An Extraordinary Lady

By Fathol Zaman Bukhari

I have heard so much about this extraordinary lady, Indira Gandhi, for quite a while now and was anxious to meet her in person. The opportune moment came when the MP for Ipoh Barat, M. Kulasegeran, called me early in January requesting my presence at a media conference at the DAP Headquarters in Jalan Medan Istana, Bandar Ipoh Raya. The conference was scheduled on Thursday, January 14 after lunch and the party’s former leader now adviser, Lim Kit Siang, would be present along with the protagonist, Indira Gandhi and her lawyer, M. Kulasegeran. My long quest for a meeting had presented itself rather by chance and I was thrilled.

Not wanting to miss anything I was at the appointed place well before the appointed time. It was a busy day for Lim Kit Siang, the venerated and often misunderstood Opposition Leader of the Lower House. He had just returned from a lunch date with his supporters in Old Town. Lim was a two-term MP (2004-2013) for Ipoh Timor and has a huge following in Ipoh.

The firebrand politician, who has been on the Malaysian political scene for almost five decades, was a picture of calm as he took questions from reporters present in the room. His demeanour speaks volumes of his disposition as a seasoned politician much unlike the kind that fill the benches of the Malaysian Parliament. Indira Gandhi sat on his right while Kulasegeran, an old acquaintance, on his left. I was seated facing them.

My impression of Indira Gandhi is someone of substance, someone who has to put up with injustice borne out of a system that considers non-Muslims as pendatang (aliens). Her fight to regain her dignity as a mother and the custody of her three children – two teenagers, a boy and a girl, and a child who was wrested from her arms when she was barely 11 months old – is far from over. She is in a legal wrangle, a common occurrence in Malaysia when one spouse converts into Islam leaving the other half high and dry. Her troubles began in 2009 when her estranged husband decided to convert to Islam and in the process inducted their three kids into the religion as well. Indira, seeking redress, took the matter to court hoping for relief and reprieve. But relief and reprieve will not come easy for this 40-something Ipoh-based kindergarten teacher.

Although the Ipoh High Court, in a landmark decision on March 3, 2010, granted Indira custody of all her three children, her husband, sensing an imminent loss, sought the aid of the Syariah court and obtained a ruling in his favour. Indira was named a party in the Syariah court in spite of her being a non-Muslim.

The case was brought to the Court of Appeal in December last year. The three-judge panel, in a 2-1 decision, ruled that civil courts had no jurisdiction over the conversion of Indira’s children to Islam, which they insisted “was solely the purview of the Syariah courts.” This was pursuant to the provisions in Article 121 (1A) of the Federal Constitution. However, one of the judges, Datuk Hamid Sultan Abu Backer, concluded that not “all sections of the Administration of the Religion of Islam (Perak) Enactment are protected by Article 121 (1A) of the Federal Constitution.”

I am no stranger to this kind of wrangling, as I had my share of cases involving my soldiers when in the army. I dealt with two cases when commanding a territorial regiment in Seremban in the late 1990s. One was an Iban while the other was an Indian. Both had problems with their common-law wives and had conveniently converted to Islam when the going got tough. Fortunately, before the cases were blown out of proportion, I managed to convince the duo the futility of fighting it out in the open and got them to reconsider, much to the chagrin of my regimental ustaz.

The imbroglio, to my mind, is made complicated by the Malay-Muslim psyche. Their penchant for increasing the Islamic ummah (followers) is the driving force. A conversion, no matter how tardy and ill-conceived, is a conversion. How the converts perform thereafter is not their concern. This dictum, unfortunately, has been drummed into every Muslim’s mind and I am no exception.

Taking Indira’s battle to the rakyat, as being espoused by the two DAP stalwarts, may be the only recourse available to the grieving mother. Indira, you have my tacit support and that of my family.

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