Attacks on Indians in Australia strain bilateral ties and spark debate on racism

By Rod Mcguirk, AP
Friday, February 5, 2010

Attacks on Indians in Australia: Is it racism?

CANBERRA, Australia — A spate of violent attacks on Indians in Australia is straining bilateral relations and costing Australian universities lucrative foreign student revenue. There is sharp debate, however, about whether racism is at the root of the problem.

Some Indian officials and media have been quick to blame racism for the highly publicized beatings, robberies and murders, mostly in Melbourne, Australia’s second largest city and one proud of its cultural diversity. India has demanded swift action to protect its citizens.

Australia, which regards itself as a multicultural success story, has staunchly defended its reputation for welcoming foreigners — including students whose tuition fees are worth 12 billion Australian dollars ($11 billion) a year to a burgeoning export industry in education.

Discerning the truth, amid the back and forth, has proven difficult.

The controversy comes amid explosive growth in the foreign student population in Australia. The Indians have grown the fastest, from 2,700 in 2002 to 91,400 last year. Overall, overseas students rose from 150,000 to almost 400,000 during the same period.

Australian universities expect Indian enrollment to plummet 30 percent this year, in part because of safety fears.

No doubt there is racism in Australia, as in virtually every society. Researchers have found that one in 10 adults here could be described as racist, a proportion that is not negligible, said University of Western Sydney geographer Kevin Dunn.

“It’s good that they’re a minority of people, but what’s bad is if we deny that that’s out there, and secondly, that we don’t do anything about it,” he said. “My concern is the Indians are right in saying that on those latter two points, we’ve got a problem.”

To what degree racism is behind the attacks is another question.

Melbourne-based Monash University social scientist Andrew Markus, whose own research supports Dunn’s findings, said factors other than anti-Indian sentiment also put the students at risk.

For example, they often stay in inexpensive housing in crime-ridden neighborhoods and work night shifts driving taxis or staffing takeout food restaurants, he said.

Pino Migliorino, chairman of the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia, agreed the government should do more to combat racism.

But he is not convinced that the violence against Indians is racially motivated, or that Indians face more racism than other groups.

Indian students are a particularly articulate group with access to established Indian media in Melbourne and an ability to attract international attention, he said.

“A group of Sudanese kids might be harassing, they might be harassed, they might have been in a fight, but whether that develops into a major incident which has repercussions internationally, I would doubt it,” Migliorino said.

Gautam Gupta, a spokesman for the Federation of Indian Students of Australia, said foreign students who do not come from democratic societies are reluctant to stand up for their rights.

“Indians are used to freedom of speech, we are used to raising our voices to get things done,” said Gupta, whose group led street marches in Melbourne last year against racial violence.

Gupta said that Indian students have been campaigning against violence for eight years. However, the issue gathered steam following the near-fatal stabbing of an Indian student at a party in Melbourne in September 2009 and the stabbing death of a 21-year-old Indian graduate last month, also in Melbourne.

The Australian government and police have played down the racism angle, saying there is no hard evidence that Indians are being disproportionately targeted.

This week, Victoria state Premier John Brumby accused Indian media and some government representatives of lacking objectivity. Melbourne is the capital of Victoria.

He spoke after police charged an Indian man who had claimed he was attacked in Melbourne with faking the story to back a false insurance claim, and suspects in the murder of another Indian man were revealed to be Indian themselves.

“I hope that there is some balance to the debate, some balance to the reporting in India and certainly to date that balance hasn’t been there,” Brumby said.

Far from apologetic, some Indian media pounced on Brumby’s words as further evidence of Australia’s denial of racism.

Australian media have generally brushed off the racist tag. Some speculate that Indian anger might be rooted in Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s focus on trade relations with China, regarded by some Indians as a rival, and his refusal to sell uranium to India for its nuclear power industry.

India has denied media speculation in both countries that ambassador Sujata Singh’s scheduled return to New Delhi next Wednesday is a further sign of a diplomatic rift.

But the rift is not imaginary, said G. Parthasarathy, the former Indian envoy to Australia.

“Certainly these attacks are going to cast a shadow over ties between the two countries,” he said.

Paul Wilson, a Bond University criminologist, said he had no doubt that some of the recent attacks on Indians were racially motivated.

But he also said that assaults by young males, usually against people in the same age group, are one of the few types of crimes that has increased in the past decade.

“It’s a major problem of Australian society, irrespective of any racial overtones,” Wilson said.

Associated Press Writer Nirmala George in New Delhi contributed to this report.

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