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Australian Attacks

The Indian media has over the last several months revealed a bias on a matter concerning the racial abuse of Indian students living in Australia. Apparently, a hundred cases were reported involving acts of aggression, leading to Australians at large being tarnished, as an overtly racist society. Politicians riding on public opinion joined the band-wagon with emotional outbursts. Unfortunately, one fed into the other to such an extent that important diplomatic relations between New Delhi and Canberra are being unnecessarily undermined. This note is intended to provide a balanced perspective, with a view to setting the record straight.

An escalation in migration…

Over the past few years the population of Indian students in Australia has escalated exponentially – from 6,000 in 2004 to over 120,000 presently – largely an outcome of liberal immigration policies. Many of these students obtain visas for vocational courses such as hair-dressing, cookery and personal services and travel with a single minded intent of obtaining long stay permits and eventual immigration. They frequently come from poorer sections of society and need to work to supplement the costs of their stay. Australian rules allow employment permits for twenty hours a week, to partially fund their education, but in many cases, students violate laws and work on a full time basis. Forced by economic circumstances, they live in neighbourhoods comprised of the lowest economic sections of Australian society and this in itself is inherently risky. They work hard, often in graveyard shifts, at petrol pumps and convenience stores, exposing themselves to muggings and violent theft. Most metropolitan cities across the world, such as New York, Paris, Barcelona and Frankfurt contain high rates of crime in economically deprived suburbs and Australian cities are no different. Foreign visitors are commonly advised to keep away from certain localities, especially at night, as they run the risk of physical abuse.

…leading to acts of violence…

Whilst acts of theft and violence can never be justified, statistically the percentage of attacks against Indian students is not drastically different to those against other communities that are equally exposed to deprived and dangerous districts. There is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that these assaults are carried out by immigrant gangs, often of Croatian or Lebanese origin, who are themselves economically underprivileged and share similar living areas. Be that as it may, the Australian government, despite an initial denial, eventually viewed these crimes seriously and over 50 arrests have been made. The law enforcement agencies do what they can, but it is practically impossible to prevent them completely. As a matter of fact, there are large sections of the Indian community living in Australia – working as professionals or indeed studying at better universities – that remain completely unaffected by crime.

… which hit newspaper headlines in India

The Indian media has been somewhat irresponsible in its reporting on the issue of ‘racial attacks’. For instance, in January this year, an Indian living in Sydney ostensibly set fire to his car; in the process inadvertently burnt himself and claimed later, that he was attacked by a group of four white Australians. Newspapers in India without verifying facts reported the matter as racial abuse with glaring headlines. As it turned out, the individual concerned was investigated and charged with an insurance scam, to which he later confessed. This fact was conveniently ignored by Indian newspapers. Another incident involved an Indian who was murdered, allegedly by a group of ‘racist’ attackers and the incident was repeatedly over-played in the press. Subsequently, as it turned out, three Indians were charged with perpetuating the crime. The initial allegations made the front pages of newspapers; the subsequent facts never received a mention.

But Australia is at fault too...

However, some of the blame must lie on Australia which launched a poorly thought out immigration policy. This triggered a surge in Indian students looking to take advantage of an apparent soft migration option. The educational institutes and the country as a whole had little capacity to cope with the scale of the inflow or to provide the level of help needed to successfully integrate students, when almost all sought local permanent residency. Two factors drove Canberra to this folly. First, two years ago Australian industry was clamouring for more workers and demanding that the government allow easier migration. Second, their state and federal governments were under-funding tertiary education for several decades, forcing universities and technical colleges to rely on foreign students for a large part of their financial support. The programme that Australia subsequently implemented did little to address these problems. The students attracted to Australia had minimal skills; consequently it is hard to argue that they helped cover shortages for anything but the most basic work. Moreover, the education they were offered was extremely basic, which did little to equip them to join the workforce. There may have been some revenue boost for universities, vocational and technical schools. People in Australia's education sector could see this looming problem but no one in government was willing to pay attention to the crucial issues. It was assumed at some point that it would all come unstuck. It has now, but in a most unfortunate way for Indian students involved.

…forcing a rethink in immigration policies…

With the wisdom of experience Australia is bound to, in the future, make the visa application process more stringent. It may hike fund requirements, question the premise of certain vocational colleges providing the channel for obtaining travel permits and be explicitly cautious in offering visas to applicants from certain sections of Indian society. And it should; despite the near term commercial consequences for the ‘education sector’, there is much more at stake to squander in the long term. Australia’s image, despite the unfairness of the logic, has surely been undermined. Moreover, matters of racial tensions tend to go out of hand, as such things do, and this creates anxieties for the other 300,000 Indians working as professionals in Australia. Eventually, everybody gets accused of creating rifts and in time tarred by the same brush.

But bilateral relations have, despite Australian efforts, taken a knock…

Glaring newspaper headlines have touched an emotional cord within Indian civil society. The government, reacting to public opinion, appropriately raised this issue at the highest levels with Canberra. However, what is unfortunate is that the fuss over the attacks seems to be affecting other aspects of India’s bilateral relationship with Australia. Several posts remain vacant at the Australian High Commission, for want of approvals by India’s Foreign Office. Improvements in commercial ties in areas such as resource and energy are being affected. Regrettably this is at a time when the Kevin Rudd administration is doing all it can to elevate its diplomatic rapport with New Delhi to a strategic level, following what they believe is a consequence of converging interests. Over the past few months Australia has sent several ministerial delegations to enhance bilateral ties. These include the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, the Deputy Prime Minister, Ministers for Immigration, Finance, Trade, Foreign Affairs, Resource, Tourism and the Premiers of the States of Victoria and Queensland. Something of this nature has never happened before. Interestingly, the last Indian Prime Ministerial visit to Australia took place about 23 years ago indicating the absence of a reciprocal commitment on the part of South Block to engage with Australia.

New Delhi read it wrong…

In recent times there has been an element of misreading of the Australian intent in some sections of the Indian government and misrepresentation of reality by the Indian media. The fact that Mr Rudd is fluent in Mandarin, and refused to allow the export of Uranium to India, gave the unjust impression to a few observers (including IMA, we are embarrassed to admit) that his administration was likely to turn pro-China and consequently, anti-India. The fact is, Canberra realises the longer term importance of its ties with New Delhi and these encompass a wide gamut of areas including trade and most importantly, defence. Contrary to a wider perception, it was India that decided to withdraw, in 2007, from a multilateral-structured military exercise (called ‘Malabar’ ) in the Indian Ocean, involving Japan, the United States, Singapore and Australia, to avoid Chinese resentment. This may have been at the instance of the Left Front, allies to the previous UPA administration.

…and needs to move on…

Be that as it may, it is in India’s longer term self interest to engage with Australia, a nation that hits a lot harder than its weight in the international arena. A resource rich country, it has a lot to offer both in terms of technology and trade. National interest ought to be the critical driver towards the drafting of a nation’s foreign policy; not opinions offered by sections of the media. There are hundreds and thousands of Indians that have integrated suitably in Australian society, earned the respect of their host country and contribute valuably to the furthering of bilateral relationships. Our government has a responsibility towards them too. The fact is Indians are more frequently abused in several Gulf countries both by governments and rogue employers. To such affairs, our politicians seem to turn a blind eye. Australia, on the other hand, has become a victim of its own egalitarianism.


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