A group of minority ethnic Indians shaved their heads on Thursday to protest the imprisonment of five community leaders who campaigned for equal rights in Muslim-majority Malaysia.
About 100 Indians gathered at the Batu Caves temple compound outside Kuala Lumpur to pray for the release of the leaders who were arrested last week under the Internal Security Act, which allows indefinite detention without trial.
Sixteen of them had their heads shaved on the banks of a nearby river and walked to the temple, carrying posters of Mohandas K Gandhi, India's independence leader who led millions in non-violent protests, said S Jayathas, one of the protesters. Shaving their heads was "a sign of protest against the ISA and to pray for their (leaders') freedom," Jayathas said, sporting a bald head.
Hindu Indians often shave their heads during religious ceremonies to show devotion to their beliefs. The five leaders arrested under the ISA belong to the Hindu Rights Action Force, or Hindraf, which this year began galvanizing Malaysia's Indians, who account for 8 per cent of Malaysia's 27 million people and are at the bottom of the economic and social ladder.
Muslim Malays, who are about 60 per cent of the population, dominate politics and the civil service. Indians complain they are not given a fair share of Malaysia's wealth and are deprived of jobs, education and business opportunities. They have also been angered by the demolition of several Hindu temples in recent years. The Hindraf leaders in jail were accused of threatening public security and inciting racial hatred after they organized an unprecedented Nov. 25 protest rally by some 20,000 Indians, in defiance of a government ban. The government has also accused them of having terrorist links but provided no evidence. A charge of attempted murder was slapped against 31 people arrested during the rally for a non-life threatening injury to a policeman, but prosecutors dropped the case after a public outcry and appeals by civil society groups.
The government denies it discriminates against any race, and says most Indians are better off than many poor Malays. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has also said he is willing to sacrifice individual freedoms to preserve stability and public security.