A Little India is born, but what of ethnic tensions

By Minu Jain, IANS
Wednesday, October 27, 2010

KUALA LUMPUR - The festoons were up, traditional kolams had been painted on the swept tiled streets, and dancers swayed to music as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Malaysian Premier Najib Tun Abdul Razak launched the Little India business area on an overcast Wednesday evening to the strains of the nadaswaram.

Thousands of people, mostly of Indian origin, gathered at the shop lined Tun Sambandan street in Brickfields area that will now be known as Little India - a hub of Indian shops, restaurants and home to many of Malaysias 2.1 people of Indian origin, mostly Tamils.

There were dances by children representing the Chinese, Malay and Indian mix that is Malaysia as well as an exposition of classical Odissi by maestro Ramli Ibrahim, who has studied chemical engineering in India.

With arches in orange, purple and blue lining the streets and a fountain with elephants and peacocks in similar colours - unveiled by the two leaders - it is an effort by the Malaysian government to cement the twinning of Kuala Lumpur and Chennai cities and to make the area a tourism attraction and a buzzing commercial and residential zone.

As the sun set and the lights came on, both the prime ministers addressed the gathering and spoke of the deep linkages between the two countries.

Razak stressed that the development of Little India was a tangible manifestation of the Malaysian Indian community that has congregated and built their lives in Brickfields over generations.

He also departed from the prepared text in an attempt to reach out to the ethnic Indian community that forms eight percent of the countrys population, speaking of how he had curry in the Sri Kortumalai Pillayar restaurant the day after he was elected and how the owner had now named it Najib corner.

But the crowd, which had been seated quite a distance away, seemed unmoved, with just a spattering of applause and with one of those who had performed actually egging the people to clap. Razak also stayed on for a while after Manmohan Singh left.

Despite the hype, the undercurrents of tension clearly continued. Eating curry was not enough to erase the sense of hurt that many ethnic Indians feel.

The move to form a Little India, many believe, may be nothing more than tokenism in a country where there is affirmative action for the majority turning the policy on its head.

A little earlier in the day in the administrative capital Putrajaya, Razak was asked a question during the joint press interaction about the perception that the Indian community had a sense of being left out.

“This is purely a domestic matter for Malaysia,” he said, stating curtly that the matter was not discussed by the two prime ministers in their bilateral talks.

Manmohan Singh was, however, more expansive. “Like India, Malaysia is multi-cultural and multi-ethnic,” he said, adding that he was confident Malaysia had the “built-in flexibility” to deal with the ethnic issue.

He added about the community in the evening: …it is here in Brickfields that Malaysians of Indian origin can give full expression to their individualism and culture. As citizens of Malaysia, the Indian communitys hopes and aspirations, life, family and future lie in this country. Yet they have maintained cultural and spiritual links with India.

Set against the glittering skyrises that form the skyline of Kuala Lumpur, Little India, on which the government has spent approximately $10 million to make it a replica of a Chennai street, is actually just that - a microcosm of India.

The similarities with Singapores Serangoon Road are unmistakable.

Want a Hindu god idol, an Indian made mixi, some masalas from back home and that is where to go. Crammed with 100 odd restaurants, it caters to even the fussiest Indian vegetarian - ever sampled vegetarian Chinese without ginger or garlic!

It only happens in Little India, Kuala Lumpur.

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