New Delhi: A letter issued by the Malaysian education ministry Monday, following directives by the country’s Islamic Development Department (Jakim), has caused uproar in the country for saying Pongal is a religious festival.
Pongal, a popular harvest festival, is celebrated with great fanfare in South India, especially in Tamil Nadu. Muslim-dominated Malaysia has a sizeable Tamil population.
The letter, which said Pongal is a celebration for Hindu worshippers, was seen as an attempt to curb celebrations of the festival in the country’s schools. Following the row, a report in The Strait Times, said the ministry issued a clarification on 15 January saying the letter was issued “to lessen Muslim parents’ concerns about their children’s involvement in the celebration”.
The ministry added that it understands that schools are meant to encourage unity among students of different backgrounds and it was not trying to prevent Pongal celebrations.
“Culture and customs between races must be known, learnt and respected by all parties, including the school management, teachers, and students,” the statement said.
In a separate statement released, the Islamic Development Department (Jakim) said it only stated its position after a request from the ministry. “Jakim only provided its views from the Islamic perspective and did not prohibit the celebrations in any way,” it said. “Even the Jakim syariah expert panel’s opinion is that it is permissible for Muslims to wish friends and neighbours who are celebrating without the intention of acknowledging their religion, and for Muslims not to belittle, demean, or insult their gods.”
Malaysian Tamils up in arms
The letter caused consternation among Malaysian Tamils for terming Pongal a religious festival. It went viral on social media, with many saying the festival has nothing to do with religion and is instead a Tamil celebration for a new harvest cycle.
— gana (@gAnAcItIzEn) January 14, 2020
The four-day Pongal festival takes place in mid-January every year. It signifies a successful harvest and is a celebration of showing gratitude to nature. The literal meaning of Pongal is ‘spilling over’ to signify boiling rice in a pot overflowing. Mattu Pongal, the third day of the festival, also encompasses worshipping cattle, as they help in contributing to a good harvest.
According to The Malaysian Insight, the Malaysian Hindu Sangam “was puzzled by the letter”, with the news organisation quoting Sangam president R.S. Mohan Shan as having said that the festival was not religious but a harvest one that celebrated the end of a successful harvest.