“LOCALS call this the Modi Gate,” said theatre veteran Mano Maniam, who has lived in Brickfields for over 30 years.
He was referring to the intricately carved sandstone pavilion presented by Indian Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi to Malaysia during his visit in November 2015. Modelled on the Torana Gates at the Great Sanchi Stupa in India, it was commissioned by Emperor Ashoka over 2,000 years ago.
It stands along the main road leading to where the RM35mil Little India project was launched in Brickfields by Modi’s predecessor Dr Manmohan Singh in 2010.
As a cultural anthropologist, Mano has focussed on how cultures come in contact and evolve. Malaysia is one of the best examples, he claimed.
The Little India project and the Gate mark how far relations have come since as early as 100 BC, when Indian traders brought textiles to the Malay Peninsula to exchange for spices, gold, camphor, tin, sandalwood and pearls. Over the years, many settled down and married local women.
In the 1800s, the British brought Indian labourers, overseers and policemen to the Malay Peninsula.
Skilled workers from India and Sri Lanka settled down in Brickfields and laid the plates for a railway to connect Klang to Kuala Lumpur.
“South Indians form the bulk of those who migrated here,” noted historian Dr Aruna Gopinath. “Most of them were labourers, almost all were Tamils, and they worked on the rubber estates and built roads. Wherever they settled, they built a temple, which became a cultural centre.”
On a visit to Malaya in 1937, when he was president of the Indian National Congress, Jawaharlal Nehru told Malayan Indians to “consider the interests of Malaya as their own, for Malaya has become their land by birth or adoption”.
He visited again in 1946. The Malaysian Indian Congress was formed in August that year to look after the welfare of the Indian community, Gopinath added.
“They decided conditions in the plantations had to be improved. Unions were formed. Immigration was one of the main issues then.”
India was one of the first 20 countries to recognise the Federation of Malaya. Relations with India prior to Malaya’s independence were “comprehensive”, said Dr K. S. Balakrishnan, senior lecturer with the University of Malaya’s Department of International and Strategic Studies. But as the years went by, the ties changed.
During the Cold War, India was a friend of Russia and not as friendly with the West, while Malaysia was closer to the United States and Britain, he said. But in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed.
In the 1980s, India was not as economically powerful as other Commonwealth members and was not a major exporter, Balakrishnan pointed out. “India did not become economically stronger until the 1990s, when it began trade and economic liberalisation under then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh.”
Malaysia began to warm up to India as more business opportunities opened up when Indian experienced 8% to 9% economic growth in the late 1990s, he said.
For 2016, India is expected to notch up 7.1% growth. And Malaysia is now India’s eleventh largest trading partner, while India is Malaysia’s ninth largest trade partner.
Military cooperation began in the early 19th century when both Malaya and India were under British rule. From 1932, prospective army officers were sent to the Indian Military Academy for training, including Tun Hussein Onn, the future chief of defence forces Tun Ibrahim Ismail and the Tunku Mahkota of Johor.
During his 2015 visit, Modi paid tribute both to the Indian soldiers “whose blood is permanently mixed with the soil of Malaysia” and the Malayan Indians who joined the Indian National Army.
Veteran diplomat Tan Sri Razali Ismail traces “cultural syncretisation”, with a strong Indian influence on our art scene. Indian talent drove Malaya’s early film industry and traditional Indian dance inspired Malaysians such as Datuk Ramli Ibrahim.
Within the past decade, the bonds have strengthened. In 2010, Malaysia and India signed a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement and during Manmohan’s visit, set up a Strategic Partnership.
When Modi visited in 2015, he and Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak issued a Joint Statement for Enhanced Strategic Partnership to build on what had been forged in 2010.
Former Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein was influenced by Tunku Abdul Rahman’s “open embrace of India,” recalled Razali.
“And if Najib follows the footsteps of his father, he could take the relationship to a higher level.”
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