History of shared sacrifice unites India, Australia
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History of shared sacrifice unites India, Australia

In this article for The Australian, Rory Medcalf argues that Australia must look to its growing and influential Indian diaspora communities in order to build the bilateral relationship between Australia and India.

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History of shared sacrifice unites India, Australia

Rory Medcalf

The Australian

11 November 2013


This Remembrance Day, spare a thought for a forgotten Australian soldier and what his story tells us about our future.

He was killed in action in Belgium in 1917. The Australian War Memorial describes the silence of his records as "testament to a strong man", not least because he was not young - in fact, 43 - when he joined to fight in the trenches.

But there was something even more remarkable about him that speaks to a changing Australia's future in Asia, as well as to our past. For Private Nain Singh Sailani was Indian, a pioneer of the extraordinary migrant community that is making a huge contribution to this country.

Today in Sydney, hundreds of that community's high achievers will gather for Australia's first Pravasi Bharatiya Divas conference, a celebration of the Indian diaspora and the way it is connecting the two nations. It's a far cry from anything Nain Singh Sailani would have recognised when he travelled from Simla to Geraldton to work as a labourer in the 1890s, or when he signed up as an Australian soldier in 1916 at the height of the White Australia policy. 

More than 300,000 people in today's Australia were born in India and that's not counting second and successive generations. They add greatly to Australia's prosperity and resilience in a competitive world. They are more likely to be young, educated and employed than the wider population. 

A distinct Indian-Australian identity is taking shape. Indians are our fastest growing migrant community, Punjabi our fastest growing language and Hinduism our fastest-growing religion. Travel both ways is increasing fast, as new direct air routes attest. 

India has become this country's fourth-largest export market, with a focus on energy and education, as well as a major source of investment. It is also a strategic partner in our shared Indo-Pacific Asian region. 

Australians and Indians forget that their militaries have a long history of shared sacrifice, from Gallipoli to Tobruk. In Afghanistan, our enemies have been India's enemies too. And looking ahead both countries have an interest in an Asian security order where no country is destabilisingly dominant. 

No wonder India is one of the Asian countries that the Abbott government recognises as critical to Australia's future - as Gillard, Rudd and Howard each realised in turn. But in all this, people will matter more than politics and strategy. 

When the US shed its strategic estrangement from India a decade ago, it was pushed along by Indian Americans - an enormously successful community, established over generations, bolstered by brains, influence and industry, in every sense. 

Opinion polling in India by the Lowy Institute and the Australia India Institute shows that even now, despite America's troubles, Indians admire the US more than they do any other country. The influence of the diaspora, communicating positive attitudes back to their families in India, explains this much more than American statecraft.

Likewise, in the ups and downs that lie ahead for Australia-India relations - and there will always be rough moments when two democracies engage - the emerging voice of Indian Australians will make all the difference. 

Australia has done much to rebuild its good name against the monsoon of negative coverage we received in the Indian media after the crimes against some Indian students here in 2009 and 2010.

The student crisis had a silver lining of compelling governments in both countries to engage more closely with each other - and this helped illuminate how much each country is changing, and how much we have to offer one another. 

Thankfully, most Indians have more sophisticated views of modern, multicultural Australia than their media lets on. Polling shows they generally have high regard for Australia, from its institutions to its values and its achievements in science, not just sport. Most have feelings of warmth towards this country, and continue to see it as a good place to be educated, second only to the US. 

But polling also shows that negative perceptions linger about racism and safety. The Indian-Australian community will keep championing this country and its interests. They in turn need to be confident that Australia is living up to its promise of opportunity, fairness and respect. 

The Abbott government also needs to show constancy and patience in engaging India. This will be challenging as India goes through a difficult phase internally, with slowing economic growth, widespread concerns about governance and elections looming in 2014. 

For all its problems, India remains a rising power, with enormous human capital to unleash - 600 million people under the age of 25 - and growing areas of excellence amid the disappointment. It is still likely to become one of the world's big three economies.

We can't expect New Delhi to do much for us between now and the elections, and we need to be ready to engage with whatever new leadership the world's largest democratic process delivers.

In turn, we should press India to place fresh priority on relations with Australia, including a prime ministerial visit to coincide with next November's G20 summit in Brisbane. 

Meantime, Canberra should keep expanding defence co-operation with New Delhi while concluding a uranium export safeguards agreement that discriminates neither against India nor for it. Yet more important than grand diplomacy is simply letting India and Australia play to their greatest strength: people.

So let's celebrate the investors and IT entrepreneurs, the scientists and students, the cricketers and Bollywood stars, even the politicians. But let's not forget Nain Singh Sailani. 

Rory Medcalf is a program director at the Lowy Institute and associate director of the Australia India Institute, UNSW.

Areas of expertise: Indo-Pacific strategy; Australian security and foreign policy; Australia’s key security relationships including the Quad; strategic impacts of the rise of China and India; maritime security; nuclear issues