Sunday, October 12, 2008

Sunday Essay - for Ramana: India and Australia

This photo shows the Guru Nanak Gurdwara ('The Temple on the Hill'), the second Sikh temple built in Woolgoolga, a seaside town on the New England/NSW North Coast.

Woolgoolga was Australia's first truly integrated multi-race town.

The first Sikh settlers came to Woolgoolga in the 1940s. Initially they worked as labourers on the banana plantations, but later acquired leasehold and freehold banana plantations. Sikh migrants from other parts of Australia were attracted to this area once they were aware of an established Sikh community.

The establishment of the Sikh community was made possible by the welcome of the host community. There are anecdotes of locals assisting the Sikh migrants in business, financial affairs, correspondence and encouragement to maintain their culture and religion. There were three members of the host community on the committee which built the First Sikh Temple of Australia in Woolgoolga.

Today over 95% of Woolgoolga's banana industry and 10% of that in Coffs Harbour is owned and operated by Australians of Sikh ancestry.There are 2,500 Sikhs in the Coffs Harbour City Council area and 450 students enrolled at Woolgoolga Public School of whom 21% are Sikhs. Of Woolgoolga High School's 877 students, 12% are Sikhs.

While my post Lunch with Noric - and a request for advice has so far drawn only two on-line comments, one from New Zealand, the other from India, it has already proved remarkably valuable in terms of post ideas.

In an off-line exchange, Kanagaroo Valley David raised some issues relevant to the global financial crisis. One of his comments helped trigger the following post, Saturday Morning Musings - finance 101 and the global financial crisis, while the exchange also led me to look at some demographic data trying to scope the Australian superannuation impact.

Jason Kemp, another friend of Noric's, commented on the blogging process:

In summary - I'm not so sure that you need to do any more than being true to yourself and to hold up the your mirror to see if those reflections might also add value to others.

There is an issue here with a personal blog. If you try to target to reader interests, does one risk losing the flavour that attrated people in the first instance?

Ramana Rajgopaul wrote that he would like to read more about Australia specific posts which will be of interest to non Australians. He concluded:

I personally believe that there is more to be benefited between Australia and India than what has been going on. Australia has tended to lean more towards China than India, and I would like to know why.

I think that Ramana is right that India has slipped down the Australian consciousness relative to China, cricket notwithstanding. As a simple example, I have written far more about the Chinese in Australia and about China than I have about India.

At a personal level, I have probably taken India for granted.

I grew up at the tail end of a world in which Commonwealth countries were still marked pink on the map. Thousands of Australians had served in India and the surrounding region in the Australian army, the British Army and indeed in some cases the Indian Army.

I was eight when Sir William Slim was appointed Australia's Governor General. Slim was immensely popular in Australia. He had led the fight against the Japanese in Burma where the Japanese had come close to threatening the allies' Indian base. This included an attack into Assam in early 1944 by 80,000 Japanese troops, an attack halted at the hill settlements of Imphal and Kohima where a vastly out-numbered and somewhat rag-tag allied force held off attack after attack in fierce hand to hand fighting. By late 1944, Slim's 14th Army was the Second World War’s largest Army of Commonwealth troops with nearly a million men in its service.

At secondary school, these things were still fresh. We saw documentary footage of the war, while stories of the fighting were popular in the school library. Kipling's books were still popular. I did some Indian history, and also studied India in geography. There were family connections as well, since my Uncle's family were Anglo, perhaps more correctly Australian, Indian and still had business interests there. There were books about India in various family homes.

My point in this somewhat rambling discourse is that many Australians had a familiarity with India. The Indian friends I met at University and then in Canberra spoke English and were in some way part of the family. I understood something of their world, including the complexities of relations affected by ethnic, religious and caste divides.

China, by contrast, was more alien, strange. There was, and I suspect that this is still true, far less mixing between Anglo Australians and the Chinese including Australian born than between Indians and Anglo Australians.

Just as Imperial and Commonwealth connections had contributed to familiarity, so that familiarity declined as the Commonwealth connections weakened. Australians had less access to India. However, I think that there were other factors as well.

The first was partition. British India with all its own strange complexities was replaced by two states, then three as Pakistan broke up. From an official Australian perspective, the complexities of relations between India and Pakistan made for a sometimes difficult balancing act. This was further complicated by some of the official policies adopted by the new Indian Republic - non-aligned, prickly, in some ways inward looking. The difficulties can be illustrated by the 1962 war between India and China.

On October 20, 1962, China invaded India to try to achieve a military settlement to a long-running territorial dispute. This was a major conflict that could have escalated into a very major war. Isolated, India appealed for help. However, there was little appetite for a potential conflict with China.

A complicating factor for India in the dispute, and one that affected Australian attitudes, was India's occupation of the Portuguese colony of Goa.

Goa had been a Portuguese colony since 1510. The Portuguese were determined to maintain control. On 12 December 1961, the Indian Army seized control of Goa. To many Australians, there was little apparent difference between China's use of force to try to settle a territorial dispute and India's unilateral action in Goa less than twelve months before.

I remember this one clearly because towards the end of 1962 I attended a meeting in Armidale addressed by the Indian High Commissioner setting out India's case against China. Still at school, I asked about Goa. Apart from reducing the High Commissioner to a state of fury, I still remember being surprised at how much support I got from the audience.

Economics was the second factor leading to reduced familiarity.

The economic importance of India to Australia declined in the immediate Post War period. On the Australian side, the Government's controls on investment overseas by Australians limited our international expansion to all parts of the world, not just India. More importantly, India's own rigid centralised but very inefficient controls took India outside the economic main stream.

Those Australians who did have Indian interests found it harder and harder to do business in the country, harder to access funds. Informal bazaar exchange systems became the major mechanism for many in getting funds out of the country around the rigid exchange control rules.

By 1970 many saw India as an economic basket case, doubting that the country could ever develop as a modern economy. Few, if any, foresaw India's later rise.

As India declined in popular awareness, China rose. The rise in formal relations is well charted in a speech by Alexander Downer.

The first trade agreement between the two countries was signed in 1973. In 1972, the value of two-way trade was just A$113 million. By 2001-02, two-way trade had reached A$19 billion.

Beyond the rise in economic relations, I think that there was also a romance with China that extended beyond the familial feel still attached to India.

Australians have come to recognise that India has arisen as an economic power, if with a lag. We now talk about India and China in one breath. We also worry about how to balance the relations between India, China and the US, about our place as at best a mid-size power whose relative position must decline. However, there are some aspects of India's evolving position that may not be so well recognised.

In numeric terms, the Chinese and Indian diasporas dominate globally among distributed peoples. We know both in Australia, although China is better recognised.

One of the features of the Indian diaspora has been an explosion in the global distribution of young, well educated Indian professionals and entrepreneurs. TiE-The Indus Entrepreneurs - can be taken as an example.

TiE was founded in Silicon Valley in 1992 by successful entrepreneurs and professionals with roots in the Indus region. Today TiE has over 12,000 members spread over 49 chapters in 11 countries, including Australia.

I know this group quite well. They are generally young, globally mobile and ambitious. No matter where located in the world, they tend to retain their links to India. They form the global cutting edge of Indian intellectual and economic expansion.

I currently have problems with excel and consequently was unable to download the latest migration statistics. As I remember the figures, Australia is now admitting more Indian than Chinese migrants and by a surprising margin.

A number of our Indian migrants as well as younger Australian born Indians also leave, attracted by greater opportunities elsewhere. Like other members of the growing Australian diaspora, most retain some links with this country.

Based on Indian population growth (India will pass China as the world's most populous country), proximity, language and existing family connections, the Indian proportion of the Australian population must grow.

The Indian settlers who came to and were welcomed at Woolgoolga, who helped form Australia's first multi-racial society, were the leading edge of what is now a wave.

India, China and Australia - to my mind this is the triangle that will come to dominate our thinking over the next twenty years.


Anonymous said...

1. Technical: after changing colour as in your quote to "add value to others." you need to close the font tag. /font between <>

2. Sir William Slim I do recall visiting SBHS when I was a lad, one of my best friends then being one Ashok Hegde, though he was here as the son of a diplomat (or Assistant Indian Trade Commissioner) not as a migrant. He went on to St Paul's School in London. He was the only Indian at SBHS at that time -- 1/750+.

Jim Belshaw said...

Neil, sorry to be dumb, but I did not understand your first comment. Care to amplify?

On your second comment, when did Ashok arrive at SBHS? This must have been about 1955?

I ask because I am trying to scope some elements of the Australian interaction with Asia. The first Asian students arrived at TAS about 1959 or 60.

The Australian involvement with Asia went in waves. Woolgoolga is interesting in part because it so unique. But it also draws out a conflict - the Sikh community grew in the midst of the White Australia policy. So we have sub-content settlement as a time that this should not have been possible.

See what I mean? We need to know what actually happened and when.

Anonymous said...

On 1: It may be a Google Chrome issue, as it does not appear in Firefox. After the coloured quote the rest of the post stays coloured instead of black. Usually that means an HTML tag has not been closed.

On 2: Ashok arrived in Australia before 1955, but 1955 at SBHS. His family lived in Hurstville. His father, as I said, was a diplomat. I had forgotten his older brother Anand, but I suspect he had been sent to England by 1958.

I know the first time I brought Ashok home the reaction was amusing. Neighbouhood kids, hearing there was an Indian coming, were disappointed he didn't have a feathered head-dress. (This is The Shire after all!) My father took me on one side and warned me about what certain people became at the full moon... But my parents were charmed by Ashok, and even more so by his parents when finally they met him.

Thirty years on my father, who by then was somewhat confused, used to ask after him from time to time, even though I hadn't seen Ashok for decades. Must have made an impression indeed.

His mother made the best curry...

Interesting place, SBHS then. First time I had ever met Jews too.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Jim. I shall be linking this post with one of my posts coming up this week. Frankly, I have learnt a great deal from your post. Truly, it is a global village!

You have omitted a very important development, post independence. A very large number of Anglo Indians, that is people of mixed ancestry from British and Indian
inter-marriages, emigrated to Australia, on some kind of a special quota.

This was a very vibrant community with its men in the Indian Railways, police, armed forces and the Indian movies. Women were very well known for their secretarial expertise and were in great demand.

I learnt my stenography in an Anglo Indian institution in Hyderabad. It was named after Frank Antony who represented the community in the Parliament.

To the best of my recollection, a lot of them settled somewhere around Melbourne. A number of them worked in Papua New Guinea and other such exotic places.

Does Neil have a blog? I would like to visit his, if he does. Could you please give me a link if he does? Thank you.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Ramana. Neil has several blogs and very good ones too. His main blog is

I would love to think that some of my extended family has Indian ancestry, but we don't. The English language is really complicated.

I have used the phrase Anglo Indian or Australian Indian to describe families that is some way covered the two countries. Some were of mixed ancestry, some not.

The issue of mixed ancestry families escaped my mind. That is worth a post in its own right!

Jim Belshaw said...

Rereading one of your your comments, Neil, reminded me that I knew an Ashok in Canberra, different last name. I had forgotten.

Anonymous said...

Jim, I have posted about you in my blog

Chubskulit Rose said...

Hello their Sir, I enjoy reading your posts, very informative... One of my dream is to visit places like India and China. This post gives me so much data about the places..

Hope you can visit me sometimes..

Jim Belshaw said...

Hir Rose. I had already discovered the story of you and John through a comment you made on RM's blog. I will certainly visit. I hope that you continue to enjoy my sometimes very serious writing.

Thanks, RM, for the cross post.

Anonymous said...
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