Malaysian Indians and the problem of faith: religion, political representation and racialization (completed)

Rupa Viswanath
University of Göttingen

In 2007 Malaysian Indians, primarily Tamil Hindus, gathered in the thousands in the streets of Kuala Lumpur in the largest street demonstration independent Malaysia had ever seen.  A series of grievances, including the destruction of Hindu temples in plantations and squatter settlements that took place as land was acquired for development, proceeding apace beginning especially in the 1990s, custodial deaths of Indian prisoners, cases of apparently forced conversion to Islam, housing and land acquisition problems, and the poor condition of Tamil primary schools were the rallying cries of protestors, and all of these grievances were encompassed, at least in 2007, under the umbrella of “Hindu rights.”  This project takes this recent political interpellation of Indians—widely acknowledged to be unprecedented in its reach and force, though the movement has since disintegrated—as its starting point to investigate how the everyday lives of the Indian poor are being reshaped at the intersection of religion, race, and political representation. Through the study of the following four subthemes, the project attempts to provide a mutlifaceted set of answers to this question: (1) the transformation of ideas race and religion through new practices of sociality in squatter resettlement flats (2) the rhetoric and rationales of both representatives and the represented in several cases of eviction struggles on former plantations (3) the networks through which transnational political ideals and identities based on Hinduism and caste are propagated, and finally, (4) evolving theories of how best to define and represent the Indian poor, following the failure of the Hindu rights movement, as envisioned by policy makers, activists and politicians.  A question which repeatedly emerged in this research, from Indians across the social and political spectrum—in whom should the Indian poor place their faith—underlies and unites these themes.

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