Here’s What India (And The BJP) Can Learn From Malaysia About Communal Harmony
The many diverse groups there live peacefully, have equal rights and progress evenly.
Over the last six weeks, a number of us have wondered each day if the extent of hatred in the political space had fallen to its lowest ever, only to find our ruling party plunge to newer depths the next morning.
Amit Shah has referred to Bangladeshis — his and his party’s metaphor for Muslims — as termites. Nalin Kohli, in an interview with Al Jazeera, defended the choice of expletive. The entire Bharatiya Janata Party’s leadership has focused on evoking Hindu pride, conjuring up a threat to the 80 per cent from the 14 per cent, claiming ownership over our army that they claim is now fighting against Islamic terror. Some demagogues went to the extent of declaring that Modi should be re-elected because he knows how to teach Muslims a lesson. One leader wanted him to go the extra mile and forcibly sterilise all Muslims and Christians in his second term.
We had some saffron leaders announcing categorically that post-2019, India would be a Hindu nation. A cabinet minister threatened Muslims voting against her and said she would ensure they are punished later for doing so. A Harvard educated Minister went on record saying he had put his money for bailing out party supporters charged with lynching Muslims. This same gentleman had garlanded them and publicised his celebration when this lynch mob was granted bail. The highlight, however, was when Modi himself selected and then endorsed a much-maligned, terror-accused militant, out on bail, for a seat in Parliament. Pragya Thakur, arrested by the MP police when the BJP ruled the state, is a rabid, hate-mongering criminal who has spouted venom almost every day since she got nominated by her PM, who declared her an icon of 5,000 years of Hinduism. Thakur went on to make hugely divisive speeches, and her latest statement is that Nathuram Godse, Gandhiji’s assassin and independent India’s first terrorist was a patriot and should always be regarded as one. And just as in most such cases, gave a weak apology when some in her party found this abuse a tad vulgar.
I am writing this column in Kuala Lumpur, and here, all such hate appears alien. This is a country with a substantial Muslim population, but you don’t hear anti-minority sentiment like in India. There are religious and linguistic minorities in Malaysia. It is a hugely diverse country that celebrates its multi-racial character, unlike Modi’s India, that abhors India’s diversity and keeps emphasising an artificial homogeneity. Elections are fought keenly, but the issues are economic- or development-oriented. Malaysia is, for an Indian ruled by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, a breath of fresh air.
Muslims constitute 61 per cent of the population. Buddhists 20 per cent and Christians nine per cent. There are some Hindus too.
Malaysia is an upper middle-income country. The average Malaysian earns about eight times more than an average Indian who makes a little more than Rs 9,000 a month today. There is a sense of security in the country with a strong and capable police force and the rule of law. On the streets, it is common to find large numbers of women, very often wearing the hijab walking with confidence and without ever getting harassed. Public transport is very popular, and buses and trains are filled with working women. In India, you see a minimal number of women compared to what you see in Kuala Lumpur. And the workforce in India is predominantly male while in Malaysia the gender diversity is evident almost everywhere.
What this trip, like all my earlier trips to South East Asia, showed is that there is a model in the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian) countries that we must learn from. These are all nations that started impoverished seventy years ago, shed their colonial past very quickly, adopted the best the world had to offer by way of education and universal health care and became the manufacturing hubs for the entire world. All these economies were democratic; they had frequent elections, strong Opposition parties and a free press. These counties welcomed immigrants, almost all of them have substantial Indian populations who still speak Tamil and Telugu and Punjabi. They all had their share of civil strife, of periods of dictatorial rule, but they stabilised fast and overthrew those who strayed from democratic principles.
Ethnically, there are 60 per cent Malays, 20 per cent Chinese and more than 6 per cent of Indians. Malaysia has 134 living languages — 112 indigenous languages and 22 non-indigenous languages; in East Malaysia, there are several indigenous languages, most widely spoken are Iban and Kadazan. What is fascinating is that all these diverse groups live peacefully, have equal rights and progress evenly. For all the right-wingers in India who keep looking westwards, the South East Asian region is a significant rebuff.
The Modi brigade that keeps reminding their detractors about injustice to non-Muslims in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia that mistreat minorities, must take Vajpayee’s advise and look eastwards. Indonesia and Malaysia are countries with majority Muslim populations where minorities live happily and are treated well.