When the colonised start colonising

Swapnik Sanagavarapu considers the role of Indian Diaspora in the Australian settler-colonial apparatus

Bhagat Singh, Pemulwuy and Pritilata Waddedar standing in front of an Aboriginal Flag. "Death to Colonialism" is imprinted on the flag.

The 26th of January is a confusing day for Indian diaspora in Australia. On the one hand, it is significant as the day which marks the Indian state’s transition into an independent and sovereign republic. On the other hand, it is also a day on which many of us ironically celebrate the genocidal creation of modern Australia by the same people who colonised us.

Popular discourse often frames colonialism as a historical relic; a sordid period in Australian history that has been overcome by “reconciliation”. A common refrain for those seeking to absolve themselves of colonial guilt is that their ancestors were not directly involved in the horrific actions of Australia’s colonial past. This is especially true in the case of marginalised groups, who, in the process of distancing themselves from their oppressors attempt to minimise their position in broader structures of subordination. As the child of South Asian immigrants living in Australia, this rings especially true. I have seen my community regularly vilified, marginalised and excluded by White Australia. But as Patrick Wolfe writes, “invasion is a structure, not an event” and all of us living on illegitimately occupied land share some complicity in the ongoing process of colonialism. Therefore, it seems necessary to interrogate my community’s relationship to the settler-colonial edifice that stands atop the ashes of Aboriginal Australia.

In discussions of racism, White Australians point to the existence of ‘model minorities’ – successful people of colour who supposedly invalidate the existence of white supremacy. They argue that the upward social mobility of some immigrantsis evidence that Australia is “the lucky country”, with equality of opportunity for those who are willing to “work hard” and “assimilate”. Regrettably, these narratives are internalised by rich people of colour, who see their path to economic advancement as universal and facilitated by some “luckiness” unique to Australia. These same people of colour have a stake in accepting the narrative that success is guaranteed for those who are willing to work for it. Shaped by their experiences of hardship in foreign lands, they would rather believe that their success is the product of a system that rewarded their sacrifices, rather than that of mere circumstance, privilege or just random luck. From this thinking, it follows that Indigenous communities are themselves at fault for their lower standards of living because they were unable or unwilling to take advantage of Australia’s “luckiness”. What is forgotten is the racist policing, genocide and intergenerational trauma that has actively prevented Aboriginal communities from truly participating in Australian society.

Indians are one such model minority. In the 2011 census, the median individual weekly income for Indian-born adults was $125 more than that of other overseas-born populations, and even $66 more than the median for Australian-born adults. Indian immigrants, who in most cases came to Australia in search of a “better life”, believe that the opportunities they have received necessitates an obligation to Australian society. As a result, they buy wholesale into the notion that Australia is a multicultural “melting pot”. Problematically, this convenient narrative requires a wilful inadvertence to the fact that Australian capitalism (and their economic success) has come at the cost of violently excluding First Nations peoples.

I remember a story from popular community newspaper India Link about 2015’s “Australia Day” celebrations. It exalted the fact that chants of “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie/Oi, Oi, Oi” were heard alongside “Bolo se nihal” (A Sikh call of victory) and “Laa ilaaha illallah, Muhammad ar-Rasool Allah” (The Islamic declaration that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his final messenger).

However, alongside “Oi, Oi, Oi”, more sinister colonial refrains are also echoed. While Indians tend to embrace Australia’s perceived multicultural identity, many also propagate racist attitudes and colonial ideas about Indigenous people. Settler-colonial societies often confer the status of honorary whiteness to their most loyal functionaries, and this is especially true for right-wing Indians. Following a precedent set in the US by the likes of Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley – rich, white passing Indians such as Dave Sharma have been given the status of honorary whiteness in exchange for an undying loyalty to reactionary politics. Concomitantly with the rise of the fascistic BJP/RSS government in India, more and more Indians are becoming increasingly conservative and accepting the mantle of honorary whiteness in Australia. At an interpersonal level, it is not uncommon to hear about the supposed laziness or alcoholism of Aboriginal people, while dispossession and genocide are never mentioned.

Like a great many issues, the unwillingness of Indians to recognise the illegitimacy of Australia’s colonial project can ultimately be traced to the intersection of caste and class. Those who are privileged enough to emigrate to Australia are mostly upper-caste Hindus with education and wealth. They themselves are complicit in the system of Savarna (caste) which oppresses Dalits (formerly known as untouchables) and Adivasis (Indigenous people). For these people, there is no historical memory of degradation and oppression, no understanding of solidarity and a natural affinity for the oppressor rather than the oppressed. This extends to their understanding of Australia’s relationship with its Indigenous inhabitants.

Ultimately, the narratives of the “model minority” obscure the fact that Australia’s relationship to South Asian immigrants has largely been one of cultural hostility. Instances of violence against Indians came to the fore in 2008 and 2009, after a string of racially motivated attacks in Melbourne against taxi drivers and international students. White Australia’s underlying hatred for South Asians reared its ugly head again in 2018, with the brutal bashing of Pakistani international student Abdullah Qaiser in Newcastle.

It seems ironic that Indians should have an affinity with the cultural myths of white Australia. In fact, it was the same Anglo colonisers who oversaw the systematic destruction of Aboriginal civilisation who stole $45 trillion from India and condemned it to a state of abject poverty. In light of this, we ought to show solidarity with people engaged in the same struggle against colonialism that we undertook because ultimately until the wrongs of colonialism have been righted, this country can never be lucky.

“Solidarity is not an act of charity: it is an act of unity between allies fighting on different terrains toward the same objectives. Solidarity is an assertion that no people is alone, no people is isolated in the struggle for progress.” – Samora Machel


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