Anguish in Australia

Print edition : July 03, 2009
in Singapore

Sravan Kumar Theerthala, a student from Andhra Pradesh, in the intensive care unit of a Melbourne hospital. He was attacked in a suburb of the city.-REUTERS

INDIAN students in Australia have made their anguished voice heard as never before. They have also succeeded in placing their plight on the bilateral agenda of the governments of Australia and India.

The crisis, which erupted in the last week of May, centres on a heightened sense of insecurity among the Indians enrolled at Australian campuses. A new wave of anxiety was whipped up by a brutal attack on Sravan Kumar Theerthala in a Melbourne suburb. As this is written, he still remains hospitalised. The hospital itself became a starting point for a rally against alleged racist attacks.

At the other end of the spectrum, it is easy to recognise that multicultural Australia has no state policy of racism. In fact, the very presence of an estimated number of 96,000 Indian students in that country should testify to this. A more conservative estimate is between 70,000 and 80,000. In addition, Indian-origin citizens of Australia number nearly 200,000. And, as some independent observers recount, it is a long time now since Australia gave up its whites only policy as an article of political faith.

Within the framework of this indisputable big picture, a number of attacks followed the one on Sravan Kumar. Unofficial estimates placed the total at a minimum of 10 in the course of a month before June 10. According to some long-time observers, the problem is nothing new. It has been snowballing during the past few years. Only, the savagery of the assault on Sravan Kumar, whatever the provocation if any at all, outraged Indian students.

The narrative of grievances is long indeed. Outside the classroom, Indian students are said to have been subjected to either verbal abuse or robbery by apparent gangsters. Physical assaults have also been reported, and the case of Sravan Kumar is portrayed as the proverbial last straw. A term generally reserved for describing verbal or physical attacks on the Indian community is curry bashing.

Such perceptions of persecution among the expatriate students from India, not to be confused for Australians of Indian origin, led to a wave of protest. Indian student organisations came together and held unprecedented rallies in Melbourne and Sydney. These attracted much attention across that continental country and across East Asia. Some other foreigners in Australia also evinced a great deal of interest and concern. In all, with these events becoming much more than a cameramans delight, it appeared as if Canberra would have to do a reality check. Unsurprisingly, the Australian authorities lost no time in reassuring the agitated protesters.

The need for the protest to be peaceful, Gandhian, was repeatedly emphasised by the organisers. And, locally, their rallies were not really derided as provocative shows of strength or as impermissible acts of protest. However, somewhere along the path of protest, the student leaders seemed to have lowered vigil or, more simply, miscalculated. Strident voices of nationalistic solidarity from across India, some of them bordering on political excess, wafted across to this bloc.

For any of these or other reasons, one or more vigilante groups sprang up among the Indian students. What followed were reports of a retaliatory attack by one of these groups. The true nature and scope of the hit squad, as an instrument of protest, was not immediately clear, though. Nor also clear in the wake of these reports was the extent to which any such group was armed. Australias leaders at the state and Commonwealth levels were, unsurprisingly, alarmed at this turn of events. And warnings were duly served.

Indian students and their supporters taking out a rally in Melbourne on May 31 in protest against the racist attacks.-WILLIAM WEST/AFP

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said on June 10 that there was a need for some balance in this situation. He said: It is unacceptable for any acts of violence to be committed against Indian students [in Australia]. It is [also] unacceptable for any student group to believe they can take the law into their own hands and engage in so-called retribution attacks or vigilante action.

Citing Australia as one of the safest countries in the world for international students, he wanted all of this [put] into perspective. He also spoke of politicians elsewhere perhaps seeking to inflame this debate [in Australia]. This was a tangential reference to India in the present context. Rudd suggested that everyone needs just to draw some breath on this. In the last decade, he said, up to 20 Australians had either been murdered or had various forms of assault committed against them in India. That is not the result of Australians being targeted in India. It is just a fact of violence in cities around the world, he emphasised.

Two issues, one old and the other new, have also come into focus in this overall context. The old issue is that of a number of Indian students in Australia taking up part-time jobs. Some among them are suspected to be breaking the terms of their student visas by working for longer hours than permissible. This aspect, too, exposes them to the possibility of attacks by criminals late at night.

The relatively new aspect is the ongoing drive by Canberra to expand the frontiers of its relations with New Delhi. Australias educational services are frequently mentioned in this context. Appointing Peter Varghese as Australias next High Commissioner to India, Australias Foreign Minister Stephen Smith cited this dimension as well.

As a preferred bloc of foreign scholars in Australias institutes of learning, the large contingent of Indians ranks very high indeed. Their strength did surge in more recent years, especially after admissions to American campuses became more challenging. Gradually, the Indian students have gained visibility like their Chinese counterparts on the Australian social scene. There is supposed to be a difference, though. While the Chinese are generally believed to be relatively invulnerable, Indians are often seen to be soft targets as potential victims of crime.

By June 10, over two weeks after the safety of Indian students in Australia became a rallying cry, the focus began shifting in several directions. The Federation of Indian Students of Australia (FISA) started projecting the need for positive action to translate the assurances given by the authorities. Independent observers, too, recognised that a sense of security among these students might require transparent action on the ground by the authorities.

In another significant shift in focus, the Indian students themselves came in for a lot of flak for seeking to take the law into their own hands. This view was not confined to Australia. External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna counselled the students to concentrate on their primary purpose in Australia higher studies. He wanted them to refrain, in particular, from retaliating for the attacks on them.

Amit Menghani (second from left), president of the Federation of Indian Students of Australia, with fellow members Raju Malek (left), Puneet Gulati and Jay Philip as the authorities in Australia were preparing to launch a telephone helpline for Indian students.-WILLIAM WEST/AFP

Yet another change in focus was evident at the official levels of engagement between the two countries. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said on June 9 that he was making efforts to engage Australia at the highest levels for a solution to the crisis.

At the time of writing this report, face-to-face dialogue between the two countries at a high level appeared possible. The idea was that such talks would transcend the limits of a telephonic conversation. When Rudd telephoned Manmohan Singh to felicitate him on his second term in office, they discussed the situation. New Delhi said the issue was suitably raised and addressed.

It was learnt on good authority then itself that Canberra was not amused at the perceived manner in which the issue was being magnified in India. Rudds subsequent call for balance and his reference to the murder of some Australians in India are pointers to a delicate phase in bilateral ties.

After the latest crisis erupted, the first face-to-face official contact occurred on the margins of the global trade talks that ended in Bali on June 9. Union Commerce and Industry Minister Anand Sharma raised the issue when he met Australian Trade Minister Simon Crean there. Crean conveyed a message to the effect that Australia was determined to take firm action to ensure the security of Indian students in his country.

Twice before in recent years, India-Australia relations came under strain. Canberras denunciation of New Delhis nuclear-weapon tests in 1998 disturbed bilateral ties. The relations began gradually improving only after the then Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, decided to move on and re-engage India.

Kevin Rudd, Australian Prime Minister.-MUNSHI AHMED/BLOOMBERG NEWS

A more recent episode of dismay in India was the manner in which Mohamed Haneef was wrongly treated as a terror suspect. The issue did not balloon into a major Australia-India confrontation, the main reason being that the case involved only an individual. Another reason was that the Indian doctor was being given access to the due process of Australian law. In the end, it was the vibrancy of Australias legal profession as well as judiciary that helped Haneef prove his innocence.

For the Indian students in Australia, there is indeed a subtle lesson to be drawn from that episode. The overall fairness of Australias legal system and the judicial intervention in the Haneef case can give them some hope of getting a fair deal. This is not to suggest that the problems of these students can be sorted out only at a judicial forum. A relevant reality is that the Australian political system has its checks and balances.

As for a specific proposal that Australia constitute a multicultural police force, it is debatable how far these students, as foreigners, can demand it. Outwardly, a police force that is not mono-cultural in its make-up can be expected to be more sensitive about the security needs of foreigners. However, it will be up to the Australian citizens themselves, including those of Indian origin, to reform their institutions, including the police force. For the foreign students in that country, including Indians, the best bet in the present context is the existing system of checks and balances.

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