Down and under in Oz

The international fallout of the recurring attacks on Indians in Australia has spread well beyond India

As a mother of a girl who has studied in Australia and has been working there for the past four years, my heart bled when Nitin Garg, a 21-year old kid was stabbed to death in Melbourne on January 2 by some miscreants. The terrible waste of a budding life, the dreams of proud parents turning into ashes, the huge financial costs involved in sending him abroad, the debt that remains to be repaid now, the regret, the guilt, the anger, the unending sorrow…the reconciliation will come, but much later, time will heal but ever so slowly…

But public anger and, of course, debate will continue. The questions are many: is Australia racist? Are Indians being targeted specifically because of the colour of their skin? Are our students safe there? Are they not doing something right there? Can the universities and colleges that are dependent on the revenue brought in by foreign students do something to make the students safer? Shouldn’t Indian students be more careful as they navigate a foreign city and culture?

Australia bristles when we hurl the allegation of racism. From officials to lay citizens, they insist that the crimes against the Indians are not racist in nature. Some admit there is some negativity towards the ‘other’ but it is not unique to Australian society. Says Aparna Ravinuthala, a 25-year old software engineer who was brought up in Australia: “All my friends who have been brought up here and I agree that these attacks are not racially motivated. Yes, there is some racism against Indian students because of the very apparently cultural difference but I don’t think the attacks themselves are racially oriented. Besides, the western suburbs of Melbourne, where most of the (Indian) students live, are known for being rough and have high crime rates. Therefore, they need to be extra careful about what they’re carrying on them and what time they are walking on the streets. Surely these students are aware of the risks. Then why are they not using their common sense? Maybe my experiences are different but I don’t think Australia is a racist country as the media is making it out to be.”

Tamer Bozkurt, an Australian of Turkish origin based in Melbourne, also believes that not all of the attacks could be attributed to racism. “Growing up as a child in Australia, I have experienced racism by people from different cultural backgrounds. In some cases the victims were taunted about being Indian and told to go back to their own country, but the real issue here is the ever growing amount of violence and stabbings on the streets of Melbourne. (The perpetrators) represent a small portion of Australian society. If we wipe out violence, Indian students as well as the rest of society will be a lot safer,” he said.

Indians take risks

Dipanjali Rao, however, points out that the Indian students face a vicious circle: Australian education is expensive even for Australians, so the Indian students need to work to be able to afford basic expenses, let alone tuition. “This leads them to night shifts which no one else will do or take risky jobs like driving taxis in the night where the pay is better,” she said. Then they opt for cheaper accommodation in risky suburbs because they cannot afford even shared accommodation in the safer neighbourhoods. “As a student, I shared with ‘THREE’ other people, even then with bills, my monthly expense was about $ 400 – 450 a month! Besides students are only allowed to work part- time, so where does one get the money?”

According to Bob Birrell, a sociologist at Monash University in Melbourne, the concentration of Indian students in poorer suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne is a key factor in the attacks. “These are areas where there are already social tensions, where there is competition for jobs and low-cost housing, and which get a high incidence of petty crime,” he says. Gautam Gupta, of the Federation of Indian Students in Australia, admits that violence is not a uniquely Indian problem, Indians are at the receiving end as they are the newest minority in Australia.

There is no running away from the fact that attacks on Indian students have increased from 17 in 2008 to 94 in 2009, including one murder.

Australia cannot afford to lose Indian students who form a majority of the $15 billion international student industry which yields third largest revenue for the country. Already figures show that visa applications from students have come down by 20 per cent and it could well touch 50 per cent in 2010 admissions with Nitin’s murder.

So should not the universities take responsibility for providing safer and cheaper accommodation as, say US, does? Aparna doesn’t believe so. “Universities are there to provide education not accommodation. They should rather use the funds to focus on providing a better quality education…Students attending university are mature adults. How long are we going to babysit them by providing them accommodation, meals etc? My background is much different (from students from India) but doesn’t the responsibility also lie with the students themselves to make themselves aware, especially if they are travelling to a new country?”

More hard times

The reported decision by Australia to increase living expenses from $12,000 to 18,000 for students so only those who can afford it will make it also seems self-defeating since it will make things even more difficult for the students. As Dipa says, most Indian students go to Australia for permanent residency rather than studies, so this is hardly a solution.
With as many as one lakh students from India going to various colleges and universities apart from little known and two-room institutes, the brown Indian face is common on the streets of Australian cities, behind cash counters in stores and as pizza delivery men.
Advisories like the one issued by Indian government for students to exercise caution is a mere salve, not a solution. As are the words of Australian Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard that Australia is a nation that welcomes international students and that it is an accepting country. A just balm would be to give compensation to the students’ families, especially of those who are grievously injured or killed in such attacks. The bottomline is that the Australian government and the universities should take more responsibility for the safety of the foreign students.

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