How should Australia respond to India’s ‘complicated, problematic’ democracy?

Save articles for later

Add articles to your saved list and come back to them any time.

Though he’d rather not dwell on it, Labor MP Andrew Charlton knows it’s an awkward time to release a book lauding India’s rise to superpower status.

His tome Australia’s Pivot to India is hitting shelves just a week after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said security agencies were investigating credible allegations linking India’s government to the assassination of a Sikh activist on Canadian soil.

Labor MP Andrew Charlton, pictured in Harris Park, says Australia and India have arrived at a “magic moment”. Credit: Brook Mitchell

As well as plunging India and Canada into a diplomatic feud, the killing has highlighted troubling trends in India’s democracy and the central role of Hindu nationalism in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, one of the leaders of the Australian movement campaigning to establish an independent state for Sikhs in the northern Indian region of Punjab, has said he fears separatists in Australia could also be in danger.

Asked about the alleged assassination, Charlton says Australia will always stand up for the rule of law, but stresses that “there is a lot we don’t know” about the shooting.

Charlton’s book is relentlessly upbeat about India’s rise, making only passing references to “suggestions that the [Modi] government’s rhetoric and policies often favour the Hindu majority” and noting that Modi’s tenure has been marked by “controversy and criticism” as well as resounding electoral success.

He says Australians should be grateful for the nation’s emergence as an increasingly powerful global force – one that is set to have a bigger population than China and the United States combined by 2050.

“At a time when democracy is under threat around the world, we should be applauding and supporting India’s democracy,” Charlton says over a curry lunch in the western Sydney suburb of Harris Park, known as “Little India”.

Charlton’s electorate of Parramatta, where he relocated from the city’s eastern suburbs before last year’s election, has the highest concentration of Indian-Australians in the country. Seventeen per cent of his constituents were born in India and one-in-five listed Hinduism as their religion on the most recent census.

Parramatta MP Andrew Charlton has written a book on the India-Australia relationship.Credit: Black Inc. Books

India’s conception of democracy, Charlton says, “may not be the same as Australia’s, but we need to respect the fact that India has done something very valuable for the world”.

“We are lucky to have the largest country in the world by population as a democracy; the fastest-growing economy in the world as a democracy,” he says.

An economics adviser to then-prime minister Kevin Rudd, Charlton later became a successful business consultant and is widely regarded within Labor circles as a possible future treasurer and perhaps even prime minister.

All 800 seats at Charlton’s book launch, held at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres on Wednesday, were sold out, reflecting the high level of political engagement in the Indian diaspora. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who has visited India twice this year, spoke at the event.

Charlton believes India and Australia have entered a “magic moment” after muddling through an “unusually distant” relationship for most of the period since India’s independence in 1947.

“We have not had a good trading relationship, we have not had a good investment relationship,” he says, noting India is only Australia’s sixth-largest trading partner despite its huge population.

Asked if he has any concerns for the safety of Sikh activists in his community, Charlton says only that he believes the Indian diaspora is “99 per cent harmonious”.

Griffith University professor Ian Hall, one of the country’s most respected experts on India, is less positive.

“We’ve got a Sikh community that quite understandably concerned about being targeted by agents of India,” Hall says. “And then we’ve also got another part of the community here that’s really agitated about Sikh extremism as well. It’s a tricky situation for us.”

Police deployed pepper spray during a scuffle between rival protesters in Melbourne’s Federation Square in January after thousands of Sikh Victorians voted in a non-binding referendum on the creation of an independent Sikh state known as Khalistan.

This week footage was shared on social media showing a group of young men marching through Harris Park shouting Hindu chants that have been used in vigilante attacks on Muslims in India.

Meanwhile, Hindu worshippers were shaken earlier this year by a spate of graffiti attacks on their temples in Melbourne that included slogans such as “Death to India” and “Long Live the Sikh homeland”.

“The frequency and impunity with which the vandals appear to be operating are alarming, as are the graffiti which include glorification of anti-Indian terrorists,” the Indian High Commission said at the time.

Hall says he is uncomfortable with politicians who effuse about the shared values of India and Australia, saying they should instead emphasise mutual interests as with other strategic partners such as Singapore and Vietnam.

“I think you’re just storing up problems there because India is a huge, complicated, sometimes problematic, not completely democratic in the way that we would want it to be, country,” he says.

Charlton, though, is focused on the upside.

“India’s growth is a positive force in the world and will fundamentally shape Australia’s prosperity and security and coming decades,” he says.

Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter.

Most Viewed in Politics

From our partners

Source: Read Full Article