When Australian Prime Minister was sued by deported Indian international student, find out why

The case of Mool Chand was sensationally reported in Australian newspapers and was the first such case of its kind involving an Indian in Australia. 

In my recent award-winning article entitled “’Behind the white curtain’: Indian students and researchers in Australia, 1901–1950,” published in the journal History of Education Review (with Prof. David Lowe, Deakin University), we looked at the experiences of Indian students in Australia during the first 50 years of the White Australia Policy (WAP).

Our key purpose in this article was to highlight the reasons behind the involvement of the Australian government in the provision of scholarships and fellowships to Indian students and researchers during the period of WAP.

Using contemporary Australian newspaper reports and exploring popular representations of sponsored Indian university-level students and researchers in Australian media, from 1901 to 1950, this article provided a historical account of their experiences in Australia in the first half of the 20th century.

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Post-1901, some Australian intellectuals and diplomats made compelling arguments for productive collaborations between Australia and India, especially in education and training. With the prevailing ethos of equal rights among citizens of the British Empire, the rising wave of Indian nationalism, and the subsequent decline of the British Raj, educated and rich Indians wanted to engage with Australia within similar positions of privilege and power.

In 1904, the Australian government relaxed the administration of the Immigration Restriction Act (IRA) to allow “Indian merchants, students, and tourists” to enter the Commonwealth temporarily. People in these categories were often allowed to remain in Australia for up to 12 months (in rare cases seven years) with the condition that they must hold a valid passport issued by the government of India. Under this Act, only the Minister was empowered to grant a “certificate of exemption” from the dictation test. These were usually given to someone who would work in a local business of “community value”. However, the effect of the 1904 reforms was minimal in encouraging Indian students, as the maximum 12-month stay was hardly a good match with university study.

Representative image: Documentation for William Perera in 1915 (Source: National Archives of Australia)

In 1905, an Indian man named Mool Chand, obtained permission to enter Western Australia from Lahore as a former “Indian Civil Servant” or as an “Indian student”. It is not clear if he was an officer of the ICS or just a “babu” (clerk) or a student preparing for the ICS. The “List of Indian Members of the Indian Civil Service” does not have an entry on Mool Chand, which makes his claim as an ICS dubious. He was given only a six months’ Certificate of Exemption from the Dictation Test (CEDT) by the authorities in Freemantle. 

However, it was later found out by Australian authorities that Mool Chand had overstayed his visa as a student and was illegally employed by another Indian, Messer Inder Singh, in his shop. After detailed inquiries by the local police, he was adjudged “a prohibited immigrant” under the IRA 1901 and on 24 July 1905, orders were issued for his immediate deportation from Australia. The local newspapers reported that two plainclothes constables located Mool Chand at Inder Singh’s residence in South Freemantle and kept him under surveillance.

On 25 July 1905, Mool Chand was delivered a letter requesting him to appear before the Collector of Customs in person the same day. Mool Chand immediately complied with the request as he had no idea of what was to befall him. From the Collector of Customs office, Mool Chand was unceremoniously deported without his luggage and belongings on RMS Orontes, which was on its way to London from Freemantle, to Colombo and from there on another ship to Madras.

Image source: RMS Orontes (Wikimedia Commons)

Onboard the ship Mool Chand told his plight to European passengers who in sympathy offered him some money to buy clothes and food. As soon as he set down in Madras, Mool Chand, with monetary help from his friends, started legal proceedings against the Australian government and customs officials.

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Mool Chand, through Cecil John Reginald Le Mesurier, an orientalist and a barrister of the Western Australian Supreme Court, officially filed a case against the Western Australian government and Clayton Turner Mason, the Collector of Customs, claiming £10,000 in damages against assault, false imprisonment and illegal deportation. Another writ for £10,000 compensation was filed against the Federal authorities, particularly Alfred Deakin, then Prime Minister of Australia and also the Minister for External Affairs, for issuing the deportation order.

Image source: Prime Minister of Australia Alfred Deakin (Wikimedia Commons)

Although no direct action could have been taken against the Prime Minister, it was clear from the blame game and correspondences that IRA 1901 and deportations made under it were questionable. As expected, Mool Chand’s case was dismissed by the judge because he was not on a valid visa or a resident of any state in Australia at the time of his deportation.

As expected, the case of Mool Chand, “the deported Indian student”, “a deported Hindoo” or “a deported Afghan”, became historic and was reported sensationally in Australian newspapers as the first such case of its kind involving an Indian in Australia. 

For a detailed analysis, please see Amit Sarwal and David Lowe’s article “‘Behind the white curtain’: Indian students and researchers in Australia, 1901–1950,” published in the journal History of Education Review (5 October 2021).