Attacks have potential to hit ties: Australian envoy

Updated on Jan 24, 2010 09:54 AM IST

Australian envoy to India Peter Varghese admits that the continuing attacks on Indian nationals in his country have the "potential to impact on the broader relationship" between the two sides.

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IANS | By, New Delhi

Australian envoy to India Peter Varghese admits that the continuing attacks on Indian nationals in his country have the "potential to impact on the broader relationship" between the two sides.

Varghese, himself of Indian origin , says his country needs "to do a better job" of explaining that it is serious about nabbing the culprits.

"I don't see this issue (attacks) as putting a stop to the positive trajectory of both sides. It is a serious issue and has to be dealt with and certainly has the potential to impact on the broader relationship. But I think we are both working hard to ensure that does not happen," Varghese, Australia's high commissioner, told IANS in an interview.

"In India, we need to do a better job of explaining that we are pursuing the culprits because I think there is a view here that culprits are getting away scot-free."

There has been a wave of attacks on Indian students since May last year. After a brief lull, these have recurred in the last two months, with two of the incidents proving fatal.

Students or taxi drivers of Indian origin have found themselves being targeted in both Melbourne and Sydney, sparking allegations of widespread racism in Australian society and a failure by the law enforcement authorities to act.

But Varghese said it was difficult to point out if only Indians were being attacked and singled out.

"This is not an easy question to give you a simple answer because the problem we have here is that no police force in Australia collects statistics, at least comprehensive statistics which record the nationality of victims of crime, let alone occupation," he said.

"If you are asking me are Indian students or nationals being singled out for attacks, it is very hard for me to give you any authoritative statistics that could prove or disprove that proposition."

One of Australia's top intelligence experts and most experienced diplomats, Varghese took over in August at a particularly sensitive time for Australian-Indian relations, which have plummeted due to the attacks.

Varghese said he did not think the evidence gathered led to a conclusion that there was a clear pattern of these crimes unlike Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao's recent observation that there was a distinct pattern to the attacks.

"Certainly, we think a number of these crimes are examples of urban crime, assaults, robberies and thefts. We should be prepared to acknowledge this. And in some cases these crimes would seem to be committed for racial motivations and I think that is completely unacceptable to the government and the vast majority of the Australian community," Varghese said.

The physical assaults have roiled India and the Indian community in Australia and forced Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's government to step up protection in suburbs where many of the over 110,000 Indian overseas students, especially those studying in the vocational sector, live.

Varghese said though such attacks of Indians also happen in the US and Britain, they do not get played up as much.

"I agree with the proposition to this extent because the knowledge of India and Australia is not as extensive as the UK or the US. There may be a greater willingness to believe that Australia is racist, particularly if the historical perception is of white Australia which is bouncing around for some time," he said.

"I think if you take the combination of the history of white Australia and a limited knowledge of contemporary Australia, there may be a greater willingness to accept at face value claims that this represents intrinsic Australian racism. I would obviously reject that interpretation, but I think that may be part of the reason why that perception appears to be accepted by some here in India."

For a long time Australia pursued a White Australia policy which was a restrictive immigration policy. This policy of exclusion continued until the 1950s and was finally repudiated in the early 1970s.

One fallout of the attacks, said Varghese, was that it could have some impact on the number of Indian students that are likely to go to Australia in 2010 although this will not be the sole explanation for the decline in numbers.

Rigorous visa integrity measures, the high Australian dollar exchange rate and the decision to increase the minimum requirement to cover the cost of living from $12,000 to $18,000 for a student could be the other reasons, he said.

"I think that it is important that the law and enforcement and criminal justice system works its way through these issues," said Varghese.

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