FEATURE ARTICLE: Curry bashing? A Racist Australian Underbelly and the Education Industry February 6, 2010Posted by southasiamasala in : D'Costa, Bina, Features, India, South Asia - General , trackback
Nitin Garg had arrived in Australia from Jagraon, in the northern Indian state of Punjab, expecting a promising future. Three years later, as a permanent resident and with a postgraduate degree in Commerce he left for India in a body bag. By the time the next ‘breaking news’ occurs, his violent death will be forgotten. But for his mother, his 98 year old grandfather and his siblings, Nitin’s violent stabbing at West Footscray in Melbourne will be forever remembered with the tears of losing a loved one and the guilt for making the decision to send him to the West, which is assumed to be safer than India. Nitin and perhaps his whole family’s future relied on his endurance, even if dreadfully lonely, in an alien metropolis. The south-eastern state of Victoria, one of the most multicultural locations in the world, is where 21 year old Nitin died alone on 2 January 2010. Violent deaths and assaults like his stabbing, racially motivated or not, have consequences, not only in political terms but for personal lives.
Nitin’s death occurred during a month in which three other Indian taxi drivers were assaulted in Melbourne and Ballarat. From May last year, reports of violent attacks on Indian students in Melbourne and then in Sydney appeared in newspapers the world over. The violence was particularly widely reported in India, inciting extremist anti-Australia responses that included the burning of effigies of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in New Delhi. Reacting to the aggression, Indian students organised peaceful protests in Melbourne and Sydney which themselves turned violent and ended with police intervention. Subsequently, there have been further protests in Melbourne and Sydney with Indian students coming out to raise awareness about safety issues, the rising crime rate and the unfair justice system in Australia.
A lot has been written so far on the subject, and rightly so. Understandably, the coverage has been extensive in the Indian media, which has framed the issue as one of deeply entrenched racism within the Australian society. Further, at a time when Australia and India’s strategic partnership is growing, the attacks have made the Australian Government extremely uncomfortable. India’s Foreign Minister, S. M. Krishna, has recently warned that if attacks on students continue, the Government may advise students not to travel to Australia. All the same, for Australia, this crisis in the education sector is not only about its ties with India and its own global image as a major education provider nation but its own uneasiness with the ‘R’ word.
Australia’s relationship with international students goes back over five decades to 1950, following the establishment of the Colombo Plan for Cooperative Economic Development in South and Southeast Asia in that year, an organisation fostering cooperation among the countries of South Asia and the Pacific. Today, education is a full-blown industry, and has moved ahead of tourism, Australia’s other main services export, in recent years. Indeed, the education industry in Australia is the third largest export earner behind coal and iron ore.
Students from various parts of Asia provide the bulk of the Australian education system’s financial backbone. There are now almost 100,000 students from India alone, contributing almost USD 2 billion to the economy. While the Indian market is still smaller than that of China, numbers have grown by 55 per cent, compared with a growth of 19 per cent from China. Students from the subcontinent accounted for 19 per cent of total international enrolments in 2009.
Imagined racism or an Inconvenient Truth?
Much as racial background and English speaking skills are crucial issues in the education industry, there are class issues within the South Asian community at large in Australia. Shortly after the student protests, taxi drivers of South Asian origin demonstrated in Melbourne for their security. Many of them felt unsafe driving taxis at night with increased incidences of attacks. While those demonstrations were widely reported in Australian media, the global media – including the Indian media – did not pay much serious attention to the predicament of taxi drivers. All the while, there was great focus on the plight of the students. This neatly ties into conventional notions of class struggles, as most Indian students are from relatively well-off families. While some South Asian taxi drivers are also students, recent attacks portrayed as only targeting the Indian student community 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 this.
Australian Indians also find these new debates about race relations uncomfortable. Over the years, many Indians who settled here have gone to extraordinary lengths to blend in and adopt an Australian colloquial style of speech if not a perfect ‘Aussie’ accent. Many of the second generation migrants are more comfortable in their Australian identity rather than their Indian skin colour. There is a deep divide between migrant South Asians/Indians and the student community. Many migrants now feel that their peace and comfort zone have been destroyed by the students and their protests. Inadequate support has been offered to the students from Indian social bodies in Australia. The President of the Federation of Indian Associations of Victoria, Vasan Srinivasan said, ‘Each and every time anything happens in the state of Victoria, they (Indian student leaders) immediately come up and say it’s a racist attack on Indian students’.
Indian media advocacy has played a critical role in terming recent events a crisis in race relations. Although dubbed hysterical behaviour by the Australian media and political leaders, the Indian media has a point, which I return to later. However, it is also a concern that as a nation with a long colonial history, the Indian media plays the race card in sensationalist reports. The cartoon depicting the Victorian Police as KKK members in the Mail Today is an example of this.
This recent debate re-produces an ‘imagined’ and ‘racist’ nation that has sportsmen (especially cricketers) who do not hesitate to deploy racist slurs against the opponents. Racism is not only a Western (read White/Caucasian) phenomenon. South Asians have played their own part in constructing racist beliefs and practices. After all, the Andrew Symonds and Harbhajan Singh episode only occurred in recent history. Indian off spinner Harbhajan Singh had been banned for three Tests after the International Cricket Council ruled that he racially abused Australia’s Andrew Symonds during the Test match at the Sydney Cricket Ground in early 2008. While the Board of Control for Cricket in India, the financial superpower of the game, was able to turn the decision to Singh’s favour after he called Symonds a monkey, this incident highlights ‘reverse’ racism of Indians/South Asians against Australians.
Beyond the race issue, the Indian media’s cringe when portrayed in the international sphere as a poverty-stricken nation (for example, Arvind Adiga’s The White Tiger or last year’s film Slumdog Millionaire were criticised for depicting India negatively) but not as the global power as Nehru projected articulates a paradox in Indian identity. Poverty, caste issues, gender violence, and the exclusion of minorities are only a few concerns that may be discussed only in the domestic and private space but not the international and public space. Political leaders and a significant section of the Indian media and entertainment industry manifest in their work a highly nationalistic, great power image of India.
Australia on the other hand, has a long and uncomfortable history of racial politics in a colonial and neo-colonial asymmetrical pattern with its own indigenous population. During the Liberal Government’s rule under John Howard, Australia’s position vis-à-vis the refugees (e.g. the ‘Tampa crisis’ and the ‘boat people’ crises) highlighted Australia’s deeply entrenched racial anxieties. These anxieties about the ‘other’ intensified with the ‘global war on terror’, and resulted in incidents such as the Mohammed Haneef episode. Under the Labor regime of Kevin Rudd, Australia is in negotiation with Indonesia to build a detention centre which will process asylum applications of the new ‘boat people’, Tamils from Sri Lanka.
The assaults on Indian/South Asian students bring forth this racial tension. As such, the sporadic nature of at least some of the attacks was ignored and a pattern of hate crimes or racist attacks on Indian students in Australia was drawn. In turn, this was directly linked to the ultimate pressure point – money. The students contribute to the Australian economy not only by working in the country but also bringing financial resources from home.
It is clear that in different times different racial/ethnic groups are targeted. After September 11, people from the Arab world reported abuse and assaults. In recent years, there have been reports of the murder of a number of Chinese and Vietnamese students. These have not been investigated as hate crimes, but rather as violent acts with other, non-racial motives. However, the sheer number of Indians/South Asians being assaulted means race is at least one of the factors that contribute to these events. The incidents themselves were said to have been taking place for months, with 1449 people of South Asian origin reportedly having been assaulted in Victoria, where Melbourne is located, between 2007 and 2008. The Victorian Police stated that this number increased by 5.4 per cent in 2009, to 1525. In the 2006-7 financial year there were 1082 attacks on Indians/South Asians in Victoria alone. These individuals were victims of crimes such as robberies and assault, about 50 per cent of which occured in workplace. The assault rate for Indians in Victoria was about 1700 in every 100,000, against 700 in every 100,000 for non-Indians.
The important fact to note is that it is not only Indian students who are being targeted, but also other South Asian/brown students, particularly men. There is no clear-cut distinction in statistics about this simple fact. All South Asians are often counted as people of Indian origin. Gender is, in fact, an issue because a significantly higher number of male students are involved in shift work, and are therefore more vulnerable. By portraying the violence as racial attacks only against Indian students, the already marginalised students from other South Asian states have been doubly marginalised and silenced.
South Asian students in the media have stated how they have encountered racist slurs and aggressive behaviour in public spaces. Gautam Gupta from the Federation of Indian Students, Australia notes that ‘Bloody Indian, go back home’ is a commonly used insult during many of the attacks. Both public debates and private discussions with Indian and other communities in Australia suggest that a majority of them perceive that the racist attacks have a criminal and opportunistic pattern (for example robberies) as well. The Victorian and New South Wales (NSW) Police have downplayed the race factor and stated that the attacks do not highlight a culture of ‘curry-bashing’ but rather are criminal offences against a vulnerable population. The Victorian Police Commissioner expresses this vulnerability in terms of a ‘soft target’, an identification that is problematic as the vulnerability is produced and reinforced because of racial and economic anxieties.
The race issue is finally being discussed, though in small doses and only by a few. Former Defence Force Chief Peter Cosgrove, who lived in India for a year, told ABC Radio that Australians were ‘disinclined to downplay, much less dismiss, the potential racist elements in what is becoming a litany of criminality’. Indians/South Asians are disproportionately targeted according to a reluctant admission made by Simon Overland, the Chief Commissioner of Police in Victoria on 20 January 2010. He stated that Indians are over-represented in robbery statistics and there is a racist element to some attacks.
The debate about race is threatening to open a Pandora’s box that would highlight the dire situation of international students in general, many of whom are treated disrespectfully in their own environments (including their educational institutions in some cases) and in other communities. Melbourne University Professor of Higher Education Simon Marginson stated, ‘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 also called for a cross-border agency to oversee the security of international students. The outgoing Aboriginal Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma also stated that some government policies are directly racist.
The insecurity of living as a foreign student with a temporary visa, always subject to the suspicion of work permit violation by the authorities, is part of a hard everyday truth for many students of South Asian origin. Monash University demographer Bob Birell suggests that sheer numbers have pushed Indian students out of inner-city haunts into the outer suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne. However, on some occasions, South Asian/Indian students are not preferred tenants. It is, of course, true that many live farther away from the city centres to take advantage of cheaper rents. Indian, Nepali, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan students also stated to this author that it was difficult to find housing close to their educational institution or work places in big cities. Whatever the push, South Asian students are forced to live in unsafe neighbourhoods. Some of these neighbourhoods have rampant criminal gang activities. Many work late night and/or early morning shifts, and spend a substantial amount of time using public transport, making them vulnerable to attacks in empty train stations or streets.
The Australian Police has limited information about the assailants which suggests that they are overwhelmingly teenagers, not exclusively Caucasians, and also include non-European juveniles. There are two critical issues underlined here. First, Indian students in Sydney alleged last June that some Lebanese youths were behind racially motivated attacks. The Australian authorities are also struggling to integrate new waves of immigrants. The NSW Police refused to admit that race was a factor here. Police Superintendent of the Parramatta Local Command, Robert Redfern, stated, ‘The victims of crime that do occur in this area are not exclusively Indian, the perpetrators of those crimes are not exclusively Middle Eastern’. However, the reasons behind these particular attacks could be more complex. Some areas in NSW, where Sydney is located, were traditionally dominated by West Asians but are now South Asian hubs. This has altered the demographics of these suburbs, making curry houses and falafel eateries neighbours in these multi-ethnic locations. While West Asia and South 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 ‘Indians’, and vice versa. During a time of economic hardship and unemployment, especially for young people who are mostly contract/shift workers, race may not be the primary motivation but frustration is targeted in a racial manner at people perceived as the unwanted ‘other’. This issue must be addressed frankly in various multi-cultural forums in Australia.
Second, the Cronulla riots generated international headlines in 2005. On 4 December of that year, a group of volunteer surf life savers were assaulted in a week that had seen several other violent assaults. On 11 December, approximately 5,000 people converged at the Cronulla beach to protest these events. The alcohol-fuelled white mob hunted and attacked anyone who looked Middle Eastern, which triggered retaliatory riots by young men of Middle Eastern descent. The riots and the racist rants at ‘Lebs’ (there have of course been other racist tags in the recent past, such as Paki, Chong, Wog) have been considered as built-up resentment against Arabs; undercurrents of Islamophobia fuelled by radio shock-jocks; and the result of alcohol consumption. However, reports also reveal that an abiding sense of threat in white suburbia of being outnumbered by Muslims had been a motive in the riots.
Race concerns at different times, be it against Muslims or Indians/South Asians demonstrate that Australia must deal with the hard and inconvenient truth that the race card is played for a variety of reasons. Rather that pushing it under the rug, the authority should give it the highest priority. It should be a greater concern that if race is not a crucial factor, how is that so many South Asians/Indians are being targeted?
How do these events shape Australia’s future education policies? I would suggest that beyond the race factor, flawed immigration policies linked to the education sector have contributed to the vulnerability and therefore the increased violence against South Asian/Indian students.
Billions at stake
The attacks on international students have grave implications for Australia. The government is finally looking into the matter of international student safety and security. According to Australian Government statistics there were over 450,000 international student enrolments in Australia in 2007, 18 per cent above 2006. The financial concern following these events is a cause for concern for both public and private sectors involved in education and immigration. International students bring billions of dollars into Australian educational institutions. For example, in MBA courses international students each pay up to USD 40,000 a year. Undergraduate students pay USD 30,000 a year which brings it to a minimum of USD 120,000-150,000 including various other expenditures. But given the current circumstances, many international students may not want to consider Australia as their destination because of concerns for personal safety.
International students contributed about USD 13.7 billion to the Australian economy in 2007-8, with the figure estimated to have risen to USD 15.5 billion in 2009. In July 2008, there were a total of 459,692 international students enrolled in Australian education institutions, which is a 20 per cent increase in enrolments from previous years. A total of 455,000 students were studying in Australia on student visas in 2007, an increase from 380,000 in 2006. Of these students, 177,954 were in higher education in undergraduate and graduate schools. A report by IDP Education states that vocational education and training (VET) is the fastest growing sector at 46.5 per cent of the total, with India, China and Korea the largest VET markets. In other areas, university enrolments also increased by 2.7 per cent and English language courses were up to 28 per cent from 2007. In 1994, Indian students represented just 1.5 per cent of the 102,000 international onshore students. From 2004-2009, the number of Indian/South Asian students rose to 109,356, just over 19 per cent of a total over half a million international students from 200 different countries. The number of South Asian male students studying in Victoria has grown by 41 per cent every year since 2004.
In this globalised world, people who are able to move, and who can afford to move, are on the move. Skilled migrants prefer various Western destinations, including Australia, to build their future. It is critical to understand that migration, as a search for a better future in the West, is the primary motivation for most South Asian students to enrol in Australian education programs. Australia’s top five source countries for international students are (in order), China, India, South Korea, Malaysia and Hong Kong. The impact of having these students in Australia for its global soft power is enormous. Many of these students, as future residents, contribute to the Australian economy. Many go back and contribute to the growth in their own country or somewhere else in the world, thereby carrying a memory of Australian life with them. Many in the Australian global alumni are in powerful positions and have the ability to shape future relations between their own institutions and Australian institutions.
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 took advantage. This controversial policy originally was linked to responding to domestic skills shortages but is now perceived to be damaging the Australian education brand. About 20,000 former overseas students now achieve permanent residency every year. Most of them are university graduates, some 8000 were accountants in 2008. However, permanent residency visas issued to cooks significantly increased from 951 in 2005-06 to 3251 in 2008. The Australian education industry has also knowingly manipulated the desire to migrate. Education promoters from various colleges and universities often have to be prepared to respond to questions about finding work to support education and finances in Australia and about migration.
In particular, dodgy education institutions and migration agencies, both from the home countries and in Australia, rip off international students in numerous ways, 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 complained that they were shown photographs of Flinders St Station and the Town Hall in Melbourne and were led to believe that those were their educational institutions. A small number of fraudulent students also take advantage of these businesses and pay a substantial amount of money for fake qualifications to obtain permanent residency in Australia. Both the Australian and Indian Governments are cracking down on phony training colleges and education agencies as visa factories. More than 500 Indian nationals were refused student visas between July to September 2009 because of fake financial documents, said the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. Currently, a review of higher education institutions especially of dubious colleges and TAFE (Technical and Further Education) are underway. The Australian immigration department is investigating 23 Victorian and 5 New South Wales education institutions for breaches of immigration regulations.
While the issuance of student visas following the recent events has become more stringent, the Indian media also reports that Indians have been discouraged from sending their children to study in Australia. The number of Indians applying for student visas to Australia has plummeted by 46 per cent, according to the most recent figures from the Department of Immigration. Australia’s Tourism Forecasting Committee (TFC) suggests that 4,000 fewer Indian students are expected in 2010. The TFC states, ‘the resultant loss in economic value to Australia could be as high as A$78 million (apx USD $70million) if these enrolments are not filled by other international students’.
The Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs, Vayalar Ravi, said Australia must crack down on unscrupulous college operators and employers who pay students less than the minimum wage. He rightly stated, ‘If the Government can be so strict in arresting the students who work more than 20 hours because they are violating the law, why can’t they arrest the employer who is not paying the minimum wage?’
There are other concerns too. Some security threats against Australian agencies in India have been reported. After a series of events in January beginning with Nitin’s death, the arson attack on the Guruduara and the violent assaults on cab drivers, diplomatic relations between India and Australia soured. To make matters worse, Bal Thackeray, leader of the Shiv Sena, stated that their activists would target Australians in the Indian Premier League (IPL). The party newspaper Saamna quoted him stating that the Shiv Sena will ‘not allow Australian cricketers to step on Mumbai’s soil’. Also, the Times of India stated that some interest groups are encouraging Bollywood to take its recently booming businesses in Australia elsewhere. These antagonistic statements are of concern to Australian authorities.
Although Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister Julia Gillard has downplayed the race angle, she has also stated that education providers would be shut down if they did not comply with rules relating to international students. Parliament is considering an Amendment Bill to the Education Services for Overseas Students (ESOS) Act 2000, under which the provider would need to demonstrate that its principal purpose is providing education and that it is capable of demonstrating a satisfactory standard. Gillard also visited India last year to control the public relations damage and assured the Indian Government that Australia will take the necessary steps to assist Indian students. She promised annual ministerial dialogues on education with India.
It is apparent that there are futures at stake here. International students, especially from the South Asian region make Australia either their temporary or permanent homes. While the recent troubles are being portrayed as an issue of racial tension in the Indian media, some students may be being discouraged or prohibited from coming to Australia at the moment, as the above statistics suggest. 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 any longer, it is crucial that Australia takes a hard look at its hidden race relations issues and the education sector so that not another life is lost. On the other hand, Indian civil society, especially the media in its 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.