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India and Australia: back to the future August 24, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Stoddart, Brian , trackback

Brian Stoddart

One interesting book on my shelves has some evocative chapter titles: Australia’s Need for Exports; The New India; Is India Stable?; Must India Remain Poor; The Resources of India; India’s Financial Position; What Does India Plan?; Australia’s Trade with India; Australia’s Participation in the New Indian Market. That book might well have been published in the past few months but it is, of course, Bertram Stevens’ New Horizons: a Study of Australian-Indian Relationships published in 1946.

The evocation for me springs from two major sources.

First, Australia does have a long history of interaction with India as we all know. One long-term resident of Madras, for example, recalled watching Australian horses thrown overboard off the southern port and herded towards shore in the 1870s, perhaps at least a hundred years after the ‘Walers’ first appeared in India. Australian racehorses, jockeys, trainers and bookmakers were all prevalent in the later nineteenth century, as were polo players and cricket coaches in the early twentieth. That was without counting missionaries and teachers and business people and all the rest who went there from very early points.

That was transformed a few generations on into a strong academic interest with the line, perhaps, beginning with Sir Harold Bailey who, although born in England, grew up in Western Australia where he trained in linguistics before going back to England where he became pre-eminent in South Asian languages. By the 1960s history and politics had become the prime focus and Australia was a world centre for India expertise.

But that leads to the second evocation, which is: how did it all go so wrong? We now have columnists telling us to get interested in India when we have already cycled at least a couple of academic generations through the system and having failed to convince successive governments of what Stevens was telling us over sixty years ago: India is important!

Part of the problem lies with the nature of that importance and Australia’s reputation as a set of carpet-baggers. Underneath the current hysteria about what might or might not be happening to Indian students in Australia is a deep-seated and legitimate theme: Australia gets interested in India when times get tough or conditions change elsewhere, and the interest is rarely sustained.

In 1996, let us recall, the international wing of the higher education arm of government decided that India was the new focus, borrowing Stevens’ term ‘New Horizons’. Anyone with Indian colleagues turned up in India at that time to be greeted with the suggestion that because we were running out of fee-paying students in places like Malaysia we were simply shifting focus to the other side of the Indian Ocean.

It was a hard charge to refute. We put no incentive into the enterprise, but simply ‘promoted’ for which read cajoled support, and displayed little if no sympathy with local aims and ambitions. That pattern was reflected through trade and defence and research, of course, but that simply made the point: Australia was interested in exploitation rather than cooperation.

We could be forgiven for thinking that little has changed since 1996. Our handling of the current student crisis has been clumsy, at best, our student marketing persistently crass, the uranium decision confusing, and our approach to the Asia-Pacific and India’s role in it offensive.

Meanwhile, Australia’s India expertise has almost withered on the vine with marvellous university library collections now almost unsupported by teaching and research staff. The main expertise is now emeritus, and the federal government reduced to an instant injection of funds to boost expertise. And this at a time when serious expertise is needed to guide Australia through this enormous opportunity.

In many respects this blog is in the wrong place because it probably preaches to the converted, but at some time the South Asian experts in Australia must learn how to ‘play the game’ and build a position that outlasts what is now the ten-year cycle of Australia’s rediscovering India. It also requires some serious university leadership to build a strong relationship into governments and business here and in India. There is little sign of that yet. Part of the problem is that the public debate goes largely uninformed by debate that remains rooted at the fundamentally unhelpful ‘we both play cricket’ analytical level.

Many will see this as a whinge, which in some ways it is undoubtedly. However, a return to Bertram Stevens at that point is salutary. His concluding remarks now seem remarkably like “déjà vu all over again” as a great rugby league commentator was wont to say. “Commonsense combines with self-interest to recommend that we should co-operate with the Indians in their great undertaking.” “The practical task before us is to recognize and seize on the opportunities of a novel and fascinating situation. If we have the foresight to act now, we shall help not only India, but we shall build up for ourselves political and commercial goodwill throughout a country whose future growth is assured.”

Well, yes – but a lot of opportunities have slipped already and we somehow have to ensure that the universities and our governments understand the imperatives behind Stevens’ sentiment, and that in 2019 we will not be writing these lines yet again.


1. mccomas - August 26, 2009

Thanks for bringing this fascinating book to our attention – what a paradox: the imperatives remain largely unchanged after 60 years.

2. Nayantara Pothen - October 22, 2009

Great piece. The ‘we both play cricket’ comment is one that I find particularly unhelpful and frustrating.