Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Indian dream meets 'curry bashing' in Australia
Parjanya Bhatt
The recent spat of bashing of Indian students in Australia has created a lot of hue and cry here in India and the action is being termed as racist. Concern over safety and security of Indian students continue as reports of 'fear and fury' keeps pouring in. It is an important social, educational and more importantly economic issue that no one is talking about.

The belief that Australia is an multicultural society has proved to be wrong. The clear disparity between white and non-whites in this country has come out in the open yet again. Australian, as is evident from its history and the recent violence against Indian students goes to prove that white men of Australia dislike the coloured races on their land. Despite tall claims of being multi-cultural and reputation for being safer the country has earned it self the title of a 'racist' country. The government there may have a broader outlook wanting to materialise the Indian dream of foreign education and foreign citizenship, but the common man still has antipathy towards the non-whites.

To be a white Australian is a qualification to not get attacked and secure good job. Purvi Gajjar, journalist and Dalit human rights activist from Gujarat and now permanent resident of Australia says, “Racist behaviour can not be seen out in the open, but is a thing to be experienced while on a train or at the work place or in the shopping mall.” “Australians are still under the impression that India is a third world country suffering from poverty, starvation, and superstition. The progress made by India in various fields is not known to them”, adds Purvi Gajjar. When she decided to have her first child to be born in India, she was asked by her Australian friends about India having proper medical facilities.

Australian people seem to have forgotten that once Australia was a country of offenders shipped out of Great Britain. Today it is a respected country in the world. One of the major factors behind this transformation was the revised immigration policy. Australia now has the largest immigrant population in the world. The unfortunate ‘curry bashing’ (attack on Indian students) that is going on Down Under reminds once again of the ‘convict stain’ of the 18th and 19th century when large number of criminals were transported to various penal colonies by the British government.

Anger and frustration is mounting among Indian students following a series of racial assaults in Australia. The attack against Indian students and their property have brought the issue of violent form of racism into the mainstream media news. Indian students are protesting on the Australian streets, Indian government has registered protest with its Australian counterpart.

Last year about 1,500 assaults and robberies were committed against people of Indian origin in the state of Victoria, up by nearly one third from the year before. But what has gained attention this time is the attacks against innocent students. Attacks against Indians are going on for while now, but most of them go unnoticed. “There is no improvement because this has been happening all the time," Sreenadh Brahmapuram, committee officer of the Australia-based United Indian Associations has told the TIME magazine. But one of the major reason for such attacks going unnoticed is fear of Indians of getting their names in the police record and losing points, which are more important for the attainment of permanent residency.

In the recent past Australia has become the hot spot for the Indians seeking to further their higher education. Political stability and high educational standards offered by Australia have made it something of a Mecca for students from the sub-continent. With the help from these factors Australia has done well to attract over 4,15,000 students from the Asian subcontinent of which over 90,000 are from India alone. More importantly, gaining permanent residency here is easier as compared to UK and the US.

An educational consultant based in Mumbai on a condition of anonymity says, “Indian students are attracted to Australia due to cheaper education in comparison to UK and the US, vibrant democracy and facility of easy access to permanent residency.” “But after the recent violent attacks inquiries from prospective students wanting to go to Australia has dropped drastically and at the same time more and more students now want to go to UK and the US”, adds the consultant. He warns against the foreign universities offering 'on the spot' admissions. He says, “about 90% of the students wanting to go to foreign countries become victim of such offers and there are such universities in Australia as well.” But the moot point is, then why Indian students go to such universities? The answer remains the same – low tuition fees and in particular the work permit and facility of permanent residency. Another important reason for students selecting Australia is their own below average educational credentials, which is no hindrance in giving them entry into Australia and the greed to earn in dollars.

Paresh Shah (name changed) a student from Queensland university says, “After these attacks my university has ensured 24 hour security on the campus, but such facility is not available with low grade universities. Most of the students coming to Australia are admitted to such low grade universities where security is just for the name sake.”

The statement of Baljinder Singh, a victim of the recent racial attack on Indian students in Australia suggesting students back home is quite justified when he says “My advice to every Indian student now, who wants to come to Australia, is please do not come and there is no life here.” But the situation is very precarious for students who have taken hefty loan amount by mortgaging their parents property or have gone on the basis of their parent's savings. Amit Menghani, President, Federation of Indian Students of Australia says, “some of the students are leaving their studies half way and are returning to India, some have already left, and people who went to India for couple of days are asked by their parents not to pursue their studies further in Australia.”

One of the important factor behind the unfortunate 'curry bashing' of the Indian students has an economic angle to it as well. Indian students are ever ready to work with less pay in order to make up for their tuition fees and enjoy staying in a decent localities might have invited wrath of the locals. The common Australian is thus losing his job as against the cheap Indian labour force, which has come up in the form of students studying there. The worst form of opposition against Indians have come from Australia's Lebanese community, who had settled in the country around 300 years ago and probably faced with the similar behaviour before entering into the mainstream. Amit menghani says, “The 100% attackers are not the Lebanese community.” Adding to this Purvi Gajjar says, “There are three different angles to the given situation – Australians versus Indians, Lebanese versus Indians and Australians versus Lebanese.” “We must read them together in order to get a bigger picture and attacks on Indians can not only be termed as racist. There is an element of racism in it but it is more of a violent act”, adds Purvi Gajjar.

But the violence has taken a bigger shape. Violence against Indian students is damaging the reputation of Australia's growing education industry. Education is a big business in Australia generating, $12.54 billion in 2008. Indian students represent about one fifth of the 4,15,000 foreigners studying in Australia, second only to China. And the number of Indian students has doubled in the past three years, with two-thirds studying at private colleges.

The relationship between Australia and India has been good except of course on the cricket field, and when the former refused to sell uranium to the later in the wake of the Indo-US Nuclear Pact. While the attacks are unlikely to damage diplomatic relations between the two, parents of Indian students may prevent their children from studying in Australia. Indians are known for exploring new countries for education and business. If stern action is not taken, Australian universities might lose Indian students. More importantly, news headlines painting Australia as a 'racist country' run the risk of questioning Australia's reputation for tolerance.

The state of Victoria, where most of the violent attacks took place is planning to enact a stricter statute to deal with the situation, but that would be time consuming. The government of India has clear responsibility to protect its citizens abroad. Diplomatic measures are fine, but for long term planning Indian government needs to work on two fronts. One, send a clear signal to the governments where Indians are the soft target of such racial abuse. And second, establish more world class educational institutions and create more jobs here in India.

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