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- March 2018 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Previous editions of this magazine examined the Australian – Indian relationship from the establishment of the first Australian colony in 1788 to the conclusion of the Second World War. This article completes the series, discussing the continuing relationship with an independent Indian Republic.
Background to Independence
In the early part of the 20th century the wave of feeling against British rule in India was increasing, as were growing demands for independence. Nowhere was this more evident than in Bengal, which was seething with nationalist fervour since the 1905 partition of this state.
In London on 1 July 1909 a 22 year old engineering student, Madan Lal Dhingra, fired five shots into Sir Curzon Wyllie, the Aide-de-Camp to the Secretary of State for India, Lord Morley. Dhingra was arrested immediately, tried and hanged within six weeks of the tragic event. Dhingra became the first Indian nationalist to become a martyr on British soil, inspiring other revolutionaries. Later in November 1909, the Viceroy Lord Minto and his wife survived an assassination attempt when two bombs were thrown at their carriage during a tour of the western city of Ahmadabad.
By 1911 the capital was moved from Calcutta to Delhi as the political climate in Bengal was too dangerous for secure government. In 1912 when the new Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, entered Delhi on an elephant he was injured in a bomb attack. The advent of two world wars in which the supply of Indian troops was critical to the Allies helped reduce some tensions, but during the latter stages of WWII it was becoming obvious that home rule was inevitable throughout the subcontinent.
Granting independence to such a huge and diverse entity as the Indian Empire was an enormous challenge. Under Imperial rule the minority Muslims generally enjoyed a protected status and in return provided military manpower and support in the maintenance of law and order. While a federation of Hindu and Muslim states was favoured this was not agreed to by the dominant political parties. Unwilling to become involved in a protracted impasse the new British Labour Government, which favoured home rule, agreed to partition. While this needed to be handled with the greatest care to avoid further unrest, turmoil and potential bloodshed, it was rather hastily conceived. Because of entrenched sectarian rivalries, partition of Hindu and Muslim communities was seen as the only way for them to move forward to nationhood.
The Indian Independence Act 1947 received royal assent on 18 July 1947; Pakistan came into being on 14 August and India on 15 August 1947. Partition that year possibly saw the largest movement of population in history when about 15 million refugees crossed the borders between India and Pakistan, with Hindus and Sikhs crossing from Pakistan to India and Muslims from India to Pakistan, amid fears of becoming disadvantaged minorities in their traditional homelands.
At midnight on 14 August 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, gave a famous speech which hailed the country’s decades-long, non-violent campaign against British rule:
At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.
The swiftness of partition surprised many including local Hindu and Muslim leaders and it did not proceed smoothly. Partition created an atmosphere of hostility which broke out into unrest, violence and many thousands of deaths. The aftermath remains evident to this day.
An Independent Stance
While not yet independent in 1945 India, in common with Australia, became a founding member of the United Nations. The new India sought to distance itself from a colonial past as a non-aligned neutral nation not beholden to either the United States (West Block) or the Soviet Union (East Block). India became a well respected member of the non-alignment movement, with Nehru standing tall beside such other leaders as Tito of Yugoslavia, Sukarno of Indonesia and Nasser of Egypt. Cordial relations between India and the Soviet Union began in the early 1950s as the Soviet Union attempted to foster closer relationships with emerging nations.
The Soviets provided substantial economic and military assistance to India which outstripped aid being given to China where in 1960 there was a split in the Sino-Soviet relationship. In 1962, a technology transfer was agreed which allowed India to produce the advanced MIG-21 jet fighter aircraft. In 1965 the Soviet Union successfully brokered a peace agreement between India and Pakistan following their first border war over Kashmir.
The Cold War, which extended from 1947 with heightened tensions between Eastern Bloc and Western Bloc powers, continued until 1991 when communism collapsed in Eastern Europe. This resulted in a significant realignment of national allegiances. With greater political freedom came growth in many economies including those of India, China and the wider Asian region.
With independence came demands for other colonial powers, namely France and Portugal, to relinquish their remaining small enclaves on the subcontinent. France gradually withdrew from her possessions and returned them to new government between 1947 and 1962. Portugal, which had held colonies at Goa, Diu and Damo since 1510 was more resistant to change. On 18 December 1961 a superior Indian force invaded the Portuguese enclaves and after a short battle they reverted to Indian sovereignty.
The Independence Mix
Post war development of India cannot be considered in isolation from a number of nation/states which forged the rich history of the subcontinent.
Pakistan started with difficulty as a nation divided into East and West. West Pakistan is a homogeneous entity but adding East Bengal (later East Pakistan) which was separated by 2200 km of Indian territory, with no direct link between the two, would always present problems. While the majority of East Bengalis were Muslims, they had a different history and spoke a different language to those in West Pakistan. Believing they were disadvantaged by the union in 1971 a civil war broke out in East Pakistan which was supported by India. This resulted in the secession of East Pakistan, then becoming the new country of Bangladesh.
Control of the 2430 km contiguous border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been a contentious flash point fought over for centuries. As Australian troops now know, entry into this area is at great peril. The fragility of the relationship between the two nuclear-armed states of India and Pakistan is one of the most difficult military and political dilemmas facing the world today.
What is now generally known as Kashmir is a disputed region of 225,000 km2with 13 million people claimed in part by India (45%), Pakistan (38%) and China (17%). This region, nearly the size of the United Kingdom, is mountainous and often inhospitable but other parts are extremely fertile and famed for their beauty.
India administers Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan administers Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Balitstan, and China administers Aksai Chin and the Trans Karakoram Tract. While the dispute has deep-rooted ethnic, religious and historical origins, at the time of independence the population was predominately Muslin. It was therefore assumed that Kashmir would become part of Pakistan. However the Hindu ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh, sided with India and sought the assistance of Indian troops in maintaining the status quo. This then led to the continuing conflict which has been ongoing for 70 years, and a number of times flaring into open warfare with no sign of resolution.
In 1971 the former East Pakistan began a program to secede from West Pakistan and establish a new state of Bangladesh. The Soviet Union again came to the aid of India signing an Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation which effectively kept the Chinese out of the conflict and ensured victory for the secessionists.
Bangladesh not only shares a border with India but with a number of less stable nation/states and Myanmar. The country, already over populated, is being obliged to accept Muslim refugees from neighbouring Myanmar, causing further tensions.
No discussion on the subcontinent is complete without acknowledging this magnificent island nation lying less than twenty miles from southern Indian shores. The crown colony of Ceylon received independence on 4 February 1948. The early transition was not smooth, with a Marxist inspired insurrection only put down by a unique British, Soviet and Indian aid package.
In 1972 the country’s name was changed to Sri Lanka which then became a republic. Further unrest between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamil, who were supported by Tamils from southern India, broke out into a long-running civil war which was not brought under control until the Tamils were defeated in 2009. The nation is now better unified and enjoying prosperity.
The Australian Relationship – Migration
Migration from India was curtailed after the Australian Government introduced the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 which formed the basis of the White Australia Policy. Nothing much changed until after the Second World War when Australia welcomed migration to satisfy labour demands in a flourishing industrial era.
Following India’s independence in 1947 a large number of Indian-born British citizens migrated to Australia, together with those of other mixed European-Indian backgrounds. There are now over 500,000 persons claiming Indian ancestry, making them one of the fastest growing communities in Australia today. In addition there are about 60,000 Fijians with Indian ancestry now residing in Australia and about 100,000 Indian students are temporary residents.
Increased Economic Ties
Giving some indication of the past trading dominance emanating from India is a study of its currency, the venerable Indian rupee. Until the late 1950s the rupee was a common form of currency not only used in the subcontinent and adjoining nations but also in East Africa, the Gulf States, Malaysia and Indonesia. For a time in the early 1800s the rupee was also introduced into New South Wales.
Economic ties between India and Australia have grown significantly since the early 1990s when the Indian Government liberalised trade barriers and foreign investment controls. These now mainly relate to the export of Australian coal and other raw materials which include gold, plus the supply of educational services to Indian students. An agreement has recently been made to export Australian uranium to support India’s nuclear program, with the first shipments of this strategically important material made in July 2017. The relationship is skewed in Australia’s favour, with India providing manufactured goods and outsourced professional services.
Australia’s major trading partners are in Asia. In 2016 these amounted to about 70% of exports and 60% of imports, all crossing the Pacific to Asia and North America. By contrast the amount crossing the Indian Ocean is much reduced to about 15% of exports and 20% imports. The Indian economy is expanding at a far greater rate than most other Asian countries, requiring increased raw materials likely to favour Australian trade.
An ongoing saga about providing rail and port infrastructure to the Indian-owned Adani Carmichael coal mines in Queensland is proving a difficult political quandary. In 2017 it was announced that the Indian-owned, but British based, CFC Alliance, had bailed out the struggling Australian steelmaker and mining group Arrium, securing the jobs of more than 5500 workers.
During the 21st century India became the call-centre capital of the world. Its vast pool of English speaking, technologically literate, highly educated and inexpensive graduates led international companies to move here and adopt an outsourcing model. What started as multinationals reducing costs by exploiting Indian skills has now allowed the country to enter the digital age well prepared to adopt enhanced technology and electronic communications. On the lighter side the impact of Bollywood on a younger demographic should not be underestimated as it places India very much at the forefront of an important communications and entertainment industry.
The conservative nature of mainstream Australian politics has remained fairly constant since WWII. Those of the subcontinent have changed dramatically from the Nehru-Gandhi dynastic rule of the socialist Congress Party which dominated the political scene from Independence. With increased economic prosperity, the Congress Party has gradually lost support and in 2014 it was replaced in a landslide win by Narendra Modi and his progressive, right leaning, Bharatiya Janata Party.
In Insight Magazine of 07 April 2017 Simon Finch provides an illuminating summary when he says: India’s Prime Minister, Narenda Modi, has been the driving force behind the ‘Make India Great Again’ campaign. The world’s fastest growing major economy, its 1.3 billion citizens are among the most entrepreneurial on the planet, facilitated by 65% of the demographic being less than 35 years old. The Prime Minister is intent on driving out corruption and pushing through reforms across all sectors, seeking to improve the lives of Indians. All this is based on the structurally sound fundamental of India’s long history of a stable bureaucracy supported by its legal framework.
Australia understands this change of dynamics and has worked with the Indian Government in developing a closer relationship. India on the other hand has from Independence developed strong ideals of regional autonomy which are now being questioned as it seeks to balance its position as an emerging regional power.
The South Asian region is dominated by India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. It is unfortunate that relationships between the two major contributors to the stability of this region are not harmonious. In expanding its own leading role and influence India comes into conflict with China. Chinese commercial ties have permitted it to build strategically placed major infrastructure projects, giving access to expanding Chinese naval and military ambitions. The so called ‘String of Pearls’ is an integration of air and naval bases extending from southern China and disputed territory in the South China Sea through Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan to the Persian Gulf (Oman) and the Red Sea (Djibouti). Strategic links almost mirror that of past European colonial power.
With Australia and India having shared operational experiences in both world wars, it is perhaps surprising that there has been very limited defence contact other than via low key military exercises and a small number of exchange postings. The potential for further development is perhaps hindered by Australia’s heavy reliance on United States security and its unquestioning support of American political initiatives in the Indian-Pacific region. Australia’s continued involvement in Afghanistan is questionable when looked at from an Indian perspective.
India’s development of a nuclear deterrence capability has been of concern to Australia and after weapons testing by India in 1998 the relationship reached a low point when Australia imposed sanctions and withdrew its defence attaché from New Delhi. India accused Australia of hypocrisy as the security of the Southern Continent is largely guaranteed by an American nuclear shield.
When tempers cooled Prime Minister John Howard visited New Delhi in 2000. Since then every Australian prime minister has made the same pilgrimage with the most recent by Malcolm Turnbull in April 2017. These efforts have paid handsome dividends. In 2009 the Governments of India and Australia committed to a Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation that will strengthen cooperation in a wide range of security and related areas including counter-terrorism, defence, disarmament and no-proliferation and maritime security. A wider based Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD), initiated in 2007 by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, was formed between Australia, India, Japan and the United States which might be interpreted as an effort to balance Chinese regional dominance. The QSD ceased following Australia’s withdrawal under a very pro-Chinese Rudd Government. With a change of leadership under the Gillard Government the QSD resumed. It last met in New Delhi in January 2018 and was attended by their respective naval chiefs.
The opportunities for Australian-Indian security cooperation are particularly strong in the maritime domain. Successful humanitarian assistance and disaster relief was provided in response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and joint naval exercises were held in the Bay of Bengal in 2007 and again in 2015, and off the Western Australian coast in June 2017. The first joint Army exercise is planned in 2018. The value of these growing initiatives has to be carefully managed and measured against potential negative outcomes to the substantial Sino-Australian relationship.
For the first half-millennium, since the rise of the Portuguese seaborne empire in the late 15th century, the world has been dominated by western empires. Japan was the only non-western nation to emerge as a global power, but it did so not by challenging the West but, at least initially, by joining it.
Five hundred years later the future of Western democracy is changing, with a questionable decline in American and Russian leadership and a re-emergence of China as a dominant power. A new power historically, culturally and philosophically opposed to Western characteristics. Enter the 21st Century – the Asian Century. Is this now India’s opportunity to also take its place as an economic powerhouse and perhaps lessen Australia’s over-dependence on trade with another single great Asian power? And if so, how does this affect the forging of a stronger Australian-Indian relationship?