Thursday, October 1, 2009

An Australian Transition

An Australian Transition
By Saeed Naqvi

Attacks on Indians in Australia was one of the issues foreign minister S. M. Krishna raised with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd but what can a prime minister do about conflict on campuses and street corners.

The irony is that successful multiculturism was something Australians wore on their sleeves in the 90s. This was something Australians themselves would not have dreamt of when they first abandoned their “Whites only” policy in 1974. Discarding “Whites only” was one thing but becoming a multicultural model, quite another.

An influential section of Australian intellectuals who opposed “whites only” were actually Jewish social scientists fleeing in the 50s from what is now Eastern Europe. Was this not the period of large scale Jewish migration to the United Sates?

Yes, but the Jewish intellectuals who came to Australia were in fact, concientious objectors to another malaise afflicting American society – the anti communist witch hunt led by Senator Joe Macarthy.

But during this period the most adventurous community in India, a number of Sikhs had materialized, in Australia, working on railway projects or on plantations. Obviously they could not own property before 1974. So, they lay in wait, patiently.

Post 1974, skills of managing some plantations were a Sikh monopoly. North of Brisbane, acres upon acres of banana plantations around the town of Wulgulga, are today owned exclusively by Sikhs.

The scale of this business has to be understood. Every school kid in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands who carries a banana in his tiffin box is probably carrying this nutritious fruit grown by the hardy Sikhs of Wulgulga!

In its happy decade of multiculturism in the 90s, I did a TV interview with the Mayor of Sydney who happened to be Vietnamese.

Incidentally, the first recorded allegation of racism against an Australian made by an Indian was against possibly the most famous Australian ever – Don Bradman. The allegation was made by the spectacular Indian opening batsman, Mushtaq Ali.

The unverifiable allegation was occasioned by a simple incident. The P & O liner carrying the Australian cricket team to England had docked at Mumbai, then Bombay. A reception was planned at the Brabourne Stadium to meet the Australian cricketers. But the Great Don refused to leave the ship. Remember, Don Bradman was a painfully private man and Mushtaq Ali may well have read too much into Bradman’s refusal to leave the ship.

The story of Australian racism begins with the early European settlement in 1788 which inaugurated an era of pogroms, sometimes hunting of the local population for sport.

Anthony Trollope narrates the story of a white settler in Tasmania. The settler asked him what would he do if he saw a “native and a snake in the bush”. The settler then proceeded to provide the answer: “The question should not arise” he said. “The native has to be shot first”.

Having graduated from the gruesome 19th century phase of eliminating the “natives” to the post “white” Australia policy of the 70s leading to the 90s when multiculturism flourished, what can recent attacks on Indians be attributed to?

For me it is all the more puzzling because during my experience in US and UK, Indians have seldom been the target of local ire. Except for the aberration of “dot busting” (attacks on Indian women wearing the bindi) in some parts of New Jersey, it is universally acknowledged that Indians are held in high esteem.

When Enoch Powell made his famous “Rivers of Blood” speech in the UK in 1969, he had West Indians in his focus. The street on which he lived in Wolverhamption had been taken over entirely by West Indians. His was the only “white” house.

Later, in the early 70s, racially motivated street fights surfaced as “Paki bashing”. For this there were several reasons: insistence on “halal” meat shops, for instance. But Indians thrived.

I am convinced that the world George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard have bequeathed to us is generally not hospitable to the foreigner. From the anti “muslim” to the anti “foreigner” is a small but understandable shift particularly in this phase of economic meltdown. We must also examine whether we have sent to Australia the best and the brightest or possibly the brashest.

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