Curry bashing?

Three years ago, Nitin Garg arrived in Australia from Jagraon in Punjab state, expecting a promising future. Now, as a permanent resident and with a postgraduate degree in commerce, the 21-year old has been sent home in a body bag. As soon as the next 'breaking news' occurs, his death will undoubtedly be forgotten. But for his family, Nitin's violent stabbing, on 2 January at West Footscray in Melbourne, will be forever remembered with the tears of having lost a loved one and the guilt of having chosen to send him to school in the 'land down under'.

Nitin's death took place during a month in which three Indian taxi drivers were assaulted and a gurdwara was set on fire in Australia. These followed, from May last year, reports of violent attacks on Indian students in Melbourne and then in Sydney, stories that appeared in newspapers the world over. The violence was particularly widely reported in India, inciting extreme anti-Australia responses that included the burning of effigies of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in New Delhi. Meanwhile, Indian students organised peaceful protests in Melbourne and Sydney, though these too turned violent and ended with police intervention. There have since been additional protests in these two cities, with Indian students attempting to raise awareness over security, the rising crime rate, and what they perceive as Australia's unfair justice system.

Complaints by students in particular, coupled with horrific stories, are clearly bad for Australia's reputation as a provider of international-standard education. The country's relationship with international students goes back over five decades. The early 1950s saw the establishment of the Colombo Plan for Cooperative Economic Development in South and Southeast Asia, which sought to foster cooperation among the countries of Southasia and the Pacific. Today, education is a full-blown industry for Australia, having in recent years moved ahead even of tourism, the country's other main services export. Indeed, the education industry in Australia is the third-largest export-earner overall, behind coal and iron ore. And it is students from various parts of Asia that provide the bulk of that education system's financial backbone. There are currently almost 100,000 students from India alone, contributing almost USD 2 billion to the economy. While the Indian market is still smaller than that from China, the Indian numbers have been growing far faster – by 55 percent over the last five years, compared with 19 percent growth for China. In 2009, students from the Subcontinent as a whole accounted for 19 percent of total international enrolments.

Those numbers now appear to be in clear jeopardy. Media coverage in India has framed the issue as one of deeply entrenched racism within Australian society, and has played a significant role in terming the recent events as a 'crisis' of race relations. It is worrying that the Indian media has played the race card so quickly. A 5 January cartoon from Delhi's Mail Today, depicting the Victoria police as a hooded member of the Ku Klux Klan, is an example of this, and one that sparked widespread outrage (see pic). Bal Thackeray, the leader of the Shiv Sena, has also warned that his activists would target Australians in the Indian Premier League if they "stepped on Mumbai's soil".

Further, at a time when Australia and India's strategic partnership is growing, the attacks have made the Australian government extremely uncomfortable. The New Delhi government has already advised students not to travel to Australia. Thus, for Australia, this crisis in the education sector is multi-faceted: not only about its ties with India and its own global image as a major education provider, but also its own uneasiness with the racism that remains in its own society.

Inconvenient truths
The story is actually far more complex than either of the two dominant narratives – on anti-Indian racism and students – would appear to let on. The problems not only appear to go well beyond the education sector, but also include class issues within Southasian communities, and racial tensions between South and West Asian communities. Shortly after the student protests, taxi drivers of Southasian origin demonstrated in Melbourne for their own security; many saying they have long felt unsafe driving at night. While those demonstrations were widely reported in the Australian media, the global media – including in India – did not pay serious attention to the pleas of the taxi drivers. But all the while, there was great focus on the plight of the Southasian students, most of them from relatively well-off families. While some Southasian taxi drivers are also students, the recent attacks, portrayed as targeting only Indian students, created a different kind of anxiety about Australia. Both the press and the middle class in India were able to mobilise critical public opinion to pressure the Australian government to respond to the violence.

Australian Indians also find these new debates about race relations uncomfortable. Over the years, many Indians who settled in Australia have gone to great lengths to blend in. Indeed, many of the second-generation migrants are more comfortable in their Australian identity than they are in their Southasian skin colour. There has thus been a deep divide between migrant Southasians and the student community. This has now been further exacerbated, with some migrants feeling that their comfort zones have been irreparably harmed by the students and their protests. The president of the Federation of Indian Associations of Victoria, Vasan Srinivasan, recently said, "Every time anything happens in the state of Victoria, [Indian student leaders] immediately come up and say it's a racist attack on Indian students."

At the same time, Australia does indeed have a long history of racial politics from during the colonial and neo-colonial times, particularly with regards to its own indigenous population. Under John Howard, Australia's iron-fisted position vis-à-vis the many refugees that arrive on Australian shores each year (especially highlighted by the 'boat people' crises), highlighted the country's deeply entrenched racial anxieties. These fears only intensified in the context of the US-led 'war on terror', as exemplified by the episode over Dr Mohamed Haneef, the Indian physician who in July 2007 was arrested in Brisbane on suspicion of being involved in 'terrorist' activities. Although Dr Haneef was later cleared of all charges, the situation underscored the larger crackdown on Muslims that was taking place within Australia. Under the new regime of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Australia is currently in negotiation with Indonesia to build a detention centre that would process asylum applications of the new 'boat people', Tamils from Sri Lanka.

The assaults on Southasians in generally have underlined the racial tension. Yet because of this larger context, the sporadic nature of at least some of the attacks has been ignored; instead, a largely fictional 'pattern' of hate crimes or racist attacks on Indian students in Australia has been created. While this is not to say that the recent attacks were not racially driven, it is important to note that not only Indian students are being targeted, but also other Southasian/brown students and workers, particularly men. A significantly higher number of male students are involved in shift work, and therefore are more vulnerable for being in public during odd hours of the night. Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut distinction in statistics about this, as all Southasians are often officially counted as people of Indian origin. By portraying these incidents as racial attacks only against Indian students, the already marginalised from other Southasian countries have been doubly marginalised and silenced.

Yet it is important that the race issue is finally being discussed in Australia. Southasian students in Australia have told journalists how racist slurs and aggressive behaviour have often made them feel threatened in public spaces. Gautam Gupta, from the Federation of Indian Students (Australia), says that "Bloody Indian, go back home" is a commonly used insult during many of the attacks. Melbourne University professor Simon Marginson concurs: "Racist targeting is involved. Indian students do have a special problem. And there isn't enough official and civil concern about international student security in Australia." He has called for a crossborder agency to oversee the security of international students; the outgoing Aboriginal Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma, has also stated that some government policies are directly racist.

Indirect 'racism' is also a factor. Monash University demographer Bob Birrell suggests that sheer numbers have pushed Indian students out of inner-city haunts into the outer suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne. Many live farther away from the city centres, in order to take advantage of cheaper rent. Indian, Nepali, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan students have also told this writer that it is difficult to find housing close to their educational institution or workplaces in big cities. Whatever the push, Southasian students in Australia are often forced to live in unsafe neighbourhoods, some of which have rampant criminal gang activities. Many work late night and/or early morning shifts, and spend a substantial amount of time in public transport, making them vulnerable to attacks in empty train stations or streets.

Finally, the actual origins of this racism are not present in most of the media analysis surrounding these incidents. The Australian police currently have limited information about the assailants. What they have found out, however, suggest that they are overwhelmingly teenagers, and not exclusively Caucasians. This is an important point. Indian students in Sydney alleged last June that Lebanese youths were behind racially motivated attacks – allegations that come out just as Australian authorities struggle to integrate the new waves of immigrants. Traditionally, some areas in New South Wales, where Sydney is located, were dominated by West Asians, but have now become Southasian hubs. While South and West Asia have strong cultural, historical, social and political connections, as migrants from these regions in a foreign land the battle is constructed and manifested as 'Lebanese' against 'Indian', and vice-versa. During times of economic hardship and unemployment, frustration may thus be perpetuated in a racial manner.

46 percent drop
How will these latest events shape Australia's future education policies? One way or another, the attacks on international students have grave implications for the country, and the North South Wales government is finally looking into the matter of international student safety and security. The financial concern following these events is leading to anxiety in the public and private sectors involved in both education and immigration.

If international students start to turn away from Australia out of concerns for personal safety, it would be a massive blow to the Australian economy. International students contributed about USD 13.7 billion to the economy in 2007-08, with the figure estimated to have risen to USD 15.5 billion in 2009. In July 2008, there were almost 460,000 international students enrolled in Australian education institutions, a 20 percent increase in enrolments from previous years. The Southasian element in this is significant. In 1994, Southasians including Indian students represented just 1.5 percent of the 102,000 international onshore students. Yet from 2004 to 2009, the number of Southasian students rose by more than 109,000 – constituting over 19 percent of all international students, from 200 different countries, that had come to Australia to study.

While the Canberra government will clearly be looking to safeguard this inflow of Southasian students against the backdrop of the recent violence, these attacks also need to be seen in the context of a broader move already underway to tighten student-visa policy. After the Howard government changed its immigration policy in 2001, to allow overseas students who completed their degrees in Australia to stay on as skilled migrants, various education institutions and agents have jumped to take advantage of this new opportunity. Due to this controversial policy, originally linked to responding to domestic skills shortages but now perceived to be damaging the Australian 'education brand', about 20,000 previous overseas students now gain permanent residency every year. Most of them are university graduates; some 8000, for instance, were accountants in 2008. However, permanent-residency visas issued to cooks also significantly increased, from 951 in 2005-06 to 3251 in 2008.

In addition, dodgy education institutions and migration agencies, both from the home countries and in Australia, regularly rip off international students, generating hugely profitable businesses for both legal and illegal migration industries. Many private agencies wrongfully guarantee permanent residency in Australia and link it to their services, which is a breach of Australia's immigration regulations. Students have also complained of being shown iconic Australian buildings (such as the Flinders St Station and the Town Hall in Melbourne), and being told that these were their school buildings. Some students also take advantage of these businesses, and pay a substantial amount of money for fake qualification in order to obtain permanent residency. And while the number of such deceitful 'students' is low, the perception is that many of these individuals are coming from the Subcontinent. Both the Australian and Indian governments are increasingly turning the screws on phony training colleges and education agencies. Between July and September 2009, more than 500 Indian nationals in New Delhi were refused student visas due to faked financial documents.

More worryingly for Australia, the Indian media is reporting that Indian parents are now discouraging their children from going to Australia to study. The number of Indians applying for student visas to Australia has plummeted by 46 percent, according to the most recent figures from the Australian Department of Immigration. Australia's Tourism Forecasting Committee also suggests that 4000 fewer Indian students are expected in 2010: "The resultant loss in economic value to Australia could be as high as ASD 78 million [roughly USD 70 million] if these enrolments are not filled by other international students."

The Australian government is clearly taking the issue seriously. Although the deputy prime minister and education minister, Julia Gillard, has downplayed the race angle, she has said that education providers would be shut down if they do not comply with rules relating to international students. The Australian Parliament is now considering an amendment to the Education Services for Overseas Students (ESOS) Act of 2000, under which the education provider would need to demonstrate that its principal purpose is providing education, and that it is capable of demonstrating satisfactory standards. During an August 2009 trip to India, Gillard assured the Indian government that Australia would take the necessary steps to assist Indian students, in addition to promising annual ministerial dialogues on education with India.

It is apparent that there are futures at stake here. International students, especially from the Southasian region, make Australia either their temporary or permanent homes. This crisis will pass in time, but the distrust and racial anxieties that have been produced will leave lingering effects and hinder positive social-networking outcomes. While the public debates are not going to help Nitin Garg any longer, it is crucial that Australia takes a hard look at both its hidden race relations and at its education sector, in order to stem additional violence in the future. At the same time, the Indian civil society, especially the media, while engaging in advocacy must act conscientiously, to ensure that thousands of other Indians who have made Australia their home do not become entangled in a messy 'us vs them' debate, as a consequence of recent questions of racial relations.

~ Bina D'Costa is a research fellow at the Centre for International Governance and Justice at the Australian National University.

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