Whether it was in the 1960s when he backpacked across Indian soil or three decades later when he returned as Australia’s Ambassador to the country, John McCarthy’s tryst with India can best be described in one word – challenging. Alys Francis speaks to the John McCarthy.
When Indian students were being attacked in Australia, John McCarthy was in the hot seat handling one of the most difficult diplomatic fronts for Australia
The first time John McCarthy stepped foot on Indian soil was as a tourist “travelling around cheaply” in the late 1960s — a time when the Hippy Trail was thick with hirsute travellers and the Beatles had sunk themselves into a stupor of transcendental meditation in Rishikesh.
However, it was not the hippies that stuck in McCarthy’s mind but the poverty.
“It was very poor, compared even to South East Asia… you certainly noticed it,” McCarthy says.
Roughly 30 years later McCarthy found himself returning to the south Asian nation. This time in very different circumstances, as Australia’s Ambassador to India – his last posting at the end of an accomplished diplomatic career spanning four decades that had seen him serve as an ambassador in Vietnam, Mexico, Thailand, the United States, Indonesia and Japan.
Landing in Delhi in 2004 and moving into the cities’ diplomatic quarter, marked out by its wide boulevards and flower-filled roundabouts, McCarthy saw just how much the country had changed since his first visit.
The poverty was “nothing like as noticeable as it was in the 60s and 70s”, the economy was motoring along, posting GDP growth of near 8 per cent and climbing, and drawing the attention of big business and governments around the world.
With excited talk about a rising middle class and a young, fiercely entrepreneurial workforce, the mood in the capital was positive and the years ahead seemed set to be good ones.
McCarthy had no way of knowing his time in India would see him face some of the toughest moments in his career.
McCarthy was in Mumbai in November 2008 when a group of 10 terrorists snuck into the city on speedboats and staged a three-day siege in the financial hub.
The men attacked well-known landmarks, including luxury hotels, setting off bombs and killing 166 people, including two Australians — many more people were injured.
McCarthy quickly stepped in to assist efforts to help the injured Australians and others who had been stranded inside hotels that were put into lockdown.
“That was a major consular exercise because there were a number of different nationals caught up in it so many different countries were involved,” says McCarthy, who was born in Washington in 1942 and spent his childhood in England before moving to Australia.
But it was at the very end of his posting that he faced arguable his biggest challenge in India when a spate of violent robberies and attacks on Indians living in Australia prompted speculation the crimes were racially motivated.
In May 2009 thousands of Indian students took to the streets in Melbourne to protest and demonstrations spread around the country.
News footage of protesters shouting slogans and waving banners accusing Australia of racism were broadcast around the world, whipping the Indian media into a frenzy.
As the Australian government scrambled to address the problems at home, McCarthy was left to face the media pack in India.
Fairfax’s correspondent in Delhi at the time, Matt Wade, said it is hard for people who weren’t living in India at the time to understand what a big issue the student crisis was.
“It absolutely dominated the Indian news agenda for long periods in mid-2009 and early 2010,” said Wade, who saw McCarthy make repeated appearances on local Indian TV stations, often facing hostile interviewers.
“The Australian media was slow to get onto the story and sometimes underplayed its significance in India,” he says.
“John was in the thick of it when the story first flared in India. Australia was very fortunate to have a diplomat of his experience in the job. Without him, the student crisis might have done more damage to relations between Australia and India,” said the media reports.
McCarthy says his job was simply a case of explaining the facts.
“In India, the main thing was to try and get the message through about what had happened and about what was being done to fix it, at a federal level, at the level of the states and thirdly with the public at large,” he says.
“You certainly don’t attempt to brush it under the carpet,” he said.
He says the problem was caused by bad policies in Australia that were later “sorted out and resolved”.
“Too many students were coming to Australia for the wrong reasons. Too many were coming to do study with a view to get permanent residency, living on a shoestring in very poor areas, particularly in Melbourne. And this caused them to get jobs that worked late at night, and they were coming home late at night in areas with a lot of crime.
“It was mainly motivated by the opportunity of robbery but also a degree of gratuitous violence and some racism – racism wasn’t necessarily the primary reason,” he says.
The biggest challenge addressing the fallout in India was tackling the 24-hour news cycle, according to McCarthy.
“The problem essentially was the 24-hour news cycle that keeps material running all the time – it imprints itself on people,” he says.
“There’s a constant need to provide material, so the story runs for longer than it probably merits — although it was a big issue,” he adds.
Wade says McCarthy’s marathon effort addressing the Indian media resulted in him becoming the best known foreign representative in the country.
The ambassador was also widely praised for his performance, with Lowy Institute for International Policy director Rory Metcalf saying he likely prevented the student crisis from flaring into a bigger issue.
McCarthy’s posting to India came to an end on 10 August, 2009.
The former ambassador is eager to point out that a number of positive developments concerning the Australia-India relationship took place during his term that failed to attract the level of press garnered by the crisis.
Trade between the two countries grew strongly, military ties strengthened and the number of tourists to Australia also swelled considerably.
“An awful lot happened that was very, very good,” he says.
Although retired from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, McCarthy still plays a part in the world of international relations as Deputy Chair of the Australia India Institute and National President of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.
Indeed, McCarthy’s interest in Asia seems only to have deepened since he first began exploring the region as a young man.
Throughout his travels, for pleasure and for work, he has collected a fine array of Asian artefacts: South-East Asian silverware, old maps of the Bay of Bengal, Turkmen rugs, Buddhist figures from Indochina, prints of Indonesian shadow puppets and Burmese lacquer work.
Wade says the collection is more than just a legacy to McCarthy’s diplomatic career.
“John’s impressive collection of Asian art shows he wasn’t just a diplomat, it reveals a deep engagement with the region — it wasn’t just a professional interest it was a deep personal interest in the rise of Asia,” Wade says.