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Racist attacks endanger Indo-Australian ties

January 20, 2010 16:00 IST

Australia's high commissioner to India, Peter Varghese, is the first foreign ambassador of Indian origin posted in New Delhi. That the 54-year-old diplomat has done well in life after moving home from India and Kenya suggests that Australia is a great multicultural and democratic country.

So Varghese must be really embarrassed to hear his country being accused, all over India, of racism against Indian students in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide.

The hype in the Indian media over racial attacks on Indian students in Australia would suggest that thousands of Indian students have been victims of such attacks over the past two years. This is not true.

Presently, Indian students number 119,000 in Australia and account for 19 percent of its total international intake. In fact, Australia has overtaken Britain as the second most important destination for Indian students studying abroad. The number one destination is the United States. Also, India contributes the majority share of the US $14.33 billion revenue that Australia earns annually from foreign students.

With the Indian media hyping the attacks, Varghese openly admits that there could be a decline in the number of Indian students going to Australia. Although a decline is predicted, it may not be as high as 40 percent, as feared in some circles.

Is Australia really turning racist? Against the backdrop of increasing attacks on Indian students, a leading Indian tabloid has caricatured the Australian police as similar to the Ku Klux Klan. Quoting recent studies, some Left-oriented intellectuals have alleged that racism is a problem in Australia.

Apparently, a 10-year study undertaken in 1998 by Professor Kevin Dunn and Associate Professors Jim Forrest and Rogelia Pe-Pua found that one in 10 Australians believe that some races are superior to others. The study, titled "Challenging Racism: The Anti-Racism Research Project," interviewed 12,500 people over almost a decade. It says that 85 percent of Australians feel that racial discrimination is rampant in the country, with one in five being a victim of verbal abuse.

But then, such dastardly feelings are also found in many other countries. Stray racist attacks occur quite frequently in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia and many African and Gulf countries. Therefore, to call Australia a racist country, as is said in some quarters in India, may be a bit too harsh.

A dispassionate look at the recent attacks on Indian students reveals some distinct patterns that are not exactly racist. First, the attacks have been on students and not on long-term residents working as skilled professionals.

According to the 2006 census, the Indian community in Australia totalled about 234,000, of which 147,000 were born in India and the rest have Indian ancestry. This number is estimated to have gone up to about 300,000 presently. In addition, there are a sizeable number of people of Indian origin from countries such as Fiji, Malaysia, Kenya and South Africa.

Indians contribute significantly to the Australian economy, as teachers, doctors, accountants, engineers and information technology professionals. In fact, India is now the third-largest source of immigrants to Australia, after the United Kingdom and New Zealand, and the second-largest source of skilled professionals.

Secondly, as was revealed during attacks on Indian students last June, the attackers were a polyglot mix, reflecting the streets -- whites, Asian, Middle Eastern, Aboriginal and Pacific Islander. In one case, the alleged assailant was of Middle Eastern appearance. In another incident, a young offender described as Aboriginal committed the attack.

The ethnicity of the attackers thus varies from crime to crime. The Australian police are not far from truth when they describe the attacks as largely motivated by opportunity because Indian students work late at night, live in low-cost and usually crime-prone neighbourhoods, and are regarded as soft targets. Many students in Australia and their parents who are personally known to this writer share this point.

It is worth noting that many Indian students in Australia use their student visas as a foothold into the job market of a developed nation and their eventual settlement and citizenship in the country. While those doing higher courses in medicine, engineering, business management, post-graduate and higher research are easily absorbed, those pursuing so-called diplomas in seemingly academic courses -- actually semi-skilled areas -- draw the locals' ire.

The latter categories of students are actually migrants desirous of working as taxi drivers, carpenters and attendants in shops and hotels. Most do not mix with locals and live in virtual ghettoes, something that does not go well with the local population.

In fact, last fortnight India's Foreign Minister S M Krishna made a pertinent comment on Australia's moneymaking education industry. "One can understand students going there at the university level, at the IIT level or at the level of some other institution of excellence. When I went there, I was shocked to see so many students in courses they don't need to go to Australia for -- such as learning hair-styling or doing facials."

Obviously, all those who go for courses such as hair styling and facials have some other aim in Australia. They are prepared to work for much less pay in jobs that lower-educated and semiskilled Australians do, causing the latter loss of income and loss of job opportunities.

Naturally, in a bid to scare away existing and future students from India, locals target them. Here, the reputation of Indians as comparatively less aggressive, for fear that any complications will affect their visa status, makes them easy targets.

All this does not mean that Australian authorities have done enough to prevent the recurrence of such attacks. Why is it that one does not hear of similar incidents involving Chinese students, who number more than 120,000 in the country? Krishna has a point when he says, "We will not tolerate it anymore" and be forced "to look to other ways."

But what can India do? One option is to create hurdles for Indian students aspiring to study in Australia, something that will surely hurt Australia's booming education sector.

Unattended, the unfortunate development has the potential to strain the overall Indo-Australian ties, which, of late, have been in good shape. Thanks to Australian exports of minerals and other resources to India and China, a full-fledged recession was avoided last year.

As Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd revealed in New Delhi during his visit last November, India and Australia have decided to elevate their relationship to a formal strategic partnership with a new security agreement keeping in mind the larger Asia-Pacific picture.

Recurring attacks on Indian students could make a dent in that endeavour.

Prakash Nanda is a journalist and editorial consultant for Indian Defence Review. He is also the author of Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India's Look-East Policy.

Prakash Nanda