In the eyes of our media, ties between India and Australia are mostly defined by cricket. Yet many other things bring the two countries together. Both were once colonies of the British Empire; both are now democracies. Both have growing economic ties with China; both are wary of the political rise of China. There is now a large Indian diaspora Down Under.
To be sure, the countries have different histories and cultural traditions. Ours is a far older, more continuous, civilisation; theirs a nation of settlers and immigrants. They still owe allegiance to the British Crown; we gave up on that in 1950. Australia has one language, English; whereas India is home to many different languages.
Among the differences between Australia and India is that they have a vigorous and independent public broadcasting system. Twenty years after it was set up, Prasar Bharati remains a propaganda arm of the government. On the other hand, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), though funded from the state exchequer, is entirely free of political interference.
In Australia, radio is as important a means of communication as television, newspapers, or the Web. ABC Radio broadcasts news, features, interviews and debates which are widely listened to across the country. Perhaps the most prestigious radio programme in Australia is Late Night Live, which for several decades has been hosted by Phillip Adams. Adams has a marvellous radio voice; deep, gravelly, with just the right pauses. He is sharp, well- informed, and often witty. Because of who he is, and because of the reach of his radio show, Phillip Adams is an Australian national institution.
To be sure, not all of his listeners always agree with Adams; but even those who do not share his views admire his independence of mind and his curiosity about the world. While many Australian journalists are parochial and inward-looking, Adams and his team are greatly interested in the other countries of Asia, Europe, Africa and the United States as well. Night after night, his show has brought the world to Australia; and for an increasing number of people who are not from that country, the show has brought Australia to the world too.
For a flavour of what Phillip Adams and his Late Night Live means to Australia, do look at its web page, which curates comments on the show’s 20th anniversary. Not all comments are complimentary; but even those that are critical reflect a deep engagement, demonstrating the importance of the show and its presenter to Australia’s democratic life.
Phillip Adams is now in his late seventies. Yet he retains his zest and his energy, as manifest in his plans to tour a country to which his own nation has come closer over the years. Adams had hoped to spend several weeks in India, speaking to a wide cross-section of Indians, with the travels and talks to culminate in a series of shows on this, professedly the largest democracy in the world. That, at the advanced age of 78, this Australian national treasure would criss-cross India was not merely a manifestation of Adams’s own professionalism and intellectual curiosity; but of a wider interest in our country among his compatriots.
However, that trip now won’t happen. Phillip Adams and his team have been denied visas to visit India. Presuming that their visas would be granted in, at most, a month, they had sent in their passports and forms to our consulate in Sydney, and made flight and hotel bookings to and in India. However, for weeks together their visas would not come. The Indian Consulate did not grant the visas; and gave no reason either. Eventually, Adams and his team were forced to cancel their trip.
Why was Phillip Adams not allowed by our Government to visit India? He is not a drug smuggler, terrorist, or tax evader; on the other hand, he is a venerated public figure in a country that is a democracy like ours, a country with which we have close ties. There is strong speculation that Adams was not granted a visa because the ABC had recently done a television documentary on the Adani Group’s operations in that country. The documentary charged the Adanis with using illegal tax havens to minimise their tax liabilities in Australia, and with promoting environmentally hazardous projects. Denying visas to Phillip Adams and his team, a senior ABC producer told this writer, ‘does seem like payback for the 4 corners program last year on Adani and Australia’. Another ABC staffer was told by an Australian government official that the visa refusal was ‘about Adani’. And Phillip Adams himself tweeted: ‘After a year’s planning & months seeking visas LNL was blocked from entering India ..no reasons given, just obsfucation.(might it have something to do with 4C’s Adani report?)’.
As an Indian democrat, I hope the speculation is untrue. For otherwise it would reflect very badly on the ministry of external affairs. While Phillip Adams does a radio show, the Adani exposé was conducted on television, an entirely different arm of the ABC. In any case, it cannot be the job of our Government to carry on a vendetta on behalf of a private company. The Adanis have recourse to the law in Australia; let them sue the ABC for defamation if they so desire.
Such capricious behaviour adversely affects our relations with a country with whom we have good ties and wish for even better ties. But, beyond India-Australia relations, it also calls into question our credibility as a democracy. Are we so thin-skinned, so paranoid, so insecure, that we cannot even allow a 78-year-old Australian carrying nothing more dangerous than a tape recorder to travel across India? I would hope not.
(This appeared in The Hindustan Times Ramachandra Guha’s books include Gandhi Before India)