Hostile hosts

Published : Feb 12, 2010 00:00 IST

in Singapore

THE new wave of suspected targeted attacks against Indian nationals in Australia is threatening to sweep aside the recent gains in the overall relations between the two countries. By January 18, at least two Indian citizens were slain in two separate incidents since the beginning of the year. The details of another reported case, involving an arsonist attack, were treated with some scepticism in Australia.

Critically important to the two countries is the undeniable reality of these crimes and not their frequency or the extent of their severity. With the Indian media raising an alarm, the Australian authorities went into defensive mode, denying the possibility of an anti-India racist motive behind the attacks.

However, the Indian government sought to place the relevant issues firmly on the bilateral agenda for yet another time in recent months. In a statement on January 7, New Delhi voiced serious concern over the occurrence of a series of attacks on Indian students, as well as members of the Indian community, in Australia over the past few years. It also emphasised Indias concern at the increasing incidents of assaults since May 2009.

The brutal attack on Sravan Kumar Theerthala in a Melbourne suburb in May last year brought into unprecedented focus an important issue simmering until then the safety of the Indian student community in Australia. New Delhi not only raised this safety issue with the Australian authorities but also raised the stakes in the overall India-Australia relations, and a period of relative calm set in.

However, this was shattered early this year when Nitin Garg, an Indian youth, was stabbed to death in Melbourne. He was reportedly stabbed in a park while on his way to a restaurant where he was a part-time worker. Seriously injured in the assault, he managed to reach the restaurant, where he pleaded for help before collapsing. He died later at a hospital.

A few days before that incident, the partially charred body of another Indian national was discovered at a place in New South Wales. He was reported to have been engaged in the business of recruiting Indians for work on Australian farmlands. In yet another incident in Melbourne, an Indian survived an arsonist attack on him. The facts of this case were not established conclusively, though.

The latest series of such seemingly targeted attacks, whether or not racially motivated, occurred in early January in spite of Australias damage-control exercises that followed the wave of assaults in the middle of last year. Those exercises were aimed at reassuring the Indian students in Australia and the Indian government.

Besides enhancing policing at some places frequented by Indians, the Australian authorities sought to ascertain the root causes of the problem. This was attempted through some form of dialogue with the representatives of Indian students as also some Indian community leaders in Australia. Other inputs were obviously available from the investigations and assessments by the law-enforcement authorities.

It is understandable that the early-January recrudescence of violence caused concern in India. The Australian authorities at different levels and civil society, too, are equally concerned. However, a new question is now beginning to be asked, even as an old one remains largely unanswered.

The prime old question is, of course, the one concerning the possible motives behind the seemingly targeted attacks. By any standard of fairness, it is not easy to crack such a puzzle, especially in the total absence of any ambience of hostility between India and Australia at the state-to-state and people-to-people levels. Yet, the Indian authorities and opinion-makers are puzzled at the ease with which Australian officials tend to portray the attacks on Indians as opportunistic crimes. The relevant issue at stake, as seen from the Indian perspective, is the insufficiency of investigative data, in the public domain itself, for a conclusive evaluation of these crimes.

Also, memories of the travails of an Indian doctor, Mohamed Haneef, which preceded the vindication of his innocence in a case of terror-related allegations against him are still fresh. The silver lining in that case was the fairness of the Australian judicial system. It is this aspect that might be of help to the Australian authorities even in these cases of physical violence against Indian nationals. For that, India expects the Australian side to bring the culprits to justice. As this is written, progress on this front has been slow, although the Australian authorities have not spoilt their copybook as such.

Such nuances, discernible in the state of interactions between Australia and India at the official and other levels, apply to the new question as well, besides the old one about the real reason(s) for the attacks.

The new question flows from the assertions of Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and others that Canberras overarching relationship with New Delhi has never been at a higher level than at present. Smiths qualitative assessment is based on his reading that the Prime Ministers of the two countries signed a strategic partnership agreement last December.

It is an argument that cannot be brushed aside. The timing of that accord, just a few months after the brutal assault on Sravan Kumar and a series of other attacks, does lend itself to the kind of interpretation that Australia has now made. Smith has also said that Canberra and New Delhi now agreed that we did not want difficulties, so far as Indian students and urban crime in Australia are concerned, to get in the way of what [Indias External Affairs Minister] S.M. Krishna described as an excellent relationship.

The telephonic conversation between Smith and Krishna took place in the context of the early-January recurrence of violence against Indians in Australia.

India sees its excellent relations with Australia in a different nuance. According to the Indian side, Krishna, in his January 11 conversation with Smith, emphasised that the non-redressal of this vital issue [of crimes against Indians in Australia] will cast a shadow on [an] otherwise-excellent bilateral relations.

The new question, in the context of these nuances, is: Who or what are the forces that seek to disrupt an excellent equation between Canberra and New Delhi by sparking another wave of violence against Indians?

Canberra knows that it is in its interest to find the answer to this new question. Australian action on the basis of a properly discerned or properly investigated answer can perhaps help reverse the sudden decline in the number of Indian applicants for educational courses in Australia. After all, Australia earns a lot of money by providing education to foreign students, and Indians in this category are among the top spenders in that country.

Australian Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard has taken due note of the declining Indian interest in academic courses in her country. Noting at the same time that she cannot diagnose what may or may not be in the mind of prospective [foreign] students, she sought to reassure Indians in mid-January that Australia is a very safe place and overwhelmingly is a very accepting community. To stay this way, though, Australia may have to find a genuine answer to the new question as also the old one.

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