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Coal hard truths about Australia-India relations



Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently decided to cancel his planned visit to India. The national emergency caused by the bushfires rightly prompted the cancellation. But the underlying commitment to build closer relationships with India remains firm.

Locals in New Delhi protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act in December 2019. (Credit: Sanjeev Yadav / Wikimedia Commons)The reason seems carbon-clear: coal exports and courting Indian companies to invest in Australian coal mines. But the rhetoric is both economic and political. Morrison has cited India as a 'regional success story', a 'land of durable institutions and shared values', making India 'a natural partner for Australia'. 

It may be true that India has historically shared many political values with Australia: democracy, a secular constitution, and a commitment to a plural society. But Australians should be aware that the current government of India is committed to dismantling precisely those values.

And while many Australians are assembling, tweeting and signing petitions in solidarity with the unprecedented protests in India in defence of basic human rights, and to uphold the constitution, the Coalition government has so far preferred to take an unprincipled approach. Going beyond diplomatic civility, Morrison has taken selfies with Modi, tweeting one picture with 'How good is Modi' written under it in Hindi after last year's G20 Summit.  

Some sections of the Australian media have represented the current protests and strikes simply as 'riots'. But the situation is more serious than non-specific unrest in a far-off land. The catalyst for the protests has been the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) passed by the Indian Parliament on 9 December 2019, and the associated National Citizenship Register (NRC) and National Population Register (NPR) processes.

The CAA fast tracks citizenship for migrants from various named minorities from the neighbouring countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, but specifically excludes Muslims (including persecuted Muslim minority groups, such as the Ahmadiyas). The act and register come hand in hand with widespread misinformation campaigns and hate speech against the Rohingya Muslims, fleeing extreme violence in Myanmar.

The NPR-NRC process would upscale the ongoing process in Assam, which has disenfranchised 1.9 million people who could not provide documentary evidence of their right to Indian citizenship. Widely condemned by civil society, the process is being accompanied by the construction of detention centres to hold those effectively stripped of citizenship, until now understood as presumptive in a country where many people, especially the poor, have no access to official documents.


"These are the practices of political leaders who seek power through cracking the demos and pitting the jagged pieces against each other."


These actions come hot on the heels of the unilateral revocation of the constitutional protection for the special status of Jammu and Kashmir. This is a long-contested region, and the story of violence is not one-sided. But like the other legal changes introduced by the ruling BJP, each change has been followed by a violent suppression of dissent.

In Kashmir, the revocation of status was followed by curfews, the detention of political leaders and cutting off all communications, including phones and the internet. Landlines have since been restored, and SMS services were reinstated five months after their suspension, but the internet is still shut down, a measure held by the Indian Supreme court just five days ago to be an unjustified abuse of power.

Students who have led significant protests against the government have been the subject of direct police violence, and violence carried out by sympathisers, almost certainly incited by government figures.

All of this has been accompanied by a range of moves growing tragically familiar in our increasingly unequal world. Economic policies which contribute to growing inequality, but conducted in the name of the poor; social media campaigns designed to polarise the polity and increase social divisions; the vilification of Muslims as the consolidating outside of a secular nation-state; invocations of 'terror' and anti-national sentiment against those who dare to dissent; attacks on independent public institutions through practices like court stacking; defunding and fostering contempt for universities and students.

These are the practices of political leaders who seek power through cracking the demos and pitting the jagged pieces against each other. It is ironic for those of us who have long wished for a closer and more respectful relationship between India and Australia to be arguing now for caution. But perhaps the time has come for a relationship of political solidarity between the people of India and the people of Australia, rather than the economic expediency that seems to be on offer.



Sundhya PahujaSundhya Pahuja is a Professor of International Law and Director of the Institute for International Law and the Humanities at the Melbourne Law School and Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Social Sciences.

Main image: Locals in New Delhi protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act in December 2019. (Credit: Sanjeev Yadav / Wikimedia Commons)

Topic tags: Sundhya Pahuja, India, coal, Scott Morrison



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Existing comments

We do have a lot in common. Suppression of free speech and peaceful potest, lack of justice, corrupt politicians. Funding of fossil fuels hurting the future of life forms sanimal and vegetal. Suffering of poor people. Greed and selfishness of r ich and stupid politicians aping celebrities.

karis | 17 January 2020  

"These are the practices of political leaders who seek power through cracking the demos and pitting the jagged pieces against each other." Such prescient powerful words stir the thought are India’s current political policies so different from those under way in Australia- manipulation of citizenship to exclude and deny rights and turning groups against each other to draw political allegiance?

Pamela | 17 January 2020  

One of the clearest expositions I've read of the current crisis in India and the unhealthy relationship between the Australian and Indian Governments, and our leader's fawning approach and economic coal-fired aspirations. Thank you.

Jan Barnett | 17 January 2020  

The current Australian Government solidarity with the current Indian Government indicates the trend Aust Govt wishes to take in its own country - more control of institutions and dismantling checks and balances to favour a more right-wing agenda. Unfortunately what was once Australia's left-wing has aquiesced most of this these last few decades thus paving the way for a right-wing, or possibly, a police state.

Malthus Anderson | 17 January 2020  

Thank you very much Sundhya for a very informative article on this issue. This has been covered by some media outlets, especially the ABC, but not as clearly or succinctly. It is a worrying development and there are obvious similarities to what is happening under this current Australian government. The link to coal is also a useful one and illustrates our governments real agenda which has little to do with human rights and much to do with what is requested by the Minerals Council of Australia.

Tom Kingston | 17 January 2020  

Morrison and Modi would seem to have much in common, notably the lack of care and compassion for the people they govern (unless their rich)!

Leonie Lane | 18 January 2020  

Contempt for citizens and goodwill towards Big Coal by political pigmies both sides of the Indian Ocean. Not a comment already posted here with which I do not agree. Currently I am reading William Dalrymple's latest book: The Anarchy The Relentless Rise of the East India Company - essential reading for understanding the nation of India from some with clear incisive insight into the pillaging of India by the EIC - throughout the 18th and on well into the 19th century - the takeover by the Crown as a colony laying the basis for many of the inequities and systems which militate against ordinary citizens and allow the ugliness of people/companies such as Adani to spread around the globe and to corrupt our politicians here - destroy our First Nations people's lands - such as that in the Galilee Basin of the Wangan Jagalingou people. Shame on the Qld govt and on Morrison/Albanese!

Jim KABLE | 22 January 2020  

As a young Australian, I first visited India in 1977. Apart from India playing cricket, I knew little of it. I ate bananas for two weeks, afraid of the food. I looked at a map of India. “That should take two weeks,” I thought. Six months later, I was still uncovering its amazing delights. It drew me in, completely. It changed my life. I’ve been telling the story of India - its complexity, its cultural magic, its potential - for 43 years, to anyone who will listen. I have a deep and abiding love for this country. When I was there, and with every subsequent visit, there have been terrible events and challenges. The Emergency was happening mid 70’s – suspension of Indian democracy. Shocking terrorist attacks. War or threatened war with Pakistan. The list is long. Somehow, India survives, adapts, grows, moves on. It will do so again. It will survive this current threat and continue to thrive. I am delighted to see the beautiful Indian people living here. Delighted with the growth of our relationship. At last, so many places where I can find a masala dosa! And looking forward to my return soon to gaze in wonder at this incredible nation and its amazingly diverse people.

John Kilner | 23 January 2020  

John Kilner's is easily the most insightful comment on this article by a country mile. Probably because he knows India well and loves it. India is not a simple place. It is also the world's largest genuine democracy. The judiciary are neither cowed nor partisan and the Fourth Estate viz the Times of India; the Statesman and the Hindu are alive and extremely well. People like Arundhati Roy can protest without fear. My gut feeling is that Narendra Modi's time is coming to an end. Scott Morrison, whatever his faults, is nothing like him.

Edward Fido | 24 January 2020  

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