Indian officials and figures are not happy. At least when it comes to gestures on the part of Australian politicians to pacify them over claims that Australia is a safe destination for their vast pool of students. Attacks on Indian students, whether racially motivated or otherwise, are on the increase Down Under. The Indian education market is a sizeable cash cow for the Australian education sector and the cancellation earlier this week of a planned trip to Mumbai by Victorian Premier John Brumby threatens to slay it. Indian students number something like 100,000 as figures stand. He will, instead, spend more time in New Delhi, where the ‘terrorist’ threat is of a lesser order, whatever that might mean to the Australian foreign ministry, known cumbersomely as DFAT.
Indians, notably amongst the student community, have been prominent targets in various Australian cities over some months now. Indian community leader Yadu Singh, when interviewed in May, estimated that 100 attacks on Indian students had been registered in the last twelve months in Sydney alone. Sourabh Sharma was the recipient of a brutal attack and robber on a Melbourne train. Shravan Kumar Theerthala was targeted with a screwdriver by a group of teens. Rajesh Kumar received burns to thirty percent of his body after a petrol bomb was hurled at his Sydney home.
Attacks, student organisations claim, happen all the time. This is made easier by the work patterns of Indian students: long hours in convenience stores and petrol stations necessitating travel on late night trains and public transport. In Melbourne’s western suburbs, police figures indicate that 30 percent of all robbery and assault victims are Indians (AFP, Jun 3). What remains striking in these attacks is how little is discussed, or seemingly known about the assailants.
The attacks have brought forth the moral indignation of India’s Bollywood fraternity. Amitabh Bachchan expressed his resentment through refusing an honorary doctorate from the Queensland University of Technology. Given that honorary degrees are usually no more valuable than laser-printed posters, the gesture, in of itself, did not mean much. Still, the actor called for ‘an extraordinary reaction from the Australian authorities.’ Others, such as Arnab Goswami, editor of the immensely popular Indian channel TimesNow Television, are simply cynical. ‘Everyone who comes here presents a rosy picture and talks about how things will improve’ (ABC online, 24 Sep). Rosiness is imperative in public relations, even if, in substance, not much takes place on the ground.
Gestures from an indignant Bollywood figure may seem hyperbolic, but hurt where it matters most: enrolments. Demand from the subcontinent is falling for Australian courses. Everything in this ongoing affair is now suspected of a racial overtone (‘Australia, land of racism’ suggested a headline in India’s Economic Times on May 28), however unjustified that may be at first blush. Indians of Australian citizenry complain of ‘vulture culture’ in the workforce, where the Caucasian remains ensconced and privileged. The cousin of a prominent Indian cricketer Harbhajan Singh, who had been embroiled with a ‘racial’ controversy that brought an entire cricket series between India and Australia to the brink of collapse, has weighed in, claiming that his son has been killed by an Australian taxi-driver. The body, claimed Jagjit Singh, had been dumped on a railway track.
Overseas students in Australia will brave the streets as always, fearing the occasional burst of indignation, assault and theft. ‘Though we take the safety and security of Indian and other international students very seriously,’ claimed Colin Walters, First Assistant Secretary of the Australian Education Department, ‘we can’t give a 100 percent guarantee.’ Travel anywhere at your own risk. The official visits will, it seems, keep taking place.
BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org