With today marking both Australia Day and Indian Republic Day, Chetna Prakash has bore witness to the differing hangovers of colonisation.
Becoming an Australian after 34 years of being Indian has mostly involved progress for me. On most social and economic indicators, Australia beats India hands down. My family is safer and healthier in Australia than it would be in India. Unfortunately, politically and ideologically, I have regressed. And January 26th forces me to confront this regression.
As an Indian, I used to celebrate January 26th as the Indian Republic Day, the day on which my country declared itself a modern democratic republic (in 1951) after more than 200 years of British rule. Instead, as an Australian, I have to celebrate the day on which my new country started on the path of colonisation.
Don’t get me wrong. I have no axe to grind with the white people of British descent. I am honestly over colonisation of India. Yes, it was a general nightmare for my people but unlike in many other countries, when India gained independence, most British people upped and left, mostly back to the UK.
Growing up in India three decades later, I only saw a sea of brown faces around me. If colonial history existed at all for me, it was in textbooks, charming old buildings and occasional street names or public statues. It is rather hard to remain angry at buildings and statues (especially good looking ones), when the people behind them are long gone.
If anything, over the years, our colonial history has taken on a romantic hue. A cottage industry has developed around the Raj (as we call our colonial past) by way of restoration of buildings, and buying and selling old lithographs and photographs of the era. We research and write affectionate books about our past connections with the wider Europe and celebrate it on tea towels replete with images of our colonial past. We happily clean curry stains with the symbols of what were once stains on our identity and soul.
The truth is that most Indians, including myself, don’t hold any grudge against the British. They did what they did but were good enough to leave us alone to rebuild in our own way and at our own pace.
So when I say that Australia Day has regressed me, it is because from having transcended the colonisation debate as an Indian, I now find myself bang in the middle of it as an Australian. And the debate is never louder than on Australia Day.
There are three sets of people in Australia, whose past and present comes into conflict on this day.
To the Indigenous people, Australia Day is obviously a day of mourning. January 26th is the anniversary of the arrival of the first fleet of British ships in Australia. It marks the beginning of the darkest chapters of their history – the cruel and systematic destruction of their way of life, culture and dignity. It is a destruction that still continues.
Australia Day is a reminder of the fact that they are, in some sense, still colonised. The government is still to sign a treaty with them for a share of the land. They still remain unrecognised in Australia’s constitution. And they still remain at the bottom of the national economic, social and health indicators. No wonder they look upon January 26th as “Invasion Day” or “Survival Day.”
To those with British ancestry, the day is definitely one of celebration. It was on this day that their forefathers laid the foundation of the prosperity they now enjoy. It is easy to demonise them today but back then it was mostly Her Majesty’s poor and oppressed who moved to Australia. Yes, they treated the Indigenous people abominably. But it would be unfair for their descendants to define them by that act alone. They must also acknowledge the sweat, toil and enterprise with which they developed Australia into the first world destination it is today.
It is that they want to acknowledge and celebrate on Australia Day.
Then, there are the immigrants – people like me – who arrived into Australia after the British and found their way into its culture and life through patience, perseverance and paperwork. I need a day to celebrate my journey and efforts.
I can’t pretend that the Australia into which I immigrated is the Indigenous land and culture entirely – the infrastructure and culture that I enjoy, and enormously benefit from, is far more the legacy of the British colonisers than of Australia’s First People. However. Does that automatically mean that I should stand by and join them in denying hurt caused to the Indigenous Australians?
As someone whose family history holds some scars inflicted by colonisation, I understand their hurt and anguish. Looking at them, I am faced with the alternative history that could have been mine – I, too, could have grown up in an India still ruled by the British constantly being made to justify my culture, my way of life and my right to a dignified existence.
That is my dilemma on Australia Day. As a newly-minted Australian, do I side with the Australians who ask the Indigenous people to just “get over it,” to move on and accept January 26th as the country’s national day? Or do I side with the Indigenous people’s demand that the national day be moved to another date, with less hurtful connotations to them?
Here’s my take. I know from experience that people can get over historical wrongs. But if we truly want the Indigenous people to forgive and forget, we have to stop cockily waving the past before their noses. In my view, we should change the date of our national day, acknowledge the Indigenous people in our constitution, get a new flag and become a republic. Start anew. Fresh slate. It will not mean dishonouring the ancestors of white Australians.
After all, they chose a fresh start for the sake of their children. How can they begrudge us for doing the same?