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Fear and loathing in Melbourne

The recent attacks on Indian-origin students in and around Melbourne are a reminder that the coin of Australian multiculturalism has two sides. If one is inscribed with insignias of welcome, the other carries traces of a cultural anxiety. Sanjay Srivastava writes.

india Updated: May 30, 2009 22:57 IST

In most western countries, the Indian diaspora is considered a model immigrant population: it is generally law-abiding, studies and works hard, and produces many doctors and successful Spelling Bee contestants. Australian perceptions are no different. However, the recent attacks on Indian-origin students in and around Melbourne are a reminder that the coin of Australian multiculturalism has two sides. If one is inscribed with insignias of welcome, the other carries traces of a cultural anxiety.

The Indian economic boom has widened the pool of those who can afford a foreign education for their children. On the other hand, Australian universities have faced severe financial pressure as a result of cut backs in government funding and have welcomed this lucrative source of income. However, the economic boom that lies at the heart of the enhanced capacity to study overseas — where Bubbly and Bunty land visas instead of train tickets — is also the site of a cultural anxiety which has a long history in Australian society. This history frequently returns in different guises. Over the past few years, it has made its presence felt as regular reports of Indian students being verbally abused and physically attacked.

The anxiety relates to the changing nature of Australian society and the perceived place of Asians within it. In particular, Indians students are often perceived as the local manifestations of global trends such as outsourcing where, it is imagined, that they are preparing to take over ‘Australian’ jobs.

Further, many Indian students have little choice but to take up part-time jobs that make them easy targets, including late night attendants in shops and petrol pumps, shift-workers, and night-time taxi drivers. Ironically, their visibility as menial workers-at-all-hours only heightens the imagined threat they pose to certain sections of Australian society, mostly young – often working class – males with apprehensions about their own future in an uncertain economic environment. An even more complicated issue, however, lies beyond the economic.

For it frequently appears that official policies of multiculturalism have institutionalised a rather narrow sense of cultural difference of ‘Indian curries and rituals are wonderful’ kind. It is only when Australian society is able to foreground deeper issues of difference that violent anxieties such as those on display over the past few weeks can be addressed.

Sanjay Srivastava is professor of sociology, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi University. He earlier taught at Deakin University, Melbourne