August 14, 2020
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Diaspora Dilemmas

All sorts of bizarre ideas have been thrown about and there's been talk about being tough with Malaysia in order to protect the interests of the Indian-origin Malaysians. Nothing could be more damaging

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Diaspora Dilemmas

A summit of the Group of 15 nations of the Non-Aligned Conference, which discusses economic issues, was to be held in New Delhi in 1993 when Shri Narasimha Rao was the Prime Minister. The administration of Mr Bill Clinton, then in office, mounted an exercise through President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to sabotage this summit. Some leaders of member-countries, including Mr Mubarak, informed Shri Rao that they would not be able to attend the summit due to domestic preoccupation. The real reason was the US pressure not to attend. The summit had  to be postponed since it would not have had the minimum quorum of 12.  It was held next year after reducing the quorum requirement to five heads of state or government and three deputy heads. This came to be known as the five plus three formula.

The postponement of the 1993 summit due to US machinations and the collusion of Mr Mubarak with the US caused considerable embarrassment for Shri Rao and India. Despite the postponement, Dr Mahatir Mohamad, the then Malaysian Prime Minister, and President Suharto of Indonesia visited Delhi to express their solidarity with the government of India at the time of its discomfiture. Policy-makers in Delhi even now remember the role played by Mr Mubarak in sabotaging the  proposed New Delhi summit of 1993. That was one of the reasons why, when a subsequent summit of the Group was held in Cairo, Shri A.B. Vajpayee, the then Indian Prime Minister, did not attend it.

How many of us remember the campaign carried on by the Clinton Administration against Malaysia and Dr Mahatir Mohamad. Dr Mahatir became a persona non grata with the Clinton Administration because of his independent political and economic policies. He was one of the very few Asian leaders not invited to the US so long as Mr Clinton was the President. He followed independent policies not only vis-a-vis the US, but also against the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other US-dominated international financial institutions. When the economies of South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines collapsed in 1997, the Malaysian economy remained largely unaffected, thanks to the vision of Dr Mahatir. Even after the crisis broke out causing panic and demoralisation across South-East and East Asia, he maintained his independent line and resisted many of the ideas emanating from US-dominated financial institutions.

After having realised that Malaysia and its leaders  could not be bullied, the US administration changed its policies after Mr George Bush took over as the President in 2001. Dr. Mahatir was invited to Washington DC after 9/11. The relations have since improved, but even now the Malaysian political leadership resists US-inspired ideas, which it fears could be detrimental to its national interests. A good example is its opposition to US-inspired ideas for  strengthening maritime security in  the Malacca Strait.

What I had stated above would illustrate two things. Firstly, it is not correct that Malaysia as a state has been ill-disposed towards India. Secondly, it has a proud political leadership, which has not hesitated even to defy the world's sole super-power when it felt it was necessary to do so in its national interests.

It is important to remember this because in the wake of the recent demonstrations by a large number of Malaysian citizens of Indian origin in Kuala Lumpur and the visit to India of an important leader of the Hindu Rights Action Front (HINDRAF), a coalition of Indian-origin  organisations in Malaysia, all sorts of bizarre ideas have been floating around for being tough with Malaysia in order to protect the interests of the Indian-origin Malaysians. Any idea of using the big stick against Malaysia-- even the very talk of it-- could not only damage the state-to-state relations between the countries, but prove detrimental to the relations of the Indian-origin Malaysian citizens with the Muslim Malay majority. If we think we can cow down Malaysia through such strong talk, we are mistaken--as the US and China learnt in the past. Let us not hurt the sentiments of the proud leadership in Malaysia by indulging in such talk, even if we don't follow this up.

India has four main interests with regard to the Indian-origin Malaysian citizens: Firstly, that they progress economically and get their due share of the national cake; secondly, that the Malaysian authorities refrain from actions such as the demolition of Hindu temples and idols, which hurt the sentiments of Hindus not only in Malaysia, but also all over the world; and thirdly, that the Indian-origin Malaysians maintain harmonious relations with the Malay Bhumiputras and the Chinese-origin Malaysians. These interests should be taken up informally through back channels  and not through public statements.

India should not give any impression that it has been showing belated interest in these issues--after having remained oblivious to them for years--because of the agitation of the HINDRAF. The HINDRAF is not the only representative of the Indian-origin Malaysians. One does not even know the background of its leaders and the extent of following they have in the Indian-origin community. The Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), which is part of the ruling coalition, and some non-political opinion-makers of the Indian-origin Malaysians have shown signs of discomfort and concern over the manner in which the leaders of the HINDRAF have been agitating and projecting India as the mother country, which should come to their help.

A group of Malaysian Tamil writers, which had recently visited Tamil Nadu, had disagreed with the kind of picture  being painted by the HINDRAF leaders. It would be unwise for India to let itself be influenced by the rhetoric  of the HINDRAF leaders. The Malaysian government has been unwise in trying to project the HINDRAF leaders as sympathisers of the LTTE and as acting at the behest of Hindutva elements in India. We will be equally unwise if we treat them as the sole and genuine representatives of the Indian-origin people and let ourselves be influenced by their rhetoric.

Hindus all over the world have genuine reasons for anger over some of the policies of successive Malaysian governments as pointed out by me in my previous article titled Root Causes of Hindu Anger . As good friends and well-wishers of Malaysia, we have a right to expect that Kuala Lumpur will  address these causes. But we have no right under international law to act as the de jure protector of the interests of the Indian-origin Malaysians.

During the Cultural Revolution in China under Mao-Zedong, the Chinese authorities assumed aggressive postures as protectors of the interests of the overseas Chinese all over the world. The ultimate result: The overseas Chinese population was viewed in many countries as having extra-territorial loyalties to China. By our words and statements, we should not unwittingly create similar suspicions about the Indian-origin communities abroad.

When Mr Vajpayee was the Prime Minister, many  felt concerned over the high-profile interest taken by his government in cultivating the Indian-origin diaspora abroad and over its implications for India's relations with countries where these people live and for the future well-being of the Indian-origin communities themselves. A well-argued article on this subject was written in 2003 by  the late Shri J.N.Dixit, former Foreign Secretary, who subsequently became the National Security Adviser to Dr.Manmohan Singh. A copy of his article is annexed.

B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi,and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.

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