KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia » Ethnic Indian activists in Malaysia decried a government decision Friday to retain a book in the high school curriculum that refers to the Hindu caste system.
The dispute has aggravated many among Malaysia’s ethnic Indian minority who complain that authorities in this mostly Malay Muslim country fail to respect their sensitivities.
Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said late Thursday that a special panel will propose amendments that can be made to the Malay-language novel, "Interlok," before it eventually becomes compulsory for high school literature classes.
"The decision to continue using the novel, with amendments so as not to hurt the feelings of the Indian community, is the best solution," Muhyiddin said in a statement.
However, Mohan Shan, president of the Malaysia Hindu Sangam organization, said the book should be withdrawn entirely because it allegedly portrays ethnic Indians as coming from inferior communities.
The book, written by an ethnic Malay, tells the stories of three families — Malay, Chinese and Indian, reflecting Malaysia’s main ethnic groups — in British colonial times. It is slated to be required reading starting this year.
Some ethnic Indians, who make up about 8 percent of Malaysia’s 28 million people, complained about a portion of the book involving a poor man from India’s "Pariah caste" who migrates to Malaya, as Malaysia was known then, to find work and is surprised at the absence of a caste system.
Ethnic Indian politicians and activists say the book would provide students with an unfair depiction of Indians, particularly because they no longer practice the caste system.
"There are a lot of sentences that don’t properly reflect the Indian community," Mohan told The Associated Press. "I can’t see how they can amend the book. If you teach this to students, it’s going to bring a really negative value among the races, and you won’t get any harmony in the country in the future."
Under the Indian caste system, Hindus are divided into four main castes according to their line of work. Although the 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.
Most Malaysian Indians are descended from people who were brought from India by British colonialists as laborers in rubber plantations or for construction.
Malaysia’s main ethnic groups have lived with each other amicably for decades, though many Chinese and Indians have turned away from the ruling coalition in recent years amid disquiet over affirmative action policies that benefit Malays in jobs, education and other fields. The government says the policies are meant to reduce economic disparities and promote national stability.