Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Waitakere Diwali continues in its tradition of developing new leaders.

Thakur Ranjit Singh

Some leaders are rich, like USA’s Trump and New Zealand’s John Key, others are controversial like Presidents of Philippines and Zimbabwe, some others are deadly, like the ones in North Korea and some Middle Eastern countries, but yet some others are simple, humble, grassroots, common men (aam aadmi) and loveable ones like India’s Chai-Wala (tea-seller) or Waitakere’s (Auckland) Taxi-Wala (Taxi-driver).

President of WIA, Mahendra Sharma (right) helping the Chief Guest, Councillor Linda Cooper, to light up the Diya of Diwali at Waitakere Diwali Celebrations

Indeed India has its Narendra Modi- a Chai-Wala, and in answer, Waitakere has its Mahendra Sharma, a Taxi-Wala. Yes, this simple and humble person Mahendra Sharma, from the grassroots of the community is the new President of Waitakere Indian Association (WIA), which again held a very successful Diwali celebrations last month.

Initiating the first public Diwali celebrations in New Zealand in 2000, WIA has been continually celebrating it for the last 17 years. And in doing so, unlike other similar organisations, it has always granted opportunities to all its executives to gain leadership positions, and train as leaders. Unlike some other similar organisations where only rich, influential, professional or businessmen get to lead, WIA is a different ball-game. Everybody has equal chance, and this has allowed a taxi-driver, Mahendra Sharma, to be our President, leading WIA Diwali. We had other newcomers, Kajal Kumar, as the master of ceremonies (MC) and Hasmita Singh, WIA’s Secretary, as Diwali Project Manager. We are proud for a job well done.

On Sunday 23 October, 2016, WIA switched on to a new venue for its Diwali from Trusts Stadium to Te Pai Netball Centre, next door on Te Pai Road. Unlike some other Auckland Diwali, Sharma said that “WIA is mindful of the fact that Diwali needs to retain its theme, its respectability and dignity.” In following that policy, he said WIA has special dress codes and other restrictions and check and balances to have a mix of modern culture with tradition to ensure Diwali retains its light of wisdom, divinity and dignity. “This was reflected in the Ram Leela which was performed by artistes from Ayodhya, India,” he said.

In line with keeping the theme and tradition of Diwali, this "Ram Lila " item from performers from Ayodhya India added color to the celebrations.

The other point he homed in was that...”while other events have paid officials, our community workers give their time and expertise freely to the community.” This was in reference to Auckland Council and corporate-organised events where those organising are paid officials, while those at WIA are non-paid community volunteers –unsung heroes with a passion for community well-being.
Auckland Councillor Linda Cooper, Trusts Chairperson and Auckland Councillor, Ross Clow, Labour’s Phil Twyford, National’s Kanwaljit Bakshi and major sponsor, Robert Khan were the main speakers, among others. One surprise inclusion was Faiyaz Koya. He is a Fijian politician and Member of the Parliament of Fiji. He currently holds the portfolios Minister for Industry, Trade and Tourism. Koya is the son of former National Federation Party leader Siddiq Koya. 

The VIP s: Labour Party's Housing and Transport spokesperson, Phil Twyford (second from right) busy discussing issues on  New Zealand's closer cooperation with Fiji's Minister of  Industry, Trade, Tourism, Faiyaz Koya ( second from left), while Radio Tarana's CEO, Robert Khan (extreme left) and NZ First List MP, Mahesh Bindra ( extreme right), are relishing the moment. 
All speakers shed light on the theme of Diwali, and appreciated the efforts of WIA in lighting the flame of culture, tradition and community spirit with their hallmark sole Diwali of West Auckland. Some of the speakers also paid tribute to Mrs Savitri Chand, wife of one of WIA’s founding stalwart, former Whau Local Board member and an active community worker, Ami Chand. She was fondly remembered by many present in the event as well. She had passed away earlier that week.

Fiji’s Minister Faiyaz Siddiq Koya was in Auckland with Fiji PM Frank Bainimarama’s delegation which was visiting New Zealand to promote relations with Fiji. He delivered a very inspiring speech which paid tribute to Fijians settled in NZ, their contributions, and an invitation to Fijian Diaspora to come to Fiji to visit and invest. 

The VIPs with Past WIA Presidents, L-R, Anand Naidu and Naveen Prakash, with National List MP, Knawakjit Singh Bakshi , in the centre.
Early in the day, in keeping with tradition, the event started with pooja (prayers) and hawan –offering in the holy fire by the priest, and blessing by Kaumatua, giving respect to the original settlers. 

Earlier in the evening, distinguished guests were treated to in the WIA tradition of vegetarian cocktail which was a time for networking with community leaders. This gave opportunity for leaders to freely mingle and share thoughts.

The craft stall
Like previous years, we had a galore of sumptuous Indian food stalls, many craft stalls and trade stalls promoting business. There were many thrilling stage items, and after the religious and traditional Ram Lila, the mood slowly changed into more Bollywood and thrilling music as the night progressed. This culminated in spectacular fireworks display, led by Nach da Punjab bhangra group, adding rhythmic vibration to the climax of Waitakere Diwali event.

The food stall
Overall, the event was a success at this new location, led by a team of newcomers for successfully pulling off this annual event, which has become an eagerly-anticipated calendar of West Auckland. And as the Chai Wala Modi has caused ripples in India, we expect our humble Taxi-Wala to continue leading WIA in its role as an icon of West Auckland.

And that is exactly what he has done, by attending Diwali in Parliament in Wellington on 10 November, 2016 with a team from WIA. This was organised by the Office of Ethnic Affairs in Wellington. This event was attended by other Indian community leaders throughout the country, with MPs and prominent people of the community. This recognition by the New Zealand government is very encouraging for all those who regard Diwali dearly and speaks volumes for a country which embraces diversity.

Diwali in Parliament: WIA was represented  in the event at NZ Parliament (Beehive) in Wellington. From Left- Nina Prasad, Sunita Sharma, Indian High Commisioner to NZ, Sanjiv Kohli, WIA Executive, Chandrika Prasad, WIA President, Pundit Mahendra Sharma, and guest Devendra Sharma.
As the dust settled at Te Pai Netball Centre in Auckland after the annual Waitakere Diwali, we can proudly looked back and give a big round of applause to the team which created many ‘Firsts”. It was the first Diwali event for the new President Mahendra Sharma, it was first MC duty for WIA Executive, Kajal Kumar, it was first event management for Diwali Event Manager, Hasmita Singh, it was the first time the event was held at the new location, it was first time the group from Ayodhya performed Ram Lila, and it was the first time, a Fijian Minister addressed the event. 

And to wrap it up, as a Chai-Wala is causing ripples and change in India, we also expect our Taxi-Wala President to bring in changes at WIA to make it a more-community focussed organisation, and continue doing what it does best –managing and organising annual Diwali ( and Holi) celebrations in West Auckland. And this story has been brought to you by yours truly (Thakur), another grassroots community advocate – the Bus- Wala (bus driver) journalist.

[About the author: Thakur Ranjit Singh is former long-time Secretary of WIA (2005- 2010) and a former Vice President. He runs his blog site FIJI PUNDIT and reports on community events passionately that other media have little passion to cover.]

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