Sunday, May 31, 2009

Racial Attacks on Indian Students in Australia

The recent three successive attacks in less than three weeks on Indian students, including a petrol bomb attack on Rajesh Kumar, in Melbourne are shocking. Australia has become one of the most favoured destinations for overseas students but the attacks which smack of traces of racism reflects on its society and the Government.

Approximately 98,000 Indians are studying in Australia — 18 per cent of the country's international student population — and over 47,000 enrolled in Victoria making it the second largest grouping of foreign students in this Australian metropolis. Most Indian students enroll in Australian educational institutions with the intention of settling there with an attractive job. Many Indian students, however, end up driving taxis and working at night as cleaners, in take away joints and petrol pumps mainly to pay for their studies.

Case of Racial Violence
The present attacks, in fact, on Indians in Australia confirm that it is not only the Indian student community in that country that has been at the receiving end of what appears at first sight to be racial violence. For a year or more we have come across instances of attacks on taxi drivers and others. In short, Indians in Australia who may be commuting late, driving on lonely stretches, and are not especially well off, are soft targets. It is probably true that similarly placed non-Indians are also picked on.

The deplorable incident which has seen six Indian students being murderously attacked in three weeks, one of whom is battling for his life, has evoked outrage in New Delhi leading the External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna to strongly condemn the attacks even as the Australian government has assured India that it would not tolerate discrimination against any international student.

Education’s contribution to Victoria’s economy, most of it by foreign students, was estimated at $ 4.5 billion in 2008 alone. In 2009, enrolment of Indian students has increased by 40 per cent. In other words, they constitute a significant source of revenue for the higher education system.

Steady Increase in Attacks
The present series of attacks is not the first. For the last two years, there has been a steady increase in attacks on the Indian student community in Melbourne. Most of these incidents have gone unreported and the Victorian police has done precious little to do something about it even though the Indian Consulate in Melbourne and the High Commission in Canbarra have repeatedly been raising this matter with the Australian authorities.

However, it would appear to be the case that the victims of such attacks, typically involving young white thugs often operating in gangs, are generally non-white. In all likelihood white Europeans and North Americans are not likely to head for destination Australia for an undergraduate course, run a small business or drive a taxicab. This alone makes the race factor the most likely reason for the phenomenon. A Melbourne police officer has been quoted in a news agency report as saying that the latest attack on Baljinder Singh, an Indian student, was the case of an "opportunist crime" not related to race. The judgment seems defensive and hasty even as investigations are going on.

Future of Students
These attacks remind us that no Indian student seems safe in Australia. The police do little. These attacks raise serious concern over security of international students at Newcastle University (New South Wales) and Griffith University (Queensland).

Time has come to take firm steps against the perpetrators. Otherwise, Rajesh's case would soon be forgotten. Thus students returning to their homes in not so safe suburbs that are relatively cheap on rent present vulnerable and soft targets to drug addicts, drunks and rowdy elements.
Racism has resonated in Australia’s domestic politics in recent years. That gives the impression that the virus is alive and well in the country’s social system, and the issue cannot be brushed under the carpet. The attacks have been due a mix of racism and opportunism. But there is still the question of why Indians are being selectively targeted and that too mostly only in Melbourne.

Matter of Serious Concern
The Government of India has been far less energetic than it could have been in dealing with physical assaults on its nationals in Australia. Routine diplomatic statements of varying degrees of importance are not likely to be effective in dealing with Canberra. The question deserves to be taken up with greater seriousness. If Canberra fails to show the same concern for an Indian residing in Australia as it might for a white European or American, New Delhi must clearly signal that it would take all possible steps to safeguard the legitimate interests of its citizens.

Both the Australian and the Victorian Government need to do more than issue condemnatory statements. Else, such attacks may have repercussions with that country being labeled unsafe for Indian students who may start looking elsewhere for studies abroad. At stake also in Australia’s image as a democratic country, free from racial prejudice.

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