Engaging the Indian-Australian diaspora
FINANCIAL EXPRESS, February 16, 2024

By Pradeep S. Mehta and Amit Dasgupta,

An extraordinary and exciting partnership between India and Australia has been forged in less than a decade, with promise of a collaboration that could credibly become a pivot in the Indo Pacific, especially at a time when the region faces a hostile and adversarial environment. For this to happen, however, it is important to recognise that while the government can be the principal initiator, the role of multiple stakeholders, including the diaspora—often referred to as ‘the human bridge’ between nations—plays a significant role.

Indeed, tributes have regularly been paid to the extraordinary role played by a section of the Indian-American community in pushing through the historic 123 Agreement with Washington on the civilian use of nuclear power, and furthermore, in denying Islamabad a similar recognition, despite enormous pressure from Beijing to do so. The significance of leveraging the Indian Australian diaspora as changemakers is, therefore, a priority for New Delhi and Canberra to strengthen the bilateral narrative.

According to data, Indian-Australians are the fastest growing migrant community in Australia which currently totals one million. In a country of around 24 million, it is a sizable proportion of the population. With the present frostiness in India-Canada relations, which shows no immediate signs of abating, 2024 is expected to show a sharp decrease in student inflows to Canada and subsequent diversion to Australia, the UK, and the US. India is already the second-largest source of international students to Australia.

This suggests that the increase in the number of Indian migrants to Australia is set to grow. The question arises on how best they might be engaged and leveraged.

The contribution by the Indian diaspora across the globe has been significant and recognised by the local community and the host governments. In Australia, they have responded to skill shortages, and to the requirements of a rapidly aging population. They have demonstrated that they are happy to do any job that comes their way, whether it is driving taxis or working in petrol pumps or grocery stores, for instance. Several live tough unenviable lives, working long hours, saving as much as possible to repatriate money home to their families, or paying off loans that helped them migrate. Many others have established their credentials as professionals and work as doctors, lawyers, chartered accountants, middle and senior-level management in transnational corporations and the Big 4, educators and researchers, architects, personnel in the police service and the armed forces, employees in the state and federal government, and today, even as elected representatives, to name a few. Several have earned the Australian government’s accolades and awards in recognition of their contributions. Collectively, they are an integral part of the bilateral landscape.

Indeed, this extraordinary diversity of professions ought to have been an unambiguous indicator of the diaspora’s diversity. Yet, the prevalent misperception is that the diaspora is homogenous, and consequently, that it is not necessary to engage with its different segments. This unfortunate misstep by official interlocuters on both sides has resulted in an overemphasis on the several community associations—the vocal minority—that have proliferated. In Sydney alone, there are around 140 associations! To say they do not play a role would be a misnomer. They certainly contribute through the promotion of ‘fun, food, and festivals’ that have seen local parliamentarians and government officials gravitate towards such events for photo-ops. Indeed, the way the community associations have succeeded in projecting themselves as the go-to for all matters Indian is surprising.

But they have their limitations. Their focus is not on the strategic challenges and imperatives that underpin the bilateral relationship, especially the external threats that threaten regional stability and order. Many would argue that their sole objective is opportunistic, limited to self-promotion, and temporal. Yet, for decades they have been mistakenly equated with being the sole representatives of the diaspora. This needs to change if Indo-Australia relations is to move to the next level. This is not as easy as it sounds.

Presently, following years of neglect, the key interlocuters—the silent majority—who are shy and reticent to engage have begun to come out of their shell. They had preferred to stay as part of the exclusive world they belonged to and felt comfortable in, rarely interacting with community associations, other than anonymously, and were not on any invitation lists of official receptions. Yet, they are the key changemakers in any relationship. They are doing path-breaking work in each of the areas that New Delhi has identified as part of its developmental aspirations. To ignore them, as indeed we have, only diminishes the partnership.

The diaspora needs to be understood in all its manifestations and incarnations if they are to be leveraged as changemakers. A fresh look needs to be taken on the earlier high-level committee report on the diaspora to better understand how the diaspora might be effectively tapped into, given contemporary realities, for mutual benefit of both countries.

(Authors Pradeep S Mehta & Amit Dasgupta are secretary general, CUTS International and distinguished fellow, Australia India Institute and CUTS International, respectively. Views expressed are personal. )

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