India at the Australian Historical Association Conference

Hockey stick

A hockey stick used by my mother at school in country Victoria during the mid 1950s with signatures of the 1928 Indian Olympic hockey team (the blue and yellow grip was added in the late 1970s).

Chinese-Australian history was well covered at the Australian Historical Association Conference but when I reviewed my conference notes I realised that a number of the sessions I attended were about the relationship between India and Australia.  I have only dabbled in this history during a seminar in my honours year, but increasingly I feel drawn to learn more.  Indians have lived in Australian since colonial times and the two countries have a strong historical association due to being fellow members of the British Empire.   Aside from these specific associations, my interest in secularism draws me to Indian history.  Leading researchers in this area recommend attention be given to the manner in which India has dealt with religion and state.

It was fitting that the keynote presentation was delivered by an authority in Indian colonial era history, Professor Sir Christopher Bayly of the University of Cambridge.  He gave a comparative overview of the two countries, titled ‘India and Australia: Distant Connections’.  He noted that the original peoples of both countries were subjugated and land appropriated by the colonial conquerors and that both countries experienced violence – between settlers and Aboriginal people in Australia and in India, the Rebellion of 1857.   The English legal system used in both countries had difficulty accommodating the native peoples because evidence under oath was traditionally only accepted from Christian witnesses.

Bayly commented that Australian self-government became an ‘icon’ for Indians agitating for independence.  However, Australia was a flawed icon in Indian eyes as they read about Australia’s treatment of Aborigines.  In questions afterwards, Bayly noted that the colonial era Calcutta newspapers had a significant amount of news about Australia, more so than another significant member of the empire – Canada.  Why was this?  There were significant shipping connections between Australia and India. 

This made me wonder whether old English language newspapers from colonial India have been digitised.  It appears not.  Even so, they sound like an interesting source for Australian historians.

Autographs on an old hockey stick

This endorsement by the Indian Olympic Hockey Team was seen by the manufacturer as a good selling feature of this hockey stick in the mid 1950s (enlargement of hockey stick in previous photo).

Sport has been an important connection between India and Australia for many years.  Erik Nielsen has researched tours of Australia by Indian hockey, cricket and soccer teams during the 1920s and 1930s.  He observed that while Australians admired Indian sporting prowess, particularly in hockey, the behaviour of Australians towards the Indians showed orientalist stereotypes such as calling Indians “magicians”, “jugglers” etc.  These labels connoted India as a land of mystery or unreality.  The sporting skills of Indians were attributed to inherent racial characteristics of Indians rather than hard training.

These tours were not simply about sport argued Nielsen.  Various other tensions in the relationship between India and Australia arose during the tours.  These tours took place during the period of the ‘white Australia’ policy which acted to exclude ordinary Indians from entry into Australia.  The assistant manager of the Indian hockey team, Mr P Gupta, spoke out about this at a civic welcome to the team in Tamworth.  He argued that as India was part of the British Empire any Indians should be free to enter Australia.  It seems that his comments struck a sensitive note in the host country.  A few days later he said that the comments he had made in Tamworth should not be taken so seriously.  However, the fact that the tour was about more than sport was underlined by Gupta’s following comment.  The Sydney Morning Herald reported that he said, “the team… was not visiting Australian for sport alone, but to show that Indians were gentlemen and could behave as such.”

The white Australia policy was introduced at federation; however, Indians were already living in Australia having entered the country during the nineteenth century.  We gained a glimpse of the presence of some Indians in late nineteenth century Australia through Nadia Rhook’s paper, ‘Linguistic connections across racial divides: Europeans and Indians speaking ‘fluently’ in late Colonial Victoria’.  Australia has never been an entirely English speaking country.  Rhook is interested in the use of languages other than English during a period when linguistic diversity was not generally appreciated.

Rhook noted that when newspapers mentioned the use of different languages in the colony of Victoria, they did this to reinforce the racial divide and portrayed those who spoke different languages as dishonest.  She noted that many Hindi and Muslim Indians were proficient in two or more languages, many being fluent in English.

This is something that I have considered while researching the teaching of reading.  The school readers in Victoria were edited to remove Christian references in order to attract the children of those who were not Christian to school, but it is notable that no adaptation or allowance seems to have been made in the colony’s schools to accommodate students who did not come from an English speaking background.

People from the subcontinent made a significant contribution to Australia during the nineteenth century, particularly in their role managing camel teams in outback Australia.  Bilal Cleland has done some research about the Muslims who developed outback transportation using camels and the difficulties they faced with the advent of federation and the white Australia policy.

While there was no paper presented about religion and secularism in India at the Religious History Association conference, there has been work done on this in Australia.  A week after the conference I attended a book launch of A History of State and Religion in India, a collaborative undertaking by authors Ian Copland, Ian Mabbett, Asim Roy, Kate Brittlebank and Adam Bowles.  The book was launched by the highly regarded historian of South Asian history, Dipesh Chakrabarty of the University of Chicago.  Chakrabarty noted how readable the book is, as well as being a work of significant scholarship.  Unfortunately you will not be reading a review of this book on this blog.  The publishers do not seem to be keen on anyone owning a copy of this book aside from university libraries having priced it well beyond the capacity of anyone else to afford.  No bookshop is going to stock a book that has a recommended retail value of AUD$230!

India has an important place in Australian history.  Indians visited Australia, lived in Australia, communicated with Australia and observed Australia from afar. Indian history also has relevance to Australian history in the absence of any ostensible connections to this country.  By looking outside the western context and learning more about secularism, the state and religion in India, we can better understand the nature of secularism elsewhere in the world, including Australia.

I hope that the history of Indians and Australia continues to be shared at future conferences of the Australian Historical Association.


1/8/2012:  The Australian Historical Association has made available Professor Sir Christopher Bayly’s paper, ‘India and Australia: Distant Connections‘, on their website. I have corrected the title of this paper in my original post, added a link to it and  distinguished the comments he made in the question session after he delivered his paper from those he made in the paper itself.  I strongly urge you to read his paper.

31/8/2015: Earlier this year Christopher Bayly died. Read his obituary by Richard Drayton in The Guardian.

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