Minister says Ponggal not ‘religious’ festival, will raise alleged MoE guideline in Cabinet meet

Yiswaree Palansamy
Hindu devotees cook the ‘sarkkarai’ dish over an open fire to celebrate Ponggal, January 15, 2019. ― Picture by Shafwan Zaidon.

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 14 — Human Resources Minister M. Kulasegaran today chastised those who labelled the Ponggal harvest festival a religious one, following an alleged circular cautioning Muslims in schools on how they should limit their participation in the festival.

The Ipoh Barat MP pointed out that the aim of Ponggal is to foster unity among Tamils for the preservation of the community’s culture and literature.

“It is incorrect to label the festival a religious one, as it has no religious significance.

“I will bring this up to Cabinet tomorrow in order to clarify matters,” he said in a statement.

Kulasegaran’s remarks came following a letter which has gone viral on social media.

The letter was allegedly issued by an official from the Education Ministry cautioning Muslims in schools on the limits of their participation in the Ponggal celebration.

The circular, its authenticity yet to be verified, was issued purportedly based on the opinions of the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim).

Another DAP leader, party Socialist Youth National Vice-Chief Muhammad Shakir Ameer said in a separate statement that there was nothing wrong with Muslims attending festivals of those from different faiths.

Shakir said that after entering politics and being appointed a local councillor in Selangor, he had the opportunity to engage with other communities better and bridge differences.

“I was born as a Muslim in a traditional Indian Muslim family. Growing up in Penang, which is a multicultural city, allowed me to experience and celebrate those festivals together with my friends. All this does not make me less Muslim at all but it certainly has made me more Malaysian,

“The Ponggal celebration is celebrated mainly by the South Indian community. I was made to understand it has to do with harvesting and it also marks a special date on the Tamil calendar. It is a festival celebrated to show appreciation for a successful harvest.

“Reference is made to the recent letter by the Deputy Director General of Education dated 13th January 2020 to all Directors of Education at state level. The said letter referred to the Jakim’s meeting on the April 8 and April 9 2019 which decided that it is forbidden for Muslims to join Ponggal festival especially in the cooking of Ponggal rice due to it being ‘a religious celebration by the Hindus’ which isn’t true,” Shakir said, adding that the specific guidelines on how Muslims should conduct themselves when participating in Ponggal celebrations are also unnecessary.

He added that the said letter also gives the impression that the Education Ministry takes instructions from Jakim, instead of the acting education minister, who is Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who took over the portfolio after the abrupt resignation of Maszlee Malik.

“Jakim may have its point of view, but the government must ensure that religious and racial harmony is protected at all cost. We don’t need special guidelines on inter cultural participation or practices with various communities. Islam does not discriminate but preaches peace to all,” Shakir added.

In the purported circular, Muslims are advised to observe several guidelines, “if forced” to attend Ponggal celebration and advised against marking their foreheads with religious symbols, wearing garlands and entering worship houses where the “religious rituals” are taking place.

They are however, advised against ridiculing the Hindu religion and its Gods, and to wish their neighbours and friends who celebrate Ponggal.

The letter referenced Jakim’s purported stand on the matter, claimed that it is haram (illegal) for Muslims to join in the Ponggal celebration, “especially the event where milk rice is cooked”, referring to the sweet rice which Indians cook in a pot, as offering and a symbol of thanksgiving for a bountiful harvest.

It was purportedly signed by one Azman Talib, who was listed as the deputy chief registrar of the Teaching and Teachers Institution, and the deputy director-general of education for school operations.

Malay Mail has contacted the Education Ministry, the Religious Affairs Ministry and Jakim for a response and is yet to receive any, as of press time.

Ponggal is a four-day celebration, usually observed by farmers and South Indians, which starts before dawn when believers of the Hindu faith thank the Sun God for the abundance of crops gathered throughout the year.

The festival also ushers in new beginnings, with old clothes symbolically burned as a ritual cleansing in what is known as the Bhogi Pandigai (Bhogi Festival), which is the first of the four-day celebration.

The Tamil festival is usually celebrated outside homes and temples where three sugarcanes are tied together to form a pyramid and cooked over a clay pot of milk until it overflows, ideally just as the sun rises.

Rice, sugar and other condiments such as nuts and raisins are then added to create a sweet rice pudding that will be served to guests as a means to bless their year with joyfulness and sweetness.

It also symbolises prosperity and abundance.

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