Kama Maclean’s new book,   British India: White  Australia, examines the history of the relationship between the two nations. In this interview with Dr Joanna Cruickshank, Kama explains how the treatment of Indian students in Australia during the COVID pandemic bears some resemblance to the difficult experiences of earlier generations of Indians living in   Australia under the White Australia Policy.


Congratulations on this fascinating book, Kama! Could you tell us a little about what led you to write a book on this topic?

Thank you! A number of factors drove me to write this. Firstly; serendipity. As a ‘South Asianist’, I’ve been researching in the archives of the Government of India, in New Delhi or in London, for over 20 years. And yet I was often surprised by the number of times Australian references would cross my desk. They seemed stray, at the time, but as they started to accumulate, they formed part of a picture that linked Australia to India in ways I had not thought of before. In particular, was the fact that Australia was a ‘Dominion’, and therefore, until 1929, theoretically a model of how India might look, granted greater autonomy within the Empire, under the rubric of ‘Dominion Status’, which the Indian National Congress rejected. Secondly; my interest in the project was furthered by a number of indicators of a longer history of India in Australia, which had not been drawn together. These were more personal in nature, as projects, one way or another, often are. A photograph found in a family archive of an Indian sailor; stories from my grandmother of Indian prince-cricketers who were famous when she was young; a bland brand of pickles; and the adventures of a cartoon character, Chunder Loo. Finally, it was driven by my own frustration at how Australia-India relations were reduced to ‘curry, cricket and commonwealth’, a neat triad, which I felt trivialised the complicated histories of India within the Commonwealth. Australian experiences and Indian experiences of the empire were simply too different.

As the title suggests, this is not simply a book about the relationship between Australia and India, but between Australia and British India. Why is the imperial context so important in discussing the experience of Indians in Australia during this period?

South Asians who settled in Australia found, especially after 1901, when the ‘White Australia Policy’ came into force, that they had to justify their right to residency through the language of imperial ties and duties, especially because many had fought in imperial wars, including the Boer Wars. By using the language of ‘British India’, as opposed to simply ‘India’, or a regional identity such as ‘Punjab’, ‘Bengal’, or ‘Pakhtun’, they were activating a sense of imperial solidarity that the British themselves had projected to rally subjects to the ostensible cause of imperial defence. This sense of imperial solidarity was more likely to resonate with Australian sensibilities when Indian residents of Australia were lobbying for rights normally assigned to citizens, such as the right to vote and collect pensions.

You note that one of the challenges you faced in writing this book was that there are not many archival sources that give us access to the personal accounts of people of Indian descent in Australia during this period. How did the lack of those kinds of sources shape your approach in this book?

‘“Podgy” the Indian Hawker’. Elam Deen, Goulburn Valley, Victoria. c. 1934. Source Courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales, FL1695991.

I found that Indians were more likely to be written about in governmental archives and early press reports. Finding Indian voices was much harder. There are some written accounts of Indian travellers and entrepreneurs, and some accounts of store-owners, for example. I found that snapshot photography of Indian hawkers – many Indian residents in Australia worked as itinerant vendors, as their ability to work in major industries (such as coal, sugar, mining and other lucrative trades) was heavily restricted by legislation prohibiting non-white labour – provided a glimpse into the lives of many Indian settlers. These were taken at a time when cameras were relatively expensive, and taking photographs was carefully planned: one photographed things that were important. In the course of my work, I found many photographs of Indian hawkers, which provided an index of their importance, or sometimes simply their difference, in the Australian towns they travelled through or lived in. Some of these photographs can be harrowing, showing us the poverty and social isolation in which the hawkers lived. Many hawkers faced major difficulties in bringing their wives and families to Australia due to the Immigration Restriction Act. Some lived our their working lives in loneliness, and returned to India, although some hawkers married Australian women. Other photographs provide a sense of how some hawkers enjoyed friendships with their white photographers; their eyes radiate a sense of warmth and their names are written on the back of the photograph.


You show that people of Indian descent who came – or tried to come – to Australia during the era of the White Australia policy were subjected to all kinds of restrictions and humiliations. You also describe a history of activism by Indian people seeking greater political rights in Australia. Were you aware of that history of activism before you researched this topic – and was there anything that surprised you about what you found?

I was interested to find how associations were formed from early on to provide a platform to defend Indian settlers from the limitations of the White Australia Policy. Many of these were highly organised, and they used letterheads (often featuring elephants and kangaroos), they had executive committees and were extremely savvy in how they framed their appeals; writing to the King-Emperor, the Australian Prime Minister, or the Viceroy, appealing against the insularity of the Immigration Restriction Act. Many of the associations were short-lived. In the early 1900s, these associations were organised and run by Indians resident in Melbourne or Sydney; by the 1940s, they were organised and run by Australians, with the key input of Indian university students enrolled at universities in Sydney and Melbourne. Much of the focus of scholarship on the Indian community in Australia has fallen on those who settled in the late nineteenth century. But one of the few exemptions to the Immigration Restriction Act, as early as 1903, was for students from India. There is more work to be done on student migration from India.


I was really fascinated by your analysis of the character of Chunder Loo, a fictional Indian character who was very popular in Australia in the early twentieth century. What do you think the way he was represented tells us about attitudes to Indians in White Australia?

Originally drawn by Norman Lindsay, Chunder Loo was a cartoon character who regularly featured in the Bulletin for about ten years as a brand ambassador for Cobra boot polish. He begins as a hawker, reflecting Lindsay’s own experiences with Indians in Victoria in the early decades of the 1900s, but also, in a way, references Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, with Chunder standing in for Mowgli, substituting jungle animals with monotremes and marsupials. He was so popular that he featured weekly, drawn alongside a rhyme that told a story that children in particular found compelling. Chunder becomes prosperous, and begins to have adventures: he runs a horse in the Melbourne Cup, sees Halley’s Comet, spruiks in favour of the White Australia policy in town hall meetings, for example. Then he goes to Europe via Columbo, visits Paris, fights bulls in Spain, faces off Suffragettes and serves in the Great War, where he is wounded, but ultimately proves himself as a loyal fighter for the empire. I demonstrate that he was the most extensively referenced Indian in Australia of the period. The characterisation of Chunder is disturbing, and racist, but it did project to readers of the Bulletin a sense that Indians had fought in the same war as Australians. This became the most compelling argument behind the demand to give Indians rights of citizenship, which ultimately led to them being given the right to vote federally, in 1924.


You contrast the indifferent response of white Australians to Indian famine in 1900 with their more generous response to the major famine in Bengal in 1944. How do you explain the difference in these responses?

Firstly, I think that there was a shift in public understandings in Australia of what constituted the empire and much of this was shaped by a shift in media sources. By 1944, Australian media had become more independent of imperial propaganda, which had a strong hold in 1900. The idea in Australia of the contributions of India in the Great War grew in the 1920s, on the tail of stories about Australians and Indians fighting together in France and in Gallipoli, which fed into support for the granting of the federal franchise to Indian residents, effectively recognising their rights to citizenship. In the interwar period, there was a surge of Australians traveling to India, including journalists, many from the left, who wrote about their experiences and were sufficiently interested in Indian politics to be able to represent the claims of Indian nationalists as legitimate, and not merely a threat to the empire. By the outbreak of the war, there was a substantial number of Australians based in India, working for the Raj, or as missionaries, in educational institutions and so on. These people constituted a fresh line of information to Australia about conditions in India, especially during the Bengal famine, the most prominent of these being Richard and Maie Casey. With the fall of Singapore, there was a radical reconceptualization of our region and there were real fears of India leaving the empire, and leaving Australia isolated. In other words, both the left and conservatives in Australia had come to be more invested in India, often for different reasons, some humanitarian, but some strategic and instrumental.


Are there patterns in the relationship between White Australia and British India that you see as repeating in the present?

Jack Ryan in Calcutta, December 1928.
Source Courtesy of Lyndall Ryan.

I recount many cases in the book where many Indians were employed (for want of a better word) under impossible conditions in post-Federation Australia, precluded from organised, unionised industries, and unable to bring their families to settle with them. These were policies designed to provide incentives for them to leave, to return to India. When the pandemic broke out earlier this year, international students in Australia who had made substantial investments to pursue degrees here were simply told to go home. This was devastating, especially for those students who were effectively stranded in Australia and alone during a pandemic. India had gone into a strict lockdown, and many couldn’t simply return, and yet in Australia the industries in which so many students work to support themselves – hospitality and retail – were shut down. International students were not eligible for jobkeeper or jobseeker allowances, and so ended up in even more precarious forms of labour, delivering packages and food on cycles, thus exposed to more risk, not just of contracting COVID, as the deaths of too many cycle-couriers in road accidents shows.


Is there one insight from your book that you think all Australian policy-makers should know?

Australian and Indian experiences in the British Empire were not the same. Pretending that they were overlooks histories of racism, but also, the long tail of colonial legacies. Imperial policies were repressive, and much of the legislation laid down by a defensive colonial state was retained and continues to enable the extension of repressive policies, including attacks on freedom of the media in the name of sedition. Engaging with colonial histories is essential to understanding the politics of the present.

British India, White Australia is available via NewSouth.
Kama Maclean
Kama Maclean

Kama Maclean holds the Chair of History at the South Asia Institute at the University of Heidelberg. 

Joanna Cruickshank
Joanna Cruickshank

Joanna is a Senior Lecturer in History, with particular expertise in the history of religion in Australia and the British Empire. She came to Deakin in 2009, after completing her PhD at the University of Melbourne. Much of Joanna’s recent research has examined how religious ideas and institutions helped form (or undermined) the racial hierarchies established through the British Empire. Her most recent book (co-authored with Patricia Grimshaw) is White Women, Aboriginal Missions and Australian Settler Governments: Maternal Contradictions (Brill, 2019). Joanna regularly contributes to public discussion about the role of religion in contemporary society through press and broadcast media.