project in the area.

Two months earlier, the 65-year-old Sri Ayyanar Sathiswary Alayam Temple in Jalan Davies, also in Kuala Lumpur, had also been destroyed, as it was along the path of the two-billion-ringgit ($57.6 million) Stormwater Management and Road Tunnel (Smart) project.

In June came the turn of the Om Sri Siva Balakrishnan Muniswarar Temple, which had antedated the country’s independence from the British by almost a decade.

Lawyer P. Uthayakumar, Hindraf’s legal adviser, said that giving way to development projects is not always the reason why temples have been ordered razed by the government, specifically by various local authorities. He cited the 1992 demolition of the then “the world’s largest” Shiva Lingam statue in Gaman, a town about 150 kilometres south of Seremban in Negeri Sembilan.

During festivals, the temple where the statue was housed would host as many as 10,000 devotees. Uthayakumar said the 80-year-old temple, which was on a roadside, was destroyed as it was standing illegally on a government-owned reservation. But he noted that since it was torn down, nothing has been done at the site, which has now become part of a jungle.

The same happened to the century-old Sri Kaliamman temple in Midlands Estate, Seksyen 7 of Shah Alam City that was totally demolished in June 2006, as well as another temple in Ebor Estate in the same city four years ago, he said.

“They were just demolished for the simple reason that the government owns the land where they were standing,” said the lawyer. “There was no development project or whatsoever in the area when the temples were demolished.”

According to Hindu Sangam, an umbrella group of Hindu organisations in Malaysia, there are at least 17,000 Hindu temples and shrines still existing throughout the country’s 13 states and which Hindus use as primary places of worship. The group said around 90 percent of these temples and shrines are on government-owned lands. These make them vulnerable to possible demolition.

Works of faith

Indian migrants from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu are believed to have built most of these Hindu structures more than 150 years ago. The migrants were brought into the Malayan peninsula by British traders as labourers and rubber-plantation workers. By 1901, at least 120,000 Tamil migrants had already settled in the then Straits Settlements – Penang, Melaka, and Singapore – and the Federated Malay States.

P. Waytha Moorthy of Hindraf explained that the ethnic Tamils are known as temple builders and that each clan traditionally maintains a temple or a shrine. He said the Tamil migrant workers continued the tradition when they were brought to the Malay Peninsula, mainly by the British East India Company.

“When they came, the area was still a jungle,” said Waytha Moorthy. “The British used them to clear the area and eventually establish the rubber plantations.”

He said the British allowed the Tamils, who were mainly Hindu, to build their temples and shrines within the plantations where they were assigned to work because it was a “healthy practice”. The daily visits to the temples also satisfied the people’s need for something to break the monotony of work.

The Tamil workers stayed and continued practising their Hindu beliefs and traditions even after the British East India Company left and the plantations were acquired by wealthy British landlords, who converted these into estates.

But when Malaya (as the country was then known) gained independence from the British in 1957, the state took over most of these rubber estates. The new government eventually passed land and housing laws to manage and control these lands. As a result, most of the areas where the Indian workers lived and established their temples and shrines were declared as government reserves, while those who lived there were moved to housing facilities, some of which still exist.

Since there were no places of worship or areas allocated for temples within many of these new housing facilities, the Hindus would go back regularly to the areas where they once lived, to worship in their old temples and shrines. “But later here comes the notices from the government that says it owns the land, these structures that existed for many years are illegal and therefore must be demolished,” said Waytha Moorthy.

Narrow escapes

At least two heirloom temples have so far escaped being reduced to dust, although Waytha Moorthy is unsure how long such a situation will last. One of these is the 150-year-old Sri Sri Maha Mariamman-Muniswarar Aalayam Temple along Km. 5 of Jalan Seremban-Tampin in Seremban, the capital of Negeri Sembilan state. The Seremban District Land Office has wanted it torn down since March 2006.

Waytha Moorthy said that officials wanted the temple, which is “embedded” in a 150-year-old arasamaram or rain tree, gone to give way to the expansion of additional two lanes for the existing four-lane highway. But its destruction was deferred pending resolution of an injunction filed by Hindraf.

Citing accounts of the temple’s elder devotees, Waytha Moorthy said that according to the temple’s elder devotees, the government in 1957 had sought not the destruction, but the transfer of the Sri Muniswarar Aalayam Temple so that the Seremban-Tampin road could be built. Waytha Moorthy, however, said that plan was foiled after the “temple god” declared through a person in a trance that “he’s not moving.”

Waytha Moorthy said the 107-year-old Sri Mariaman Temple in Shah Alam, Selangor State, was also issued an eviction notice in April 2006 by the city council. The temple was declared to be illegally on a government-owned school reservation and should be cleared. It remains standing, said Waytha Moorthy, only because Prime Minister Abdullah intervened in time.

But aside from outright demolition, Malaysia’s remaining Hindu temples may be facing a new threat. In May 2006, the Ganggai Muthu Karumariaman temple in PMR Batu Buntung Estate in Kulim, Kedah was burned down by still unknown perpetrators.

Ignored appeals

Hindraf has sent at least eight urgent letters to Prime Minister Abdullah appealing for intervention, registering their protest to the demolitions, and requesting for an audience.  It delivered its “final appeal” to Abdullah on November 19, 2006,  but it still failed to have an audience with him.

In its letters, Hindraf asked the prime minister to ensure the protection of all non-Muslim places of worship in Malaysia from any form of abuse or harassment pursuant to Article 8 of the Federal Constitution, which provides for equality of every citizen before the law.

It urged Abdullah to immediately direct the federal, state and local authorities to stop describing Hindu shrines and temples as illegal and to issue a written directive for the stoppage of any planned demolition. Hindraf also proposed the creation of a task force that would identify and provide valid land titles to all shrines and temples and gazette them as Hindus’ temple reserves.

Hindraf sent similar communiqué to Attorney General Tan Sri Abdul Gani Patail, Inspector General of Police Tan Sri Bakri Omar, Law Minister Dato Seri Mohamed Nazri, and to the chief minister of the state of Negeri Sembilan.

The group also filed memoranda to the government-funded Human Rights Commission of Malaysia or Suhakam. Hindraf said, however, that the agency failed to act on these.

Hindraf was able to meet with only one senior government official: Law Minister Dato Seri Mohamed Nazri, to whom the group presented a memorandum in a meeting in May 2006 in parliament.

Tapping the political opposition

Hindraf thus turned to the opposition to “elevate” its campaign and make its cause a “political issue.” And so during the May 25 protest it held in front of the Kuala Lumpur city hall, the group was joined by officials of the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Party), including its vice president, Dr. Sanusi Osman, Information Chief Tian Chua, and its youth wing’s Deputy President S. Manickavasagam.

Manickavasagam, who is acting Hindraf coordinator, was even arrested during the June 8, 2006 demolition of the Om Sri Siva Balakrishnan Muniswarar Temple after he tried to grab the key of one of the bulldozers that was to tear it down.

On June 22, he also led the filing of a memorandum to the Yang DiPertuan Agong (King) Tuanku Syed Sirajuddin Syed Putra Jamalullai, specifically seeking an appeal to
help stop the “unconstitutional, unlawful, illegal and indiscriminate demolition” of Hindu
temples in Malaysia.

On June 4, Hindraf and more than 150 Hindu temple caretakers and priests from Perak, Selangor, and Negeri Sembilan gathered at Parliament House for a roundtable conference hosted by MP M. Kula Segaran of the opposition Democratic Action Party  (DAP).

During the conference, the Hindu-temple representatives passed a resolution urging the government to immediately call for the creation and establishment of a national consultative interfaith council consisting of non-Muslims that would handle all matters and grievances pertaining to their respective race and religion.

The resolution said all complaints presented by the council to the government must be viewed and acted upon seriously without fear or favor. “The creation of the council shall be sanctioned by the Freedom of Religion and Worship Act and the said act shall be created bearing the spirit and aspiration of Article 11 of the Federal Constitution,” it added.

Article 11 of the Federal Constitution provides for the freedom of every Malaysian “to profess and practice his religion and to propagate it.”

The resolution said the proposed enactment shall not infringe the vital provision of Article 11 and “shall be comprehensive and shall take into account and cognizance of all existing International conventions and declarations on the subject of religion and worship.”

Waytha Moorthy said the proposed council would seek to strengthen and legitimise the functions of the existing interfaith body, the Malaysian Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBHST). “What we’re proposing,” he said, “is a council that would be recognised by the government to propose policies and act on various concerns as far as freedom of religion is concerned.”

Violence as prompter

The Hindu Sangam, which has been actively involved in the activities of the MCCBHST, had also taken up the complaints on the continued demolition of Hindu temples and formally held dialogues on the matter with leaders of the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), a partner in the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.

But it took the violence that broke out over the demolition of the temple at Setapak before MIC President and Works Minister S. Sammy Vellu finally spoke up. He declared that the Kuala Lumpur City Hall would stop the demolition of Hindu temples within its jurisdiction until a meeting is held between the MIC and city officials.

The online Malaysiakini reported that the Kuala Lumpur City Hall agreed to first “hear the views” of a newly established five-member committee composed of representatives from Hindu bodies before proceeding with any future Hindu temple demolition in the city.

Hindu Sangam President A. Vaithilingam, who heads the committee, also said the new body would investigate “on a case-by-case basis” the Hindu temples ordered to be relocated or demolished by the KL city government.

The New Sunday Times, meanwhile, noted that Hindu Sangam will work with the MIC to draw up a list of all Hindu temples in the country with the hope that once completed, “the government will gazette these places of worship, making them legal entities.”

Waytha Moorthy, for his part, said Hindraf would now focus more on the several cases it filed against the Kuala Lumpur and Shah Alam local governments in connection with the temple demolitions. On December 18, 2006, Hindraf filed a petition before the Malaysia’s High Court in a bid to stop the continuing “unconstitutional and unlawful Hindu temple” demolitions in Malaysia.

Hindraf legal counsel Uthayakumar and the four other people arrested during the June 8 violent demolition in Mukim Setapak have also filed a two-million-ringgit (more than $570,000) damage suit against the KL city government and other concerned parties.

Lawyer M. Manoharan, counsel for the “Setapak five,” said the amount they were demanding was not even enough to compensate the trauma suffered by the Hindu devotees who lost their places of worship and their gods. “This is for destroying a place of worship and for general, aggravated and exemplary damages,” he said at a press conference.

He also said Hindraf was seeking more – 5.03 million ringgit ($1.44 million) – in damage claims for the June 12, 2006 demolition of the Sri Kaliamman temple in Midlands Estate in Shah Alam. Defendants in the case are Shah Alam officials and other persons involved in the demolition. The temple’s devotees had claimed that an “unruly mob” led by a demolition team sent by the Shah Alam city hall destroyed the temple and smashed at least three Hindu deities.

Waytha Moorthy said Hindraf would continue to seek representations with various international human rights organisations and to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to elevate the cause of Hindu Malaysians. He said he earnestly hoped that the “indiscriminate demolitions” would end since “thousands of Hindus are now living in fear on a day to day basis.” Otherwise, he said, people would resist such demolitions and “the unity of the Malaysian population will greatly suffer.”

[Allen V. Estabillo writes for Mindanews, an online news agency run as a cooperative by journalists in the Philippines’ southern provinces.]

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