When it comes to telling people apart, Malaysians are a hugely ignorant lot. This is particularly the case when the people one has to identify are Indians. Yes, there certainly seems to be a great deal of confusion about Indians in Malaysia. This has resulted mainly from ignorance, but also in part, thanks to our education, political system and the manner in which Malaysians originating from South Asia have been officially classified since British times.
On the street the average Malaysian cannot tell who an Orang India is even though the population of India has reached more than a billion, and, if its immediate neighbours, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, as well as those in the diaspora are included, one can count more than one and a half billion souls, approximately a quarter of the world’s population.
To go on, where, pray thee, lies the difference between a Tamil, a Telugu, a Kannada and a Malayalee? None in Malaysia. They are all, once again, Orang India, or to make it even more intriguing they are all Keling. I was told by a former student that when she referred to a Malayalee friend as an Indian he felt insulted! “No”, he said, “I’m not an Indian, I’m a Malayalee.” The designation Keling, if one may be allowed to use that word, with which even Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, our National Language and Literature Agency, has had problems, has the tendency to cause discomfort, embarrassment, even anger amongst Tamils, Malayalees and other South Indians. It has come to the verge of becoming an abusive or insulting term. If someone who is educated enough is called a Keling he may retort that his ancestors did not come from Kalinga!
Then there is the seemingly endless and irritating recurrence of the Bengali and Sikh situation made famous, in recent months, by an incident involving the Menteri Besar of Perak, proving that it is not just the average person in Malaysia who is confused. A Sikh who is called a Bengali may take it as an insult even. In that case what makhluk in the world is a Bengali Sikh or a Bengali Singh? And who or what, in faith, is a Bengali, locally designated Bangali?
Actually, when it comes to the Bengali case, the matter gets even more complicated than that discussed in the case of the Tamils and the three other previously mentioned South Indian communities. Firstly it is not just the Sikhs who are wrongly referred to as Bengali; there are many others, belonging to several different races who arbitrarily get included in this category. In general these may be grouped together as Northern Indians. So if in the case of South Indians we have had to deal with a mere four kinds of people, now we are facing perhaps fifty or more different races, too many even to be named in this place.
Since the Bengali and Sikh matter comes up more frequently, it may be timely to explain that they are two different races, the Sikhs, originally from the Punjab, are in fact Punjabis, while the Bengalis originate from Bengal. They also call themselves Bangla. That will, perhaps, ring a bell, for there are countless thousands of workers from Bangladesh in our midst. Bangla, Anglicised as Bengal-- ”Amar sonar Bangla”, our beautiful golden land of Bangla-- was divided by the British in the thirties into two—the western with Hindu majority and the eastern with a Muslim majority. Following the partition of the sub-continent in 1947, the two parts became West Bengal, now in India and East Bengal, now Bangladesh. Thus these people from both halves of the erstwhile united Bangla are the genuine Bengalis, and the Sikhs are authentic Punjabis, having no connections of ethnicity with the Bengalis. For further clarification it may be added that Punjabis are to be found both in India and in Pakistan, for like the old Bengal, the old Punjab was also partitioned, the western Muslim majority districts going to Pakistan and the eastern, Hindu and Sikh majority districts, to India. So there are Punjabis who are not Indian but Pakistani.
But all of this is merely the first part of the story.
Complications begin to come in, when, in addition to race, one also has to deal with religion. So just multiply each of the many races—only six have been named in this write-up—by four or five to include those who belong to Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and to a lesser extent to Jainism, Buddhism and Bahaism and the waters get really murky like those of the Ganges or Brahmaputra. Once again, just to take three examples for the sake of simplicity: In Malaysia there are Tamils who are Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. In the same way there are Punjabis (Please don’t call them Bangali or Pangkali lo!) who are Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and even a few Christians, while there are Gujeratis who are Hindus, Muslims and Jains. This belonging to one of several religions may be seen in almost all the South Asian races.
So you see what happens when you call the Sikhs Bangali. Naturally some people, even the “educated” and educators amongst us Malaysians, find all this too complex. So I simplify by telling my students that they should remember, when they refer to the Bangali Sikhs, that there are also Bangali Seven, Bangali Eight, Bangali Nine and so on. Get the picture?
And that is only the beginning of the confusion. Where, one might ask, do I place the Mamak or the Kaka in all of this? Kapitan Keling? Aishwarya Rai? Datuk Shah Rukh Khan of Bollywood and Melaka fame?
And the countless Malays who have Indian ancestors?
To elucidate these and some other cultural conundrums connected with the infinitely complicated Indians, I am currently working on a book on Indians in Malaysia. It should be out in the later part of 2009.