Building bridges to India

New Zealand may be far from India on a world map, but Professor Sekhar Bandyopadhyay is ensuring his adopted home is firmly on the radar for Indian policymakers and academics.

Professor Sekhar Bandyopadhyay

Originally from Kolkata, Sekhar has taught at Victoria for more than 25 years and is one of New Zealand’s leading experts on Indian history and foreign policy.

His historical perspective is sought after by government departments such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, whose Indian strategy he recently consulted on.

India and New Zealand have a surprising amount in common, says Sekhar.

“We now have evidence that Indians were coming to New Zealand on ships as early as the 1760s, the same time as Captain Cook,” he says. “We often hear about the captains, not the sailors.”

Since 2012, Sekhar has worked to strengthen ties between the two countries in his role as director of the New Zealand India Research Institute (NZIRI), established by Victoria in partnership with six other New Zealand universities.

Among other functions, the NZIRI organises international conferences, facilitates diplomatic negotiations with non-governmental organisations and think tanks, and conducts research on topics such as India–China relations, healthcare and urbanisation.

The NZIRI’s research informs New Zealand policymakers on issues relating to India and the Institute has been successful in establishing the New Zealand brand in India. Earlier this year, the Institute organised a conference in Kolkata that was attended by more than 100 Indian scholars.

Given that India will soon be the world’s third largest economy with a huge middle class, the populous nation is clearly an important trading partner for New Zealand. Does Sekhar think we’re close to a free trade agreement? “There is certainly a willingness to engage with New Zealand,” he says. “I think it is possible, provided both sides see the mutual benefit.”

He says there are some points of contention, such as New Zealand’s nuclear-free policy. “India is flanked by two nuclear powers, so it feels compelled to keep it nuclear.”

However, he says the barriers are surmountable and there is significant goodwill on both sides. “The impression I get is that there is momentum and the free trade negotiations will move forward.”

Education is another area where he can see the two countries cooperating more closely, but first New Zealand must promote the high-quality research being done at its universities, he says.

He recalls visiting New Delhi with Hon. Steven Joyce as part of an education delegation. At a reception, he was asked by academics whether New Zealand degrees were recognised internationally. “I said, ‘all New Zealand universities are ranked in the top 500 in the world!’ They had no idea. And that is what we can do through the NZIRI—let India know our strengths.”