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Australia still high on India’s radar March 26, 2010

Posted by southasiamasala in : Guest authors, India , trackback

Guest Author: Rupakjyoti Borah, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

This article first appeared on the National Times website www.nationaltimes.com.au

Australia’s Foreign Minister Stephen Smith has just returned from a three-day visit to India, where he reiterated the view that Australia has no tolerance for racist attacks.

He assured Indians that attacks on them here do not reflect modern Australia, which is a tolerant, multicultural society.

The assurance comes not a day too soon, amid reports of many Indian students having cancelled their plans to study Down Under since the spate of violent attacks. There was a 46 per cent drop in the number of Indians applying for student visas for Australia in the four months between July and October last year on the same period in 2008, according to Immigration Department data.

While the news of death of three-year-old Gurshan Singh Channa, who was visiting Australia with his family, has shocked India, making the front pages of almost all major daily newspapers, the Indian External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna has advised caution. He said he was still waiting for a report from Australian authorities on the cause of Gurshan’s death.

Tempers have also risen in India, especially following the fatal stabbing of Nitin Garg, a 21-year-old student, in Melbourne on January 2. A section of the Indian media has gone hammer-and-tongs at the Australian government, putting diplomatic relations under severe strain.

These attacks have put a question mark over the future of Australia’s $14 billion education industry, given that there are about 95,000 Indian students in Australia — and many more waiting in the wings. Indian students make up almost 18 per cent of Australia’s total overseas student population, the second-largest group of students after the Chinese. The education sector is Australia’s third-largest foreign exchange earner after coal and iron ore. Conservative estimates suggest that the Australian economy could lose almost $70 million because of the violence.

However, it would be unwise to see these incidents as part of a deliberate campaign of attacks on Indian students. Australian police say that, at least in some of the assaults, the attackers have been fellow Indians.

Melbourne man Jaspreet Singh has been accused of criminal damage and changed after he claimed he was attacked by four men and then set alight. Police say that he made up the story as part of an insurance fraud that could have gained him $11,000. In another case, an Indian couple appeared in a Sydney court over the death of fellow Indian fruit-picker Ranjodh Singh. Police say that Singh, 25, was set alight and left to die last month in Griffith, New South Wales.

Many Indian students also have huge loans back in India and work long hours to repay them. They often end up working late in shady areas of Melbourne or Sydney, becoming easy targets for gangsters and muggers.

In addition, many attacks have happened in outlying areas of bigger cities. These are often crime-prone areas, so the attacks may be mostly cases of rowdies attacking innocent victims, rather than Australians targeting Indians.

Many Indian students in Australia now come from smaller Indian towns and cities and are not fluent in English. This hinders their interaction with Australian society. Many have also been duped by fly-by-night agents in India and Australia, who promise admission to some of the country’s best universities, which is not always the case.

One of the main lessons to draw from the recent unfortunate incidents would be to introduce pre-departure briefings for Indian students. Australia-bound students need also to check the antecedents of some of the country’s lesser-known universities and institutes.

Though Prime Minister Kevin Rudd reiterated that his government will do whatever it takes to protect Indian students, the police need to catch and charge those involved in the recent attacks. They also have to acknowledge that there is a small group, especially youngsters, that has brought the country into disrepute.

The Australian government has taken a slew of measures to assuage students’ fears. A new task force has been set up under National Security Adviser Duncan Lewis. The government has deployed more police officers, dog squads and increased surveillance in vulnerable areas. A help-line has been set up, with volunteers speaking in English and Hindi, to assist and support victims of attacks.

It is significant that Stephen Smith, who visited India last week, admitted that some of the attacks have indeed been racist and that that they have done considerable damage to Australia’s reputation. The admission will go a long way in assuaging the feelings of those Indian families whose sons and daughters have borne the brunt of the attacks.

It also serves to set the record straight that Australia is a country where the rule of law prevails and the actions of a few individuals cannot, and does not, reflect Australia and Australians as a whole.

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