By Swapan Dasgupta
After the obligatory visits to the waterfront to see Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, tourists in Sydney are encouraged to walk up George Street to the imposing Queen Victoria Building—a stylish shopping arcade where you can also treat yourself to English tea in the basement. What particularly caught my attention was a bronze statue of the old Queen at the adjoining Bicentennial Plaza. Apart from the never-amused Empress of India looking a shade younger and less grim than she does in the forecourt of Calcutta’s Victoria Memorial, the bronze is significant in one respect: Sydney is its third resting place since it was commissioned at the beginning of the previous century.
Till 1949, the bronze had occupied a pride of place outside the Legislative Assembly of Ireland in Dublin. Following the Republic’s departure from the Commonwealth, the statue had been uprooted and presumably dumped in a bronze necropolis—like the ones in Barrackpore and Coronation Park, Delhi. In 1987, Dublin offered the forgotten relic to the Government of New South Wales which, gratefully accepted, and recorded its gratitude to Ireland in a plaque on the plinth.
It is tempting for South Block, always in need of inspirational ideas, to consider whether the cause of India-Australian friendship will be enhanced by gifting a discarded imperial bronze or two to cities in Australia that missed out on some of the grander commemorative symbols of the ‘mother country’. The well-meaning gesture, unfortunately, is bound to be misconstrued in a country that continues to agonise over the Union Jack in a small corner of its national flag. What was perhaps a casual decision in 1987, dictated as much by aesthetics as a sense of history, will rekindle a debate that Australia seeks to avoid, but which resurfaces periodically in some form of another.
That Australia has been engaged in what someone once called “endlessly coming of age” may seem surprising to those who nurture stereotypes of hard-working, hard-drinking but essentially stupid and bigoted Bushmen dominating the landscape—a carryover from its origins as a penal colony. When former Prime Minister John Howard once described Sir Donald Bradman as the “greatest living Australian”, he created a problem for the PR professionals entrusted with the responsibility of selling modern Australia to the world. A sportsman could be an entertainer, an icon of popular culture but the description “greatest living Australian” was, they felt, a commentary on Australia’s unwillingness to go beyond the frontier spirit. To the cosmopolitan mindset, harking on the Don, or for that matter, on Rod Laver and referring to the Opera House irreverently as “nuns in a scrum” are about as archaic and distracting as associating modern India with maharajas, fakirs and Mother Teresa.
Since the 1970s, when Britain’s membership of the European Union and a succession of immigration laws put the Commonwealth connection in jeopardy, Australia has been mindful of the need to evolve a distinctive identity—something more meaningful than being the Britain of the southern hemisphere. The bid to grapple with what the journalist James Cameron in 1971 detected as “an identity void” often had farcical consequences: a competition to create a national anthem, a bid to create a national dress and even a serious bid to inject something called ‘mateship’ into the Australian Constitution. In 1961, on the occasion of Australia Day, a well-meaning attempt to depict authentic Australian values led to bizarre tableaux: “This had been achieved by putting up a stuffed kangaroo and emu on the right, a stuffed Aborigine on the left, and a coloured portrait of the Queen in the centre.”
Additionally, there have been attempts to rewrite history by stressing the autonomy of the Australian experience. A former Prime Minister Paul Keating who had a way with words and who was obsessed by the ‘identity’ question, tried to supplant the importance of the Anzac Day commemoration of the massacre of Australian forces in Gallipoli (in Turkey) by shifting focus to the defence of Kokoda against the Japanese invasion of then then Australia-held Papua in 1942. To Keating, the Australians who fought in Kokoda died defending not “the old world but the new world—their world.”
Nor should these attempts to recreate a nation to correspond with contemporary priorities be mocked: India too is forever engaged in battles over history and identity and generating contested perceptions of nationhood. In coping with post-imperial realities, Australia has travelled a very long way.
First, the White Australia immigration policy that a former Prime Minister Alfred Deakin justified in 1901 as driven by a desire to create a community “inspired by the same ideas…of a people possessing the same general cast of character, tone of thought—the same Constitutional training” has been well and truly junked. It is not that the process was without hiccups but the point to note is that in 25 years, Australia has been able to create a truly multiracial society. The debate today is not over Asian immigration but the integration of the New Australians with the rest—a battle between multiculturalism and common sense.
Secondly, along with jettisoning the White Australia policy has been an acknowledgment of the wrongs perpetrated on the Aborigines, the Old Australians. Even a casual visitor to Australia will be struck by the very conscious attempt of both state and society to include Aborigines as being crucial to the Australian experience.
Thirdly, Australia has taken important steps to make its economy more open, globalised and competitive. It is fascinating to note the similarities between the protectionist Australia of the 1980s and the India of the same period. It is even more instructive to follow the career paths of Sir Robert Menzies (Prime Minister from 1949 to 1966) and Jawaharlal Nehru (Prime Minister from 1947 to 1964). This comparison may be offensive to Nehruvians who are inclined to view Menzies as a reactionary Anglophile. However, the rich debates on political economy in both countries would suggest had Nehru been as receptive as Menzies was to combining protectionism and welfare with encouragement of the private sector, the post-Independence India story would have been more dazzling.
Finally, Australia has emerged as a middle power of consequence and seems determined to make its mark in the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region. For long, India viewed this with suspicion, seeing Australia as an appendage of Anglo-American interests. This view has changed but not changed sufficiently to facilitate genuine trust. There is still a wariness centred on accumulated baggage from another age.
Australia’s muddle over its national identity has not helped matters. In seeming over anxious to establish its Asian credentials, Australia has often projected a contrived image of itself. The Anglo-Celtic and Judaeo-Christian underpinnings of Australia are acknowledged in India and respected. Indians are not disoriented by the symbolic role of the Queen, the English street names in cities, the passion for cricket, the absence of a gun culture, voluble parliamentary democracy, federalism and the rule of law. It reminds them of a common past and, in some cases, an ideal.
There has been a spate of big ticket Indian private sector investments in Australia—mainly but not exclusively in the mining sector. This owes considerably to Australia’s favourable business environment and its non-turbulent political culture. But it is also complemented by the fact that this is a country whose institutions and culture they are familiar with. Indians are among the largest investors in the United Kingdom for precisely these reasons. Australia can become a parallel attraction.
The Empire may be a contested legacy for both countries, but it is also a bond.