Sunday, 6 May 2007

Politics of multiculturalism and the minorities - Sekhar Bandyopadhyay

In an age of globalisation, ironically, but not unexpectedly the focus of attention is once again on national identity. This is because the idea of nation is tangled with the notion of nation state – the expectation is that a nation has to have a well defined identity, it needs to speak in one voice and that voice can give legitimacy to the nation-state. This notion was the product of a particular historical process in Europe in late eighteenth–nineteenth centuries and was later universalised by imperialism.

But this created problems as well, because political boundaries often did not coincide with ethnic boundaries in the new states created by empires. Anthony D. Smith therefore writes:

‘…states, nations and nationalisms do not often coincide. … it is the aim of all nationalists to create the conditions for a greater congruence between state, nation and nationalism. In this quest they have been only partly successful; but this serves merely to spur nationalists to greater efforts.’

It is such efforts that lead to periodic debates on ‘national identity’ within almost every nation-state. And recently as consumer goods and labour travel more freely across the national boundaries and threaten to homogenise our consumption cultures and complicate the ethnic structures of national communities, there is a renewed focus on reinventing the ‘congruence’ between the nation, nation-state and national identity. The current debate on national identity in New Zealand is an indicator of that new focus on nationalism. This debate started in the mid-1990s because of increased Asian immigration since the 1987 shift in immigration rules from sources to skills. A Massey University survey conducted in 1996 revealed that 60 percent of New Zealanders believed that there were too many immigrants from Asia and the Pacific countries. A National Business Review survey in October 2002 revealed that almost half of all New Zealanders believed that there were too many Asians in New Zealand, whereas the number of other ethnic groups was just about right.

New Zealand is certainly no exception. In the countries of the global south similar debate has been caused more by the flooding of goods and cultural artefacts from the north and in the north it is more the influx of labour from the developing countries that has unsettled the established cultural boundaries of nations. Cultural and political anxieties created by such globalizing trends leads to renewed debates on national identity. Because nations are not naturally given entities – they are political constructs. And they are constructed by the dominant ethnos on the basis of certain core values. It is an inclusive as well as an exclusive process, because the dominant group gradually incorporates the minorities. But who are to be included and on what grounds depend on the dominant ethnic group.

So far as New Zealand is concerned, historically the Māori were included as indigenous people of the land, although that inclusion process was never without conflicts, but the Asians were not. And that created problems in the late twentieth century when there was greater influx of Asians as a result of global economic factors. Multiculturalism is often believed to be an appropriate way to incorporate the new minorities; but multiculturalism can also look like a homogenising exercise, pushing the minorities into ethnic pigeonholes conveniently located at the periphery of the nation-space. Their distinctive cultures are recognised, and even celebrated within a restricted social space, but the mono cultural core values of the dominant group prevail in all state policies. I will try to explain it with a few examples about the Indians in New Zealand

Historically speaking, the Indians in New Zealand are not a new immigrant group. The first Indian came to New Zealand in 1809 and then from the 1890s more and more of them started coming here. They expected to be treated well because they were coming from another part of the British Empire. But they were never welcome here and those who settled down have never been recognised as parts of the New Zealand nation. In all textbooks on New Zealand history there is on average only one entry for the Indians and that briefest reference is in the chapter on immigration. This means, their arrival is noted, and then they disappear and never become parts of New Zealand’s national history.

This absence is rectified through a government initiative that introduces the notion of multiculturalism into the discourse of nation. And this is Te Ara: Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Here we find detailed history of the migration, settlement, struggles and contributions of the Indian migrants. However, this is how it defines the Indians:

New Zealand’s Indians are people native to countries in the Indian sub-continent, notably India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and their descendants. After the Chinese, they are the country’s largest Asian ethnic group. New Zealand has many different Indian communities, distinguished by place of origin, language, religion and caste. Often these differences have not been well understood by other New Zealanders.

In other words, the Te Ara not only describes, it also defines: a minority ethnic category of ‘Indian’ is created and the Bangladeshis and Pakistanis are pigeonholed into it for easier understanding by other New Zealanders. Their culture is then celebrated through publicly funded ‘Diwali’ festivals in Auckland and Wellington. The website of the Asia-New Zealand Foundation, which sponsors the festival, describes its purpose in this way:

Diwali Festival of Lights gives the Indian communities the opportunity to share this much-loved cultural tradition with other New Zealanders and their families. This event celebrates not only the traditions of Diwali, but also Indian culture as a whole.

In other words, it is not just for Indians, but also for ‘other New Zealanders’. Such official endeavours to implement multiculturalism thus identify and define minority ethnic groups and offer the majority community an understanding of their ‘culture’ by reducing it to certain easily identifiable markers. The potentially subversive culture of a minority community is thus recognised, offered a limited space for autonomy and thus safely contained within a social plane.

But in the political spheres what David Pearson has defined as the ‘monocultural core values’ remain enshrined. These include British colonial heritage, the concept of individual citizenship and most important of all, its monolingual (or perhaps nominally bi-lingual, given the official status accorded to Te Reo Māori) foundations.

There is also another side of it. The immigrants, and these include the Indians since they have been coming here from the late nineteenth century, are also parts of the colonising process, even though there was hierarchy within the settler society. The immigrants have a natural tendency that they want to start from a ‘clean slate’, i.e., they would like to believe that nothing happened in this country before they arrived. And this is true as much for the old immigrants as the new. So there is a marked reluctance to understand the historical tradition of the land and the rights of the indigenous people. And this is not helpful either.

So how do we resolve the tensions between the past and the present in the life of a nation? We could do it perhaps by disengaging the nation from the state, or to go back to Anthony Smith, by abandoning our endeavour to find ‘congruence’ between nation, state and national identity. In stead of looking for a homogenised essentialised identity, we should look for ‘New Zealand Identities’, as a group of scholars have done recently.


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