India warns of fallout over race slurs

Last updated 05:00 09/10/2010

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TVNZ host Paul Henry's ethnic slurs against Indians could damage the lucrative education market between the two countries, Indian high commissioner Sureesh Mehta has warned.

New Zealand's reputation as a tolerant country had been dented, he said, and Prime Minister John Key also conceded it had embarrassed New Zealand internationally.

Mr Mehta said widespread publicity of Henry working himself into fits of laughter over the name of Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit could deter fee-paying students from coming to New Zealand, which was usually regarded as racially tolerant.

He had protested to Broadcasting Minister Jonathan Coleman and said the high commission would lodge a broadcasting standards complaint.

"Certainly, it has shaken up everyone. It's in extremely poor taste. It's disgusting."

The clip has been reported in India, Britain, Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic and other countries and brought a diplomatic protest from the Indian Government, which said it was "racist" and "bigoted".

India's external affairs ministry called in New Zealand high commissioner Rupert Holborow, who apologised on behalf of the Government.

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully is also expected to convey his regret, though he stressed yesterday that Henry was an individual working for a private company.

In the clip, Henry laughs hysterically as he pronounces Mrs Dikshit's name as "Dick Shit" despite being told it should be "Dixit". He goes on to say that "Dick Shit" is "so appropriate because she is Indian".

The October 1 piece was followed on Monday by Henry saying Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand – who was born and raised in Auckland – did not "look or sound like a New Zealander".

Henry has been suspended without pay till October 18 over that comment, but Mr Mehta said TVNZ should take sterner action.

"I certainly consider that this action is not enough."

He said reports of Henry's comments could deter Indian students from coming to New Zealand, which was widely regarded as tolerant. New Zealand gets about 9000 fee-paying students a year from India.

Mr Key moved to calm the diplomatic waters yesterday and brushed off concerns the row could damage talks on a free trade deal with India. The Dikshit clip appeared to be "poorly designed humour", he said, and conceded it had embarrassed New Zealand internationally.

"Something that, as I say, may have started as humour has now ended up as a reasonably serious matter in terms of our relationship with India and the way that New Zealand is portrayed around the world. But I think anyone who knows New Zealand well will know that we are a very tolerant society, we're a multicultural society and they'll probably accept that within any country where there's freedom of speech, there are always those that are going to push the boundaries ... even if it's poorly based humour."

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It is understood Mr Key personally sanctioned Mr Holborow's message to the Indian Government.

India New Zealand Business Council chairman Wenceslaus Anthony said Henry's comments had dented New Zealand's reputation, but would not harm prospects of a free trade deal.

"I do not think the Indian Government will take one individual statement and be influenced by that, especially with the high commissioner giving an apology."

- The Dominion Post

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