The long felt cultural need of Hindus living in New Zealand of respectfully dispersing ashes of their loved ones in open water received a major boost last week when a submission made to Maori Select Committee in this regard was accepted for further action.

Indeed, this is a step forward in a long drawn out process where several Hindu community groups have been putting together concerted efforts since the past few years to seek a favourable legislative intervention in a mutually amicable manner to an otherwise emotionally contested issue.

“We are waiting to hear on the Hindu community submission to the Maori Affairs Select Committee,” says Selva Ramasami of Wellington Hindu Council. 

The Wellington Hindu community in close association with the Hindu Council of New Zealand has long been leading a consultative process on behalf of the larger wider Hindu community in New Zealand to get an amicable and mutually acceptable solution that reconcile cultural needs of both the communities.

What is the saga about?

According to the 2013 Census, Hinduism is the second largest and fastest growing religion in New Zealand after Christianity with about 89,000 adherents.

It is expected that the actual numbers would have swelled since then.

The settlement of Hindus in New Zealand dates back to the arrival of sepoys (Indian soldiers) in the 19th century, with the first communities from the Punjab and Gujarat arriving in the 1890s. Until the 1980s almost all Hindu migrants came from Gujarat. Later they arrived from all over India and from elsewhere, including Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Fiji and South Africa.

Like all migrants around the world, Hindus also brought with them the cultural artefacts that were important for them for the emotional and spiritual wellbeing in their new chosen homeland.

Subsequently, like everywhere else in the world the Hindu settlers in this Land of the Long White Cloud – New Zealand – have had to campaign and lobby for getting their individual cultural practices accepted in public spaces and public life of their newly adopted home.

Like everywhere else in life, not all endeavours are equally successful as some causes are bigger than others and in Winston Churchill’s famous words require “blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

Fortunately though, in New Zealand not all struggles of new migrants have required literally what Churchill meant by blood, toil, tears and sweat.

Nevertheless, some struggles have been longer than others and deserve merit of public recognition and an acknowledgement of those individuals and community organisations that have borne the burden of waging the campaign on behalf of the entire community.

This is the saga of the incremental progress of Hindu aspirations of the long felt cultural need of being able to disperse the ashes of their loved ones in a respectful and dignified manner in New Zealand. Not to mention that dispersing ashes in open waters is also a cultural need of members of the Sikh community, another religion emanating from India.

The problem – absence of legislative clarity on dispersal of ashes in open waters

The fact that the age old Hindu practice of dispersing ashes of their loved ones in a culturally appropriate manner in open waters is contested, especially by Maori, who find the practice detestable exactly for the same reasons – emotional and cultural – is not new altogether.

The practice of releasing ashes into flowing water is considered as purifying ritual among Hindus, whereas this custom offends Maori, for whom water is both a life-giving force and valued food source that must be sustained.

To be fair to New Zealand’s legislative system, there is no current law at the moment that necessarily allows or stops Hindus from dispersing ashes of the deceased people in open waters.

Although there is a requirement to get permission from the local council before scattering ashes in parks and other public places.

The current state of play on this issue is a bit ambiguous with not much clarity if dispersal of ashes is allowed in a respectable and dignified manner in New Zealand.

As a consequence, there have been many instances where Hindu Council of New Zealand have been approached by the local council about the sighting of pooja items including red and white clothes, flower garlands, burnt cartons, coconuts, etc. on beaches – a situation of discomfort even for the Hindu Council.

“The council have also decided to stop any pooja item being dispersed at Waikowhai beach where previously we had an official designated site adding to the confusion,” Vinod Kumar, the President of the Hindu Council said.

The crusaders – Wellington Hindu Association and Hindu National Council of New Zealand

It is this innate desire to be able to disperse ashes of our loved ones in a respectful and dignified manner that has driven the Wellington Hindu Association and the Hindu Council of New Zealand to seek an appropriate legislative intervention, though in mutual consultation with the Iwi and Maori Tikianga.

It all started from April 04, 2011 when a group of Wellington Hindu community leaders including Sourirajan Venkatachari, Rajiv Chaturvedi, Jagdish Prasad, Kamil Lakshman and Selva Ramasami held a discussion with the Hutt City Council to put forward a request about community’s aspirations.

Selva Ramasami has been an integral part of Wellingtonian Hindu community  

It was followed by Hindu Council of NZ Second Wellington Regional Hindu Conference on April 9, 2011, where the community’s need for a dignified farewell to the deceased according to the traditional practice of dispersal of ashes was presented in the light of the then review of the Burial and Cremation Act of 1964.

As Maori and Hindu viewpoints were brought together on a discussion table, creative solutions to differing practices emerged.

In the interim, a comment from Warahi Paki, Chairman of Waikumete’s Urupa Committee was welcomed by the representatives of the Hindu community for a possibility of reconciling mutually competing expectations.

“I don’t see too much problem with the dispersal of ashes out at sea – the ocean is quite big,” Mr Paki had said.

Meanwhile, Auckland Council had proposed Cemeteries and Crematoria By-law 2014 which invited some resentment about the expectations imposed on the members of Hindu community. 

Following this lead, along with prevailing collective desire within the community, the Wellington Hindu community met the Law Commission on December 4, 2014, to highlight the lack of guidance on the disposal of ashes of cremated bodies.

The Law Commission had taken a note of the ambiguity in the law by commenting that the scattering of ashes should not be restricted under the statute.

This means that the scattering of ashes should not be the subject of a statutory offence.

It was recommended that given the competing interest at play and the impracticality of enforcing a restriction, it should be for individual local authorities after consultation with iwi, to develop guidelines for the scattering of ashes in their region.

The representatives from the Hindu community have approached Maori Affairs Select Committee with a plea that lack of guidelines may not be the ideal situation for the Hindu community to perform their cultural obligation in a respectful and dignified manner.

The key emphasis was to develop policies and guidelines at the national level for the Regional and Local Council’s engagement with iwi around the country for the immersion of ashes in the waterways.

The first written submission was made to the Select Committee on June 27, 2016. 

The current state of play on the issue

On April 5, 2017, representatives from Hindu community have appeared for an oral submission to the inquiry into whanau access to and management of Tupapaku, which was a follow-up of a previously made written submission of the recommendation to the Maori Select Committee on May 16.

The committee has accepted the submission and will report back to the Minister for further action as is the standard practice with every other Parliament Select Committee. The Minister is further required to take a decision within three months of receiving the report from the Select Committee. 

The Select Committee, however, is not limited by any such time-constrains to report back to the Minister or take any immediate actions.

The Hindu community in New Zealand is hopeful of a positive outcome soon.

“We are working towards getting an official approval to disperse cremated ashes in the sea.

“We have made submissions and will keep everyone informed,” President of the Hindu Council Mr Kumar said, being hopeful of a positive outcome from the submission to the Select Committee.

Kamil Lakshman, who has been an integral part of the Wellington Hindu community driving for a legislative change is also hopeful of a favourable outcome of the legislative process.

“It will mean a great deal for our Hindu community to have the ability to disperse ashes into the river or sea without it being an offence.

“If this Bill is passed it will mean our community has been given a legislative right compared to the present situation,” Ms Lakshman said.  

“I personally will be delighted to have a positive outcome from the Committee.

“This will be a great tribute to late Dr Rajiv Chaturvedi who has been very much involved in this process from the beginning,” Mr Ramasami said.

Late Dr Rajiv Chaturvedi, a prominent Hindu community leader had devoted his life to the cause

The promise of lobbying in parliament

Meanwhile, speaking with Indian Weekender, Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi, the first Kiwi-Indian MP and the Chairperson of the Law and Order Select Committee has assured of further lobbying on this sensitive issue in Parliament.

“This is an excellent example of the Indian community’s successful engagement with the law-making process in New Zealand.

“I can assure everyone that I will be personally lobbying for this important matter for our communities in Parliament,” Mr Bakshi told Indian Weekender.