Pongal

Hindu Sangam: Why the fuss over Ponggal?

This year marks our 63rd anniversary as a nation.

Despite living in a multi-religious and multi-cultural country, many remain ignorant about other races and religions.

At the beginning of the year, a school in Bandar Baru Puchong was forced to remove Chinese New Year decorations after a complaint that it represented a religious element.

Parti Bumiputera Perkasa Malaysia (Putra) had stated it had received complaints from parents about the “excessive” decorations at the school – SMK Pusat Bandar Puchong 1. Putra then sent a letter to the school’s principal Rohani Mohd Nor, stating: “There were parents who said the atmosphere of the school is that of a Chinese department store and has non-Muslim religious elements that could create discomfort among Muslim students and contravene Article 3(1) of the Constitution.”

This forced Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his Cabinet to react and pacify the situation. Several leaders even visited the school, stressing it was normal for schools to put up such decorations during the festive season.

Today, the Tamil festival Ponggal hogs the limelight with the Education Ministry stating that the celebration is a religious one for Hindus.

According to the Malaysian Islamic Development Panel (Jakim), it is haram for Muslims to take part in the celebration, especially during the rice cooking event.

Signed by Education Ministry deputy director-general (school operation sector) Adzman Talib, the Jan 13 letter which was sent out to all state education directors, states the decision was made based on the 100th meeting of the Jakim Syariah Experts Panel last April on laws (hukum) regarding Muslims participation in Ponggal festivities.

The content of the letter which is to be disseminated to officers in the ministry, principals and headmasters stipulated six conditions for Muslims:

  • To not wear any special outfit which might relate to Hinduism, including that of Hindu priests;
  • To not use any paraphernalia such as chains, powders on the head and floral garlands;
  • To not be involved in any form of ritual;
  • To not enter Hindu places of worship when a religious ritual takes place
  • To not scold or make fun of Hindu gods;
  • To wish “selamat” to friends and neighbours without forgetting Islam.

 

Newsflash: Ponggal is a harvest festival.

What is strange is the Jakim panel which decided that Ponggal is a “religious festival” did not consult the Malaysia Hindu Sangam – the only organisation that the government consults on matters affecting the Hindu community in this country.

Its president Mohan Shanmugam told Twentytwo13 that Jakim should have consulted the Hindu Sangam on the nature of the celebration before making a decision.

“Jakim did not ask for our input. If they had, we would have informed them it is a cultural festival – a harvest festival to be specific – where the ponggal (sweet rice cooked in a pot until it overflows) is served,” Mohan said.

He pointed out it was usual for ministries to consult, write in or meet the Hindu Sangam on such matters.

He added even the attire used by those who attend the celebrations is not religious in nature.

“We wear traditional outfits. No one dresses up like a priest except the priests.”

He said he also found it unusual for the Education Ministry to issue such a letter to schools as ponggal is not usually celebrated in schools.

“What was the need to issue the letter? This is upsetting. Even if it is celebrated in Tamil schools which have one or two non-Hindu students or teachers, does this mean the school should not celebrate the festival?

“Why issue it now? Never before has such a letter been sent out and Ponggal has been celebrated in our country for over 60 years with the participation of leaders.

“It is also celebrated by Indian Catholics and even Indian Muslims as it is a cultural event,” said Mohan.

Last night, Human Resources Minister M. Kula Segaran said he would raise the matter in the Cabinet today.

This latest saga raises a host of questions.

How was the panel allowed to decide on what can or cannot be done during Ponggal as it doesn’t seem to understand the true meaning of the celebration? Why weren’t the stakeholders consulted? Why create such restrictions when the role of schools, among others, is to unite and to educate our young about being Malaysian?

Even the protest over Jawi being taught in schools is mind-boggling as it is a form or writing and has no religious connotations. Why aren’t we embracing but simply denying our children the right to learn?

The Education Ministry has seen its fair share of dramas since the start of the year. Perhaps it is time for Unity Minister P. Waythamoorthy to wake up from his slumber and justify his existence by doing what he was tasked to do – unite Malaysians.