EM Forster’s classic 1924 novel A Passage to India concerns racial tensions between Indians and the British who then ruled them.
Almost a century later, the issue of a passage from India is playing out between the subcontinent and Australia, with the latter being made to look heartless in the face of the Covid-19 disaster ravaging India.
When Australian prime minister Scott Morrison announced a ban on flights from India due to its worsening Covid crisis – making it unlawful for anyone, including Australian citizens, to enter the country if they have been in India in the past 14 days – there was criticism from some quarters, but MPs speaking off the record were confident the public backed the ban.
The government was so sure the public was onside it went further, saying anyone who got to Australia from India via another country faced up to five years in jail, a $66,000 (€42,500) fine, or both.
But then former Test cricketer Michael Slater shocked the government by saying Morrison had “blood on his hands” and “how dare you treat us like this?”
Slater, who was in India to commentate on the now-suspended India Premier League (IPL), said preventing Australians from returning home was a “disgrace”.
He is one of 38 Australian players, commentators and support staff working in the league. On Thursday night most of them flew to the Maldives to wait out Australia’s travel ban, while former Test star and Chennai Super Kings batting coach Mike Hussey remains in India after contracting Covid-19.
If Slater’s intervention didn’t make the government immediately pull up stumps, it did make the general public aware that there are 9,500 Australian citizens in India registered as wanting to go home, 950 of whom are listed as vulnerable.
Dr Jagvinder Virk, an Indian-Australian community leader, said “I have always said there is a ‘white Australia’ policy, and today we are seeing it.” He said of the ban: “The US hasn’t done it, the UK hasn’t done it, Canada hasn’t done it, why are we doing it?”
Virk is also a prominent member of the Liberal Party, the senior party in Australia’s ruling coalition. Suddenly the government was nervous and the Labor opposition sensed an opportunity.
Labor senator Penny Wong spoke for many when she said “Surely Australian citizenship has to mean something?” Wong, a former lawyer, is well aware Australia has no bill of rights, but it was news to most others that there is no codified right of return in Australian law.
Doctors also started to speak out. Omar Khorshid, president of the Australian Medical Association, said the ban was “mean-spirited at a time when Australia should, in fact, be aiding India by bringing Australians home in order to avoid further burden on its collapsing health system”.
London-based Australian human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson added to the government’s woes, saying the ban was unconstitutional and was made under a “dictatorial power” not approved by parliament.
On Wednesday lawyers for Gary Newman, a 73-year-old Australian stranded in Bangalore, filed an urgent legal challenge to the ban that made it a crime for him to go home.
After days of relentless attacks over its handling of the issue, the government started to back-track. First it said there was almost no chance of someone being jailed or fined. Then it said the ban would probably not extend beyond May 15th. And on Friday it announced repatriation flights from India would definitely resume on May 15th.
Morrison and his government saw an easy score with banning Australian citizens from travelling home, but instead scored a spectacular own goal.