Australia and India in the Time of Covid: Racism, Colonialism, and Geopolitics

There was a time when Australia, a poor country cousin to both Britain and the United States,  was never on the minds of Indians—except when it came to the subject of cricket.  Australians have long had a reputation for being ferociously competitive in all sports and I recall from my childhood in the 1970s Indian commentators lamenting that their own sportsmen, unlike the Aussies, lacked ‘the killer instinct’. Defeating Australia on their home ground remained for Indian test cricket an objective that was only achieved thirty years after the two countries played their first test series in 1947-48.  If the first test on Australian soil was won in 1977, it took a little more than seventy years for India to win a test series in Australia.  But India’s most spectacular win might have been just months ago in January, when, much to the astonishment of Indians and Australians alike, indeed the entire cricketing world, India cast a spell at the Gabba stadium in Brisbane, where Australia had been undefeated against any team in 32 years, and won the test—and the series—with three wickets to spare.

A celebration by the Indian cricket test team at the Gabba stadium in Brisbane, January 2021. Source: https://www.sportskeeda.com/cricket/news-that-shows-strength-character-courage-michael-clarke-lauds-team-india-historic-series-win

That last defeat must have pinched Australia, more particularly when it utterly vanquished India in the first test match and left everyone thinking that India would be groveling in the dirt for the remainder of the series. But it cannot have pinched Australia enough to warrant the rather ugly turn of events between the two countries in recent days. It started with a headline in The Australian on April 26th, “Modi leads India out of lockdown … and into a viral apocalypse.” The Asia Correspondent, Philip Sherwell, was unsparing in his criticism of Modi, whom he took down with this acerbic observation:  “Arrogance, hyper-nationalism and bureaucratic incompetence have combined to create a crisis of epic proportions, critics say, as India’s crowd-loving PM basks while citizens literally suffocate.”  Sherwell voiced criticism that for some days has been heard in India and around the world:  Modi and his ministers not only willfully ignored warnings from health experts about the emergence of a second wave and new variants, but even openly encouraged mass religious gatherings such as the Kumbh Mela with full-page advertisements in newspapers promoting the Kumbh as a safe, clean, and Covid-free experience.  Both Modi and his Home Minister, Amit Shah, held mass election rallies in West Bengal where thousands went mask-less.  The piece goes on to offer a resounding critique of how India’s slow vaccine roll-out, the “hubris” of the Centre, the poison of nationalist politics, and the catastrophic failure of the health system have all contributed to turning the country into a Covid hell.

The Australian was scarcely alone in voicing such criticism of Modi.  Similarly harsh indictments of his gross mismanagement of the pandemic and the callousness of the state have appeared everywhere around the world.  Indeed, Sherwell’s article first appeared in The Times before being reprinted in The Australian, but it is the piece’s publication in an Australiannewspaper that appears to have provoked the Indian High Commission in Canberra into a ferocious rejoinder.  Writing to the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, India’s Deputy High Commissioner deplored that the newspaper had reproduced “a completely baseless, malicious and slanderous article without bothering to check the facts”, suggesting that “the report has been written only with the sole objective of undermining the universally acclaimed approach taken by the Government of India to fight against the deadly global pandemic, at this decisive moment.”  Just two days later, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, in a virtual meeting with Indian ambassadors and high commissioners posted around the world, instructed them to counter aggressively the “one-sided” narrative in the international media that has highlighted the incompetence of the present government and Modi’s arrogance.

Mass cremations in India as the country reels under the onslaught of the coronavirus.

The subject of how Indian diplomacy has changed over the years, largely in response to the perception that India has long been a somewhat “soft” state, is critically important but must be left aside for the present.  The scathing criticism leveled against Modi in The Australian is not without justification and similarly the claim by the Indian High Commission that the response of the Indian state to the pandemic has been “universally acclaimed” seems at this juncture not merely churlish but downright disingenuous if not comical.  India seems to be the last country that anyone wants to emulate now; nor did India’s total lockdown in March 2020, on four hours’ notice to the country, strike anyone as humane.  However, Australia has stepped into the fray with, so to speak, its own rejoinder.  On Monday, a new ban on travel from India to Australia went into effect, and its provisions can only be described as draconian.  Citing the alarming increase in Covid cases in India, the spread of a new variant, and the apparent inability of the Indian government to contain Covid, the Australian government has forbidden anyone in India, including its own citizens, from traveling to Australia.  Anyone found in breach of the law faces penalties of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $60,000 Australian dollars or nearly Rs 35 lakhs.  The country’s foreign minister, responding to criticism, pointed to the fact that 57 percent of those found positive in Australia and placed in quarantine have been arrivals from India.  She noted, “It was placing a very, very significant burden on health and medical services in states and territories.”

The travel ban is doubtless unprecedented in that it is the first time that Australia has termed it a criminal offense for its own citizens and permanent residents from returning to their country. Though the Australian government will not say so, there is every reason to believe that the Australians stranded in India are overwhelmingly of Indian origin. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has sought to offer a robust defence of his government, claiming that the allegations of racism are unfounded since a similar ban was imposed on people coming from China.  But this is wholly incorrect:  Australia did not make it a criminal offense for its own citizens and permanent residents to return to Australia from China.  As other critics have pointed out, no similar restriction was imposed upon Australians in the US or Britain when those countries were reeling from the onslaught of the virus. Legal experts have raised questions about the constitutional validity of such a measure.  The Australian Human Rights Commission has stated that the travel ban, accompanied by “criminal sanctions under the Biosecurity Act, raises serious human rights concerns”, and the United Nations has also said that it is gravely disturbed by such a measure.  The Australian government and its spokespersons, meanwhile, remain adamant that the travel ban and the severe restraints it imposes are not in the least racist.

In Australia, it must be said, racism is ingrained into the “Australian way of life”, present in the very pores, arteries, and lifeways of Australian society, part of the very lore of a settler colonial society born in genocide and until a century ago beholden to a “White Australia” policy.  Aboriginals were hunted by white Australians, sometimes—as in the case of the Tasmanians—into extinction, but the treatment of immigrants and now refugees has not lagged far behind.  Indians as an immigrant group as such are relatively late entrants into Australia but their numbers have grown more rapidly in the last five years than all other immigrants, barring those from Britain, jumping from 449,000 to 721,000.  They now constitute 2.6 percent of the population. In 2009-10, Melbourne earned considerable notoriety as the site of a series of vicious attacks on Indian students.  These nakedly racist attacks were widely reported in the Indian and international press; relations between the two countries plummeted; and when the government of then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd finally responded, it did so because enrollment of Indian students, who have been a windfall for the Australian higher education sector, had declined dramatically.

A collage of images from attacks on Indian students in Australia: from NDTV, source: https://www.ndtv.com/photos/news/indians-attacked-in-australia-8479#photo-103452

What is indubitably clear is that Australia is far from mending its ways.  Its notorious treatment of refugees has been the focus of some international criticism, but the insidious racism that is inherent in the structures and exchanges of everyday life is far too potent a force to be eradicated merely by multicultural education, mandates for diversity training, or the pieties of liberal thought.  Australia will have to engage in a form of rigorous self-reflection that will shake the country to the core.  While nothing, absolutely nothing, excuses Australia from its execrable conduct, it is also unequivocally clear that India continues to be vulnerable, uniquely so considering the size of its population and its vaunted ambition to be viewed as an emerging great power.  If the present ban has not elicited the kind of knee-jerk response from the Indian government that one might have expected, it is not only because the fires of Covid are burning bright and the country is preoccupied in its desperate quest for oxygen. The brute fact is that a country that has shown itself incapable of safeguarding the lives of its own citizens, on the sacred land (bhoomi) that is called “Bharat Mata”, has little or no leverage with most countries when it comes to overseas citizens of Indian origin.  A country that has little respect for its own citizens is not calculated to make an impression upon the world stage.  As long as the government remains oblivious to this indubitable fact, India is likely to remain at the receiving end of third-class treatment.

First published at ABP under the same title on 6 May 2021, here.

20 thoughts on “Australia and India in the Time of Covid: Racism, Colonialism, and Geopolitics

  1. Hello, professor. I also greed that Australian Prime Minister Morrison has racial discrimination especially to India. The Australian government’s decision to ban entry was immediately criticized by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). AHRC questioned the “necessity” of the Australian government’s ban and said that “the Australian government must prove that these measures are not discriminatory and are the unique appropriate way to deal with public health threats.” Indeed, the COVID-19 had been broken at India, but the government’s Imprisonment or fine for people come for India is an absolutely inhuman behaviour. If the Australian government truly wants to solve the problem of various, it ought to accept people form all over the world and help each other rather than through ban entry to deal with the various. The United States has similar cases every day, but Australians from the United States are still allowed to enter the country. Why is this discrimination only against India? Thus the theory about “India is in a bad situation. People there have never stopped gathering, and unless that stops, death will be widespread. We have to keep our borders closed to prevent Australia from finding itself in the same mess!” is false and inhuman.

    Like

  2. Australia’s decision to ban its own citizens and permanent residents from returning from India in the midst of India’s surge in Covid cases seems to be an instance in which the cover of crisis and chaos is used to perpetuate racism or injustice in hopes it will not be questioned (this theme has come up repeatedly in class materials). These extreme measures that include imprisoning or excessively fining violators of the ban were not adopted for Australians traveling from countries such as China or the United States when each had its respective peak in Covid cases. Why now? Has the Australian government given sufficient justification for such an extreme action other than the traveling from India “placing a very, very significant burden on health and medical services in states and territories”? Was that not the case for Australians returning from other countries with high Covid cases? To set such an extreme and unprecedented punishment and then offer no new explanation for why this particular situation is so drastically different is suspicious to say the least. Especially when taking into account the constant racism that Indians in Australia face. The fear is that Australians returning from India will bring more Covid cases to Australia, but is it not better that they be treated in Australia where there are significantly fewer cases and more resources to spare instead of adding more cases for Indian hospitals to treat? If Australia truly wants to eradicate any threats of Covid outbreaks, it is best to dedicate resources in order to contain Covid globally. As long as there is rampant Covid in other countries, the threat of Covid will remain existent for everyone. Outbreaks will constantly create the need for more travel restrictions and precautions despite the fact that those solutions are merely reactionary and do not address the root of the issue. What constitutes the point in which a country can shift most of its attention and resources from reactionary to preventative tactics in terms of Covid?

    Like

    • You make the valid point, which I did not do so in my reason though I thought of it, namely that Australians (whether of Indian origin or otherwise) returning to Australia from India would get treatment at a time when India’s own resources are woefully inadequate. There is altruism in a country willing to take up people under conditions of quarantine and offering them treatment. That Australia would not do so in fact another indication that the color of the skin is important to white Australia.

      Like

  3. Hello Professor, I completely agree with your take on absent-mindedness and deplorable negligence on the government’s part toward the Covid-19 pandemic. Over the past year, I have been living back home in India, and have witnessed with my own eyes, the situation flip the switch from bad to worse. It’s sad to see the way second wave has been handled, despite innumerable warnings from health officials and experts. Our country has now reached a position where the healthcare system is choked, hospital beds are unavailable, and hospitals are running out of injections, medicines, ventilators and oxygen. Being so close to the situation, it is difficult not to ask the question, where is the government support? People have been left to fend for themselves with hundreds of WhatsApp groups/ social media posts circulating valuable information regarding the crisis. Instead of the state providing, different religious communities, such as the Sikhs have commendably risen to the forefront to help the “suffocating country”. It is now, in a desperate attempt to provide assistance for the country, that there is aid being provided from countries which India overshadowed on a global stage.
    It was also interesting to read about the ban on Australian citizens and permanent resident holders entering Australia from India. Whether the Australian government denies it and the racial footing of the matter is up for discussion, I personally feel that it is undoubtedly an act of racism that is being thrown under the blanket of a global crisis. I was unaware of the fact that this was declared a criminal offence and the fact that when the US, Britain, and China were in the heat of the crisis and Australian Citizens and PR holders were not committing a crime by entering their country makes it difficult not to treat this as an act of racism. This decision by the government has also come under question by the Australian Human Rights Commission, that has labeled it as a serious human rights concern. I understand the fact that the COVID-19 virus is wildly contagious and each country is taking decisions for themselves, but when it is unprecedented and declared criminal, the matter raises questions of racism. We are in a time now where countries cannot shut their borders forever. The only way to contain the virus globally is to offer aid instead of shutting off, and I feel it is the responsibility of the government to look out for their citizens, no matter which country they are coming from.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is important for me to add, and I will probably develop this argument in a new blog essay, that though everyone speaks about the collapse of the health care system, very few people tell you what is at the heart of this collapse. And that is undoubtedly the privatization of health care in India–for which not only the present government, but previous governments, and even the country’s middle class, is responsible. Under the Modi government, the mania for privatization has reached new heights, with consequences that can be now be seen clearly.

      Liked by 1 person

      • This tale of woe – related to the privatisation of health care (and other services that once were mainly the preserve of government) – is also one that affects the Australian people. Smaller government is in no way better government.

        Like

  4. You’re usual humane and well reasoned commentary but is it correct to claim that… ‘Aboriginals were hunted by white Australians, sometimes—as in the case of the Tasmanians—into extinction…’ ?
    There are first nations people who certainly claim that the Tasmanian people remain, despite the fact that many a document notes that Truganini was the last “full-blooded” Tasmainian to have lived.

    Like

    • I think the evidence that the Tasmanians were rendered extinct after the death of Truganini is largely unimpeachable. But, for argument’s sake, let us suppose that was not the case. The larger argument that the an onslaught was unleashed upon the Aboriginals by white settlers still stands. One can dispute, as is the case with the genocide against Native Americans, how many were exterminated and killed as a matter of genocidal policy, and how many fell to diseases against which they had no immunity, but the brute fact that stares one in the face is the calamitous decline of both Native Americans and Australian Aboriginals. The politics of what might be called ‘holocaust demography’ is a subject unto itself.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Absolutely agree. That the government of the day implemented a policy which intended genocide and which probably achieved such, is indeed ‘unimpeachable’ (except by the likes of Mr. Windschuttle). And such policies, or similar ones, operated throughout much of Australia. The consequences of these government acts, and the mindsets which prompted them, still impact Australia’s first nations peoples today.

        Like

  5. The Australian travel ban on India reminds me of former President Trump’s 2017 travel ban on predominantly Muslim countries, which he enacted under the guise of “Protection from Foreign Terrorist Entry”. The key difference here is that, while Australia is banning its own citizenry from returning to their homeland, the U.S. Muslim Ban prevented foreign nationals and refugees from coming to or obtaining visas in the United States. In either case, however, the underlying cause seems to be racist rhetoric thinly veiled as national safety precautions. I found this quote particularly interesting: “insidious racism that is inherent in the structures and exchanges of everyday life is far too potent a force to be eradicated merely by multicultural education, mandates for diversity training, or the pieties of liberal thought”. I believe that this statement is both utterly correct and so poorly understood by much of the U.S., and indeed the world, today.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hello Professor,

    In my perspective, many countries have implemented a variety of policies to prevent the external influx of coronavirus, but Australia’s case, which the provision that prohibition of entry from India to Australia is a highly racist and inhumane measure. As globalization has been thickening around the world, the move to seal the border is clearly inappropriate despite the spread of the coronavirus which has a negative impact on each country’s economy worldwide. For this reason, many countries do not impose entry restrictions on people from other countries. Yet this case in Australia was very different. The Australian government has not only singled out certain countries and banned them from entering the country, but has also judged the entry of Indians to be a crime. The Australian government denies that the entry restriction policy from India is not a racist policy, but this can be argued by looking at other countries’ cases. This is more clear because the Australian government does not restrict people entering Australia from other countries. In my point of view, the Australian’s action is a racist idea of the Australian government that exploited inhumanely in the name of the Corona crisis and national safety prevention. I am sorry for the reality that these wrong ideas are being made at the national level even in the modern period. The state has a basic right of citizens and a responsibility to ensure the safety of its people. Even if it is a people of different ethnicities. Australia now has a large influx of immigrants and a multiculturalism, but the ban on entry from India and its criminalization do not guarantee citizenship as well as racist issues. This is an unbelievable event in a modern democratic country.

    Like

  7. I think that the Australian government’s decision to ban entry was immediately criticized as wrong. Different positions have different ideas. On the Australian government’s part, they decided to protect their citizens. On the other hand, the rest of the people or countries think that is a provocation. Such as America did, America decided to ban seven countries from entry. It looks like motivation, but in fact, it is the protection of citizens and governments.

    Like

  8. Hello Professor,
    I definitely agree that Australia’s ban on people returning from India may have racist undertones, given how it differed from their response to Australians returning from China and the United States. The part that struck me the most and perhaps offered the most compelling evidence as to possible underlying motivations behind the ban was how the Australian media harshly and swiftly criticized the Indian government before the ban came into place — which is not to say that the Indian government is perfect and that all criticism is unwarranted, but rather that this sort of media coverage somewhat reminds me of how US media outlets cover news from China to generate consent for Sinophobic policies. It appears that there is a tendency for the media to create a narrative that paints a country’s xenophobic policies in the best light, often by highlighting or exaggerating the flaws of the country which it deems to be ‘inferior’ or the enemy. I wonder if the perception of many people in the Western world of India as a developing country also plays a contributing factor in their support for such policies, since there is such a stark difference between how Australia treated travelers from the US, a powerful developed nation, versus India, which has less sway in global politics.

    Like

    • Hi Anna,
      India has done a very job of managing the response to COVID. There is no doubt about that and I have been fiercely critical of India. However, at the same time, there is little doubt that it’s status as a ‘developing country’ makes it certainly more vulnerable in the American and Western press, and of course there is a long and troubled history of how the West represents countries such as India. The brute fact of the matter is that all countries are far from being ‘equal’ when it comes to the question of not just representation but immigration policy and other matters of the state.

      Like

  9. The fact that Covid-19 caused several issues related to the travel ban and border crossing processes even with a vehicle, not with a plane, shows that we as human beings are incapable of planning ahead for pandemics in such extent. The pandemic also proved that many countries were not able to differentiate how racist they can be and how much of their concern about their own citizens could turn into racial injustice. I strongly believe that Australia is one of the cases when they reasoned the pandemic to reject departures from India. Of course, politicians would want to protect their policies and leadership, but it is obvious that among other things, Covid is one of the cases that we can assume causes these policies to work in favor of those who created them.

    Like

  10. The article “Australia and India in the Time of Covid: Racism, Colonialism, and Geopolitics” discusses the issues underlying Australia’s recent ban on receiving anyone traveling from India into its borders. While Australia is right to take precautions against the virus, it is noted that the ban on travelers from India is much stricter than any other ban she has implemented throughout the pandemic—“it is the first time that Australia has termed it a criminal offense for its own citizens and permanent residents [to return] to their country” (“Australia and India…”). The ramifications of this new policy are amplified by Australia’s history of indigenous extermination and the recent racist attacks by citizens on the rapidly growing Indian population in that country. As Gyanendra Pandey discusses in “The Colonial Construction of ‘Communalism’: British Writings on Banaras in the Nineteenth Century,” colonial masters performed “an emptying out of all history—in terms of the specific variations of time, place, class, issue—from the political experience of the people,” and “The communal riot narrative served to substantiate this reading of history” (132). This new policy by Australia fails to address the underlying issues that contribute to a negative view of the government’s actions. With the government treating their past and that of the peoples they seek to exclude as a carte blanche, there is no wonder that many Indians and internationals are speaking against the country’s COVID policy. Even as the colonization of Australia is fraught with nuance (i.e. those colonizing the land often weren’t doing so by choice but as a punishment for their supposed crimes), this history must be addressed, especially as it continues to so obviously impact present policy and the treatment of both Indians and Australians of Indian backgrounds. The tendency of colonial governments to erase the pasts of those they conquer has obviously had long-lasting effects that seep into the politics of the present-day, in India, Australia, and elsewhere.

    Like

  11. Hello Professor Lal! The first point of cricket igniting conflicts between India and Australia is very similar to what occurred in the 1960s with the “football war” between El Salvador and Honduras. I believe there are many similarities between these two events because while a country may be saddened by a defeat in a very popular sport, it is also able to reveal the long standing tensions between countries. In this case, ever since the attack on Indian students in Melbourne, tensions between Australia and India were never really resolved and Australia’s “sore loser” attitude demonstrated that India still views Australia as racist nation. While that assumption may be true, Australia’s approach to Covid has been nothing else but acclaimed; therefore, I believe their action to bar travel between India and Australia is mainly fueled by their efforts to keep Australia as Covid free as possible and not out of sheer racism since India is currently struggling to keep Covid under control.

    Like

  12. It is extremely disheartening that racism still plays such a major role in the way people are treated. It is evident that Australia saw an opportunity to discriminate against its Indian citizens through through the outbreak of Covid-19. From my understanding, only citizens of Indian descent were banned from entering Australia. Other travelers were not treated or held to the same restrictions. It can be argued that they ware being cautious, but based on their history of racism, it wouldn’t be surprising if they are just using the pandemic as an excuse to leave those deemed as second class citizens outside of the country.

    Like

  13. This article really showcases the racism and nationalism that’s innate to a lot of foreign policy in the pandemic. Australia’s complete ban on travel from India, punishable by criminal offence, is absolutely astounding, and holds some worrying racist thoughts behind that decision making. While the criticisms of India’s handling of the virus may be valid, the context behind them being pushed as well as using those criticisms to validate such a harsh policy are completely unjustified. The double standards with other countries unrestricted travel to Australia and Australia’s history with India only serve to bolster that point.

    This ideology isn’t inherent to just Australia, though this particular event stands out in its scope. One example that pops up in my mind is how many countries were quick to close their borders so that they couldn’t be “invaded” by the virus, as you detailed in another blog essay. That idea that countries had to protect themselves from others, even when in some cases domestic issues were far worse than foreign ones, greatly colored much public sentiment and policies put into place, often for the worse. It’s clear that it’s an ideology that needs to be reviewed, not just in Australia, but in other places as well.

    Like

  14. Hello Professor,

    One little ironic note about the Australian travel ban is that it stranded several Australian cricketers in India, which although I’m sure was not the end of the world for the athletes, it was reported as such by the Australian media. Racism in the world is inescapable, and when a predominantly nonwhite country and a predominantly white country enter into any conflict, it generally isn’t the diversity of their races that will bring them together in the end. As another commenter mentioned before, Australia’s travel ban reminds me of Trump’s Muslim travel ban. However, although the optics are as bad as Trump’s infamous decision, the COVID pandemic has caused all rules to be thrown out, for better or for worse. That is to say, even if the policy is racist and is rooted in racism, Australia is willing to take the hit to its public relations image if it can continue to hold off the virus.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s