Racism: Australia haunted by relics of the past?

After 36 years of abolition of the White Australia Policy racism tag comes to haunt the country again

It thereby virtually excluded all non-European ethnicity to enter Australia. The policy, later enshrined in the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, retained almost unanimous public and political support until the late 1940s, though elements of the policy survived until the 1970s.

Thus, in 1919, Prime Minister William Morris Hughes was able to  hail the White Australia Policy as “the greatest thing we have achieved.” But almost nine decades later, on Feb 13, 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, in a conscientious effort at wiping off the cruel indignities of a dismal past, made the Commonwealth Parliament’s National Apology to the Stolen Generations of the indigenous population (aborigines) for their unfortunate institutional victimisation almost a century back.

The effective end of the policy, in 1973, by the Whitlam Labour government, ushered in a new era of enlightenment. In particular, the Racial Discrimination Act, 1975, outlawed the use of racial criteria, in immigration, as well as in all other official businesses. In this respect, in the seminal Mabo case (1992), the high court of Australia has equally regarded “it imperative that the common law” ensure, “in today’s world,” that the government’s anti-discrimination programme and laws, commenced with the Racial Discrimination Act, 1975, should “neither be nor be seen to be frozen in an age of discrimination.”

Thus, amidst debates whether or not the recent attacks of violence against students of Indian origin, studying in Melbourne and Sydney, were racially motivated, Prime Minister Rudd was quick in deploring and condemning the attacks in parliament: “Australia is a country of great diversity, harmony and tolerance. We are a multi-cultural nation and we respect and embrace diversity which has enriched our nation.”

Echoing of sentiments

He conveyed similar sentiments to prime minister Manmohan Singh, which were vociferously endorsed by the Australian leader of opposition, Malcolm Turnbull, and other segments of the general Australian populace.

Yet the racist issue continues to be a topic of heated debate. The Indian media, particularly electronic, was widely criticised in Australia for blowing the issue completely out of proportion. Though the mainstream Australian newspapers initially did not pay much attention to the acts of violence, the spate and charged atmosphere among the Indian student community gradually occupied prominence in Australian media as well.
Unwisely, Australia was hastily labelled ‘racist’ by some sections of Indian media even before all the accused or perpetrators had been identified and charged. Perhaps, this imprudence was triggered by the video footage of attack on Saurabh Sharma, which ceaselessly haunted the Indian TV viewers. Interestingly, only one of the five attackers on Saurabh appeared to be an Australian, that is, having resemblance to a person of European descent. In another incident, the attackers were identified to be of African origins.

It is grossly unfair to portray Australia as a nation systematically practicing racism. Yet it has become necessary under the present circumstances to know why the spirit of prejudice has crossed its limits from slurs and stereotyping to outrage and violence. Race remains an emotive issue for both politicians and police who would naturally prefer only prudential and diplomatic denials on the delicate subject.

In a society that identifies with some 250 ancestries, a wide range of fastest growing religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam), has so many indigenous and other languages spoken by more than 21 million people, and regards its cultural diversity to be a source of both social and economic wealth, any references to race cannot and should not mean superiority of colour.

Significantly, since the discriminatory migration policy is no longer ‘Australia’s Magna Carta’ or ‘a political shibboleth,’ the country has, happily, strived to evolve from a parochial political landscape and mindset into one that is truly cosmopolitan and multi-culturally diverse.

While no one would deny the nuisance value of some anti-social or unenlightened elements in Australia like in any other country, the recent incidents are also reflective of the past in a way. The incidents are also indicative of a power shift in such sentiments.

Insecurity

Is it a symbolic return of that era that average Australian feels threatened by the growing presence of Asian population in the country? In addition, is it also about different treatment received from other established migrants with overlapping feelings of professional rivalry, outright jealousy and, in some cases, even innate sense of superiority? One could, then, even ask: is it not best to return to the old proverbial state of “birds of the same feather flock together” syndrome, instead of chasing the cherished ideal of a multi-cultural dialogue and interaction?

Lebanese students, once the alleged targets of racial hostility, are a united force in
Australia and even the police oftentimes hesitate charging them for the fear of
being branded racist. Chinese are ready to join the bandwagon by the sheer presence
of their escalating numbers.

It has also to do with rising figures of unemployment and consequent frustration which can fuel and aggravate racial tensions among different communities. The resentment gets worse with the inappropriate behaviour of new immigrants, in particular, Indians. Irritating traits like loud conversations in buses and trains, playing Bollywood ring tones at a high pitch and showing scant regard to the cultural sensitivities of the host country do not necessarily endear them as welcome figures.

Whatever may be the causes, the repeated attacks on Indian students have sounded a sort of alarm bell for the Australian government. The Indian students in Melbourne boycotted the ‘Walk for Harmony’ organised by Victorian Premier John Brumby after the attacks.

The event was carefully timed to coincide with Australian delegation’s proposed visit to India but the representatives of Federation of Indian Students in Australia were not allowed to speak at the public platform! It annoyed Indian students who felt the government was more worried about projecting Australia as a safe destination in India. Before attempting to lure more immigrants, wouldn’t it be worthwhile to see the issue at hand?

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