India in New Zealand: Local Identities, Global Relations, edited by Sekhar Bandyopadhyay (Otago University Press, 2010) 226 pp., $49.95
Maintaining that ‘Indians are now a visible minority in New Zealand’s public life’ and commenting upon the comparative scarcity of thorough and comprehensive studies on their presence in the country, Bandhopadhyay and his contributors set out to have a fresh look at the three aspects of ‘migration and settlement’, ‘local identities’ and ‘global relations’: temporal as well as spatial dimensions relevant to our understanding of the present Indian New Zealand community. Subdivided accordingly into three parts, essays written from various perspectives by historians, anthropologists and scholars in religious, cultural, media and health studies draw attention to these issues. We encounter Jacqueline Leckie, Ruth D’Souza, Arvind Zodgekar and Henry Johnson, who have done research on Indian migration and settlement dating back three decades to when Zodgekar published an essay in Indians in New Zealand: Studies in a Sub-Culture (1980) – a collection of essays edited by Kapil N. Tiwari – and to when Leckie presented her Ph.D. thesis at Otago University in 1981. Indeed, the university and Otago University Press have promoted studies of India in New Zealand not only with the present publication but also with Jacqueline Leckie’s magisterial book Indian Settlers: The Story of a New Zealand South Asian Community, released in 2007.
The dozen chapters that together make up the three sections of India in New Zealand focus respectively on historical and demographic characteristics of the diasporan community as a whole, on its heterogeneity — which results in problematic perceptions of a single cultural identity — and on the community’s international political, economic and cultural links. The reader thus is guided along a historical trajectory from the nineteenth century to the immediate present and thence to the possible future of Indian people in New Zealand. Tony Ballantyne, professor of history at Otago University, critically analyses ‘the important role that India played in the development in New Zealand between the 1870s and 1920s’.
Though its total population numbered less than 700 people, important sections of the Pakeha settler community appeared seriously disturbed by the Indian migrants and debated the economic, religious and racial issues that arose with their presence with the aim of defending their own cultural identity against the Asian ‘onslaught’. While many of the public statements and political decisions taken at the time bespeak the nervousness of a community that had not yet arrived at defining its own cultural identity, Ballantyne’s colleague, the social anthropologist Jacqueline Leckie, documents in her essay, ‘A Long Diaspora: Indian Settlement’, just how unsubstantiated the fears of Pakeha New Zealanders were. Having originally arrived from a few villages in Gujarat and the Punjab, the migrants and their descendants had to earn their livelihood as scrub and flax cutters in the countryside: not really a prerequisite to warranting Pakeha New Zealanders’ fears of religious and racial challenges at the time.
And though the Indian population had grown to more than 100,000 by 2006, the second part of Leckie’s essay shows that this lingering xenophobia is not warranted even now because the ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural heterogeneity of the New Zealand Indian population precludes any perception of an essentialised, and thus threatening, Indian diaspora. The facts and figures presented here are confirmed by Zodgekar’s essay on the ‘demographic profile’ of the ‘Indian Presence’.
The solidly argued and carefully documented first three chapters of the book constitute the basis and starting point of the subsequent four essays, most of which are developed from interviews with Indian individuals and specific groups, undertaken to explore their particular self-assessments and definitions of cultural identity. They all offer ample material that not only substantiates Leckie and Zodgekar’s previous presentations but presents us with a generously wide range of views. These are marked at one end of the scale by people identifying with traditional positions of total loyalty to their Indian heritage, and at the other end by those who call themselves citizens of the world – or global citizens — who neither identify with India nor with New Zealand.
Theirs is a view that sharply contrasts with the final chapter of this section, where Henry Johnson discusses the current practice of celebrating the Hindu festival Diwali in New Zealand as marking a trend to ‘defining a culturally homogeneous ethnicised Kiwi-Indian identity for Indians as well as others’, by foregrounding its exotic aspect as ‘other’.
‘Othering’ India is precisely the issue Sekhar Bandopadhyay addresses in his impressive historical overview of ‘India-New Zealand relations since 1947’ entitled almost polemically: ‘In the Shadow of the Empire’. Introducing the third and last part of the book, it highlights the problematical nature of New Zealand’s political position towards India and its people which has been determined widely and over a long period of time by New Zealand country’s close association with its (erstwhile) colonial motherland rather than by facing up to India as an equal member of the Commonwealth of Nations. Although this attitude was more pronounced in the post-war years when the National Party formed the government and was questioned in the 1980s under Labour, Bandopadhyay does not really detect a fundamental change, for example in the media, of ‘a basic misperception’ of India’s political maturity. He comes to the conclusion that there exists ‘an inability to understand middle India’ in many New Zealand circles, an attitude that has its repercussions on their relationship with Indians in New Zealand.
The two final chapters on economic and cultural relations between the two countries at the end of the twentieth century and beyond highlight that there is much room for developing closer economic ties, though these appear to have been boosted in the film sector with New Zealand scenery playing an increasingly important role for the Indian film industry. As Rebecca Kunin states, between ‘1993 and 2003, over 100 Indian crews shot parts of their films in New Zealand’ , thereby promoting student and tourist marketing. However, for a number of reasons, not the least thanks to the part the New Zealand government played or has not played, this fruitful cultural-economic relationship has declined over the last years: a development that appears to support Bandyopadhyay’s view on Pakeha New Zealand’s reserved attitude towards modern India.
This book’s editor and his team must be congratulated for their personal engagement and scholarly acumen which help fill a knowledge gap on an important section of the New Zealand population from many and diverse angles. At the same time, India in New Zealand raises important questions as to the future role non-European migrants and their descendants will play, not only in an erstwhile British settler community – and this would also be relevant for Australia and Canada – but quite generally also in a world where the mobility of people and ever-closer economic and cultural ties between nations challenge and overcome ruling perceptions that are still held about diaspora and national and cultural identity.
DIETER RIEMENSCHNEIDER was formerly Professor of English Language Literatures at the University of Frankfurt (1972–99); he has written widely on Indian, African, Maori and Australian Aboriginal literatures. More recent books include The Indian Novel in English: Its Critical Discourse 1934–2004 (2005), and Wildes Licht (a bilingual anthology of Aotearoa New Zealand poetry) (2010, repr. 2012).
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