The first Indians to be brought to Australia were mainly Sikhs and Muslims from the Punjab region in north-western India. Between 1860 and 1901, more Indians arrived and worked as agricultural labourers, hawkers and domestic help. A number of Indians also worked in the gold fields. Migration from India was curtailed after the Australian Government introduced the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, but following India's hard-won independence from Britain in 1947, the number of Anglo-Indians and Indian-born British citizens immigrating to Australia increased.
1966 was the year that heralded a major change in the Australian Government's immigration policies, as it allowed non-European Indians to migrate to Australia. Sundar Sarma, a fresh graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) at the time, received this news with much enthusiasm. "I came to Australia in 1970, despite the remnants of the 'White Australia' policy," he says.
Now an Australian citizen and a geophysicist enjoying early retirement, Sarma is one of the many who are of the view that life in Australia is much better than the Indian lifestyle. "The lifestyle here is easier and more comfortable," he says. "In India you might live a lavish lifestyle on your private residence, but as soon as you step out, the muck and chaos greets you."
Dual citizenship was recently passed by the Indian parliament, but Sarma says he is unlikely to take it. "Even though I consider myself two-thirds Indian and one-third Australian, dual citizenship isn't on my agenda at the moment. Having an Indian passport in addition to my Australian is really only necessary if I am a frequent visitor to India or I have business interests there. Having an Indian passport gets you favoured treatment. For me however, I don't need that."
"I've got nothing against Australia's migration policies," he says. "Australia's migration system is actually fairer than a lot of other countries, and the immigration people try and mix up the quota so they don't favour one particular country." Because India essentially paid for his education, Sarma will always retain a deep affinity for India. "Most of my relatives live there, and I think I've got an equal liking for both countries."
How does the second generation perceive India? Sarma's only son, Neal, was born in Perth and is an Australian citizen. He speaks an Indian language - Assamese - and it is one of the few links to his roots. Neal feels that others sometimes perceive him as being less Australian because of his skin colour. "Fitting in here might be a little tough," he says, "but it's much easier than adapting to Indian culture at this point in my life."
Sunaina Seth, a 15-year old studying at Wantirna Secondary College, is inclined to agree. Her family has lived in Melbourne, Australia for more than nine years. Over the course of their stay, they have travelled back to India five times. "My parents begin to miss India and its people after a while," she explains. "I don't think I relate better with either Indians or westerners, it just depends on the individual."
Seth was born in Jorhat, Assam but has spent the majority of her life down under. Needless to say, it has left an impression upon her. However, she maintains that she considers herself Indian. "Almost everything in my life, including where I was born, points towards India. I guess I can't ever let it go completely." Seth's grandmother runs a charity organisation that helps educate children in poor villages. "If I ever give back in a big way, I'd probably donate to an Indian charity, mainly because of my connection to the people there."
The 2001 census recorded 95, 460 India-born persons (also comprising of those with Anglo-Indian or English ancestry) in Australia, with New South Wales ranking in as the state with the most Indian residents. The same information also shows that of all India-born people aged 15 years and over, 67.1% held some sort of educational or occupational qualification, compared with 46.2 percent for all Australians.
Statistics can only go so far, yet in this instance it is clear that Australia has become an enticing new home for many, and multiculturalism is finally a part and parcel of today's society. In the eyes of the majority of the world, even taking into account the controversy surrounding the asylum seeker issue, Australia seems to have become generally known for its friendliness and willingness to coexist with different types of people. The future appears to lie in the "boundless plains to share" lyric of the national anthem, and how current Australians can follow up on that gem.