Jan 11, 2019
By Hibra Qureshi Few Indians draw or appreciate the parallels between themselves and Indigenous Australians under colonial rule

It’s easy to forget that Indians mark Republic Day in honour of their constitutional independence from the British, on the same date as the very same colonialists arrived on the shores of Australia. The sardonically coincidental 26th of January consciously recognised by less Indian-Australians than you think. Perhaps this is because of the mental disconnect between our two homes – the native, and the adoptive. First generation immigrants are inclined to celebrate Australia Day, despite its dark connotations for Indigenous Australians, seemingly forgetting the similar damage that the same British colonisers did to South Asia. Second generation immigrants are more anti-Australia Day, but still don’t draw parallels between Australia’s and India’s experiences of colonialism.

In the oft-repeated words of Perth-based Bindra, she celebrates Australia Day because “this country has given us so much.” Indeed, for first generation immigrants, Australia’s past matters less than Australia’s present; today, over half of the 300 000 Indian immigrants who moved to India between 2000 and 2016 are homeowners, a statistic which indicates the extent of theireconomic prosperity, and warrants celebration.This is not a case of ignoring the past, as much as it is of appreciating the golden present. Bindra sympathises with the Indigenous Australians, calling both colonial India and colonial Australia’s experiences “bitter and sorrowful”. But, while recognising the extensive losses suffered by indigenous culture, population and society, like other 1st-gen immigrants, Bindra is – rightly enough – overwhelmed by the personal gifts of the lucky country.

However, second generation Indian-Australians see things differently. Most support the ‘Change the Date’ movement, citing concern for Indigenous sentiments. AnushriGoswami, an ANU Law student, does not celebrate Australia Day, when “our indigenous people were murdered ruthlessly by colonisers.” Younger generations seem to be more aware and vocal about the real meaning of the 26th of January. Abiha Shaikh, a Year 11 student from Melbourne, feels like “the date should be changed, whether it’s one day apart or months apart.” She likes “the idea of having a specific celebration day” for Australia, but disagrees with the prevailing trend that the 26th January is a celebration rather than a day of mourning.

One can only speculate why 2nd-generation Indian-Australians are more socially sensitive. Part of the reason may be younger generations’ affinity for change, as opposed to older generations preference for continuity. Bindra, for example, believes that historical dates should be kept consistent whilst 2nd-generation respondents like Goswami and Shaikh overwhelmingly reaffirmed their belief for changing the date. Another reason is undoubtedly that 2nd-generation Indian-Australians feel more ownership for Australia, and thus more responsibility for its crimes. In contrast, 1st-generation immigrants are inclined to see their Australian citizenship largely as a gift.

However, most Indian Australians, younger or older, aren’t inclined to compare their Indian experience of colonialism with the Australian Indigenous.  Of course, the parallels seem to begin and end at the fact that both civilisations were colonised; Indigenous and Indian society, culture, politics, population and geography were worlds apart at the time of colonisation. Even the dates seem incomparable; on the 26th of January, 1950, India was constitutionally independent of British governorship, whereas on the same date in 1788, the British Union Jack was raised in Sydney Cove.

It’s because ‘we’ is subjective. In India, ‘we’ is most people. In Australia, we is most people except the Indigenous. In India, British rule is personal. The British were always a foreign other, subtly encroaching upon the populace until one day we realised we had been subjugated, conquered, divided, enslaved. In Australia, the concept of British rule seems impersonal to not only most Indian immigrants, but most Australians. None of our children were stolen and anglicised, no Indian women were raped, none of us were brutally murdered or enslaved, none of us died thanks to disease exposure, and none of our cultural traditions, languages or identity died out… Except, all that had happened to ‘us’ too, around the same time beginning in the 1700s, on the other end of the Indian ocean.

So why is it that we don’t make the connection, and aren’t all getting behind the ‘Change the Date’ movement?

Partially because the after-effects of colonialism were different for Indians and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. In Australia, the dominant group of today is of largely white, European descent; a win for colonialism. In India, albeit left Anglicised, Indians managed to push the Europeans out. For the most part, Indians were able to raise and nurture a narrative revealing the ongoing damage of colonialism to their people, whereas the same could not occur as swiftly in Australia, where the Europeans became the people of Australia.

In India, the anti-colonial narrative resonated with families which were separated – or worse – during the partition, who had known the Bengal Famine of 1943 and its accompanying 3 million deaths, whose children and grandchildren refused to speak Hindi or wear saris. Whose thriving economy, which made up 27% of global GDP in 1700, was reduced to 2%, becoming “a mere exporter of raw materials and foodstuffs, raw cotton... jute, silk, coal, opium, rice, spices and tea” in the famous words of Shashi Tharoor. Whose culture was stamped out by Thomas Babington Macaulay when he said, “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.”

Contrastingly, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander narrative has painstakingly been revealed, taking decades to be recognised in the mainstream. The indigenous peoples had no Gandhi or Nehru; they had no ‘Quit India’; no civil disobedience; no non-violence or political revolution. They needed to actively convince everyone else that they had, somehow, been wronged. They were outsiders in their own land.

Indian wounds are national wounds, but Aboriginal wounds are not Australian wounds.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed with our present, which consists of Indians being homeowners and businessowners and citizens. But that’s lazy too, and we cannot cherry pick. If we are to celebrate the good – the land that has made us homeowners, and businessowners and citizens – we must remember that on this day, a few hundred years ago, this land belonged to someone else.

If we are to keep celebrating Australia Day on the 26th of January, we must recognise our double standards. In one country we celebrate the day we became free of British rule, while in the other we celebrate the day it began.

Note: This article is based on a cross sectional sample of Indian-Australian interviewees, along with secondary literary sources.

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