Migrants, victims and affirmative action

I have been following the Gujjar agitation since May 2008. The Gujjars in Rajasthan want to be ‘demoted’ from Other Backward Classes (OBC) to Scheduled Tribes (ST) and they have been ‘agitating’ to be reclassified for a long time now (well, from 2006-2007 as far as I am aware). In the vast, complicated world of Indian castes systems and classifications based on caste letters like BC (Backward Classes), OBC, SC (Scheduled Castes) and ST mean a lot. Jobs, promotions, reserved seats in educational institutions…and eventually equity in a society ridden with differences and discrimination. All good intentions.

But somewhere something is wrong when a community asks to be downgraded.

While I have never been affected by caste based reservations-one could say that maybe I don’t even know what centuries of oppression and injustice are being from an ‘upper caste’ and all that-it does not mean I have not ever faced discrimination. Any kind of bias and inequality needs to be corrected and I am all for affirmative action. Affirmative action does not widen chasms or increase divides but makes this world a better place, provides equal opportunity to as many as possible and allows space to make up for past injustices. Whether in India or in New Zealand.

So why then if processes are put in place and ‘positive discrimination’ is made mandatory do people not think it is an chance to unshackle themselves? I don’t have the answers. Just possible reasons.

One being that the processes do not filter to those who really need it and hence they are constantly fighting for it? And then as happens one gets attached to the ‘fight’ itself rather than goal and the little triumphs on the way there?

Another reason being that these processes do not evolve as they should in a democracy. They gather rust and then have committees review them only to offer ‘symptomatic treatment’ instead of solutions. Because everyone is afraid of hurting sentiments and emotions?

The third reason of course is pure politics. Some groups want to maintain status quo because such processes give them power. It is useful to have downtrodden/disadvantaged masses as constituency.

Finally there is the victim mentality. I know I have harped about it before. I have been called an ‘anti-multicultural capitalist’ (yay!) for talking about it. Like I am blaming the oppressed for the way they feel. However it is true that if one keeps telling the oppressed/victims that they are helpless and dependent then they start believing it. Just like us migrants are told that we are incapable of standing up for ourselves or negotiating the dominant culture..that we need the support of various agencies to integrate/find equality/social justice. Yes we do. To certain level. Then we must fight the battle ourselves instead of being dependent/helpless.

I just finished reading Dr Edwina Pio’s book SARI-INDIAN WOMEN AT WORK IN NEW ZEALAND. (Dunmore Publishing). Apart from giving inspirational examples of entrepreneurial Indian women, old migrants and new migrants who came to New Zealand from across the Indian diaspora Dr Pio talks about the need for hand-holds and not handouts in government policy. She says government has responsibility to ’embed migration with appropriate infrastructure that reduces crutches and the dependency cycle which is often based on a deficit model…’ Dependence and the victim mentality are powerful places to be in and often become an end in themselves. Migrants/victims should also work towards integration. However Dr Pio also reiterates that discrimination will not disappear by itself neither will the ‘market place’ take care of it.

Suppose this applies to migrant policies in New Zealand and the caste based reservations in India. For the Gujjars to want to be downgraded interprets as wanting to always be in a place that does not require them to face competition or upskill in order to do well; as keeping lesser beings suppressed. Isn’t education and better socio-economic status supposed to widen the horizons?

Agitations and mob power comes easy rather than dialogue which is such an important part of any democracy. A little bit give for a lot of take? The Rajasthan government and the Government of India both succumbed to the pressure because both want maintain the vote banks and neither have any intelligent solutions that evolve as times change. I wonder how the Labour Party here is going to evolve its multiculturalism from the celebrate-and-go-back-to-the-ghetto attitude to a participatory engagement by the coloured migrants in Aotearoa now that the hurdles of making-people-see-colour-and-treat-it-right have been overcome?

There has got to be a middle path somewhere yeah?

Transculturist, yeah.

A friend and I have endless discussions about what transculturalism means to us, to mainstream New Zealand, to wannabes and government bodies dedicated to multiculturalism.

He is a New Zealander of Chinese origin and I am the nowhere-belonging Indian. A bunch of us recently met for, what my friend terms, a Creative Cool yum char. Not just any Creative Cools but Crasians, Creative/Crazy Asian dudes and dudettes here in Auckland who want to change and rule the world of art/creative industries. The schmoozer/arts administrator, the hip hop singer, the filmmaker, writer, actors etc etc. Asians who were studying socialist governments in South America and Asians who studied acting the Lee Strasburg way in London, doctor turned wannabe creative Asians….

All of us transcultural. Yeah I want to call myself that because I no longer feel weird for being alone with the idea. Neither here in Auckland or in Bombay, India. Transcultural; taking from one culture, many cultures, losing something, evolving something and then making your own new something. It does not have to be creative either. Just a way of life. And you don’t even realise it because it is such an unconscious part of your existence. Way beyond multiculturalism as defined by the Labour government here. Not a deliberate attempt to bring people together culturally. Y’know the usual food, clothes and dance…and then we all go home until next year. All controlled expression of how the ethnics should be. And subsequently subservient for ‘allowing’ us our space. Bless your kind heartedness 🙂

Not here, not in the streets of Auckland. Or amongst the Crasians. This is natural, smooth, complex. First self selecting and then a habit. Very trendy until it becomes common and everyone jumps on to the bandwagon dahlings!

At the bottom of Anzac Avenue in downtown Auckland is the Hulu Cat Tea House. Retro European decor-cream walls, plump cream leather couches to sink in, little cream stools…and pictures of cats all over the place. The crowd is young, mostly East Asian, playing cards, hanging out and obviously noisy. The pearl tea is served in tall beer glasses with hip hop music playing in the background. Transcultural?

The (East) Asian fashion shops all over downtown Auckland store cutting edge fashion including the Kiwi take on Japanese lollipop. Just bought a pair of red lace-up boots from one of the shops (yeah yeah, naughty:-D). Transcultural?

If clothing is media and arts then ISBIM is even more local than these shops. High end urban and street fashion owned, designed and made in Aotearoa by my Korean friend Joshua who is also a music producer and singer. His music sells mostly in Japan with Korean, English and Japanese lyrics and produced in Aotearoa. Transcultural? The dude would not bother with the word. He just knows this is his way.

It is happening all over the world. If Asian underground music is now mainstream then it took a long time to get there and was not pushed by political agendas of governments. That just made ghettos and made the patriarchs more powerful. MIA is a top notch rap artist of Sri Lankan origin. It was her politics that made her not any government agencies. Then she would probably be doing her Sri Lankan exotic thing at some festival for the ethnics. Anyway what she says is too radical for hush-hush, tread-on-eggshells but pat-us-on-our-backs-for-the-good-we-do suits on taxpayer money.

It is essential to create awareness and push for visibility and equality. Many times government legislation is needed. But when in a democracy ‘official multiculturalism’ begins to stagnate, does not evolve or perpetuates mediocrity and patriarchy within ghettos then one has to question whether such policies are the means to an end or the end product itself. Of course this argument might elicit the usual response of selling out from the PC liberals but it is not me alone or just my rant.

I am comfortable with my transculturalism. And I don’t have time for government types that just waste paper and taxpayer money on do-good festivals and play our-favourite-ethnics games. Just would love a lot more people to experience the same. Unafraid of losing their native culture. It is just evolution.

Ode to the known and unknown.

Or, staying true to yourself.

Vijay Tendulkar passed away on 19 May 2008. He was (is) an icon/pillar of modern Marathi literature and theatre. Every Maharashtrian I know has spoken about him or his work only in awestruck tones. Even the Sainiks (Shiv Sena members/followers of the Thakerays). Growing up in hardcore, conservative, Marathi-speaking Girgaum, Mumbai in a family that loves its culture, with a grandfather who enjoyed movies, a grandmother who had memories about watching sangeet natak (musical plays) shows during British Raj and parents who not only attended Marathi theatre performances but also took the kids along the influence of these arts was unavoidable. I am not sure how much I have learnt/know 🙂 but every time I go back to Bombay I make it a point to see a play or watch a Marathi movie. It is like a proud and silent acknowledgement of the continuum of my language and roots that Maharashtrians patronise in spite of varying political ideologies and the North Indian/Punjabi hegemony on all popular Indian culture. But I digress.

I saw Vijay Tendulkar’s Ghashiram Kotwal in a rare season, with a lot of its original cast (Mohan Agashe as Nana Phadnavis!), many years after it had been first performed amidst controversy and Bal Thakeray’s usual windbag threats about riots because he deemed the play insulting to brahmins/upper castes. I was enthralled. This was much more than mere storytelling, rather, this was superb storytelling. Mainstream Hindi cinema and Indian films in general use songs and dances to advance a narrative, based as they are on traditional folk theatre but in Ghashiram Kotwal the style was so unique, so multi layered, so ancient and yet so modern, just like the Mahabharat and Ramayan were intended to be, that my little brain, my subconscious, decided that this is what I want to do, to be. A storyteller. When Tendulkar wrote Kamla and Kanyadaan he pissed off a lot of his communist colleagues, those fighters for democracy, equality and against all things capitalist. It was not kosher to call investigative journalists and Dalits anything else but saviours of the world and victims. Then in Sakharam Binder he took a swipe at power structure amongst liberals and how women can be enslaved in the name of liberalism . Unfortunately I have not yet watched a performance of this play. Many of his other works continue to haunt me. I remember feeling uncomfortable, not understanding how my mind had been moulded to fit the workings of a patriarchal society or that do-gooders get attached to their do-gooding which negates all the good intentions they had or that ‘victims’ seek equality but often don’t know how to deal with it or that one can become accustomed to being secondary.


A couple of weeks ago I heard a radio documentary on Chico Mendes. He did what he did before green-ism and environmentalism were fashionable middle class consumerist statements. So you drink chai latte at Starbucks and vote Green dahling! Anyway, I sat in my car parked on my street, reluctant to go into my warm flat because I was riveted. Chico was a leader who fought for his people, for their right to tap rubber and to save the Amazon rainforest yet he was also superstitious and completely human. He knew the enormity of what he was doing yet remained true to his roots. He was trying to save the world without the haute couture and cosmetic endorsements. Without economists with World Bank agendas.


I sort of knew Vijay Tendulkar through his work but did not know about Chico Mendes until I heard the radio documentary. They both had one quality on common. They were FEARLESS. Tendulkar had the ability to make both sides of the political spectrum uncomfortable. He spoke the truth, he analysed human behaviour and society, that no one was infallible and no one completely right. And who knows what Chico might have done or become. More than a song by Paul McCartney?

This probably reads really soppy but I feel small when I look at the work and the qualities of Vijay Tendulkar and Chico Mendes. The only thing I can manage is to be true to myself,. I think. At the cost of and risk of making The Man and The Saviour mad at me and thrive in the discomfort of it all. That then would be my ode to these great humans.