Indian student issue a catalyst

ira-raja Ira Raja (Post doctoral fellow)

First published in the Financial Express (India) on 2 August 2009

Soon after the news about attacks on Indian students in Melbourne spread, friends and family called to enquire if I was safe. The events had alarmed me although I never thought I was at risk. Numerous Indians in the not-yet-gentrified part of inner city Melbourne where I live went about their daily business without fuss. The picturesque La Trobe university campus remained friendly as ever and I still regularly caught the late night bus home. Indians were everywhere. In fact, Indian women seemed safer and more confident in Melbourne than they did in Delhi. ‘Don’t worry about me’, I said. ‘No women have been targeted.’

Was I tempting fate? At least one account suggests that Indians have only themselves to blame. Opportunistic crime is part of city life. By calling it racism Indians were drawing attention to themselves. The attacks certainly intensified after the anti-racist rallies. There was also a copy-cat element to the violence. As an Australian friend put it, ‘Next time a bunch of thugs see an Indian man walking down a dark street, they’ll go “You beauty!” all thanks to the massive publicity around the incidents. The argument that Indians were ‘soft’ targets – they live in outer suburbs, where rent is cheap and crime rate high and walk back from work at late hours, carrying expensive electronics – also bolstered the theory of opportunism.

Yet the viciousness of the attacks as also the accompanying racist abuse, suggested something else. Between 2004 and 2009 Indians studying in Australia grew from 30,000 to 97,000 with 47,000 in Melbourne. For many people, the fear generated by such rapid demographic changes can get exacerbated in times of economic uncertainty. The assaults on Indian students, however, appear to have been perpetrated by anti-social elements drawn from a racial mix of communities rather than white Australians disadvantaged by the recession or affected by changes in their neighbourhoods.

Sadly, this does not let the rest of Australia off the hook. When some thugs in search of easy money decide to go ‘curry hunting’, and tell their victims to ‘return to where you came from’, they are drawing upon a rhetoric associated with the far right policies of Pauline Hanson ten years ago but which was adopted and turned mainstream in the Howard years that followed. Why else would thugs want plain crime to be rigged out in racist ideology if they didn’t think it was somehow more palatable? A recent survey by Monash University found evidence of ‘new racism’ where 37% people believed that Australia was weakened by ethnic cultures sticking to their ‘old ways’ and that some groups didn’t fit into Australian society.

New parliamentary measures, such as the abolition of detention debts and rules to stop visa cancellation on speculative character grounds, help repair the damage of the last decade but there is still some distance to go. Australia knows that it hasn’t done near enough for aboriginal people whose predicament is not comparable with recent immigrants but whose treatment by white Australia still feeds the racism manifest in online debates following the attacks. When a columnist for the Herald Sun argued that India with its caste system was hardly in a position to tell Australians they were ‘too prejudiced’, he didn’t allow for the huge differences between Indigenous Australians and Dalits under the caste-system. But the comparison was additionally ill-judged because Dalits have benefited from bold affirmative action by the Indian state, including reservations in Parliament, state assemblies, educational institutions and the public sector. Such action is not even on the distant horizon for the Indigenous people of Australia. The charge of racism is distressing to Australians because it’s one that sticks.

While racism in internet chatrooms may be more blatant because it’s anonymous, one also has to reckon with its less visible counterpart. Consider the following comment by the Police Commissioner for Victoria about the Indian rally on 31 May: ‘If they’re not careful they’ll overplay their hand and the support for them will quickly evaporate.’ Most people prefer victims they can patronise. Victims who demand their rights as visibly and as noisily as Indians don’t endear themselves to anyone. The rally was to me a proud moment for any democracy. I disagreed with my friend who didn’t see it as a wise move for its potential to alienate ‘ordinary’ Melbournians. No matter how confronting they are, public protests are useful because they catalyse debate.

At the end of the day, Indians in Australia will be fine. Like other migrant communities before them, they will settle in, and if the fortunes of Indian diaspora elsewhere indicate anything, they will do well by themselves and by their adopted country. In the meanwhile I hope the attacks and the protests and the debates they have generated will provide Australia a chance to finally exorcise the ghost of John Howard.

And even as that broad picture shapes up, let us remember the small details which characterise the long and happy relationship between India and Australia. The La Trobe University — Lady Shri Ram College exchange program so fruitfully handled on both sides over ten years is both a testimony and a model for the kind of traffic we want to nurture between the two countries