Update – 8.45 pm, Penang: Some 2,000 Hindu Malaysians, clad in the orange of Makkal Sakthi, are on the streets, chanting, “Hindraf! Hindraf! Long live Hindraf!”
It’s confirmed: The boycott of Batu Caves for the Thaipusam festival has been a success. Tens – perhaps hundreds – of thousands of Hindu Malaysian devotees have boycotted Batu Caves – which experienced at least a 30 per cent drop in attendance. They have instead turned to temples elsewhere for the annual Thaipusam festival.
In the process, a new movement – Makkal Sakthi (People Power) closely associated with support for Hindraf – has sprung to life, flexing its muscles in numbers. What makes it astonishing is that there is no organised structure or secretariat behind the movement, made up largely of marginalised Indian Malaysians. It was instead just ordinary people sending out mobile phone text messages, asking people to stay away from Batu Caves and instead go to other temples.
The implications are profound. It represents a de-coupling of popular religous devotion from the vested interests of the political-religious nexus. Put differently, it is indicative of a marginalised community no longer trusting a major temple authority because of its perceived close links to the ruling political elite and its perceived betrayal of the legitimate interests of the community. The adherents of the religion no longer want anything to do with those religious officials who are in cohorts with political masters who have already lost much of their political – and now religious – legitimacy.
The boycott has blown apart any attempt by Samy Vellu and the mainstream media to equate the attendance at a religious festival in Batu Caves with support for the MIC/BN. Clearly, the attempt to tie the MIC and Samy Vellu’s political legitimacy to the turnout at a religious festival – as if the devotees were there to pay homage to them – has failed miserably.
A couple of eye-witnesses who visited Batu Caves this morning told me that the turnout for the Thaipusam festival early this morning was distinctly smaller.
Remember, this is despite Thaipusam now being a public holiday in KL from this year. One would have expected a bigger turnout with people having the day off there.
One source told me that he felt the turnout was about 30 per cent lower.
A second source told me that the drop exceeded 30 per cent but not as much as half. She told me that during the same time (early morning) last year, the entrance to the Batu Caves temple premises was jammed. But not today.
A third source told me that a climb that would normally take 3-4 hours to complete – inching one’s way up the steps leading to the temple at the top and back – this time took only an hour.
Update (24 January): Malaysiakini and theSun both confirmed the smaller turnout at Batu Caves.
In contrast, Samy Vellu was reported as saying that the crowd was at least half a million people at the complex and a million the day before. “I have come to Thaipusam since I was 11 years old. I know the crowd. It is the same as before,” he told the press.
And what to make of this?
Call To Boycott Thaipusam In Batu Caves Ignored, One Million Turn Up
KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 23 (Bernama) — Calls made to Hindus through short messaging service (SMS) to boycott Thaipusam festival in Batu Caves fizzled out as hundreds of thousands of devotees thronged the Sri Subramaniaswamy Temple here to pay their annual homage to Lord Muruga.
As of noon Wednesday, not less than 500,000 people, both locals and foreigners, flocked to the temple to fulfil their vows, MIC president Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu said.
Oh, Bernama… Oh, Samy…
This morning, devotees could actually approach close to the altar with their paal kudam (milk pots) unhindered by the sea of humanity that would have obstructed their path in previous years. Many people had also turned up a couple of days earlier to fulfil their vows, said another source. And when they were asked for their chits (indicating they had paid about RM10) upon presentation of their paal kudam, many just glared back and refused to comply – which could be why the fee is reportedly only optional today.
A couple of stall owners grumbled that business had been poor. They had apparently paid RM2,500 for a small stall and RM5,000 for a bigger area. Even the eating stalls/areas were not crowded.
“It’s very noticeable that it is a much smaller crowd this year,” said my second contact. “The shop-owners told me business was affected.”
Tens of thousands of devotees have gone to other temples instead including the Pandamaran temple in Port Klang. When contacted at the scene, Charles Santiago of the Monitoring Globalisation research unit told me over the background din that the turnout was anything between 30,000 and 40,000. Update (24 January): Press reports say the total turnout over the entire celebration here reached 100,000, which is what another source told me. Now, this is remarkable when you consider that Port Klang is not normally associated with huge Thaipusam festivities.
Hindu devotees have also thronged smaller temples in Kuala Selangor, Klang and elsewhere in Selangor. One small temple in Klang, which in previous years would receive only about 30 paal kudam, this time received over a hundred milk pots, as some 3,000 devotees showed up.
Over in Penang, the Thaipusam crowds have been overwhelming, according to one contact at the scene. Near the race-course, a panthal (rest stop for those carrying kavadi) selling Makkal Sakthi (People Power) T-shirts and CDs has been enjoying brisk sales. The panthal is also displaying pictures of the Hindraf Five, detained under the ISA.
“The response has been fantastic,” said my contact. “Many young people are wearing the Makkal Sakthi T-shirts and greeting each other with cries of ‘Makkal Sakthi’. There was such a peaceful yet strong spirit of camaderie among those present. ” Hundreds are said to be wearing the yellowish-orange Makkal Sakthi attire. (I hope those in the Makkal Sakthi movement will extend their hands in solidarity with Malaysians of other ethnic groups and religious backgrounds who are also struggling for justice – and vice versa.)
He excitedly told me that the crowd this time was “100% more” than last year and he had seen buses from out of town. Update (24 January): Another witness confirmed that he had seen many buses, with a couple of people telling him there were 200-300 buses from out of town. One social activist told me there were many more people on the streets this year, compared to last year, when there was lots more space for people to move around. An academic at the scene also agreed the crowds were much bigger, with more people carrying milk pots. Strangely, theSun reported that the crowds in Penang were “much smaller” and traffic was “free flowing on roads leading to the temple.” Celebrations, the paper added, were “subdued”.
The official Thaipusam organisers in Penang had announced a ban on political parties setting up stalls along the road leading to the Waterfall Temple. This could be linked to SMS messages that are believed to have been circulating, asking people to boycott the MIC stall – which would have left the DAP stall as the centre of attention. In any case, one of my sources tells me there is now a “Karpal Singh panthal” outside his residence, which lies along the Jalan Utama route nearing the Waterfall Temple!
Similarly, Ipoh and Sungai Petani are believed to have experienced huge turnouts this year, but I await confirmation of this. Update (24 January): TheSun quoted a witness in Ipoh as saying the crowd was “unusually big this year”. She also heard it announced that the crowd was three times bigger than last year.
All said, it looks like the boycott call by Makkal Sakthi/Hindraf supporters has successfully diverted a large number of people away from Batu Caves. The boycott was called after many Indian Malaysians expressed unhappiness over the way the Batu Caves temple authorities handled the situation on 25 Nov 2007. Riot police arrived to spray water cannon and tear gas in the direction of the crowd gathered inside the Batu Cave temple premises in the early hours of dawn before the Hindraf rally later that day, sparking anger.
Share with me your Thaipusam experience in the “comments” below, okay… which temple you visited, what the atmosphere was like, the crowd size (was it bigger than last year or smaller?), the Makkal Sakthi spirit, what people were saying, anything of interest…
I wish all Hindu Malaysians blessings of peace and goodwill this Thaipusam.