South Asia, South Pacific, South Australia: Resistance to Imperial Racial Hierarchies and Australian Politics

Don Dunstan (1926-1999). Originally posted at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:YoungDunstan.JPG. Licensed under Creative Commons.

I note at the outset that this blog post does relate back to this blog’s remit regarding ‘India’s laws and legal system’. (Or, at least, to the question of Indian political history and culture.) It just takes its time in doing so.

I’ve recently had the opportunity to read two fascinating works – Brij V. Lal’s In the Eye of the Storm: Jai Ram Reddy and the Politics of Postcolonial Fiji (2010, available online; “Lal”) and Angela Woollacott’s ‘Radical roots in Fiji’ (2017, available online to subscribers; “Woollacott”).[1] Both examine (in different ways) the roles of racial segregation and ‘colonial difference’ in British imperial rule in Fiji, and the subsequent impact of resistance to that mode of domination (both within Fiji and, as explored below, in Australia, including an outsized role in South Australian politics). Both offer interesting points of comparison and contrast to similar developments in Indian history and politics.

Lal characterises colonial Fiji as ‘a closely compartmentalized world characterized by petty racial discrimination and by the humiliation and exclusion of non-Europeans from the public domain’ (Lal 66). Fiji, a British crown colony from 1874 and home to a substantial Indian population (initially predominantly comprised of indentured labourers, a system abolished only in 1920), was a society ‘starkly stratified by race’, ‘a world of white privilege’ in which indigenous Fijians, Indo-Fijians and persons of partially European descent were segregated from, and subordinated to, a small European population (including Australians) who enjoyed a monopoly over political and social power (Woollacott 105-106).

This world bears remarkable similarity to the racial and social divides of the Raj – not least in that the terms ‘sahibs’ and ‘memsahibs’ appear to have been in common usage for white men and women in Fiji (Woollacott 106). As Jon Wilson has recently examined in India Conquered (“Wilson”), the Raj was at once ‘a regime suspended above the lives of its subjects, able to sustain itself while having only the thinnest connection with the people it was supposed to rule’ (Wilson 222) and a regime characterised by the segregation of ruler from ruled (e.g. Wilson 136-140, 246). The colonial regime set up in Fiji both depended in large measure upon indentured Indian labour and was characterised by the same hierarchical social and political structures.

Indeed, efforts by Indian activists elsewhere in the world had a substantial effect on the political and cultural identity of the Fijian Indian community – both directly, as in Manilal Maganlal Doctor’s relocation to Fiji from 1912 in order to assist and represent the local Indian community (Lal 83), and indirectly:

For [Indo-Fijian] children growing up in Fiji in the 1940s and 1950s, India was, as it had to be, the principal cultural reference point, manifested most visibly in the ubiquitous, gaudy pictures of various gods and goddesses (and of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru as well plastered on the bamboo walls of thatched houses. Contact with India was never quite broken as had happened in some other places, such as the Caribbean’(Lal 60).

Don Dunstan was born in Fiji to Australian expatriate parents. At that time, as Woollacott writes (at 105), ‘Australia’s business interests in Fiji constituted a form of colonialism – and a direct link between Australian settler colonialism and crown rule there’. After completing his education in South Australia’s capital city of Adelaide, Dunstan returned to Fiji and was admitted to practice there as a barrister and solicitor; he practiced law with Grahame & Co, ‘known as a firm willing to represent Fijians’, and was widely admired by the local Indian community for his work.[2] After returning to South Australia in 1951, Dunstan entered politics – winning election to the state’s House of Assembly in 1953 (for the Australian Labor Party) and serving as the state’s Premier from 1967 to 1968 and 1970 to 1979 (with the latter years popularly known as ‘the Dunstan Decade’). Despite his long absence, Dunstan’s formative experiences in Fiji proved pivotal in shaping his political convictions. As Woollacott writes (at 111):

Fiji’s mix of imperially imposed class and racial discriminations, with a rich and vibrant vulture shaped by both the indigenous and imported populations, gave Dunstan a life-long sense of both what should be abolished in South Australia and what, through government reform, it could become.

Dunstan retained his connection to Fiji throughout his life, including through his presidency (from 1987) of the Movement for Democracy in Fiji. (Interestingly, he appears to have become disillusioned regarding the possibility of building his desired social democracy in Fiji itself – writing that he left the nation upon concluding that his work there constituted ‘self-indulgent activity in a little Pacific Island community which could not form the kind of example [of progressive social democracy] needed’.[3] The grandiosity and condescension of this passage do not reflect altogether well on Dunstan.)

Dunstan’s impact in Australia, however, was local (as a pioneer of progressive social and economic policies in South Australia after decades of conservative, parochial rule,[4] and as a lawyer challenging abuses of police power[5]), national (as a leading and influential opponent of Australia’s racially discriminatory ‘White Australia Policy’ and Australian colonial exploitation in the Pacific, and as a strong supporter of Aboriginal self-determination) and global (as a supporter of closer Australian ties to Asian nations, including in building ties between South Australia and the Malaysian state of Penang) (Woollacott 111). Dunstan’s legacy remains a significant force and inspiration in South Australian politics.

Dunstan was not the only Australian politician of his era to have been shaped or motivated by the global anticolonial tide, or to have attempted to drive his party or his nation to reflect the changing global mood.[6] Despite the ostentatious ‘Empire loyalty’ of earlier generations of Australian politicians, and despite Australia’s foundation as a ‘settler colony’ upon the dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, Australian politics and society from the 1970s onwards have been shaped by an increased understanding of parallels between injustices condemned abroad and equivalent patterns of racism, intolerance and inequality at home. There is still a very, very long way to go – both in terms of redressing Australia’s legacy of colonialism, xenophobia and dispossession domestically and in eradicating continued imperial overtones in its relationships with Pacific neighbours (including Australia’s former colonies of Papua New Guinea and Nauru). But Dunstan’s experiences, and the contributions made as a result of those experiences, indicate that even a settler colony founded on dispossession and imperialism could remain open to, and be shaped by, ideals of anti-colonial and anti-racist struggle.

Which brings us back to India. (And to this blog’s actual remit.) The above illustrates that resistance to colonial exploitation can inspire distinct and diverse policy responses, even across unexpected and substantial geographical divides. The meaning and inheritance of anticolonialism in India is of course fiercely contested and capable of variant interpretations and of bolstering every argument and every stance on India’s varied political stage – nationalism, internationalism, secularism, Hindu chauvinism, Hindi chauvinism, regionalism, leftism, liberalism, etc, etc. Dunstan’s experiences capture, however, the illusions of certainty and of binding the anticolonial struggle to one canonical interpretation in this regard; they reflect the extent to which India’s struggle, as with the struggles of other nations, is capable of reinterpretation and contest, with debate as to its meaning and reinterpretation in new contexts ongoing and legitimate rather than a battle to be won in favour of one particular point of view.

Which, of course, is one particular point of view in and of itself. But in an age in which racist, communal, paranoid interpretations of nationalism have increasingly sought to assert themselves (and to deny not just the correctness but the validity of alternate interpretations), reiterating the liberal and progressive history of struggles for national self-determination (as a spur towards reform, critique and equality) – or the related tradition, as Ramachandra Guha has recently put it, of ‘open-minded, reflective, self-critical patriotism – at least denies the self-proclaimed monopoly of reactionary nationalism.

I am grateful to Lawrence Ben for his feedback on an earlier draft of this post.

[1] (2017) 55 Griffith Review 103.

[2] Angela Woollacott, ‘The making of a reformer: Don Dunstan before the ‘Dunstan Decade’’ (2016) 13 History Australia 462, 468; Don Dunstan, Felicia (1981) vi-viii.

[3] Don Dunstan, Felicia (1981) viii.

[4] Dunstan’s contributions are among the most celebrated in the history of Australian state politics. See e.g. Andrew Parkin and Allan Patience, The Dunstan Decade: Social Democracy at the State Level (1981).

[5] Don Dunstan, Felicia (1981) 86-87.

[6] For example, Gough Whitlam: James Curran, The Power of Speech (2004) 114-115, 129.

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