Sunday, June 14, 2009

Indian students in Australia asked to stop protests against racial violence

Indian community leaders in Australia have asked students protesting against the racial attacks to put an end to their street rallies, saying they have served their purpose. Yadu Singh, coordinator of the Indian Consul General's community committee on Indian students' issues, said all parties have agreed to stop the rallies which have been going for three days in Sydney’s Harris Park. “They are disrupting the normal life of the people in the suburbs,” he said.

The protests began in Melbourne when Indian students were incensed by a wave of violence including a screwdriver stabbing which left one man in hospital. Attacks on Indian students in Melbourne and Sydney have dominated Indian media headlines for almost three weeks. Though exact current figures are hard to come by, at least 11 Indians have been attacked or mugged in the past month. Some say the problem has been growing for several years. Bloomberg reports that violent crime against Indian students has risen by a third in the past year in the state of Victoria with 1,447 assaults in the 12 months to June 2008.

The problem has been brewing for several months. On 1 December 28 year old Sukhraj Singh was attacked and brutally beaten up at a Sunshine Indian grocery store where he was about to buy naan bread for a party. Singh was left in a coma for three weeks. He still suffers from dizziness, a lack of balance and anxiety. Five men of varying ethnic background have been charged with his beating and three have pleaded guilty. Singh says he still has no idea if the attack was racially motivated. Western districts police Commander Trevor Carter told The Herald-Sun violence was almost never racially related to race, but with the intention of stealing phones and wallets.

Carter’s statement is supported by the rationale offered by another Indian student who is the friend of a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Adelaide. The sociologist blamed the increasing casualisation of the workforce in Australia and decreases in housing affordability. Jobs are less stable and people spend more time commuting between work and home. Overseas students on low-paying casual work are among the worst affected forced to travel longer distances, alone and late at night, all increasing their vulnerability to attack.

But another Melbourne victim, Sourabh Sharma, has no doubts racism is the underlying cause. Sourabh was coming home by train from a workshift at KFC when six young men boarded at Aircraft station, between Laverton and Hoppers Crossing. They attacked him, took his phone and bag and kicked him in the head and face and ribs, while laughing and dishing out racial abuse. The attackers got off at the next station. Sourabh was left unconscious and bleeding, with broken teeth and a fractured cheekbone.

The role of the Indian media has been crucial in stoking up reaction with its emotive and racially inspired descriptions of "curry bashing". Australian High Commissioner to India John McCarthy said their constant coverage of the issue had done inestimable damage to Indian-Australian relations. "India's voracious 24-hour cable news channels helped stoke the wave of fear and outrage among Indians in both countries,” he said. McCarthy said that although the news cycle was now coming to an end, negative perceptions of Australia would linger. “You can't have three weeks of that sort of television without the perception of Australia among Indians being damaged."

Australia stands to lose considerable income from the education industry if South Asians vote with their feet. 97,000 Indians are currently studying in Australia contributing $16 billion to the local economy. They make up 18 percent of the total student population second only to China. Almost half of these are in Victoria. The federal Government's $3.5 million campaign to attract more Indian students as a recession busting measure is now in serious jeopardy.

Belatedly, authorities have begun to act. In May Victoria launched a helpline to assist Indian attack victims. Last week Victorian Premier John Brumby announced new measures to improve safety at railway stations with a record of violent behaviour. The measures include additional patrols by uniform police, transit members, the dog squad, mounted branch and air-wing, as well as traffic operations and booze buses targeting trouble sports in and around Sunshine, St Albans, Thomastown and the Clayton and Dandenong areas.

This is a good start, but is it enough? Writing for The Times of India, Sarina Singh says perception appears to be the fundamental stumbling block. Singh is an Australian of Indian descent who says the federal government has acted too late to stop the rot. She agrees with Indian student groups who have requested a more multicultural police force. “As someone who has specialised in travel writing about the sub-continent,” she was "aware of the damage that can be done by inadvertent cultural misunderstanding.”

But this is not high on Australia’s priorities. Multiculturalism has been marginalised by federal governments for over a decade. As David Ingram wrote in New Matilda Australia has “dropped the ball on multiculturalism. He said the media and ethnic groups had become complacent because they thought the battle had been won. Then the antagonistic Howard Government removed the phrase from the national discourse replacing it with the more strident “new nationalism”.

Michael Clyne says the Rudd government has followed this “by a discourse of covert exclusion through invisibility.” Clyne says the Prime Minister is not on public record using the term multiculturalism or any synonym such as "cultural diversity" when referring to Australian society. Nor is there a minister for multicultural affairs. “Social inclusion ought to empower all sections of Australian society to fulfil their potential and to make their contribution to the nation from their background and experience,” says Clyne. We have some way to go to get there but multi-million dollar losses may concentrate the minds wonderfully.

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