Harmohan Singh Walia, widely known as Harry Walia, is a dedicated activist and community leader with a background in mechanical engineering. Originally from Hoshiyarpur, Punjab, Harry gained prominence as a Torchbearer during the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, symbolizing his commitment to unity and sportsmanship.
Harry Walia is highly regarded for his active community services in Australia, where he has consistently worked towards uplifting and empowering the Indian community. His dedication to serving others led him to contest the federal election in 2004, displaying his passion for effecting positive change through political engagement.
As a respected member of the Australian Labour Party, Harry has been instrumental in advocating for the rights and welfare of the Indian diaspora. He has consistently voiced the concerns and aspirations of the community within the political sphere, striving to ensure their voices are heard and represented effectively.
IIS: Tell us something about you (we have this information) would be great if you want to add something in your own words…
HM: I was born and brought up in Hoshiarpur, Punjab, India. Studied B.Sc. Engineering in Mechanical from Guru Nanak Dev Engineering College, Ludhiana (under Punjab University in 1973) and master’s in industrial engineering from Thaper University, Patiala in 1987. Worked in Escorts Limited, Automotive Division, Patiala as Quality Manager for 15 years and Deputy General Manager Production in Jamna Auto Industries (JAI Springs), Yamuna Nagar for about two and half years. I migrated to Sydney, Australia with my family in February 1991. Being a Mechanical & Industrial Engineer, I worked in Electronics, Electrical, Chemical, Automotive, Defence and IT & Printing industries in Australia and now retired. Now I have become a community photographer, the role given by our community, doing free photography for community events for the last 15 years with my own expenses to bring smile on the faces of people and voluntary NSW editor for Desi Australia magazine.
IIS: As an activist and community leader, what motivated you to actively engage in community services and advocate for the rights of the Indian diaspora in Australia?
HM: My helpful behaviour and positive attitude liked by the fellow Australians; therefore, they have given me different responsibilities and roles as per my capabilities. In 1993, as a Newsreader in a Punjabi radio program 98.5 fm, I delivered latest news received from India through fax from my father as internet was not available at that time. Punjabi program organisers in Brisbane and Perth radio stations also asked me to deliver news for them on phone due to popularity in Sydney. This role continued for about 10 years, when in 2003, I sat for SBS Punjabi radio program exam and panel interview in Sydney. I was appointed as a broadcaster at SBS Punjabi radio station Sydney till end of 2004.
I am the first Indian, who contested federal election in Australia from Mitchell (NSW) in 2004 as a Labor candidate. I had to leave SBS Punjabi radio program due to conflict of interest. I was awarded McKell award in 2017 for meritorious service to Australian Labor Party. In 1990’s and 2000s I was a secretary first at the Austral Gurdwara for 5 years and then acting General Secretary at Glenwood Gurdwara (ASA) for 3 years. I helped several community people in various legal ways, where I could.
I am a founder member of GOPIO (Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin) in Sydney in 2008 and Life member of GOPIO International. Recently I am elected as ‘International Coordinator Oceania’ in the GOPIO International election held in February 2023. Prior to this role, I was Chair of Bylaws Committee of GOPIO International World-wide and completed four terms. In Sydney, I am a team member in GOPIO Sydney Northwest chapter and also acting as one of executive committee member.
IIS: How do you envision the role of the Indian community in shaping the political landscape of Australia, and what steps can be taken to ensure their voices are heard and represented effectively?
HM: As a migrant, to be involved in politics and to seek endorsement from political parties required sound knowledge of the Australian political system and political culture, as new party members often lacked first-hand or inside knowledge of how party conventions and factions operate.
One of the underlying deficits highlighted is that many lacked the requisite skills to handle media communications, image management, and the capacity to stand out as serious political contenders. Candidates of Indian origin should avoid making public statements that were politically and culturally unacceptable in Australia rather represent the interests of their potential constituents. Systemic barrier is a serious hurdle as candidates of Indian origin are given ‘unwinnable’ seats, first preference in winnable seats is given to candidates with Anglo-Celtic backgrounds.
Therefore, many members of the Indian diaspora in Australia avoid involvement in politics for fear of reprisal against themselves and their families. Political parties often develop potential candidates by appointing them to roles that can lead to future candidature. In this manner, potential candidates should work their way through the rank- and-file of party politics whilst establishing political networks and experiencing first-hand what it takes to be endorsed as a candidate.
A politically active Indian diaspora will inevitably create an additional incentive for Australian state and federal governments to be seen as active in promoting the bilateral relationship.
During challenging times, the community has shown a great sense of civic responsibility and resilience. Community groups have provided support to people in need amid Australia’s bushfire crisis and community leaders helped disseminate accurate information during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. These contributions to Australia’s social cohesion are highly valued.
Being one of the richest minorities, whereby the Indian diaspora has acted as “bridge-builders” between their home and adopted countries. With a vibrant culture influenced by traditional cuisine, spirituality, architecture and art, Indian born Australians we have helped to contribute to Australian diversity. Today, thanks to increased immigration, an array of Indian traditions is now part of life for many of us.
IIS: In your experience, what are some of the key challenges faced by the Indian community in Australia, and how can these be addressed through community initiatives and political engagement?
HM: The challenges faced by the Indian community is often poor English and financial stress added to the financial costs of migration, local experience despite degrees from India. Enrolment in vocational courses such as cookery, hairdressing and University/TAFE courses.
Indian women in Australia experience family violence. Several organisations are prevalent in Sydney where help can be availed. Also, we need sound evidence-based data to guide current police responses, legal and health services, to raise awareness of issues in the community, in the Indian women on their rights to seek appropriate medical and legal help and advocacy, in the Indian men their right to good mental health and happy home.
IIS: Can you share any notable achievements or milestones in your journey as a torchbearer for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games and how that experience has influenced your commitment to unity and inclusivity?
HM: One of my notable achievements as a Sydney 2000 Olympic torch bearer is that I have improved diversity, installed inclusion of Indian diaspora, and created a sense of belonging across all Australians. This opportunity guaranteed equitably, free from artificial barriers, prejudices, or preferences. The Indian community has stretched its wings in every field – be it politics, business, hospitality etc. unifying the community.
IIS: What initiatives or programs do you believe are essential for fostering a stronger sense of unity and cultural pride within the Indian community in Sydney?
HM: To foster stronger sense of unity and cultural pride, we should walk around different neighbourhoods, visit new neighbourhood parks, taste different cuisines, listen to and appreciate different types of music. Most important is learn about other traditions by listening to people’s stories, attending festivals, reading multicultural books, and watching documentaries. Making friends with people from ethnic group, trying clothes/dresses from other cultures and remaining sensitive to differences between cultures.
IIS: How long you been members of Indians in Sydney Facebook group, and do you have any feedback / suggestions for us. Are there any specific areas where you believe the Indians in Sydney Facebook group can further contribute to the local community and society at large?
HM: Don’t remember my membership time. My suggestion is that when you find a solution to any problem highlighted in the Sydney Facebook Group, it should be shared and recorded where every member can refer in case of need.
IIS: How can the Indian diaspora in Australia, particularly the younger generations, be encouraged to actively participate in community services and engage in activities that promote their cultural heritage?
HM: The younger generation can be encouraged to participate in cultural artefacts, in services and everyday activities e.g., language schools, traditional tools, foods, and artwork. Promote their cultural heritage through involvement in family, extended kin networks, and community members. Also, by inviting youth to participate in the program delivery, instilling cultural values such as respecting elders, modesty, and politeness. By creating awareness about drugs, alcohol, sexual harassment, and violence. Thus, the path to successfully engaging younger generation in activities including family support, caring for adults, positive peer groups, a strong sense of self and self-esteem, and involvement at school and in the community will benefit the community at large.
IIS: What role do you believe social media platforms, such as the Indians in Sydney Facebook group, play in connecting and mobilizing the Indian community for various causes or initiatives?
HM: Social networking services provide an accessible and powerful toolkit for highlighting and acting on issues and causes that affect and interest the public. They can be used for solving problems, job search, sale/purchase, organising activities, charities, events, or groups to showcase issues and opinions and make a wider audience aware of them.
IIS: Are there any specific areas where you feel the Indian community in Sydney can contribute more to the wider Australian society, and how can their contributions be recognized and valued?
HM: The Indian community has made cultural, social, and economic contributions as per say towards the Australian society however, our vibrant culture has influenced traditional cuisine, spirituality, architecture, art, language etc. As a passionate photographer, I have contributed to the wider Australian society by clicking photos of different ethnic communities such as Italian, Pakistani, Afghanistan, Sri Lankan, Fijian, Nepali, Bangladeshi, etc. alongside Indian diaspora and putting them on social media to promote their cultural events. Thus, bridging the gap between different communities.
However, connections between Australia and India in trade, investment and innovation can further enhance unity and be recognised as valued citizens.