Guest post by Rimple Mehta and Linda Briskman. Rimple is a Lecturer, School of Social Sciences, Western Sydney University and Associate Director (Development and Networks), Border Criminologies. Linda is the Margaret Whitlam Chair of Social Work, School of Social Sciences, Western Sydney University.
This is a tale of two countries India and Australia and a story of how institutionalised racism has presented a convergence like never before. The recent developments in the two countries – with the scramble over oxygen and basic health infrastructure in India and Australia’s punitive ban on its citizens travelling from India- are compelling us to ask, ‘What or who is a country’?
The death toll in India has gone up to more than 250,000. And the number of cases each day is 400,000. It is estimated that India is detecting only 3-4 per cent of the actual cases and it is argued that COVID-19 related deaths are undercounted. The nation is grieving. There is anger, helplessness, disbelief, pain, and countless emotions which still don't have a name. Political rallies went unabated in India till it reached a point where crematoriums did not have place for bodies to be cremated. People died because they could not find a hospital bed or oxygen, the very basis of our survival. It was important for the democratic elections in five states to be held with gusto even while people died. ‘Democracy’ survived but citizens died. In addition, citizens who ‘complained’ of poor health infrastructure were threatened with detention under the National Security Act for “spreading rumours” and “spoiling the atmosphere”. How does an anti-terrorist legislation address the needs of citizens grappling a pandemic?
With Australia’s vast sea borders and strong health system, its resident citizens in their privilege are mostly immune to the suffering of others. There is something different here in this racialised nation that grew to success on the back of dispossession and genocide of First Peoples and the construction of white Australia. Racism continues to simmer and extends in the time of Covid when groups have been targeted in public and media discourse. This includes Chinese people living in Australia, Muslims believed to have contracted the virus during Eid celebrations and African refugees living in public housing towers subjected to draconian public health orders. It has now escalated to explosive legalised state racism.
In the wake of this catastrophe in India, in early May Australia invoked a ban on its citizens travelling from India. This ban was accompanied with a jail term of 5 years and a fine of $66,000 for any citizen attempting to travel from India via a third country. This move was justified in the interest of the safety and security of Australia. Rhetoric around the ban kept changing in the days following the declaration and citizens were assured that the jail term and fine will be exercised in a measured way. The question still remains: why was there a need to reiterate this threat and evoke the Biosecurity Act 2015 at this moment, even though it has been in place over the last one year. The Biosecurity Act has been called upon to save Australia from its citizens of colour and talk of a Covid ‘Indian’ variant reinforces its acceptance by the silent majority. Some spoke out. The ban evoked strong reactions from cricketer turned commentator Michael Slater who accused the Prime Minister of having ‘blood on his hands’. The idea of Australia survives while its citizens scramble for their lives overseas.
Last year, when the US was seeing the first wave, the number of cases there and in the UK were astronomical. With the India ban (reminiscent of President Trump’s Muslim ban), Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison decries accusations that the measures are not about politics or ideology. Then what are they about? If it were about health as he pronounces, why the selective application? What is the ‘fear factor’?
Morrison’s lack of empathy and responsibility shows his inability to walk in the shoes of others and white man speaking is unconvincing for those whose citizenship rights are violated in a so-called liberal democracy. Constructs and legalities of citizenship now divide the Global South and the Global North. The measures mock universal constructions of human rights, with their glossy rhetoric that is far removed from lived experiences. They reveal the sham of multicultural Australia. In India dual citizenship is prohibited, increasing the precarity of Indian Australians who may not live if penalised by Fortress Australia. As Australian lawyer Narita Nagin, whose husband is holed up in India because of his compassion in visiting his ailing mother said: There should be no barriers to Australians returning home. It is our right.
The states- whether India or Australia have indicated that citizenship is not a qualifier for individual security and protection. There are limits to one being protected as a citizen. Border security laws and the criminal justice system merge to keep citizens at a constant threat of conviction or retribution. Where one lies in the hierarchy of citizenship determines the extent of threat that looms over them.
The idea of security in this instance of Australia’s ban on its citizens in India is shaped by keeping certain citizens at bay, rather than strengthening systems in a way that extends support and solidarity not only to the citizens but also a grieving nation. Who is security for if not for its citizens? The idea of state security has always excluded ‘non-citizens’ and presented them as a threat to the safety and security of citizens. Here is an example of how citizens pose a threat to each other and the state decides who has the right to be secure.
As social workers we are committed to the cause of social justice and are attentive to lived experiences of racism. There are numerous examples of refugees, asylum seekers and migrant workers experiencing racism in Australia. These experiences are exacerbated when the state institutionalises and legalises threat based on justifications of ‘health’ security of the state. Being made to feel like a contagion is not a new experience for previously colonised countries. They have experienced that on their own lands. It keeps emerging in a new avatar, especially in the way the criminal justice system and the borders intersect to shape the experiences of people of colour, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Australia sets a precedence to how racialised borders may be drawn both to citizens residing within the country as well as outside. India, on the other hand continues to pursue the idea of democracy at the expense of the lives of its citizens and also by invoking the National Security Act. Both states seem to have abrogated their moral responsibility towards its citizens and pursue an idea of state security sans its citizens.
How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)
Mehta R. and Briskman, L. (2021). A Tale of Two Countries Sans Its Citizens. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/05/tale-two [date]