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Pivot to India

Our next great and powerful friend?


The roots of estrangement

The relationship between Australia and independent India was born troubled. By 1947 Australia had become accustomed to holding a privileged position within the British Empire, as a dominion with a full panoply of prerogatives and expectations. In 1906 Alfred Deakin, Australia’s prime minister, wrote in the London Morning Post that “the British Empire, though united in the whole, is, nevertheless, divided broadly into two parts, one occupied wholly or mainly by a white ruling race, the other occupied by coloured races, who are ruled. Australia and New Zealand are determined to keep their place in the first class.” As India struggled for independence and for recognition of the major contribution it had made to the Empire during two world wars, Australia’s leaders were unsympathetic to its efforts to be granted entry to the small club of privileged dominions. Even after Indian independence in 1947, the inner circle persisted: the white dominions – Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand – made sure that Commonwealth meetings reserved them a space for confidential talks with the British.

Little wonder, then, that there was scant warmth for Australia in India’s new government. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Australia’s prime minister, Robert Menzies, treated each other with icy civility in public; in private, Menzies was as dismissive of India’s stance of non-alignment as Nehru was of Australia’s perceived subordination to the British and the Americans. The White Australia policy established a lasting view of Australia as a racist society, akin to South Africa, in the minds of an Indian elite deeply indignant at the racist condescension of the British Raj. At a personal level, when they met at universities, sporting contests and international meetings, Indians and Australians more often than not rubbed each other the wrong way. Indians found Australians loud, brash and uncultured; Australians found Indians haughty, prickly and judgemental.

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