Malaysia book causes rift over Indian caste system

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Malaysia book causes rift over Indian caste system

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - A high school textbook that highlights multiethnic Malaysia’s racial harmony has riled the main ethnic Indian party, which wants it banned because it refers to the Hindu caste system, an official said Monday.

The Malaysian Indian Congress, which is part of the ruling coalition, has asked the education ministry to withdraw the book “Interlock,” or at least revoke portions referring to the caste system, because it is seen as hurtful to minority Indians, said party deputy president S. Subramaniam.

The spat emphasizes the difficulty of running a multiethnic country such as Malaysia where minorities are hypersensitive to suggestions their culture is not being respected, or they are being ridiculed by others.

The caste system is an outdated concept that Malaysian Indians want to forget, and it was “unnecessary” to include the reference in the book, Subramaniam said.

“It’s irrelevant to modern day life here,” he told The Associated Press. “With this kind of image, [some Indian Malaysians] feel hurt .?.?. It’s not touched upon or talked about by anybody.”

Deputy Education Minister Wee Ka Siong told The AP the ministry is waiting to hear the party’s arguments before making a decision.

The book, required reading for literature classes starting this year, tells the stories of three families - Malay, Chinese and Indian - in British colonial times.

Malays, who are Muslims, make up 60 percent of Malaysia’s 28 million people. Chinese are 25 percent and Indians, who are mostly Hindus, make up 8 percent.

The book, written by a Malay author, shows the “integration of the various majority races” and how they contributed toward the independence of Malaysia from Britain in 1957. Most of the Indians in Malaysia were brought from India by the British colonialists as labourers in rubber plantations or for construction.

The portion that angered the party is from a chapter that tells the story of a poor man from India’s “Pariah caste.”

He travels to Malaya, as it was known then, to find work and is surprised at the absence of a caste system.

Under the Indian caste system, Hindus are divided into four main castes according to their line of work.

In addition, there are people outside the system called “untouchables” who are supposed to do unclean jobs dealing with excrement and the dead.

Although the caste system is banned in India, it is still practiced in villages. Malaysian Indians continue with most traditions of their ancestors, but the caste system is largely obsolete here.

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