Indian Students : Down Under 


VOICE OF INDIA: Indian students in Australia collect in hundreds to protest the shameful attacks

It is not just mere coincidence that only Indian students have been at the receiving end of racist violence in Australia. While Australia vociferously denies that race is behind the attacks, its history and the world are not quite in agreement
“Let’s go curry bashing.” This is what Raja, an Indian student in Australia has to report on networking site Orkut on what he’s overheard on the streets of Melbourne. He is referring to a series of violent attacks on Indian students by young Australian men over the past six months, and some very pronounced ones in the month of May. Some of the attacks have been vicious, leaving the victims seriously injured. There is a distinct pattern to the attacks----it is almost as if the attackers are sending out a loud message that says “If you are Indian, then you are not one of us.”

Inside trains, at street corners, outside apartments, even at parties, the attacks have taken place everywhere. The Indian students community is alarmed, their parents and well-wishers are rethinking their decisions to fly them Down Under for studies. The Federation of Indian Students Association (FISA), a respected representative body for the 93,000 Indian students in Australia, is crying foul. It has said that a thorough probe is required to expose who the miscreants are, and what their purpose is.

The attackers thus far described by their victims are usually young white Australians, abusive and snarling, and possibly unhappy with the growing presence of Indian students in their country. Curry bashing is their way out.

Sravan Kumar in hospital Sourabh Sharma with a black and dented confidence

The FISA may be vocal, the students may be out on the streets, demanding security, and justice, but Australia itself appears to be in a state of denial. There must be something seriously wrong somewhere if these attacks are being mounted so regularly against Indians. Yet the country’s acting foreign minister Simon Crean told a local television station that “there is no allegation, no substantial allegation that these are racially motivated. I do not believe so, and neither does the Indian Government.” Crean’s words do not provide any comfort to millions watching the goings on, primarily because Australia has a history of racism.

Until about 35 years ago, Australia followed a White policy when it came to accepting immigrants into the country. Coloured Asians were kept out, ostensibly because they were economically a threat, being harder working, and used to lower standards of living. But all this was just a pretext for a race bias. The treatment of aboriginals wasn’t anything to shout about either. And that history was unpleasantly jarring to the rest of the world.

Perhaps, as a result of the incidents arising out of its past policies, the Racial Hatred Act (RHA) was introduced in Australia as recently as in October 1995. The RHA covers public acts “which are done in whole or in part because of the race, colour, or national or ethnic origin of a person or group and reasonably likely in all the circumstances to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate that person or group”. In the present scenario, there is no doubt that the attacks have offended, insulted, humiliated and intimated Indian students and the larger Indian community in Australia. And yet, there is no mention of racism or race hatred by the authorities in Australia. Instead euphemisms are being bandied about, for instance this one from Karla Dennis, a senior police constable, is a shocker: “I would say this is an opportunistic fight. It could have happened to any individual of any nationality.”

A series of opportunistic fights over months, Ms Dennis? And who was fighting whom?

Australia’s education industry has been flourishing, thanks in part to the larger spending powers of Indian parents. In a matter of less than five to six years, the student population from India has shot up from about 25,000 to 93,000. Australian institutions market themselves vigorously in Indian cities. The foreign exchange earnings from education are about USD 12.6 billion annually, making the overseas students market the third largest export earner for Australia. Clearly, Australia cannot afford to face setbacks to this cash-rich industry. Not just Indians, now students worldwide are really agitated by the ugly face of racism that has reared its head in Australia. Words such as “opportunistic fights” and “substantial allegations” do not cut much ice anywhere, especially when there are students with stab wounds lying inside hospitals.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has taken up the matter seriously with his Australian counterpart Kevin Rudd, and urged him to take all possible steps to ensure the security of Indian students in Australia. But it may be a while before the dust settles on this issue. Screwdrivers, box-cutter knives, petrol bombs not only scar the bodies. They leave lasting fears on the mind as well. Ask those who gathered around the Royal Melbourne Hospital expressing concern at the attack on 25-year-old Sravan Kumar Theerthala, and they’ll all tell you why.

—Empire Bureau.

June 2009

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