KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Malaysian police arrested dozens of ethnic Indians on Sunday in a clampdown on a protest against a high school literature book that was slammed for denigrating the minority community.
Police set up roadblocks in the country's biggest city, Kuala Lumpur, amid tight security around the landmark Petronas Twin Towers, where the protest was to be held.
The main protest leader, lawyer P.Uthayakumar, was among those rounded up early Sunday as he was leaving home, said his colleague S.Jayathas, who also was detained. He said more than 100 Indians were believed to have been picked up.
Some 50 protesters who managed to escape the police dragnet gathered at a temple in the city, holding banners and shouting "Ban Interlok" and "Don't insult the Indian community" before dispersing.
"We want a stop to racism against minority citizens, especially the Indian poor, and a ban on Interlok, which is sowing the seeds of racism in schoolchildren. We are not asking for special rights but equal opportunity," Jayathas told The Associated Press from police detention.
Police could not be immediately reached for comment. They earlier refused to issue a permit for the rally on grounds that it could jeopardize security and public order.
Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein has accused protesters of trying to stir anti-government rallies similar to those in the Middle East, ahead of general elections widely expected to be held this year.
The Malay-language novel "Interlok" was assigned as a literature textbook for 17-year-old students this year. First published in 1971, it tells the stories of three families — Malay, Chinese and Indian, reflecting Malaysia's main ethnic groups — in British colonial times.
Some Indians complained about a portion of the book involving a poor man from India's "Pariah caste" who migrates to the country to find work and is surprised at the absence of a caste system. They say it unfairly depicts Indians, who make up about 8 percent of Malaysia's 28 million people, as coming from inferior communities and contributes to ethnic tension and discrimination.
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.