Beneath a canvas canopy fringed with silver bells, four black sandstone idols rest on a rotting wooden table, their torsos wrapped reverently in saffron and yellow cloth. A teenage priest, stripped to the waist and hair slicked back, hangs back, waiting for evening prayers to begin. This makeshift shrine in the yard of a rented house in the city of Shah Alam, 25km from Kuala Lumpur, is a faint echo of the Sri Maha Mariamman temple, which stood for more than 50 years on a parcel of government land behind the house. Last November, a demolition crew moved in to tear down the temple and a community of about 200 predominantly Hindu households who had lived there for decades. Armed with a court order, the crew arrived with riot police who arrested several residents and activists who resisted. The statues were rescued before the excavators reduce the temple to rubble. Krishnan Ponnusamy, 50, a market trader, was among those arrested and later released without charge. He is unmoved by the legal might of the authorities who spent three years trying to evict the slum community, arguing that his family had staked a claim to the land and that their temple was a consecrated place. 'This is Indian property. This temple is our right, it was built by our forefathers,' he said. For poor Indians living on the fringe of Malaysia's booming consumer society, the temple demolition in Shah Alam - carried out just days before the holy festival of Diwali - was the last straw. Whipped into action by an ambitious group of Indian lawyers who called themselves the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) and spoke of 'ethnic cleansing' and the systematic destruction of Hindu places of worship in Malaysia, about 20,000 Indians took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur. The November 25 rally was the second large anti-government demonstration in a month and a direct challenge to the authorities. For several hours, police using chemical-laced water cannons and tear gas fought running battles with the protesters. Racial tensions that Malaysia has long sought to keep at bay were on full display, as an overwhelmingly Malay-Muslim police force clashed with unarmed, taunting young Indian men. Their gathering was ostensibly to present a petition to the British High Commission over a US$4 trillion class-action suit filed against Britain for 150 years of exploitation of Indians in their former colony. The suit was filed last August in London, but Hindraf organisers said they could not afford legal representation and wanted to ask Queen Elizabeth to intervene. Some in the crowd carried pictures of the queen, as well as images of Mahatma Gandhi, an icon of peaceful resistance. A mobile phone text message sent out to Indians disingenuously claimed that the queen would be there to meet them. In fact, the commission was closed for the weekend. Whatever the historical record, the crowd's real fury was directed at Malaysia's current rulers for the temple demolitions and, more broadly, their neglect of ethnic Indians who make up 8 per cent of Malaysia's 27 million people but barely register in corporate and political circles. Many blame the economic policies introduced after race riots in 1969 that discriminate in favour of ethnic Malays in education, government contracts and public sector jobs. By enriching the majority Malays and sustaining Chinese entrepreneurship, the system has failed to halt the marginalisation of Indian communities, activists say. 'The bottom line is: Who has the power? Malays have the political power, Chinese have business power. Indians don't get anything,' Murugesan Kulasegaran, an opposition lawmaker and ethnic Tamil, said. Rally organisers said afterwards they were taken aback by the huge turnout. Less of a surprise, say political observers, was the response of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, who was under intense pressure to nip the protest movement in the bud. Before they could regroup, five Hindraf leaders were arrested and jailed under a colonial-era security law that allows indefinite detention without trial. The men, who aren't allowed to meet in jail, have begun a co-ordinated hunger strike, their lawyers said. The five were accused of inciting racial hatred and threatening public safety. Government advisers say the risk of communal violence is real, as hot-headed Malay activists have vowed to confront any future shows of strength by Indians. Security forces also claimed that Hindraf leaders had made contact with South Asian extremist groups, including the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, accusations the men's lawyers deny. Hindraf's chairman, Waytha Moorthy, who left Malaysia after the rally to escape arrest, visited India last month to meet the leaders of the opposition BJP party, who spoke of their plight in parliament. Organisers say the BJP's pro-Hindu politics have provided a measure of inspiration to, although not direct support of, the Malaysian movement. India's lively media jumped on the story, pushing the government to respond and raising the question about New Delhi's responsibility to its diaspora in an era of globalisation. Malaysia has the second-largest population of overseas Indians after the US. While rejecting any outside interference, Malaysian leaders have taken steps to appease Indians. Behind their softer tone, analysts say, is concern that the general elections - tipped to be in the first two weeks of March - could see a collapse in the hitherto loyal Indian vote. With an opposition movement snapping at its heels, the race-based coalition government wants to be sure that its members can deliver in their constituencies. On the sensitive topic of temple clearances, politicians have advised state authorities to act cautiously over the next few months. Hindu leaders have agreed to draw up a national register of temples, of which there are estimated to be 17,000. Many are small shrines built on private land during the colonial era. Unlike in Singapore, where all places of worship were listed in a royal gazette, those in Malaysia had never been formalised, said A. Vaithilingam, president of the Malaysia Hindu Sangam, the faith's governing body. The hiatus may be short-lived. Last week, Mr Abdullah made a joint appearance with veteran Indian politician Samy Vellu to declare a public holiday for the annual Hindu festival of Thaipusam. Activists responded by sending text messages urging a boycott of ceremonies at Batu Caves, the main Hindu temple in Kuala Lumpur, over the temple guardians' role in helping police repress the November 25 rally. In a snub to Mr Samy Vellu, tens of thousands of Indians went to Batu Caves this week, far fewer than in previous years. Behind the emotive issue of Hindu temple clearances is a steady shift in Malaysia away from a plantation economy. Starting in the 19th century, British companies imported indentured labourers from southern India - predominantly Hindus from Tamil Nadu - to work in Malaysian rubber and oil-palm plantations. The descendants of those labourers, who also built railways and dug tin mines, are among those left behind by Malaysia's economic and industrial transformation. As more land around cities such as Kuala Lumpur is rezoned, the staples of Tamil communities - company housing, clinics and schools - are vanishing. One academic study found that 300,000 plantation jobs were lost in Malaysia between 1980 and 2000, and concluded that many Tamils who move to cities drift into menial, low-paying work. Once there, they compete in the job market with ethnic Malays. The sale of plantations threatens the private temples and shrines that Indian labourers erected on company land. For many, this is as much of a blow as the loss of their jobs and houses. 'The temples were the focal point for the community. Indians are being swept out of these areas as they're redeveloped for suburbs and industrial zones,' Clive Kessler, a sociologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said. Mr Ponnusamy's story is typical. Born in 1957, the year of Malaysia's independence, he was raised on the rubber plantation where his father worked. When it closed in the 1980s, he moved to the community in Shah Alam, an industrial city 30km outside Kuala Lumpur that was once swathed in rubber and oil-palm plantations. He found work in the area, raised a family and prayed at the Sri Maha Mariamman temple. Today, where the temple once stood is a pile of pulverised brick and shards of candy-coloured columns on its foundations. 'A house we can build again. A temple is about more than money. We are Indians and this is our faith,' Mr Ponnusamy said. The slum was on government land and residents said there was no pressure to leave until a developer took a fancy to it. Authorities insist that they followed the law by offering alternative accommodation to residents and proposing to move the temple elsewhere. Residents dispute this, and say the new housing was far from their workplace. Not all Indians are falling behind in Malaysia. Among some professions, they are overrepresented: 27 per cent of doctors and 24 per cent of lawyers in Malaysia are ethnic Indians. Tony Fernandes, owner of AirAsia, the largest budget carrier in Southeast Asia, is among the success stories. But these statistics mask differences in ethnicity, religion and caste: Tamils suffer the highest rates of poverty, and are handicapped by low-performing Tamil-language schools. Many Indian intellectuals are sympathetic to their plight, but object to Hindraf's fiery rhetoric and provocative racial stance. Analysts say the country's race-based political system offers few avenues for advancement because Indians lack electoral strongholds and are reduced to junior partners in the Malay-led ruling coalition. Mr Samy Vellu, who has led the Malaysian Indian Congress party since the 1980s, has lost credibility over temple demolitions and a string of controversial sharia court rulings on religious conversion cases. V. Raidu, the brother of Ganabathi Rao, one of the five detained Hindraf leaders, said the government would need to offer more than words to win back Indian voters. 'We don't know when the speeches will stop and they will finally take action,' he said.