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Indian Fulbright scholar honored by Malaysian PM
Tuesday, 10.07.2008, 06:04am (GMT-7)

India Post News Service

LOS ANGELES: Ramanujan Nadadur has traveled the world in his few years as an undergraduate at Princeton University. While in college, the suma cum laude graduate completed an internship with a newspaper in Pakistan; worked for the United Nations in Vienna, Austria; and spent a month doing thesis research in India's Jammu and Kashmir state.

If being a globe trotter to exotic and even dangerous locations isn't impressive enough for his resume, Ramanujan has one book coming out from Dolphin Press in New Delhi next year based on his thesis work in Jammu and Kashmir-and a second from the same publisher for his work as a Fulbright Scholar in his latest academic adventure--Malaysia. An emerging nation of 25 million that for years was the world's leading producer of rubber and tin, Malaysia is also home to three million Malay Indians.

Their plight is what led Ramanujan to the office of Malaysia's Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, where he was honored for his thesis entitled "The Promise of Integration: Malaysia's Indians and Ethnic Politics" and his contribution to ethnic harmony in the country. "Nearly a hundred years after many Indians came to Malaysia as indentured labor their economic status really hasn't changed," observes the articulate Ramanujan to India Post over coffee in a café in Santa Monica, quite a distance from his adventure across the Pacific.

"There are government quotas that favor certain ethnic groups…quotas in schools…quotas in labor…so my thesis explored why these conditions exist and how they prevent ethnic integration into a society," he says. The Fulbright Scholarship that funded Ramanujan's thesis was sponsored by the US State Department and was created in honor of Vijayashanker Paramsothy, a Malaysian student who lost his life in the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

Ramanujan's thesis specifically examined the plight of Nonresident Indians in Malaysia, whose origins date to the early 1900s when Malaysia was a thriving rubber trading nation under the British.

"The British encouraged many Indians to migrate from India to Malaysia, and they were mostly lower caste groups so the British took advantage of that," says Ramanujan, adding that thousands of Indians, especially from Tamil Nadu, came as indentured labor to work the plantations, with only a few coming over as plantation managers or more skilled labor. Based on Ramanujan's study, even after Malaysia achieved its independence from the British on August 31, 1957, most of the Malay Indians today find themselves sending their children to Australia, America or even the UK to achieve educational or business opportunities because of the economic caste system that has lingered in the Malaysia society.

"Most government service issues of Malaysia are directed to one of the three ethnic groups (Malaysian, Chinese or Indian) and rather than seeing that many of the concerns of these three diverse factions share common interests, issues are often categorized in Malaysia based on ethnicity," he says. Ramanujan, therefore, questions the over identification of ethnic groups and their needs in some countries because it can lead to a loss of services and even rights.

"In America, we're looking at certain issues as being ethnic, like the Latino concerns for instance, but what I find is that in the end run, by pushing them into ethnic issues, it may be a way to distant a country from having to deal with those issues, and/or even lower their priorities," he says. Ramanujan knows of what he speaks, having seen ethnic struggles in Pakistan and India's troubled Jammu and Kashmir regions in recent years.

As an American student he also learned and speaks Spanish. Ironically the current Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi awarded Ramanujan for his academic work, in many ways contrary to Malaysia's previous Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad who was so pro ethnic Malaysian, it left the other minority groups in the lurch. Ramanujan underscores that Malaysians are the country's largest ethnic group at 60 percent and this majority community has a Polynesian cultural similarity, a language that is also akin to Hawaiian and a religious base that is mainly Muslim. Over 30 percent of Malaysia is Chinese, and 10 percent Indian.

The priorities of the government are often based on those three groups, which is where Ramanujan sees problems. Singapore, for example, was expelled from Malaysia in the 1960s and there a Chinese majority dominates the society, yet they as a country have been much more successful at ethnic integration. Singapore's current president, Sellapan Ramanathan, for example, is of Indian Tamil descent. "In Malaysia ethnic division of labor has persisted because of the nature of the plantation economy.

All the laws have been sort of ethicized because the government has implemented quotas in education and labor since its independence and the government has made ethnic quotas that favor Malaysians and pursued a policy framework that assumes ethnic division," he says. If Ramanujan seems to easily identify these ethnic issues and conflicts, his work at Princeton prepared him well.

There he served in the prestigious Woodrow Wilson School on a task force on Post-Conflict Peace-building in Central and Southern Africa, and later interning in Vienna at the UN where he prepared briefs on arms control issues in South Asia, Iran and North Korea. Malaysia's number one export is palm oil now which has replaced rubber. Ramanujan is quick to point out palm oil is much less labor intensive which has affected the Indian population which traditionally has been an agriculture based community and because Indians in Malaysia are predominantly from Tamil Nadu, the Malaysian people often perceive them as being uneducated and agriculture workers. "Indentured workers had to pay their passage to Malaysia and then work it off.

Back then, there was not that much integration and the native Malaysians basically dominated the economy and didn't come in contact with Indians. Neither did Chinese who were involved in tin mining. Most of the Indians spoke Tamil and still do," he says, pointing out that the Indians remained the same caste in Malaysia as in India with a high mortality rate on the plantations. Ramanujan completed his thesis at a time when Malaysia has been going through a great deal of change and ethnic unrest.

In November 2007, over 40,000 ethnic Indians gathered in Kuala Lumpur as part of an unprecedented demonstration organized by a group known as the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF). HINDRAF protested a series of temple demolitions as well as a quota system in education and employment that favors the majority Malay ethnic group. "All that is going on in Malaysia posed a challenge for me.

In fact, the HINDRAF movement is just one example of a broader pattern of anti-government protests that have occurred over the past year. So, on the one hand, you have members of the population, including the vast majority of Malaysia's Indians, who are disenchanted with the government. At the same time, the government itself is trying to strike a balance between Malaysia's major ethnic groups who end up competing against one another. As a result, I found many people reluctant to speak to me about issues relating to ethnicity, politics and integration, especially because they were not sure about which side I represented." Still Ramanujan impressed his professors in Malaysia in spite of his challenges.

"I think that [Ramanujan] brought a really unique perspective to this subject. A lot of issues such as ethnic politics and integration have been examined at length, but I've never seen an argument put together in the way that [Ramanujan] has. I'm glad that our government has taken note and honored his contribution," commented Dr Thillainathan, a Professor at the University of Malaya who acted as one of Ramanujan's advisers. Ramanujan also punctuates that this experience changed his life. "While I have lived abroad in new places and countries, my Fulbright in Malaysia was an entirely different experience. For one, I had never spent more than a few months in another country.

As a result, I had to settle down relatively permanently in Malaysia and create a whole life there. I was also younger when I worked in Pakistan, Vienna and Kashmir. Being more mature now, I felt I could appreciate and relate to the culture and the people in Malaysia more," Ramanujan commented. Following his year in Malaysia, Ramanujan will enroll at Oxford University where he will complete a Masters in Science in Forced Migration. Afterwards, he plans to pursue a career in law, government or international diplomacy. Clearly this young man's travels around the world may make the world better understood, and quite possibly a better place for the youth of tomorrow.

Greg Heffernan

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PM expresses 'deep gratitude' to Indian Americans (10.05.2008)
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