Rules of engagement

Associate Professor Devleena Ghosh and Professor Ujjwal Kumar SinghUTS has cemented its place as a world-class destination for global thought leaders from India, helping to generate a stronger crosscultural understanding between the two countries.

From poor cousin to powerhouse, India has a compelling story to tell.

With a population of more than 1.2 billion, a fascinating political, commercial and religious history and a modern status as a global business dynamo, few countries can match it for intrigue. This narrative is reflected in the strength of Indian studies at UTS , where an acclaimed cohort of academics and researchers is engaging with students and the broader community.

Associate Professor Devleena Ghosh, of the Social and Political Change Group at the UTS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, plays a key role in attracting distinguished Indian scholars to the University, where a complementary series of workshops, papers and seminars helps better explain India’s history and its relationship with Australia.

“There’s quite a lot of interesting comparative work that goes on,” Ghosh says. “We want to look at, for example, the Australia-India connection as British colonies in the Indian Ocean during the 19th century and examine the informal migration of people. The people most of us know about are the Indian camel drivers, but there are lots of others who came here. It’s to some extent about relocating Australia’s place in Asia and relocating India as one of the major regions of interest to Australia.”

Ghosh suggests that Australia’s post-1788 focus on its European settlement roots often obscures the significant impact of Asian immigration from countries such as India and China. Through their research and teaching programs, UTS academics are exploring a diverse range of India-related issues in disciplines such as law, politics, business, humanities, social sciences, sciences and engineering.

The University draws on strong ties with institutions such as New York University, the University of Leicester and the University of Delhi. It also woos leading figures from abroad for its workshops and seminars, including Dipesh Chakrabarty, a renowned South Asian historian from the University of Chicago; and celebrated Indian investigative journalist Palagummi Sainath, whose investigative and social sector reporting as rural affairs editor of The Hindu newspaper has earned him a string of international awards, including the Ramon Magsaysay Prize in 2007.

In February this year, Sainath participated in the Talking India series that is held at UTS through the Indian Ocean and South Asia Research Network (ISOARN ). He captivated attendees with an address that explained how an agrarian crisis had contributed to a spate of farmer suicides in India, with more than a quarter of a million farmers taking their lives between 1995 and 2010. The deaths represent the largest single wave of suicides within an occupational group yet recorded, and mirror a similar but smaller scenario in Australia where isolated and lonely farmers have taken their lives.

Ghosh says another workshop in the pipeline will consider nuclear power in the context of Australia’s recent decision to sell uranium to India.“So what we are trying to do is take these issues that deal with Australia’s place in Asia and its relationship with India and have workshops and events and speakers around those issues.”

Thought leadership at UTS

A key step in the advancement of Australia- India ties is the appointment of Professor Ujjwal Kumar Singh, a political scientist at the University of Delhi, as the first Rajiv Gandhi Visiting Chair for Contemporary Indian Studies. The role is a collaborative venture between UTS and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and has the support of ISOARN. Under the agreement, UTS will appoint an Indian academic as a visiting professor for one semester a year over four years, with a new candidate selected each year.

Singh specialises in areas such as laws and institutions, electoral governance, democratic and human rights and indigenous rights. He will teach global politics during his stay at the UTS campus, and at a recent forum addressed the topic Cat and Mouse Games: Hunger Strikes and Political Prisonerhood. The topic explored the notion that political imprisonment is a conceptual tool for a historical and ethnographical exploration of modern states.

In his paper, Singh focused on how hunger strikes can be used as a mode of resistance and reclamation of the self within jails. At the same time, the response of government also varies for different groups of prisoners, with distinct versions of the ‘cat and mouse game’ playing out with diverse intents, ranging from freeing hunger-striking suffragettes from prison only to re-incarcerate them to a conundrum over how to respond to the Gandhian ‘fast’ to purge the nation.

Singh noted that hunger-striking inmates have sought to effect a range of outcomes. For example, the Hindustan Socialist Revolutionary Army prisoners and the Naxalites in India have tried to change repressive prison regimes, while others like Anna Hazare and Irom Sharmila have sought to draw attention to political wrongs through their ‘fasts’.

Singh told TOWER that although hunger strikes have been used as a popular mode of protest, they have had mixed success. “It only works if it is used as a moral force,” he says.

Across the great divide

Singh agrees it is important to build stronger cultural understanding between nations and argues that there is a “huge void” in Australians’ knowledge of India and South Asia that needs to be addressed as commercial and career opportunities expand between the two economies.

“I sometimes tell students that they need to know more about southern areas, including South Asia and India, because in many ways there is a growing relationship between Australia and India. And improving that knowledge will help them in the future with their job and career prospects.”

Singh believes greater cultural interaction and education can also help ease Australia-India tensions that took hold in 2009 following a spate of violent attacks against Indian students living down under.

“In a way, the impact of those events still exists in India and people are still apprehensive,” he says. “But I think exchanges of this kind will really help.”

In recent months, UTS has hosted a workshop examining the Indian student crisis, considering why the phenomenon occurred and discussing how such incidents can be avoided in future.

Ghosh says such seminars are crucial in generating deeper understanding between Australians and Indians. The presence of high-profile commentators such as Singh and Sainath also builds Australia’s understanding of India’s culture and politics, and strengthens the bilateral relationship between the two countries.

“What we’re trying to do is really refocus some of Australia’s foreign policy attention on India, as opposed to having it totally focused on China. This is not a zero-sum game – it’s not saying we should take the focus away from China – it’s really saying that’s it’s a bad policy to always put all your strategic political eggs in one basket, and it’s better to have a variety of ways in which you create these relationships.”

Ghosh praises ISOARN and UTS leaders such as Vice-Chancellor Professor Ross Milbourne for supporting the Indian studies programs. She notes, too, that the visit to UTS last year by the former President of India, Dr Abdul Kalam, to sign a memorandum of understanding for the establishment of the Rajiv Gandhi Visiting Chair role sent a clear message about the importance of growing Australia-India ties.

As UTS also examines a range of key technology partnerships with various Indian universities, Ghosh agrees that apart from promoting cultural ties, such programs will help develop employment opportunities from New Delhi to Canberra and cities in between.

“People want to actually be able to work in a global context and have the opportunity to do so. And to have that work readiness it’s really important to experience other cultures.”

Story by Cameron Cooper
Photography by Anthony Geernaert