Monday, May 2, 2011

Penang Hindu cemetery turns political circus
P Ramasamy
May 2, 11

COMMENT Recently there has been some controversy over the old Hindu burial ground in Batu Kawan, Penang, with the Maha Mariamman temple committee holding press conferences and a so-called hunger strike in protest of my suggestion to return the property from state land reserved for Batu Kawan stadium, back to the Hindus.

When the stadium was built about 18 or 19 years ago, the Hindu burial site nearby managed by the Maha Mariamman temple was acquired for future expansion and development of the stadium.

As compensation, the Penang Development Corporation (PDC) allocated two acres for the new Hindu burial ground, about two kilometres away from the present Batu Kawan workers' quarters.

As a result of this new arrangement, the Maha Mariamman temple had to abandon its control of the old burial ground lying next to the stadium. The temple committee ceased to have any say on the old burial ground, and furthermore residents were advised not bury their dead in the old plot.

Since the state had no immediate plans for the use of the old Hindu burial ground land, the site was left neglected. Even the temple committee that now boasts it wants to regain control of this land, had never taken the initiative to clean the burial ground from time to time over the past years.

According to those familiar with the history of Batu Kawan estate, the old site contains the remains of more than 1,000 deceased.

There is a possibility that a small portion of the burial ground even lies underneath the mammoth stadium.

Reclaiming the burial ground

About a month back, Penang's state secretary Farizan Darus asked me about this old burial ground and whether it was possible to exhume the bodies (he was under the impression that only a few were buried within) so that the land could be gazetted for the stadium.

However, I replied that it was not possible as the site contained more than 1,000 buried, and that it was only appropriate that the land be reinstated as a Hindu burial site.

Instead, I suggested to the state secretary that the old burial ground be re-gazetted and be placed under the administration of the Penang Hindu Endowment Board (HEB).

He tentatively agreed to my suggestion and instructed the land office at Sebarang Perai Selatan to do the necessary survey before the matter could be tabled at the state's land committee.

Following this, I made an announcement especially in the Tamil press about the possibility of HEB taking over the abandoned site with the sole objective of turning it into a burial ground for Hindus in Batu Kawan.

However, the committee members of the Maha Mariamman temple did not welcome the suggestion, as they felt that the site should revert to the temple's jurisdiction.

The temple committee comprising members of the Indian Progressive Front (IPF) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) instigated by some members of the Penang opposition spread rumours that the old burial ground was going to be taken over by outsiders and that Indians in Batu Kawan faced the prospect of “losing” the site permanently.

They held several conferences and yesterday held their so-called hunger protest against my proposed idea.

Indian community 'supportive'

I have clarified the matter regarding this burial site to the public. Generally, Indians in Batu Kawan are supportive of my proposal. Some even gave interviews in the press to support my idea and advised the temple committee not to be too hasty in blocking a good move.

Whether the old burial ground eventually comes under the jurisdiction of the HEB remains to be seen. At this present juncture, it is merely a proposal. The land has to be surveyed, the opinions of different state government departments have to be sought and finally the state's land committee must give its approval.

As the head of the HEB and Member of Parliament for Batu Kawan, I have a moral obligation to safeguard the political, social and cultural interests of Indians in Penang. I am not going to sit by like the members of the former government to witness the gradual loss of Indian cultural and social spaces. As it is, a number of Indian burial grounds have been abandoned or sold for commercial purposes by some unscrupulous persons.

If the HEB takes control of the burial site, the Penang state government would ensure that the full benefits would accrue to the Indians in Batu Kawan area. In fact, we would make sure that the operation and maintenance of the burial plot would be left in the hands of people in Batu Kawan who are committed and sincere.

Unlike the temple committee, the HEB has funds and expertise to acquire and manage the burial ground in the interests of the community.

Sad to say, the members of the present temple committee do not have the professionalism to conduct the affairs of the burial ground. Since it is they who had abandoned the burial plot about 18 years ago, they do not have the legitimacy or moral authority to talk about managing burial matters.

Demonstrators for real?

Unfortunately, in yesterday's one day so-called hunger strike in front of the Batu Kawan stadium, there were only a few residents from the Batu Kawan estate; some of these persons did not even know the issue at hand.

Moreover, the visible presence of MIC, IPF and Gerakan leaders lends weight to the argument that the political parties had a hand in organising yesterday's protest.

The Pakatan government would not be intimidated. We have resolved many long standing problems of the Indian community in Penang.

We have done what the MIC or the BN could not do in 53 years. We have resolved the Kampung Buah Pala issue and recently obtained back a five-acre burial ground that was taken over by some private landowners in Byram, Nibong Tebal.

P Ramasamy is MP for Batu Kawan and deputy chief minister II as well as chairperson of the Penang Hindu Endowment Board.

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