Close on the heels of the “honour killing” label that the mainstream New Zealand media gave Indians following the alleged homicide in the Waikato, it is now squarely accusing the Sikh and Muslim communities of being involved in “as many as 50 forced and teen marriages a year”.
Another parallel between the Waikato episode and this new one concerning Sikhs and Muslims is that Shila Nair, who works with the NGO Shakti, has been quoted in the media perpetrating the “teen marriage” story just as Hamilton’s Roy Vellara sought to colour the grossly erroneous “honour killings” story by wantonly giving it a regional flavour.
Sikh community leaders in New Zealand are extremely disappointed with the contents of the article that appeared in Fairfax media’s Stuff website – as are people from the larger Indian diaspora.
Several eminent leaders contacted Indian Weekender following publication of the article. Presdient of the oldest Indian organisation in the country, the New Zealand Indian Central Association (NZICA) Paul Singh Bains said, “It is very damaging and degrading for the Sikh and Muslim communities throughout New Zealand. We at NZICA are disturbed that such articles are being allowedto be published in papers like the Sunday Star Times. Journalists like Michael Field should research their stories thoroughly before writing.
“Even if there was an isolated case, it is just not appropriate to tarnish the entire community. My question is if a New Zealand European was reported involved in such activity would the journalist blame the Church group as well? The journalist needs to be taken to task for such baseless reporting.”
Prithipal Singh Basra, MNZM, President of Global Indians and a marriage celebrant said, “We condemn this statement as this is made without any proof or evidence to support this news item other than a frivolous comment from Shila Nair.
“I would say that we should seriously look at the credibility of the Shakti organisation as this is funded by New Zealand government to look after and present the true views of New Zealand Indians so policies can be formulated to help the women who sometimes suffer injustices.
“I have spent 42 years serving the Sikh community. I have never come across this under age forced marriage problem. If Shila thinks otherwise, then she should present us with proof so we can investigate it further.
“We should all unite and oppose this statement as this may have many other ulterior motives other than immediately defaming the hardworking Sikh community who have made a great contribution to New Zealand.”
Asked what these ulterior motives could be, Mr Singh said, “I believe the agenda is much wider in that they are trying to criticise our sacred system of arranged marriages so the immigrants coming through this system should be stopped.”
Spokesman of the Auckland Sikh Society, Ajit Singh Randhawa said he had spoken to journalist Michael Field. “I spoke with Mr Field at the Sunday Star Times and laid out the concerns of the Sikh Community about the defamatory character of its news item, particularly after Shila Nair from Shakti denied to me about specifically mentioning the Sikh Community.
“Mr Field said this was a recycled news item first brought out by TVNZ based on submissions made by Shakti to Parliament for an amendment to the marriage Act. He claimed to have contacted or e-mailed a few sikh organisations but got no response.
“I told him that the Auckland Sikh Society had not received any email or phone call from him. This sort of reporting is unpardonable and the Sikh community will denounce such reports aimed at defaming them.”
Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi, National Party MP and himself a Sikh said, “In that article there were claims that as many as 50 underage New Zealand girls a year are being forced into marriages by Sikh and Muslim religious leaders who abuse a loophole in the Marriage Act.
“The issue of forced marriages is of concern to everyone. Identifying this within the Sikh and Muslim community’s is not appropriate. I have had discussions with the leaders of both the Sikh and Muslim communities and they condemn this practice. As a member of Justice and Electoral select committee we heard a petition in November 2009 in this regard and made some recommendations to the Minister of Justice.
“The petition focused on forced marriages and relationships in the nature of marriage. It raised concerns across the racial, ethnic, and religious spectrum. It did not focus on Sikhs and Muslims specifically. The Sikh and Muslim communities have quite understandably taken offence at the suggestions made in the Sunday Star Times article.
“The Justice and Electoral Select Committee has heard submissions on this issue and taken advice from officials from the Ministry of Justice. We have reported back to Parliament and raised a number of issues. We have also recommended that the Minister of Justice, Hon Simon Power, consider an appropriate response to those issues. I understand the Minister will do this in due course.”
Senior community leader Ranjana Patel, QSM and President of the Manukau Indian Association and also member of the National Advisory Council on Employment for Women categorically stated that she had never heard of any forced teen marriages in the Sikh community.
Ms Patel also runs one of the largest chain of medical practices in South Auckland and on going through her records could find only 1 pregnancy under the age of 16, which was not a case of forced marriage or preganancy. It is pertinent to mention that she has over 105,000 patients registered with their group and out of that 19000 are from Indian orgin. Ms Patel is also a marriage celebrant and is active amongst the wider community.
Gurpreet Kaur, chairwoman of NZICA’s Women’s Committee has sent a letter to the journalist that reads:
“We are really disappointed with the article written in Sunday Star Times "Teens forced into marriages". I hope your article is based on related proof and is not just an allegation on the Muslim and the Sikh community.
“As you know this is a very serious issue and by publishing this article you are accusing both the communities, religious leaders and the holy places where these marriages take place. As the chairperson of NZICA Women Committee I haven't come across or heard of any cases like this.
“If what your article discusses is true I would like to be involved in rectifying the situation. It is hard for us to believe that this is happening in NZ as children born here know their rights very well. I wonder why Shila Nair did not contact the community leaders, police or other women’s organisations before going to the media?
“Don't you find it surprising that the Muslim and Sikh community are unaware of any underage marriages being performed. I would like to meet Shila Nair, you and some of the girls affected.
Hopefully it wouldn't be hard to get 5-6 victims to meet with the NZICA Women Committee to support your statement ‘As many as 50 underage New Zealand girls a year are being forced into marriages...’”
Dr. Anil Channa a medical practitioner and executive committee member of the Manukau Indian Association who is an active community worker and leader condemns any under age or forced marriage in any community and also strongly condemns labelling an entire community for the actions of a few.
A Joint statement issued by the Supreme Sikh Council of New Zealand leader Daljit Singh and Ranvir Singh Lali, NZ Sikh Society Auckland Spokesman Manpreet Singh and Rajinder Singh, NZ Sikh Society Tauranga’s Ram Singh, NZ Sikh Society Palmerston North’s Sandeep Singh, NZ Sikh Society Central Auckland West’s Harpreet Singh Gill and Davinder Singh Jolly strongly condemned the defamatory statement issued by the Shakti group.
The leaders have expressed shock with the article being published without picking up inconsistencies and technical points in Shakti’s information provided to the newspaper.