Lawyer and activist Meena Singh talks culture, family, history and injustice.
“Everything I experience as an Aboriginal person, I experience as an Indian person .”
Her father, Hari Singh arrived in bustling Melbourne in the 1960s. He was the great-grandson of Indian indentured labourers brought to Fiji from Jaipur during British colonialism to work on the country’s sugarcane plantations. In Melbourne, he met Diane Day, a Yorta Yorta woman, who had grown up around Echuca, a town on the Murray River.
And so Meena Singh was born to Singh and Day in 1974. Now a lawyer and a PhD student, the Melbourne-based Meena talks about how the city in the 60s was very diverse with people from all over the world. “Lots of Black and Brown people would hang out at the same places where they would feel safe, with lots of cultures mixing together….that’s how my parents met.”
It’s a spring day in Melbourne, meaning it is cold and dreary and indistinguishable from winter. When I sit down to speak with Meena Singh, it is through the only way Victorians have been able to do so for close to three hundred days: on Zoom (unless Skype is your thing). Singh is at home with her two dogs and has no “human children”, happily referring to herself as a dog mom. She has recently left her job as Legal Director of the Human Rights Law Centre to work full-time on her PhD. When asked if she had always wanted to be a lawyer, she shakes her head and laughs. “My career has been a series of fall-into things.”
A glance at her trajectory might suggest otherwise. Singh graduated with an Arts undergraduate degree from Melbourne University and went on to a law degree from Monash University. She has worked for the Victorian Legal Aid, and the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service and has practised both criminal and human rights law. I point out that being the director of anything is no small feat.
She grimaces and tells me she hated legal learning at college. “The law is not neutral or objective. In one sense, it is doing exactly what it is supposed to do—protect the interests of those who write the laws.” She reminds me that Aboriginal people, Black people, women, the poor and the homeless are always overrepresented in criminal law. “The law is the ultimate indirect discriminator— the same law can produce vastly different outcomes.”
Singh gives me the example of Tanya Day, who was arrested for public drunkenness and eventually died in police custody. Singh tells me that that very same day, a white woman was drunk in a public place, but the police drove this woman home.
Same law, different outcomes.
Family & History
The conversation drifts back to her parent’s histories. Her Indian father’s ancestors were indentured labourers, or as Singh calls them, “slaves with a time limit.” Indians who were brought to Fiji were given five-year contracts, or girmits (a bastardisation of the term ‘agreement’) to work on the land. Once completed, they could return to India but at their own expense.
Conditions on the plantations were horrific, considered by many scholars to be a form of slavery. This was understandable because the British started the indentured labour system precisely as a replacement for slavery after its abolition in Britain in 1833. The labourers worked long hours and were whipped if they did not produce enough. Many were not paid for their work. Some had their children removed from them and given to Fijians to raise and by the end of their contract, most of the Indians who made it to Fiji could not afford the journey home to India.
Thus, the Fijian Indian population was born.
I am intimately aware of what Singh is talking about because that is also my history. My great-grandparents were brought to Malaysia to work on its rubber plantations. My grandparents moved to Singapore, where my parents and I were eventually born. But a large number of the Malaysian Tamil population remain on the plantations that their forefathers were brought to, mired in a cycle of poverty, drug abuse and alcoholism. It is a generations-long impact of British colonialism and racism in Malaysia.
Singh’s Aboriginal mother has a different story, but one that is also the product of British colonialism. She had been lovingly brought up by a number of different relatives because Singh’s maternal grandmother Diane Day’s mother would keep moving her around so that she would not be taken by the state and become another statistic of Australia’s Stolen Generation. Singh says, “they were seeing it happen to other people around them.”
The Aboriginal Protection Act of 1869 gave the state the power to remove any Indigenous child from their family at any time, for any reason the state merits. It led to thousands of Aboriginal children being taken from their parents, based entirely on the fact that they were Indigenous. These children were given to white people, and often the victims of horrendous physical, emotional and sexual abuse. The act was of little “protection” to the children and was the inception of the process that created the Stolen Generations. The Protection Act originally defined Aboriginal people using the one-drop rule: anyone who was half Aboriginal or a child of a half-Aboriginal person was considered as fully Aboriginal according to the Act.
The half-caste act in 1886 was an extension of the earlier Protection Act but with one important difference: it became legal to remove “non-Aboriginal” children. Only “full-blooded” Aboriginal children could stay on the mission.
When the authorities came to remove the child, the reason was simple and written in plain language: “For being Aboriginal.” Thousands of Aboriginal children were lost this way, but due to the diligence and sacrifice of Singh’s grandmother and her Indigenous family, Diane Day remained safe with her people and grew up proud, deadly and immersed in her heritage.
Singh tells this story punctuated with purpose. “The point is to breed us out,” Singh says. Settler colonial ideology is predicated on the elimination of the native. It is much easier to claim one’s ownership of land if one can claim terra nullius: and that is achieved much faster when there are no more natives to protest. The taking of the children was designed to sever them from their Aboriginal identity, so that they become culturally white, marry white people and eventually, “will be bred out.”
The language used is horrifying, though common amongst settler-colonial states. Referring to children like cattle, or in the way a breeder speaks about pure-bred dogs, is frightening. It is the language of fascism, of eugenics, of scientific racism, of dehumanisation.
It is the language of British colonialism.
This was the world in which Singh’s mother was born. Singh’s great-grandmother and her sister had been stolen and sent to the Cootamundra girls home. Here, kids got adopted out especially if they looked white or could pass for white, basically if “they could have their identity hidden,” Singh says. Many of these kids were not adopted as children but trained as servants in rich, white homes.
Singh’s grandmother ensured that her only daughter would never be in one place long enough for the state to steal. Singh talks about how dangerous it was for her mother. “Kids were taken from schools, from hospitals,…” leading to Indigenous parents being afraid to take their kids to the hospital when they were sick for fear of having them being taken.
But her mother, Singh believes, was grateful for a transitory experience that other children would have resented. “She saw a lot of s—t but she never complained about how she grew up. My mother always knew her family, how she was connected. She grew up with her culture and relatives and it’s amazing how strong that keeps you in the most impoverished of circumstances.”
After all this talk of Indigenous mothers, aunties and grandmothers, I ask about her paternal grandmother. Singh is resigned. “We don’t know very much about her, [because] of [the idea that] women aren’t as important to know …a lot of women’s history gets lost.” We both spend a moment in silence thinking about the truth of that statement.
Singh also spoke of her visits to Fiji, where she met her father’s extended family. “It was the first place where everyone was Black and Brown like me.” Her Yorta Yorta mother’s Indigenous heritage asserted itself on these trips as well. “My father did not share too much about his Indian identity: I learnt swear words from him. But my mother, in her Indigenous way, listened to the elders on my Indian side. She kept records of my paternal grandfather.”
“To be Aboriginal is to soak up your elder’s words,” she says.
Between halves and a whole
“My Indian identity is front and centre [because] of my name,” she says. But this means that her Aboriginal identity is the one being questioned. She often got the “Oh, but you don’t look Aboriginal,” comment from many people.
She hates the ideas of halves and quarters, the parts that people are broken up into. Singh rails against it, calling it the colonizer’s language that makes us easily divisible. “We are people, not math equations.”
She feels that to call her half-Indian and half-Aboriginal is ridiculous. “You cannot say one without the other. To just say I am Aboriginal is to deny my father’s history and to say I am Indian is to deny my mother’s.”
Singh’s frustration with the current public discourse on racial identities are talked about is probably shared by many biracial people but what I am struck by how two completely different cultures and people were both so deeply impacted by British colonialism, but in a way that allowed them to meet and bring these experiences and histories together.
The journey that Hari Singh’s family took for him to be able to come to Melbourne is generations long. On Diane Day’s side, the fight of Aboriginal people to keep their children safe is also decades-long, continuing till today. Despite the horrors of the past brought upon them, here they still are, and here is Singh, a lawyer, an advocate, a proud Indian, a deadly Aboriginal woman.
I think about Meena Singh and myself, two people whose histories have been so foundationally shaped by British colonialism that we cannot speak about our pasts without speaking of how those pasts came to be. And yet, here we are, living and thriving.
So here’s to all our ancestors, who survived it all and brought us to be.
Sangeetha Thanapal is a writer, activist and anti-racism trainer. Her high school teacher told her mother to stop her from reading so much; it didn’t work. The reading turned into writing, which then turned into her whole life.
Her fiction and non-fiction work has been published in Djed Press, Fireside Fiction, Eureka Street, Wear Your Voice and many more. She is presently working on her first novel, We, The South, an epic fantasy adventure set in medieval India. You can find her everywhere as @kaliandkalki.