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© Neena Bhandari,

 ImageDevanand `Dave’ Sharma is the Australian Ambassador of Indian heritage to Israel. Sharma, 39, spoke to Neena Bhandari from his home in Tel Aviv about growing up in Australia, of the Indian Diaspora in Australia and of being a diplomat in a country that almost always stirs extreme reactions.

Born in Vancouver, Canada, Dave, as he is popularly called, moved with his parents and twin elder sisters to Sydney just before his fourth birthday. His paternal grandfather had moved to Trinidad (West Indies) in 1908 from Pali village in Ghazipur district of Uttar Pradesh. His father, youngest of nine siblings, was born in Trinidad while his mother is a fourth generation Australian. His parents met as students at Kings College in London. From the UK, they moved to Canada and then to Australia.

Excerpts from the interview (3rd June 2015):

NB: How different was Australia when you arrived in Sydney in 1979?

DS: It was vastly different. I was quite young, but I do remember that in those days you would look in the White Pages directory to find people’s telephone numbers and I think we were the only `Sharma’ in the telephone directory. My father was the first entry on the list. Now you find pages and pages of Sharmas. There were only one or two Indian restaurants and that was the sort of Indian cultural presence in Australia then.

NB: Would your parents have preferred to live in the UK or Canada? Was it easy to make Australia home?

DS: My mother had grown up in Sydney and her entire family was in the Harbour city so it was quite easy for us to make Australia home. I think they enjoyed living in Canada and in the UK. My father in particular, probably could have settled in any of those two places, but the pre-existing family ties with Australia made the pull strong here.

NB: You are fluent in Hebrew, Spanish and English. Was education a high priority in your family?

DS: Education was a high priority in our family, but I was very much self-directed and self-disciplined when it came to studies in school. Both my parents and their families attached a value to education and that value is instilled throughout the household. But I was never told that you must sit down for so many hours and do this. I was very much left to my own devices, my own drive and motivation in high school.

NB: You topped in the state of New South Wales in the Higher School Certificate (Year 12) exams securing the highest possible Australian Tertiary Admission Rank of 100. During your growing up years, did Indian parents in Australia want their children to go to selective high schools?

DS: Infact, they did. I got into the closest one to me, the prestigious James Ruses Agricultural High School (in the Sydney suburb of Carlingford, which consistently tops in the Year 12 rankings). To be honest, I wasn’t very keen to join it because I didn’t want a long commute from school and I wanted to be close to my friends. So probably independently and against my parents’ better wishes, but with their consent I decided to join the local Turramurra High school. I can’t say I would have got a better score if I went to James Ruse. I think it shows the strength of the public school system in New South Wales. The standard is very high even in the non-selective high schools. I had good teachers, good curriculum, I studied hard and got as high marks as I could have expected anywhere else.

However, I can understand why Indian parents want their children to go to selective schools. It is because they are in the cohort of high calibre students by the very nature of it being selective. You can have pluses and minuses, I think. Some people prefer to be a big fish in a small pond rather than being a small fish in a big pond. They respond better in that sort of scenario rather than constantly being in a cut-throat and competitive environment.

NB: After High School, you went to Cambridge, returned to Sydney Medical School and then switched to doing international relations from Deakin University in Melbourne? Why did you decide to join the Foreign Service?

DS: I went to Cambridge, when I was 18 years old, on a partial scholarship and spent three years there. I initially started studying Natural Sciences and then changed to Law in my second year and graduated in Law with first class honours. I moved back to Sydney and started studying medicine at University of Sydney. I did that for one year, enjoyed it, but decided it wasn’t something I wanted to devote the rest of my life to. Applied for a job in Civil Service and was accepted for the one in Foreign Affairs. Whilst I was working in Foreign Affairs, I did a Masters in International Relations through correspondence from Deakin University in Melbourne. It was a relevant qualification for my work with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). The course was very much theoretical, which is quite different to the practice. It was still a useful background to what I was doing in the workplace.

NB: Did you have intense dinner time family conversations on field of study and career path?

DS: Like most Indian families, my parents very much wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer so I have broken that trend by going into government service. Most of my father’s side of the family are in the legal profession.

NB: What would you have done if you weren’t a diplomat?

DS: I think I would probably be a doctor as that is what I always thought I would do when I left school until I started studying medicine. I am still good friends with the people I studied medicine with at university. I think I would have probably gravitated to one of the two professions, perhaps a doctor, perhaps a lawyer, but probably nothing more adventurous than that.

NB: How does it feel to be the youngest Ambassador?

DS: It is a great honour and privilege to be representing your country at any point in your life and career. To be entrusted that responsibility at a relatively young age is a vote of confidence that I certainly don’t take lightly or take for granted. Israel has quite an important and sensitive relationship with Australia in many respects. I really enjoy every day of the job. It is great to represent Australia. We are a great country and we have a lot to be proud of. There are always things we can improve like most countries, but on the whole we are well liked and regarded around the world. People enjoy interacting with us and learning about Australia and finding the points of commonality between our two countries.

NB: You have held a variety of roles in DFAT within Australia, the United States, Papua New Guinea and now Israel. Have you had any mentors/idols within the service?

DS: I have been fortunate and privileged to work with quite a few high commissioners and ambassadors, who have been top civil servant mandarins. My first high commissioner in Papua New Guinea was Nick Warner. In Washington, I worked for Dennis Richardson, and in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, I worked with Duncan Lewis. They have been great mentors and I have learnt a lot by watching them in action and how they do their job.

NB: Israel is a challenging posting? Will we ever see peace between Israel and Palestine?

DS: I think we always need to continue to struggle for peace. It is not easy and there are some difficult challenges. The conflict between Israel and Palestine dates back to at least 1948. Infact, it dates back even before that to the British mandate period. Part of the difficulty is that two national people are both competing for the right to self-determination over a single piece of land. It is difficult to reach a compromise and satisfy both sides and that is why it has been such a difficult problem to resolve. But I think, we in Australia and all of the international community continues to insist that it is very important that we do see results to the problem and address them and that we keep directing our efforts towards that end. The progress is very fitful. There have been high and low points in our efforts to reach an agreement and it is still some way off yet.

NB: Does being an Australian diplomat of Indian heritage make a difference in Israel given that both countries have good relations with Israel?

DS: I think it does. First, it is a novelty to a degree. Australian public service hasn’t yet changed to reflect the ethnic composition of modern Australia. It is still very much White Anglo-Saxon, but slowly that is changing. It is often that the first generation of migrants will bring their own professionals skills and it is the second generation that is put into more traditional professions like medicine or law. It is the third generation that branches out a little. I am an interesting proposition here because I am not the White Anglo Saxon Australian representing Australia abroad.

The connection with India is quite a powerful one here as well. There is a sizable Indian Jewish community that lives in Israel numbering about 120,000. Despite the Indian population, the cultural influence is not as significant as in Australia. Secondly, government to government relationship is very close between India and Israel as well. It has been an added advantage, I must say.

NB: Israel stirs extreme reactions from people? Does it make a diplomat’s job more difficult?

DS: It does make it more challenging. The world’s eyes and the international media’s eyes are on Israel and what happens in this part of the world. The conflict and other issues attract a disproportionately high attention. So it does make things a little bit more difficult because anything anyone does, including myself as an ambassador, is assessed very critically and with a close microscope. One has to be very careful about not putting the foot wrong.

NB: Are there many more Indians in DFAT now than when you joined the service?

DS: Definitely much more so since I joined in 1999. Peter Varghese, a former Australian High Commissioner to India and now the foreign secretary, was perhaps the first Foreign Service officer of Indian heritage. There are not many others in my cohort, but if you see the batch five years younger, there is a growing number of Indians in the department who in the next five to 10 years will be in senior leadership positions. It is a very healthy trend. It is not just Indians, but the Chinese, Vietnamese, Sri Lankan Australians and other groups that are increasingly represented in our immigration intake and are finding their way into all parts of Australian life. This is how it should be.

NB: Have Indian immigrants in Australia come of age or will it be another decade before we are where the Indian Diaspora is in countries, such as, the United States or the United Kingdom?

DS: In my view, we are a little bit behind than the Diaspora in the US and the UK. We have a relatively new and young Diaspora, which is not as well established and represented as in America or Britain. Even the organisations and structures that you put around the Diaspora to increase its political and other influence are still quite nascent in Australia. I was very impressed to see the community mobilise in the way they did at the events in Sydney and Melbourne when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Australia. I didn’t realise the Diaspora was progressing in terms of cohesiveness and a unique identity, but I think there is still probably a fair way to go. When people first migrate, they focus on making sure their family is secure and  bringing some of their family members over, getting secure employment and finding a place to live. They are pretty much focused on meeting their basic needs. It is only with the passage of time that people begin to feel secure in their livelihoods and then they have the time to turn their attention to issues of politics or community mobilisation and organisation. We have seen that with every generation of migrants to Australia and I am sure we will see that with the Indian community too. The Indian Diaspora is quite an advanced and sophisticated Diaspora with quite a degree of political influence.

NB: Sport is an obsession in Australia? Are you a keen sportsperson?

DS: I am a keen runner, cyclist, swimmer, tennis player, soccer player and cricketer. I used to play golf, but there are not many golf courses here in Israel. I do enjoy going out and doing physical activity so I play whatever is available. 

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