By Roanna Gonsalves
One rainy Mumbai day, sitting in an Udipi restaurant, chai cup in hand, I told a dear friend I would soon leave for Australia.
“I’ll never leave India and be a second class citizen in another country”, my friend said. My chai turned colder and a crinkly skin formed on its surface.
Seventeen years later, I realise that in perceiving a hierarchy of citizens in Australia, my friend was right, but in a manner that he did not intend.
His words were full of assumptions that I shared then: Australia is a country of White people. When Indians migrate to Australia, we think of ourselves as second to White people and their culture, and we modify our behaviour accordingly, trying to fit in as best we can.
I, like many from the privileged middle-classes in South Asia, chose to migrate to Australia because of its ‘first world lifestyle’: the cities are clean, there are wide open spaces, most women are relatively safe in public spaces at least, infrastructure is solid, corruption is not in your face, traffic is mostly orderly and lane-bound, the Australian dollar is strong.
However there were certain fundamental truths that I did not grasp before I got here: Indigenous people i.e. Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders, are the First Peoples of this land and the waters that surround it; they formed the First Nations of this continent; this always was and always will be Aboriginal land.
We are not the perpetrators, the ones who wielded the guns in the forgotten wars between invading white settlers and Indigenous Peoples. We are not the victims. However, as mainly economic migrants from South Asia (I acknowledge the many South Asian refugees from the conflict zones of Afghanistan and Sri Lanka), we are not absolved of complicity.
We are beneficiaries of the genocide of Aboriginal people, the dispossession of their land, the loss of their homes, their families, their cultural values, their tongues, their songs. It is such soil that we step on when we first step into Australia, soaked not just with the promise of a ‘first world lifestyle’, but squelchy with the memory of massacre.
When we buy our own lovely little patch of Australia to put down roots and create a home, we also become beneficiaries of millennia of Aboriginal custodianship of the land. We become beneficiaries of sophisticated land management practices that have resulted in the beauty of the landscape that inspires us, in the fertility of the soil that sustains us, in the bounteous rivers and oceans that pleasure the body and the spirit.
I have often heard Indian Australian friends criticize those who “don’t integrate”, who “don’t respect Australian values”, suggesting that such people should “Love it or leave”. These Indian Australian friends of mine appropriate the words of a “White Nation” that actually rejects people like them and me, as we have seen repeatedly, such as through the Cronulla riots of 2005, the spate of violence against people of Indian origin who happened to be students, the recent racist and zenophobic protest euphemistically titled ‘Reclaim Australia’, and most importantly the continued injustice faced by Indigenous people in Australia. I certainly don’t want to integrate with such a system and adopt such values, which conveniently forget what existed before white colonisation. Besides, it would be akin to eating myself. There are other ways of being migrants. We can love this country and also protest against its injustices. It is our democratic duty to do so.
Before Australia was Australia, there were over 500 different ‘nations’ that preceded the arrival of the British colonisers. Today, the face of Australia is not one but many faces, bearing witness to over 250 ethnicities. The voice of Australia is not one but many voices, speaking in over 400 languages. Yet in celebrating this multiplicity, it is sobering to remember that Indigenous Australians, the First Peoples, are more likely to die 10 years before non-indigenous Australians today. This statistic chills even as it reminds me of my debt to those who paid with their lives and lands so that I may live a ‘first world lifestyle’.
Our South Asian homelands and Australia are part of an ancient, intricate geological and cultural web. In thinking about the Indigenous communities of Australia I can’t help but think of the continuing oppression of tribal and dalit communities of my homeland, but that is the subject of another post. We know that once, before time, we were all part of Gondwanaland. A recent study has indicated that there may have been migration from India into Australia about 4000 years ago. In thinking about our shared colonial oppressors, I often think that India, and much of South Asia, would have been settler colonies today had it not been for the sheer size of our populations. Arguably, it was the large scale of numerous acts of protest and civil disobedience, like the Dandi March, that made them so effective.
However, despite these ties that cleave us, when we migrate to Australia we migrate to, we build on, we are nurtured by, land and water that has been sustained by the custodianship of Indigenous Peoples. It is to these generations of the keepers of this continent that we owe our debt of gratitude. It is to the heirs of these dynamic communities that we must direct our respect and solidarity. If we are to think of ourselves as second, I would suggest we are second to the First Peoples of Australia, the varied, ever-changing yet 40,000 year old and continuing communities of Indigenous Peoples, and the many individuals who form these communities
So, through this blog post I would like to offer a small but symbolic red, black and yellow branch of solidarity to the Indigenous people of Australia, adapted from the letter written by Thanh Van Le and Thang Manh Nguyen to Aboriginal people and published in: The Age, 3 Apr. 1998, page 14. I have adapted it to reflect my personal interrogation of the relationship I have with my adopted country which is a colonial settler state. I have taken the liberty to include the plural ‘we’ in the hope that this may resonate or intersect with your own interrogations.
“Today we are living in cities and towns, building our homes, our offices, our restaurants, our shelters, our futures, putting down roots into what once were and continue to be the hunting grounds, the camping places, the sacred sites, the repositories of knowledge of the Indigenous people of Australia. We are the beneficiaries of their dispossession, and we acknowledge their loss. As immigrants from South Asia, we understand about the loss of home, family and cultural values, and we would like to express our deep sorrow to all Indigenous Australians for their suffering and offer our support for constitutional recognition, for genuine reconciliation, for self-determination.”
I realise that acknowledgement of Indigenous priority is but one tiny way to think through our place as immigrants who have come from South Asia. However I believe that this acknowledgement is an important first step, and must be our interface with our adopted country. If we are to truly belong here, we must understand how we relate to those who were here 40,000 years before us.
I welcome your thoughts on other ways in which we as South Asian immigrant communities may do this.