The bringing into the country of labour, aka international students: how else could we start talking about Indians, at this place and at this point in time — despite the demands and necessities the conventions of conversation impose upon us? I mean to say, we could also just talk about elephants and peacocks and Gandhi and the Independence movement, and sarees and curry and so many other things that make up an oh-so-rich heritage, that great heritage that has animated conversation and social life — even an art and literature — in the Indian community well-settled in the Anglo-American world. Into this nice little fairy tale (of Indians in the West) — with all its little dramas, disappointments, achievements and resentments (the stuff that spawned many creatives) — through the backdoor (so to speak) has come the country cousin who just may not, no matter what you do, fit in. And so Indians downunder are forced to face up to the divisions within the community; but this time it is hard not to notice some alignments and hierarchies taking shape in a global village crystallising within the Indian community downunder.
Identity (in the form of nationality, ethnicity, cultural heritage etc) has a central and defining role in contemporary social life. Contemporary identities took shape through the big events of the recent past, namely Western colonialism, the independence movements, post-colonial nation building, immigration and now multiculturalism. In the case of India, we know that British colonialism and its administrative needs set in motion the train of events that assumed the form of a nationalist struggle for liberation from the colonial yoke. In this nationalist movement, in response to the circumstances, needs and possibilities of the situation, emerged an idea of India and its people. The encounter with the non-European peoples of the globe was also instrumental in the formation of Britain as a nation. The consolidation of British political rule in India coincided with the rise of cultural and political elites in the subcontinent; these elites were the vanguard of the anti-colonial nationalist movement.
The Indian identity this vanguard championed in the struggle for legitimacy as the rulers of a liberated new India was a reflection of their cultural and social status in the subcontinent. This was also a time when other nations were emerging from similar struggles and social processes around the world. The nationalist movements were the first outbreak on a global scale of the modern politics of identity that emerged in the wake of a modernity that was allegedly ushered in by European hegemony. These social and political movements for liberation from Western imperialism were also, all of them, movements that would eventually decide who would be the rulers of the newly emerging nations. Such a hegemonic status had to be built on a terrain where identity was the recurring challenge and sole path to legitimacy. Whether it was the nature of economic development, the requirements of national security (both internal and external), the exigencies of daily governance and the procedures informing these, the identity that gained the upper hand was an outcome of victorious cultural alliances coming out of a battlefield of several competing cultures in India. This identity and the ideology surrounding it informed the cultural and political agenda for the nation’s future. India’s past and its identity as we’re accustomed to view it is a take on the past seen through the eyes, and the needs that influence the eye, of these dominant social elites.
Such an identity was not a natural historical outcome: it was taught in schools, inculcated through the mass media, and promoted through policy that favoured this version of Indian culture. It also had the blessings of British colonialism and the acceptance of elites everywhere else in the world. Although this identity has always been contested very strongly in India, outside of India, to some extent, it has had a relatively easier time — as an abstract idea it had and still has great potential. Among the Indian communities settling in other parts of the world, this abstract Indian identity found very fertile ground. No matter which part of India you were from, no matter what food you ate, what language you spoke, which Indian association you were part of, in a foreign land you still had this one thing in common.
All of the above is of course a very general sketch. It may still help in giving you an idea of the normative nature of an official culture, and the politics of those who are inspired by such ideals.
In India, what is officially valorised as Indian culture is a norm that millions have to struggle to live up to; any traveller or casual observer can see that Indian culture is much vaster, much more complex and much less exotic and fabled as the official ideology would have one believe. Yet this official culture has served a great political cause: it has cemented alliances within India, it has enabled, on the back of a cultural consensus, the propagation of a version of India that serves the interests of many classes of Indians overseas. It has created a spiritual itinerary for thousands of people of Indian extraction living in other parts of the world. Without going into too much detail, let us make an abrupt switch now and note that identity is not free of the political turmoils and necessities that drive these. Let us also note that identity is a banner that can be raised or dumped or moulded to suit the requirements of different situations — and this is particularly true among Indians in Australia.
Two or three decades ago, the Indian identity was not necessarily something people growing up in Australia were proud of or were even open about. In the past 10 years, however, the good Indians-vs-bad Indians debate began to surface more regularly in conversations in the community. There was a certain frank concern when people said: “When we came to this country there were only educated professionals coming from India to Australia. Not the cab drivers and all the others you see coming in these days. Too many Indians, and it’s giving the community a bad name.”
A bad name, definitely. But it has also created the right circumstances for a class of good Indians to assert itself politically as the voice of Indians downunder. This political opportunity also serves the needs of the moment in Australia today. As Australian society becomes more and more diverse the political establishment and its institutions are finding ways to accommodate this diversity and give it representation in the official corridors of power. In this situation it is not surprising, or disappointing, that the class of Indians well-established in Australia is the best-equipped to lead the community. The nature of the political terrain and the social milieu this political establishment represents favours such an outcome.
The social outlook of the well-established Indian community in Australia is very much that of a community that has been accustomed and reconciled to the status of a minority. This is quite understandable when one looks at the recent history of Australia and the negligible scope for any autonomy Indians had as a community up until the present. The social life that moulded the Indian identity downunder was formed, honed and perfected on the margins of Australian society. Such a marginal existence gave a distinct flavour to Indian culture in Australia; it was not without rewards and compensations, both for individuals and collectively for the community. The problems and frustrations that came with such a place in society could only be comprehended and articulated effectively through the prism of individual destinies that were constrained in a foreign land where race and political power built on the logic and ideology of majoritarianism prevailed. This was not a matter of choice for Indians in Australia. It is important to understand that this Indian identity and its methods and tactics of asserting itself were shaped by the only avenues a triumphant white racialism permitted it at the time. There really was not much scope for anything more than community functions, novels and cinema, scholarly critique on western culture, individual attainment in the professions, a few successful small businesses etc. What this situation has resulted in, so far as the present moment is concerned, is that we have a community that battled it out in Australia, and made the most of the opportunities that were on offer then.
It is not surprising that such a community has invested so heavily in a certain style of nostalgia, a vicarious existence, that is characteristic of its general worldview. As a compensation for its political status in Australia, the generation of Indians that migrated to Australia 20 or 30 years ago took refuge in the history of the victories against colonialism that their homeland is known for. These victories and its political idols, like Ghandi and Nehru, are officially events and people the West too has drawn great inspiration from. The patterns of conversation that dominated the social life of the Indian downunder revolved around these events and the heroes they are synonymous with in the West. This conversation was an indication of the aspirations that the community had in Australia. It was also a reflection of the aspirations the Indian community was permitted to have by the hegemonic community in Australia. The tremendous transformations India was undergoing, as a part of the major changes in global society and its economy, these matters had to be accommodated into the paradigm and framework inspired by the history of Britain’s encounter with India — the grand East-meets-West saga, the tale that made many people on both sides of the divide proud of themselves. India’s new society and its implications for the global economy, and Australia and its place in that global economy, these were developments that could be understood through the legacy of Gandhi and Nehru.
The established Indian community downunder has no new ideas or language with which it can effectively make sense of a new political situation. Still in the shadows of the educational institutions of yesterday, shaped in profound ways by its life in Australia in the last two or three decades, and unable to free itself from the status given it by the Australian political and social elite, this class effectively has little other than curry and sarees on offer, regardless of whatever else they may be doing individually or collectively. But this is not a bad place to be in: Australia has always had a great love for this style of Indianness. And it is a language that travels far and wide, particularly in certain places of power and social status—places where abstractions and fables and exotica are valuable and potent. These are the places that make possible the elite and well-mannered official cross-cultural encounters, where business or government decisions can be made with little dissent or trouble; where a bollywood dance and auntyjis in glittering sarees turn up; where white Anglos can continue to speak as if little had changed since Ghandi.
The well-established Indian downunder today functions as a middleman in the global economy, facilitating the deployment of India’s globalising workforce in Australia’s labour market. We need not go over the details of an international student racket that is wellknown today. Yet we have to mention some important points before finishing up this time.
In the time of what is called feudalism, the working peasantry were given the right to cultivate land by middlemen who also were agents of bigger powers in the agrarian economy. The large bulk of the peasantry’s produce was skimmed off by these middlemen as taxes for the rulers and as their share of the produce. This left the peasantry with just a bare minimum to eke out a living. This state of affairs created much social unrest. Often the peasants were evicted from the land for failure to produce enough or they left themselves because the burden of going on in these circumstances was too much for them.
Our contemporary Australia resembles this feudal society. The working youth of India have to pay enormous amounts of money to gain entry into the most lucrative places in the global economy. The largest portion of what they earn here is ploughed back into the local economy, and this on top of the fees and plane tickets and visa costs apart from so much else. All of this money goes to several established Indians here (our new middlemen) and a big bulk of this income keeps circulating in the Australian economy giving the racial aristocracy another chance to siphon off the wealth produced by labour in the third world.
And just like in the old days the peasant was excluded from the realms of good culture, today we see the Indian student on the defensive vis-à-vis White Australia, and vis-à-vis an established class of Indians that never runs out of reasons to find Indian students lacking in manners, English skills, guilty of unrealistic expectations, or lacking the required and right educational qualifications, and so on and so forth… Assimilate, adapt, be a good Indian, we need to tighten immigration so only deserving Indians can come in. And can we ask our maharajas and maharanis who this deserving Indian is? And what one has to do in order to be deserving of Australia?
Up until recently the Indian downunder carried on her/his life in the fold of a East-West encounter paradigm. The nubile traditional Indian bride and the confident upwardly mobile Anglicised woman—these were the two types symbolic of this reassuring divide. Yet when real change comes knocking it doesn’t come in the shape of a colourful saree or proper English accent—two sides of the same coin.
Can’t go on further, for lack of space. Identity, heritage. That old game. Race is robbery.