Roll of Honour

Field Marshal K M Cariappa : The Australian Years

David Walker is the Author and Professor of Australia Studies at Deakin University, Victoria, Australia. He is a Keynote Speaker at a conference on 'Re-reading Orientalism' at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, from 12-14 August 2004. Professor Walker is keen to hear from people who knew General Cariappa and from former Colombo Plan students. Email:

K.M. Cariappa, an intriguing choice as India's High Commissioner to Australia, gave heart to those agitating for immigration reform and consistently drew attention to the logic of Australia seeing itself as part of Asia. In simply being who he was, he made 'white' Australia re-consider its embarrassingly insular and offensive prejudices, says David Walker.

In 1953, General Kodandera Madappa Cariappa became India's third High Commissioner to Australia. He was 53 and had recently stepped down from his demanding role as the first Commander-in-Chief of the Army of Independent India. He did not particularly want to go to Australia, but Prime Minister Nehru had insisted and that, of course, settled the matter. Cariappa was an intriguing choice as High Commissioner. He was a revered figure, admired for his substantial accomplishments and the high character that distinguished his army career. As India's pre-eminent soldier, he had worked and fought alongside the British and was comfortable in their company. Although adept at the silky arts of persuasion, Cariappa was a soldier who spoke his mind. He was not a diplomat by training or by inclination.


General Cariappa teaching Australian boys the ABCs of cricket.
Image © National Archives of Australia

Cariappa (Kipper to his army colleagues and Carry to the world at large) was a lively conversationalist and a generous companion. An Australian novelist described him as a "tall, striking man still capable of playing a couple of useful chukkas of some ways more British than the British, but with a good deal more elasticity and charm." There was certainly elasticity, but also discipline and pride. Our novelist judged that the General had gone down well in Australia. No other High Commissioner in Canberra at the time had travelled more extensively or was better known. He visited many small country towns, places far removed from Canberra's cocktail circuit and the brittle tinkle of polite conversation. Cariappa had come to like Australia and Australians, although he had his reservations.

The Immigration Issue

In March 1956, one month before the end of his Australian mission, "Kipper" received a letter from an old army friend and India hand, Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck. The "Auk" remarked on how foolishly provocative it was to allow so much of Australia to remain "empty" when land-hungry Asia was at the doorstep. Cariappa had a better understanding of the limits to population growth in Australia. He was well aware that vast deserts and unpredictable rainfall imposed severe limits on settlement. Cariappa did not think Australia was the answer to India's over-population, but he resented the White Australia policy that restricted immigration to Europeans and he certainly made his feelings known in private. It was a time when Australia was receptive to some fresh thinking about immigration. Throughout the 1950s domestic criticism of the White Australia policy gained support in progressive circles. There were even whispers of dissent in External Affairs where some people recognised that the rigid application of immigration policy was doing Australia damage throughout Asia, not the least in India.

The only thing many Asians knew about post-war Australia was that it did not want them as immigrants no matter what their gifts or talents. Cariappa felt the insult keenly. The Indian Army had tied the Japanese down in Burma, a crucial contribution to Australian security during the war. Many of his ex-army colleagues from these campaigns would make excellent settlers, but rather than accept them Australia had thrown open its doors to European immigrants, including Italians and others from former enemy countries. These were welcomed, but no Indians need apply. The policy was particularly galling because Cariappa was frequently told of Australia's new appreciation of its Asian neighbours. In the 1950s, strenuous efforts were made to show that Australia was Asia-friendly. Government ministers readily claimed that Colombo Plan students studying in Australian universities experienced no racial intolerance and no "colour bar".

Australia's future lay in Asia

Richard Casey, the Minister for External Affairs, took charge of the hospitality offensive. A former Governor of Bengal, Casey was committed to the White Australia policy intellectually and pragmatically. He believed in racial homogeneity and knew that the quickest way to end a political career in Australia was to criticise restrictive immigration. However, Casey also recognised that Australia's future lay in Asia. He used neighbourly allusions to describe the Commonwealth as a family, exchanging confidences, sharing a joke and speaking frankly when required, a grouping drawn together by shared experiences.

The irony was that at Independence Lord Louis Mountbatten had been required to use all his persuasive powers to keep India within the Commonwealth family. It is less well known that he also attempted to secure some relaxation of the White Australia policy on India's behalf. Had they known of it, ordinary Australians would have condemned this strategy. It was precisely the kind of trade-off that made them suspicious of the titled elite who, they believed, ran the Empire. They suspected the top people didn't think much either of the White Australia policy or of white Australians for sticking to it so vehemently. A suspicion developed that Cariappa was working hand in glove with those who wanted to see an end to the restrictive immigration programme.


Canberra, 1953...General Cariappa (left) with the Governor-General of Australia, Field Marshall Sir William Slim. Cariappa served with Slim in Iraq during the Second World War. Image © Archives, Government of India

Conspiracy theories do not require much nourishment in order to flourish. From the late 19th Century some Australians suspected that Britain would put the commercial interests of its "polyglot" Empire before the Australian ideal of a racially pure continent set aside for the development of the "higher races". One prominent zealot declared that it was Australia's "sacred duty" to breed "a pure race in a clean continent". This seemed an ideal that Britain did not understand and would not want to defend.

The Shadow of Suspicion

That Cariappa moved freely among people like Claude Auchinleck and Viscount William Slim, Australia's Governor General, fuelled suspicion. He was also a great hit among titled Australians and particularly, so it seems, among titled women. This set more raw nerves quivering. In the demonology of the time, there is no more a menacing figure than the suave "oriental" with an impressive command of English. We encounter one of the worst (or finest) examples of the type in Madge Peterson's The Lure of the Little Drum, set in India just before the First World War. The villain is the sinister Ishaq Khan. He is tall, handsome, accomplished and, most worrying of all, Oxford educated. Beautifully shaped sentences roll from his tongue and, inevitably, the exquisite but susceptible Esther falls for his charms. The harem and an early and humiliating death await her. Khan (unaccountably) is not interested in Esther's shapely profile. His purpose is to degrade "what we white men hold so dear, our women".

Cariappa may well have thought that being a handsome, accomplished and beautifully spoken member of the Commonwealth would be well-received in Australia and proof that educated Indians could make a positive contribution to Australian development. He may have hoped that he could win over public opinion. Cariappa's charms certainly worked wonders in some quarters, but this may have deepened suspicions in others. The Ishaq Khan principle reveals that certain accomplishments were considered threatening. Cariappa was a dangerously seductive figure. He was a war hero and a thinker deeply versed in British and in Indian traditions. He could expound the Upanishads and execute a perfect fox trot. If the occasion required, he could do both simultaneously. He was witty and charming over drinks and could be wonderfully theatrical as he flourished his personally monogrammed Sobranie black Russian cigarettes (ordered in batches of 1,000 from London). And he was unattached.

Australian upper class ladies, some with titles, began to fall at his feet. Edith, a resident of one of Sydney's best suburbs, explained to "Dear Carry" that she was studying international affairs, paying particular attention to Australia's Asian neighbours. By "close study and personal associations" she hoped to banish English prejudice from her system. Some weeks later she writes again. Somehow the Marabar Caves had found their way to Australia. Edith appealed to Cariappa to overlook a recent episode in which she had behaved as a "silly ass" for "intimating any undue personal feelings towards you". We do not know how Cariappa responded to being the object of Edith's bold experiment in self-improvement.

In some eyes these may have been suspicious conquests, part of a cleverly laid plan to turn susceptible British Australians like Edith against the White Australia policy and have Australia opened up to immigration from India. Here was another potent apprehension, deeply embedded in Australia's white history: the flood from the north, the obliterating "yellow wave" sweeping an insecure white Australia right off the map. The contradictory pressures shaping the post-war world and the now multiracial British Commonwealth were not easily contained. Cariappa quickly discovered this when in June in 1954 he visited northern Queensland. This was a voyage into tropical Australia and the famous "empty north", a part of Australia acutely sensitive to its lack of population. Public opinion in Queensland was stridently opposed to Asian immigration of any kind. After a long and tiring trip Cariappa returned to Brisbane where he agreed to grant an interview to the Brisbane Courier Mail.

The Brisbane Controversy

What Cariappa said is now difficult to ascertain. He was reported to have said that Australia's restrictive immigration policies might drive India and Pakistan out of the Commonwealth and into the hands of the communist powers. He added that Australians were more interested in the colour of a person's skin (tapping the back of his hand for effect) than in their hearts and minds. He rejected the fond talk about the Commonwealth family when it was clear that Australia preferred any white immigrant to the Commonwealth's coloured ex-servicemen. The Courier Mail story was soon picked up nationally and reported overseas, including in India. For white Australia diehards, Cariappa's statement was all the proof they needed that secret plans were being hatched to do away with the White Australia policy. Yet although Cariappa was always prepared to make it clear in private discussions that the White Australia policy was repugnant and offensive, there is no evidence that he or the Indian government ever wanted to force the issue. Although Cariappa was roundly condemned in some quarters, to his supporters his Brisbane comments seemed to state an obvious truth: all the efforts to win over the neighbours and create a friendly image in the region were negated by the White Australia policy. It could not be explained away, no matter how hard Casey and others tried.


General Cariappa wasn't keen on an Australian posting, but Nehru stood firm.
Image © The Hindu Photo Library

Cariappa was shaken and angered by the Brisbane controversy. He thought of returning to India, but believed this might be interpreted as an official rebuke and a recall. The old soldier in him refused to surrender. He would not give his Australian critics this comfort. Cariappa also found more indirect means of making his case about the Commonwealth family. He was instrumental in founding the Commonwealth Club in Canberra and as he travelled Australia he made a point of visiting war memorials. In the small town of Gundagai, Cariappa and his Sikh driver found the local memorial overgrown with weeds. These two spectacular figures got to work and soon had the memorial looking ship-shape. The story found its way into the papers and became another part of the Cariappa mythology. No one could reasonably object to a soldier paying his respects to fallen colleagues, but few could have missed his point that India had been a loyal friend in the Second World War. Cariappa's impact is not easy to assess, but he gave heart to those agitating for immigration reform and consistently drew attention to the logic of Australia seeing itself as part of Asia. In simply being who he was he made white Australia re-consider its embarrassingly insular and offensive prejudices. And more than any other figure in Australia at the time, he spoke out for and embodied the newly independent India.

The Hindu - 08 August 2004

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