AN OPEN LETTER TO PM MANMOHAN SINGH
When I wrote this letter and sent it out on the 13th, I did so because I felt that there was no way that I could NOT write this letter. I felt that there was no way in which I could stifle myself. I felt as though I had hit some kind of breaking point.
And the reason for it was no longer the articles on temple demolitions that I was reading via alternative news media and mailing lists, which hitherto despite deeply angering me had also rendered me deeply lost for words. No, the reason why I could not not write this letter was something, superficially, unconnected.
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 fucking 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.
These temple demolitions are ethnic issues first, then religious ones. To truly understand the peculiar dynamics of this, you need to have lived here. You need to have read the paragraph above and implicitly understood what I mean. But I realize you may never have experienced minority reality in Malaysia, and I'm struggling as to how to better paint you a picture of it, a picture that will testify to the experience of millions. So before you accuse me of being dramatic, give me the benefit of the doubt.
This letter has been sent via email to the editors of several Indian publications. If you can think of places where it should or could also be published, or if you see it (edited or otherwise) in any magazine or newspaper (not having access to hard copies means I can't check for its appearance), please drop me an email. Sharanya DOT Manivannan AT gmail.com . Please don't circulate the entire post via email, forwards being what they are, but feel free to link to this post.
Am sticky-posting it for some time. New posts will appear below this.
An Open Letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Dear Dr. Singh,
I write this to you not only as a citizen appealing to the leader of her nation, but as a non-resident Indian outraged and frightened by the atrocities committed against her heritage and religion – and the heritage or religion of millions of others – in the nation of her residence.
The past few months have brought with them a rash of demolitions of Hindu temples in Malaysia. By "rash", I mean an indeterminate but sizable number. By "rash", I indicate a deliberate official concealing of the actual figure.
The official excuses for these run along the lines of clearing areas for highway development and the lack of proper licences. But the sheer enthusiasm by which these demolitions are carried out – demonstrated by their rapidly increasing number and frequency as well as the unnecessary measures often undertaken, such as the torching of the temple structure and the defacement of statues of deities within – negates them. A suspiciously mute media further contradicts such pretexts.
Most of these attacks have occurred by dawn, literally ambushing worshippers within. At least one attack – on the 60-year old Sri Balamuniswarar Alayam in Setapak on June 8 2006 – resulted in the arrests of people who attempted to stop the demolition. This same attack resulted in injuries for some of the arrested – injuries which they were later forced to confess in writing as having been self-inflicted. A priest in that temple suffered a heart attack from the sight of it being desecrated.
This is the story of only one temple.
I cannot tell you how many temples, or stories, there are, because no one knows the real number. No one, perhaps, but the authorities carrying out what is clearly a secret, sinister agenda.
I ask you this: what excuse do you give us for your silence?
The Government of India has thus far taken no official stand on the issue. This is not for lack of knowing. Although the available information about these demolitions remains little, almost all the non-Internet media that has picked up on the situation has been from India. These are state-sanctioned demolishings, not the work of small factions of zealots. The Government of India has a responsibility, particularly because of its relationship with the Government of Malaysia, to respond.
When the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001, the Indian government, along with academics and former state officials, responded with the outrage demanded of the situation.
Some months back, the Government of India sent an official criticism to the Government of Denmark regarding the publication in a Danish newspaper of cartoons insulting the Prophet Muhammad, resulting in the cancellation of Danish PM Anders Fogh Rasmussen's official visit to India at that time.
Denmark and India have a strong history of bilateral relations, from Prime Ministerial visits to Copenhagen in 1957, 1983 and 2002 to total, direct Danish investment inflows to India since 1981 having reached approximately US$148 million at the end of September 2005 (according to the website of the Indian embassy in Denmark).
Malaysia and India, too, have had many successful bilateral exchanges over the decades. By an interesting coincidence, the
manufacturing-based foreign direct investment from India to Malaysia now also amounts to US$148 million (according to Malaysia's Deputy Prime Minister Dato' Mohd Najib Tun Abdul Razak at an India-Malaysia CEO forum in Mumbai on June 9 2006).
As simplistic as it sounds, it's almost as if all those millions of US dollars from Denmark – a country whose religious insensitivity India officially condemned – were poured straight into Malaysia – a country whose religious despotism India is curiously, confoundingly silent on.
The rights of ethnic Indians and other minorities in this country are crumbling, like our temples, as I write this.
2.05 million people of Indian descent may be a tiny number, when compared against the 1 billion and counting whom you, as prime minister, are officially responsible for.
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.
As I write this, I am grasping in the dark as to the actual number of temples that have been demolished, torched or otherwise desecrated in the past six months alone. Numbers I have read range anywhere from 10 to 20. Why are these numbers so nebulous? If the authorities carrying out these attacks are doing so with fully defendable reasons, why the secrecy? Why the media blackout, through which only wavering, surreptitious glimpses insinuate at a growing crisis?
I write to you because I feel as though the country in which I live, and in which 8% of the population trace their roots back to India, is teetering on the brink of religious and ethnic calamity. I write to you in an atmosphere darkened by the shadow of the pre-genocidal.
I write to you because I am afraid.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
June 13 2006
All previous posts on temple demolitions: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.
Update: Thank you, Sepia Mutiny, for picking this up.
Update 17/6: Thanks also to everyone who wrote to me privately, mostly to let me know that they had sent my letter to some media outlet or another, or had linked me somewhere. One such person was Vikrant Nath, who sent me PM Manmohan Singh's email address -- I have now emailed him directly.