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Kotanda Rao in Australia

In the midst of growing world debate about the future of his own country, in 1936 Kotanda Rao arrived in Australia having just attended a conference on colonial education in Honolulu connected with the Pan-Pacific movement. Convened by the New Zealand anthropologist and Hawaiian university professor, Felix Keesing, and by former South African and Yale academic, C.T. Loram, the ‘Education in Pacific Countries’ conference ran over two months in Hawaii to investigate the role of ‘native’ education in the modernisation of colonial rule.10 While a leading member of The Servants of India Society, an ecumenical Christian for whom Christian ethics was the basis for the modernisation of the Indian masses, Rao was highly critical of what he saw as Eurocentric thinking at the conference. In a commentary called ‘A Critique of Some Assumptions’, he criticised the use of ‘Western Civilization’ as though it were a universal fact rather than a set of knowledges with its own history. Western education did not ‘belong’ to Western peoples, he advised, and the impacts of Western industrialisation were not limited to the developing world but were felt everywhere, whether in Britain or India. Rejecting the Western superiority such assumptions implied, Rao preferred to universalise a set of moral values that he argued in theosophical fashion were the common source of the world’s different belief systems and religions: ‘truth, love and charity’.11

Arriving in Brisbane later that year, Rao was already half way through a world tour on behalf of the Society to investigate the conditions of Indians in various countries including Australia. With a letter of introduction from Gandhi in hand, he told the Australian press that the conditions of Indians in Australia seemed to have improved since the visit nearly 15 years ago of V.S. Srinivasa Sastri, India’s representative to the League of Nations. In 1922 Sastri had had a mixed reception when he toured Australia, New Zealand and Canada on behalf of the Government of India to investigate the conditions of Indian nationals. The Truth doubted his ‘sophistry’, while the Queenslander described him a ‘fine speaker’ and one of the best to visit the state. Rehearsing the cultural defence of White Australia, in its commentary the latter expressed support for immigration restriction on the grounds that large numbers of Indians with their ‘mode of life different from ours’ would ‘become a danger to our social life and institutions’. However, it accepted Sastri’s argument that Indians living in Australia should be treated like other British subjects.12

Rao had been Sastri’s personal secretary when he was India’s Agent to the Union of South Africa following World War 1. Like many others of his generation, Gandhi foremost among them, this South African experience profoundly influenced Rao’s views concerning the conditions of Indians living in the Dominions, leading him to promote Indian nationalism while acknowledging the ‘mutual imbrications of East and West’.13 Already in 1918 while on a visit to Britain, Rao spoke at a British Dominion Women’s Suffrage Union meeting about the right of India to become a full member of the British Commonwealth.14 Given the India Act of 1919 gave Indians a degree of rights within the British empire, disseminating information about the conditions of Indians living in the diaspora was an important objective of Rao’s mission in Australia. Nearly 20 years later, he was no doubt aware that labour conditions in India, and particularly the role of caste in creating an underclass of untouchables continued to provide British imperialists with an argument against self-rule. And so he reassured the Australian public that The Servants of India was doing its best to tackle the problem of caste.15

Rao’s world trip was important to him in other ways. As he proudly informed contacts he had made at the Honolulu conference, he had met his future wife Mary Campbell, a white American woman, while she was attending a teachers’ conference at the same time in Hawaii.16 When the couple set up house in Bangalore, they recalled their meeting by naming their new home ‘Aloha’ and Rao dedicated his book Foreign Friends of India’s Freedom (1973) to Mary.17 Various forms of intimate relationship and collaborative partnership between white women and Indian men are a feature of many of the cosmopolitan lives discussed in this book.

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