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  • Writer's pictureAkasha Usmani

Amit Sarwal: Researching Australia

Dr. Amit Sarwal is Melbourne-based academic, writer, translator, and former radio broadcaster. He is the Founding Convenor of Australia-India Interdisciplinary Research Network (AIIRN), Co-founder of The Australia Today news network, and Founder of Kula Press. Dr Sarwal is an interdisciplinary scholar and translator whose research covers areas in postcolonial literature, migration and diaspora, cross-cultural relations and diplomacy, cinema and media, and international business. His research papers have appeared in prominent international journals. He has many books to his credit, prominent being: Wanderings in India (2012), Bollywood and Its Other(s) (2014), Labels and Locations (2015), Salaam Bollywood (2016), South Asian Diaspora Narratives (2017), The Dancing God (2020), and The Celestial Dancers (2022).


Amit Sarwal believes that the story of the Indian diaspora in Australia has only just begun.


Akasha Usmani (AU): Dr Sarwal, you have a PhD in English literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University after which you pursued a Master of Business Administration from Federation University, Australia. What has your journey been like? What motivated you to go to Australia?


Amit Sarwal (AS): While pursuing MA and MPhil at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), I was attracted towards Australian Studies, which at that point was a fairly new field. I completed my PhD in 2010 with an Endeavour Asia Award that helped me conduct preliminary research on South Asian Diaspora literature in Australia at Monash University (2006-07). Initially, I didn’t plan to stay in Australia even though I had good offers from three prestigious universities for PhD. While working on my thesis, I taught at the University of Delhi (DU), organized conferences and published books to promote Australian Studies in India. Here, as a researcher who was constantly looking for new areas of research in Australia-India relations, I realized the paucity of primary and secondary material in my field in India. One way to deal with it was to keep applying for short- or long-term Australian grants and visit Australian universities. However, this would have disrupted both professional and family life. So in 2013, on the advice of my mentor, I moved to Deakin University to pursue postdoctoral research on Australia-India cross-cultural links. In 2017, I completed my MBA at Federation University to hone my skills in leadership and management as I planned to move into university administration. Looking back at the overall journey so far, I guess it has been satisfying both personally and academically. The key motivation, even when I was in India, was to do pathbreaking research in the field of Australia-India relations that would not only fill the lacuna but also inspire other scholars pursuing interdisciplinary research.


AU: You have extensively talked and written about Australia- India relations, what are your thoughts on the growing Indian diaspora in Australia and how do you think Indian students have integrated into Australia?


AS: Today, the Indian diaspora in Australia is 780,000 strong and I guess will reach the mark of 1 million way before the predicted timeline of 2035. Indians in Australia bring a variety of skills thus resulting in a highly educated, highly employable and high earning diaspora. Despite this, unlike the United Kingdom, United States of America and Canada, they are still not well-represented in politics and that’s an area that the Indian diaspora needs to work on in Australia. One of the key pathways for Indians to become part of the diaspora i.e. through permanent residency and then citizenship has been studying at Australian universities. Overall impression of Indian international students in Australia is that the majority have good English communication skills, are fast learners and very hardworking. Because of these essential skills, Indian students are able to adapt and settle well in Australia. In the last five years, many have successfully also started their own businesses and startups set-up in both Australia and India thus contributing towards economies of both these countries. Given the increasing number of Indians in Australia I think a direct dialogue with the key members of the diaspora will be the next step for the Indian government.


AU: You have written many books on culture and society, what impact does Indian culture have in Australia and how do you think culture can help in strengthening the relationship between the two countries?


AS: I believe culture is the most important part of the ‘baggage’ that immigrants carry to their new homeland. Early Australian representation of Indian culture on stage, films and music were Eurocentric constructs replete with exoticism and stereotypes - a result of colonial encounters. In the aftermath of decolonisation, with the emergence of Louise Lightfoot’s collaborations with Ananda Shivaram, Rajkumar Priyagopal Singh and Ibetombi Devi in Australia, a deeper and positive understanding of India’s culture and arts was created. This brought the two cultures closer by stimulating a period of vitality thus paving the way for a whole generation of Indian artists. Today, Indian culture, covering yoga, cinema, and traditional festivals, has been a key element of diplomacy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Look East and the Act East policies. I see this cultural outreach as part of the Sanskrit concept of paraspara - mutually sustainable and reciprocal diplomacy. This taps into the diverse opportunities available in the Indo-Pacific region and helps strengthen the relationship between India and Australia.


AU: What led you to find Australia-India Interdisciplinary Research Network?


AS: Since 2006, I have been part of various conference organizing and course curriculum committees focused on promoting Australian Studies in India. During my interaction with Australian scholars, I realized that they wished to collaborate with Indian researchers, publish in India and organize study tours. However, they felt that either things moved too slow or there was no resource person to connect them with the right administrator to make things happen. So in 2012, I decided to form Australia-India Interdisciplinary Research Network (AIIRN) - an online network to connect like-minded researchers, collaborate with publishers, and provide advice to institutions that planned to sign MoUs with Indian universities. It has, as planned, stayed online and still works without any fanfare advising interested researchers. Since 2018, I have started connecting researchers from the Pacific too as part of AIIRN’s outreach in the Indo-Pacific region.


AU: You are an interdisciplinary scholar and over the years there has been an increase in Indian students going to Australia, are interdisciplinary studies becoming popular among Indian students?


AS: There definitely has been an increase in the number of Indian international students coming to Australia. Due to Covid-19 pandemic, the number of Indian students decreased significantly and it is hoped that in 2023 intake will grow back. However, I would like to point out that most of these students are not coming to pursue interdisciplinary studies. These are full fee paying Indian international students coming to pursue courses in information technology (IT), accounting, management, hospitality, teaching, and STEM related fields. The choice of these courses is very interesting as it opens pathways for permanent migration. If you look at the number of students coming here to pursue humanities or interdisciplinary research, comparatively it is less. These students are mostly concentrated in postgraduate and doctorate courses who have come to Australia to research on full scholarships offered either by the university or the Australian Government.


AU: India and Australia have strong research and educational ties, how do you think this will bring the countries together?


AS: Yes, these strong research and educational ties have a long history. I have in my research looked at the experiences of Indian students in Australia during the first 50 years of the White Australia Policy (WAP). During this period, most Indian parents and students preferred universities in the United Kingdom (UK), the United States of America (USA), and European countries. However in 1937, as Australia somewhat relaxed its immigration policy for international students under a quota system for selected fields of study, Indian students started coming down under. So, Australia’s research and training ties go back to pre-independence India. This was primarily done to develop India’s technical capability in horticulture and agricultural, scientific education, medical and nursing, and geological research. Australia awarded scholarships under Commonwealth Technical Assistance Scheme (CTAS), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and later the Colombo Plan. These small but ever-growing number of Indian students proved active members of friendship associations between Australia and India. You will notice that Australia’s international education program was largely premised on the notion of foreign aid, however soon they realized the potential of education, helping its newly independent neighbors, and its power to change perceptions about Australia. These scholarships and fellowships opened-up avenues not just for more Indian students but also for internationalization of Australia’s universities and its education programs. Given Australia’s recent spat with China, this educational exchange with India, a trusted neighbor and partner, will keep growing.


AU: You are the co-founder of The Australia Today, how did you come across the Idea of opening this news network and what motivated you to do this?


AS: We created The Australia Today (TAT) news platform to do honest, bold and independent journalism with utmost editorial integrity. It is important for people, especially in the diaspora, to be aware of the facts, and read reports based on real data or opinion pieces based on critical analysis and rational thinking. We also felt that there was a lack of diversity in the mainstream media in Australia and wanted to give a platform to multicultural communities so that they can tell their stories in their own voice. We go where the facts take us and we are not afraid to do stories that many might deem too dangerous. We believe that journalism without courage is no journalism at all. In just 21 months that TAT has come into existence we have already done stories that have made an impact. For example, our report on Khalistan supporters in Australia led to the Indian Government taking up this issue with the Australian Government. Most recently, our stories on Indian intellectuals' role in creating biased world rankings such as freedom and hunger have been appreciated for its balanced reporting. In Australia, both the former Prime Minister Scott Morrison and present Prime Minister Anthony Albanese have written exclusive OpEds for our news platform. The response that we have received so far is truly overwhelming and we hope to keep following our passion and bringing the truth to the people.


AU: What are your thoughts on the growing contributions made by Australian Indians?


AS: As I said earlier, the Indian diaspora in Australia is growing at a very positive rate and, given its pro-immigration stance, Australia will remain an attractive place to study, work, and settle down for a very long time. In fact, the Indian diaspora has been called Australia’s ‘national asset’ that is actively contributing in all spheres - business, academia, the arts, sport, civil society, politics, and government. Most recently, an Indian-Australian has been recognised as Australian of the Year 2023 in Victoria. This is indeed a proud moment for all Indian-Australians! However, given this constant and positive increase in numbers of skilled migrants from India to Australia, I feel that the Indian government should directly interact with a central diaspora body that can help provide strategies to mitigate socio-cultural issues and boost cross-cultural ties between Australia and India.




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