Invisible reviewed for the New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies


Emeritus professor at Victoria University of Wellington Te Herenga Waka Sekhar Bandyopadhyay has reviewed Invisible: New Zealand’s history of excluding Kiwi-Indians for the New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies:

‘The Indian diasporic community which represents more than five percent of New Zealand’s national population, has now got its own historian. Jacqueline Leckie in her first book Indian Settlers: The Story of a New Zealand South Asian Community, published in 2007, had charted the history of migration and settlement of this small settler community in New Zealand since the nineteenth century. It was a celebratory narrative, which recorded this southernmost Indian diaspora’s courage, endurance, enterprise, their social and cultural life, and above all, their contributions to the national life in New Zealand. In this second book on the community, Leckie brings out their pain and sadness, their struggles and resilience. It is a story of incessant racial discrimination that these people have endured ever since they arrived in this country; and that sad saga continues even today. These discriminatory practices were or are not always violent or dramatic, but often institutional and subtle. But even this history of covert racism, Leckie argues, seriously disturbs New Zealand’s self-image of being an inclusive and open society.

Leckie’s Invisible is a bold challenge to mainstream New Zealand historians to acknowledge this unpleasant past. In the early post-war period, Australian historians acknowledged that there was a “white Australia policy”. Leckie’s book shows there was a “white New Zealand policy” as well, and she establishes that fact with evidence and documentation. She is not the first historian to point that out, but it is yet to be recognised in mainstream New Zealand historiography. This reluctance is either due to an attitude of denial, or because of an overwhelming focus on biculturalism. So, while the story of the Māori has been incorporated into the national history, the tales of historic discrimination against Asian minorities, like the Chinese and the Indians, have remained excluded, making them “invisible” in the nation’s past. This uncomfortable racist past, Leckie reminds us, needs to be acknowledged and addressed, rather than ignored.

The book starts with the little-known fact that the Indians arrived in Aotearoa in 1769, only a few months after James Cook. And so, their association with the land goes back to the earliest days of first contact between the Māori and the Europeans. Since then, many British East India Company ships touched the shores of Aotearoa, in search of timber and sealskin, and all these ships were manned by Indian lascars (sailors) and sepoys (soldiers). Some of them jumped ships and settled down in this land. Others in course of time came in search of fortunes, but their number remained small. In the nineteenth century Indian manual workers could be seen working all over New Zealand, contributing to its various development projects.

 Their number remained small because from the late nineteenth century, like other white settlement colonies such as South Africa, Canada and Australia, New Zealand too endeavoured to raise immigration walls to stop Asiatic migration. But there was a problem. Unlike other Asians, the Indians were already British subjects, and Queen Victoria had promised them freedom to travel across the empire. So, London authorities blocked racist legislation from time to time. But the New Zealand government managed to bypass those objections, and in 1899 and again in 1920, subjected the Indians to immigration restrictions. These laws reflected a “White New Zealand policy”, Leckie argues, although it was successfully hidden from international attention. These restrictions on the movement of Indians continued in various forms in the post-war period, until a new law opened immigration to all in 1987.

These restrictive immigration laws, Leckie shows, were in response to an emerging political consensus in favour of keeping New Zealand society white. Such racist attitudes were reflected in various forms of discrimination that the Indians faced at both institutional and community levels. This was incited by various racist organisations that began to appear from the early twentieth century, leading to the establishment of the White New Zealand League in 1925. It scared people about a possible deluge of Asian migrants who would destroy the New Zealand way of life.

At this point the enterprising Indians also appeared to be economic competitors. The devastating impacts of an economic depression could easily be translated into rhetoric of race. This led to various forms of discrimination in the workplace, as Leckie shows. There was a concerted attempt to nudge them out of the retail trade in fruits and vegetables. Some trade unions thought that the Indians were taking away jobs from the Pakeha workers and unfairly depressing wages; so, their members refused to work with them. New Zealand Army systematically excluded Kiwi-Indians on various excuses during both world wars, even though the few Indians who were accepted were showing exceptional bravery. For a long time, the Indians and other Asians did not get any old age pension.

Apart from such institutional racism, Leckie discovers various other forms of “casual and informal racism”, such as name calling, imposing European names, denying rental housing, or not allowing access to certain seats in theatres. Compared to the Europeans, the Māori were more friendly and respectful towards the Indians. But this camaraderie was frowned upon and caused anxieties. Significantly, this book documents how such covert discrimination continues even today, although often in the form of passive aggression, betraying nonetheless the arrogance of white privilege. Sometimes it is also overt physical violence, such as the recent attacks on Indian dairy owners or the Christchurch mosque massacre of 15 March 2019.

Leckie’s book also shows that the Kiwi-Indians, despite their small numbers, resisted such discriminatory practices through collective action. In this sphere, most remarkable was the role of the New Zealand Indian Central Association (NZICA), formed in 1926. It organised protests, wrote petitions, lobbied the government, and in many cases successfully secured redressal of their grievances. It is important to note that both books by Leckie on the Kiwi-Indian diaspora were sponsored by the NZICA.

So, this present book is as much to appeal to the collective conscience of the nation as it is to inform the Kiwi-Indian community of their arduous past and their courageous resistance and resilience.

This book is therefore not just for academics, but for the general readers as well. So, Leckie has skilfully integrated her metanarrative of racial exclusion with several microhistories on the margin. These are short parallel narratives on ordinary individuals and communities, and their extraordinary adventures, and achievements. These are accompanied by facsimiles of actual documents, newspaper reports and cartoons, and above all, plenty of interesting photographs from different periods. Like her first book, this one too is going to be appreciated by both scholars and interested general readers. Whether or not it will lead to any revision of the hegemonic historical narrative of the New Zealand nation is another matter.’