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Hopping about in denial

Australians are known to be direct and blunt. So I’m tempted to imitate them for a moment and ask myself if the attacks on Indian students in Australia are racist, writes Padmanabhan Iyer.

india Updated: Jan 20, 2010 21:49 IST
Padmanabhan Iyer
Padmanabhan Iyer
Hindustan Times

Australians are known to be direct and blunt. So I’m tempted to imitate them for a moment and ask myself if the attacks on Indian students in Australia are racist.

To those who revel in decisive answers, I am inclined to be customer-friendly, if only because the journalist in me believes in exiting the scene with simple and secure answers. Indonesian, Sri Lankan and other Asian students were not subjected to such an improbable recurrence of randomness.

Chinese students, too, are quite numerous in Australian cities and look different, like Indians. But they were not targeted. Hence it’s not a case of ‘differencism’, which leads migrants-rich nations to behave irrationally towards ‘otherness’ — other facial features, other accents, other behaviour patterns, other food habits — whenever differences become irksome, especially in the times of economic stress.

Here I would like to point out that the Australian economy is not inordinately stressed. The stock market struck the workaday punters and just about every retirement fund with awe and terror for a while — just as it did in other nations — and employers quickly shed some staff. But the markets and the Aussie dollar have wormed their way into a zone of comfort.

Australian economy tracks global growth, being a supplier of coal, iron ore, copper — ingredients that power the engines of development — and is poised to recover, irrespective of whether the First World nations, or the developing nations, jump forward through recession’s boom gates or not.

Anyone who says that frustrated and unemployed Australian youth are suddenly itching to sink their boots into Indians because they carry iPods and fancy mobile phones are kidding themselves. Such a dire situation does not exist — it has never existed as far as I have known.

Indian students have increased in number, from around 45,000 to about 95,000 in three years. This is a mighty leap and works to the benefit of both nations. Indians seem to have discovered a first world education hub which mimics but does not charge as much as American universities, while Australians are pleasantly surprised that their universities are able to punch far above their weight when facing international rivalry for education export. Australia earns $2 billion from Indian students and it has barely scratched the surface of the Indian middle class.

Normally, commercial interests ought to ensure this market is protected from harm. Indian students have a case: they would like to know why the police and the government have refused to admit that there is an issue here, since the ‘random crime’ theory doesn’t hold water. The Australian traditional bluntness seems to have failed at the very first level, that of communication.

Even now, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd talks about the attacks as “opportunistic crime” rather than racial attacks. It would seem that the Australian administrative authorities have nowhere to hide: they will have to look at the racial question squarely in the eye.

It is plausible for Australia to ask whether it isn’t too intolerant of others to judge its national character from a few criminal incidents. Hooligans don’t make a nation, even if they break out in a rash and deliberately pursue an agenda of their own. After all, India has its seasons of race riots and harsh stereotypes to live down.

I have been asked by my Australian friends if child marriages are common, if children still work in quarries, if untouchability still exists, if Brahmins are still the preferred caste, if dowry is a problem for brides among other undeniably ‘difficult’ questions about Indian life. Without trying to be long-winded, the answer to each is ‘yes’.

Yes, the attacks appear to be racially motivated. Not that it’s a racial nation. Not that I, a journalist of Indian origin, haven’t benefited from its totally non-discriminatory policies. Not that some of my best friends aren’t Australians.

But in the interest of credibility, the Australian government can at least state the obvious. It will be a sign of maturity of a nation if it bears its embarrassment well.

Padmanabhan Iyer is a journalist at The Australian, Sydney

First Published: Jun 25, 2009 23:26 IST