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Tamils and the Haunting of Justice

Tamils and the Haunting of Justice: History and Recognition in Malaysia's Plantations

Andrew C. Willford
With the collaboration of S. Nagarajan
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 377
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  • Book Info
    Tamils and the Haunting of Justice
    Book Description:

    In 2006 dejected members of the Bukit Jalil Estate community faced eviction from their homes in Kuala Lumpur where they had lived for generations. City officials classified plantation residents as squatters and, unaware of years of toil, attachment to the land, and past official promises, questioned any right they might have to stay, wondering “How can there be a plantation in Kuala Lumpur?” This story epitomizes the dilemma faced by Malaysian Tamils in recent years as they confront the moment when the plantation system where they have lived and worked for generations finally collapses. Foreign workers from Indonesia and Bangladesh have been brought in to replace Tamil workers to cut labor costs. As the new migrant workers do not bring their whole families with them, the community structures—schools, temples, churches, community halls, recreational fields—need no longer be sustained, allowing more land to be converted to mechanized palm oil production or lucrative housing developments. In short, the old, long-term community-based model of rubber plantation production introduced by British and French companies in colonial Malaya has been replaced by a model based upon migrant labor, mechanization, and a gradual contraction of the plantation economy. Tamils find themselves increasingly resentful of the fact that lands that were developed and populated by their ancestors are now claimed by Malays as their own; and that the land use patterns in these new townships, are increasingly hostile to the most symbolic vestiges of the Tamil and Hindu presence, the temples. In addition to issues pertaining to land, legal cases surrounding religious conversion have exacerbated a sense of insecurity among Tamil Hindus. Based on seventeen months of ethnographic fieldwork, this compelling book is about much more than the fast-approaching end to a way of life. Tamils and the Haunting of Justice addresses critical issues in the study of race and ethnicity. It is a study of how notions of justice, as imagined by an aggrieved minority, complicate legal demarcations of ethnic difference in post colonial states. Through its ethnographic breadth, it demonstrates which strategies, as enacted by local communities in conjunction with NGOs and legal advisors/activists, have been most “successful” in navigating the legal and political system of ethnic entitlement and compensation. It shows how, through a variety of strategies, Tamils try to access justice beyond the law—sometimes by using the law, and sometimes by turning to religious symbols and rituals in the murky space between law and justice. The book will thus appeal not only to scholars of Southeast Asia and the Indian diaspora, but also to ethnic studies and development scholars and those interested in postcolonial nationalism.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-4787-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  6. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-19)

    Community leader P. Palanisamy was a dejected man when Naga and I interviewed him in 2006. He had lost all hope of a just settlement in a dispute between former plantation workers of Bukit Jalil Estate and the local government. He lamented that the new generation of city hall officials had no knowledge of the plantation folk’s years of hardship and toil, nor of their attachment to the land. They also appeared ignorant of promises made to the workers by their predecessors. “These new officials don’t even realize that it is wrong to simply classify us as squatters and chase...

  7. 2 An Emergent Betrayal: Tamils and the Development of Selangor’s Plantations
    (pp. 20-38)

    This chapter charts a brief history of some of the key developments that led to the rise and decline of Selangor’s plantation industry. While some historical, political, and economic context is useful, I do not aim here to provide an extensive or detailed historical analysis. Rather, I wish to contextualize the expressions of betrayal and calls for justice that occurred between 2003 and 2007 among Malaysian Tamils, culminating in the rise of the Hindraf protests in 2007.

    Contacts between South India and Malaya began well over 1,500 years ago. Early contacts were made when Indian merchant ships engaged in trade...

  8. 3 Plantation Fragments
    (pp. 39-78)

    This chapter introduces the problem of displacement through a series of ethnographic encounters in several plantation (“estate”) communities in or near Selangor, the epicenter of plantation retrenchment and evictions. Here we come face to face with communities and individuals who express a sense of anxiety and despair as their neighborhoods are threatened by demolition. At the same time, the sense of the plantation as a site of nostalgia and positive identification is seen to be growing in the specter of its demise. In this context, the importance of documentation and an emergent historicity is described as important to plantation dwellers...

  9. 4 Tapping Memories: Plantations Are Not a Workplace
    (pp. 79-118)

    This chapter focuses on a growing sense of victimization among Tamils. We witness how a sense of community, nostalgically formed in the shadow of the Other and framed in the terms of victimhood, seeks to reconstitute itself through a struggle for compensation. Methods of civil disobedience, aided by NGO activists and legal counsel, are witnessed in some cases. But given the choice of employment elsewhere, cash, and/or the preservation of “community” through collective relocation, groups and individuals will be seen to often act against utilitarian interests. The chapter concludes with the case of a Tamil “mystic” in a plantation. We...

  10. 5 Interruptions, Insurrections, Strategies
    (pp. 119-136)

    In several of the cases we have looked at thus far, the struggles for compensation by communities facing eviction have taken a protracted and multifaceted form. We have seen that compensation cannot be treated in its merely material sense. It does not address the community, memory, and hopes to alleviate anxieties over an uncertain future that lay at the heart of the desire to resist resettlement, eviction, or even the “legal” compensation offered by developers and plantation employers upon retrenchment. Though we encountered some early “success” stories from the 1970s and 1980s, when housing was made available to retrenched estate...

  11. 6 The Locus of God’s Power: The Faith of Spirit and Its Incomprehensible Shattering
    (pp. 137-160)

    As witnessed at the end of the last chapter, the fire and demolitions of the Ebor Estate temples caused shock and disbelief among the devotees of that community. The shards of disbelief were also the propellants of renewed faith, however, and they revitalized and politicized efforts toward a reconstitution of sacred ground. We also witnessed that forging a victim’s narrative as to the ultimate cause of calamity was an important mechanism of psychological compensation, anchoring the subject vis-à-vis a lacking Other. On the one hand, the faith in the system and in intercommunal relations more broadly was erased overnight by...

  12. 7 Ethnic Riots and Other Myths
    (pp. 161-191)

    In March 2001, in what was described as the worst “ethnic rioting” in Malaysia in decades, Malays and Indians clashed in an area known as Kampung Medan. Though I have alluded to this event in previous chapters, here we address the implications of this incident in the context of plantation retrenchments, ethnic politics, and landscape transformations and the imaginaries that these processes engender. Near Kuala Lumpur, the densely populated Kampung Medan was associated with urban poverty, squatters, and problems of “gangsterism,” alcoholism, and drug abuse. Analysts, academics, and politicians were quick to ascribe cause and blame, some in racialized terms,...

  13. 8 Flats
    (pp. 192-210)

    Driving toward flats in Taman Permata, Dengkil, near Putrajaya, the nation’s new administrative capital, in June 2004, one could see five blocks of low-cost, low-rise flats that on first glance were similar to those seen elsewhere in Malaysia. But upon closer inspection, it was apparent that these were particularly shoddy. Although they were only a few years old, cracks could be seen everywhere, particularly in the narrow and dank staircases. The stairs were broken or shorn off altogether in many spots, posing an obvious safety risk. Pipes and plumbing were held together with makeshift sets of clamps and wires, and...

  14. 9 The Law’s Betrayal
    (pp. 211-235)

    Throughout this book, we have seen that a vision of the law’s true face from a Tamil perspective came when plantation workers’ fates lay in the hands of developers working in collusion with the state. In short, our concern has been those pushed against the wall. Though physical displacement has produced the most visceral awakening to the violence within the Law, a cultural displacement, as experienced by the Indian middle class, has produced its own narrative of growing intolerance and betrayals of an idealized and nascent nation to be. This sense of betrayal among the Indian middle class, while not...

  15. 10 Hindraf and the Haunting of Justice
    (pp. 236-276)

    On November 25, 2007, thirty to forty thousand Tamil “Indians” demonstrated against the Malaysian government in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, only to face tear gas, batons, and water cannons. This event, captured by the global media and spearheaded by the Hindu Rights Action Force, or Hindraf, surprised many Malaysians, if not other Indians, both in the diaspora and India, in its boldness. But for us now familiar with the “burning” sentiment in the working-class Indian community in the mid-2000s, the event, while surprising in its scope and audacity, was not entirely shocking. The resonance of the Hindraf movement owed...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 277-292)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 293-304)
  18. Index
    (pp. 305-318)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 319-319)