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76th I-Day: Does Australia think about India?

Australia’s new fascination with India continues apace.

Most recently, two massive delegations from the states of Western Australia and New South Wales toured various Indian cities and regions, while at the federal level, a plethora of agreements are being signed across defence, commercial, industrial and regional issues.

The Australia India Institute and the Perth USAsia Centre have just jointly released a survey booklet, Innovation, Security, Culture: the Next 75 Years of Australia India Relations to survey likely developments across technology, geopolitics and culture.

Also Read: World leaders laud India’s achievements on 75 years of independence

Reciprocation is there, too, at many levels. Also marking the seventy-fifth anniversary of Independence, for example, INS Sumedha has arrived in the Western Australian port of Fremantle.

In all this frenetic activity, however, there is a curious national vacuum in Australia where Indian affairs and developments are almost studiously ignored.

That is in some part because of the prevailing preoccupation with China rapidly becoming the bogeyperson of Australian public sentiment, with various national columnists openly predicting a war between the Asian giant and the USA, which, under current sentiments, would see Australia line up with the USA, a worrying prospect.

And in part, the knowledge gap also proceeds out of government to government public policy focus that zeroes in on key mutual interests that begin with defence and security. China figures there, too, as India joins the Quad, where Japan and the USA join their new partners in combatting China’s growing global grasp, notably in the Pacific.

All that taken into consideration, though, there remains a curious lack of a broad public interest on matters Indian. Bodies like the Australia India Business Council work hard in their specific interest zones, with the bulk of their support coming from leading activists in the Indian diaspora, which is rapidly becoming a feature in modern Australian life. Indian diaspora voters, for example, became a feature of the recent Australian federal election.

The study of India in schools and universities has declined markedly in Australia over recent years, and in turn, that has contributed further to the wider non-notice of details in Indian life and its relation to Australia, despite the popularity of films like RRR, which has done well. Despite all the recent rhetoric about the Australia-India relationship being about more than
curry, cricket and Commonwealth, that triumvirate of topics continues to dominate.

While there is a basic sense that the Indian economy is globally significant, the economic and business pages of Australian newspapers rarely, if ever, feature major analyses of that economy at the national, let alone regional level, barring moments when major investors in Australia like Gautam Adani pop up. Newspapers in Sydney and Perth had minimal coverage
of their respective state delegations, with discussion and coverage mainly via Facebook and LinkedIn or other social media.

Some of that focused interest is only to be expected, but it is undeniable that the broader coverage leaves its readers oblivious to Indian developments. That covers all aspects of life. There has scarcely been mention of India’s outstanding success at the recent Commonwealth Games, except where athletes may have pipped their Australian counterparts. The increasingly patriotic nature of sports coverage everywhere explains some of that, but not all. Except for cricket, there is an Australian blind spot about India‘s sporting achievements as there is about much else.

Anyone interested in Western Australians, for example, would be poorly served indeed if they looked locally for information about recent economic and political developments in Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nādu, Andhra and Telangana, even though those states are now a prime focus for the state of Western Australia.

This must be reversed if there is to be a genuine and productive bilateral relationship at both federal and state levels. So what is to be done in Australia to rectify this situation?

Both Australian and Indian governments at all levels need to invest more in making Australians really aware of their mutual social evolutions.

There needs to be dramatically more commercial, educational and social exchange in all walks of life. India would do well, for example, to fund more Indian language programmes in Australian schools and universities, along with attendant cultural awareness training. Too many Australian delegations arrive in India with too little understanding of local niceties and protocols. More mutual investment in cultural programmes by the Indian and Australian governments at the state level would have big benefits more broadly. That might include funding Indian news programmes in English more prominently in Australia.

Right now, too few Australians know about, let alone understand, the importance of the growing relationship, and that needs to be fixed. Australian governments and agencies, and news groups bear responsibility for that, but it would be in India’s interests if governments there took the initiative to fill some of the gaps in Australian knowledge.

(Emeritus Professor Brian Stoddart is a former Vice-Chancellor of La Trobe University in Australia. His published books include Land, Water, Language & Politics in Andhra: Regional Evolution in India Since 1850)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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