Troubled waters in need of oil

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The two great democracies should calmly work together to overcome this crisis, says Rory Medcalf

Not who we are Australians and Indians protest against racism in Melbourne
Photo: AFP

WE NEED cool heads working out how to improve the safety of Indian students in Australia and to ensure that recent trouble does not damage a promising relationship between two great democracies. Part of the solution is for the Indian media to rein in its hysteria.

As someone committed to the Australia-India relationship, I am dismayed by what has happened. Like the overwhelming majority of Australians, I deeply sympathise with the Indian students who have been the targets of violent criminals.

It looks like no government involved — whether state or federal, Australian or Indian — had anticipated that the bad experiences of a number of Indian students could accumulate into a serious problem between the two countries.

One factor is that the Indian media has an unparalleled ability to make a story huge, and to keep it that way. It does not help that not a single Indian media organisation has bothered to establish a full-time presence in Australia, which could produce the sort of regular, insightful reporting needed to cut through myth and prejudice.

As it is, assertions and generalisations have quickly mixed with hard facts to produce a potentially uncontrollable dynamic of outrage.

For instance, whether or not the police response to a student protest in Melbourne was heavy-handed, the pictures can hardly be expected to play well on India’s dozens of satellite television channels. (Still, Indian viewers should keep in mind how gently or otherwise a metropolitan Indian police force would have dealt with a large number of protesters blocking the public transport system, however justified their grievance.)

The basic fact, however, is that a substantial number of Indian students in Australia — including reportedly about 70 in Melbourne over the past year — have experienced violent crime. It can be argued that the absolute figure remains relatively small considering there are more than 90,000 Indian students in Australia. But it is worrying that an element of racism has been credibly reported in some instances, particularly in a brutal stabbing.

Of course, it would be utterly foolish for Australian authorities to dismiss Indian students’ concerns that they might be targeted because of their ethnicity. Each incident deserves a thorough and open-minded investigation, not only to find the culprits behind the attacks but to build a picture of their motives.

Yet it helps nobody when journalists in the world’s most competitive media marketplace seek to outdo one another with cheap sensationalism by giving the impression that all such attacks are racially motivated. It is ridiculous to conclude that a new instance of violence against an Indian automatically means that somehow a ‘wave’ of racial attacks ‘continues unabated’, as even traditionally sober publications like The Hindu have been reporting.

Behind the headlines, the motives of most of the attacks have more to do with money than with racism

Behind the headlines, the motives of most of the attacks have more to do with money than with racism. In order to afford living and studying in Australia, many foreign students need to work in parttime jobs late at night, or live in relatively unsafe neighbourhoods, or both. These circumstances make them vulnerable, including to opportunistic and violent robberies. Most of the culprits, it seems, are drug-addicts, muggers and the like. We are talking about garden-variety criminals, of the kind that exist in every nation, not racist gangs.

If Indians students have become over-represented in robbery statistics in Australia, then collectively we need to find ways to bring those numbers to an absolute minimum. Any such remedy will have many parts. Thankfully, the Australian government has focused its attention, at the highest level, on hearing the students’ concerns: a coordinated inquiry and response is being headed by the National Security Adviser, and the Deputy Prime Minister will hold a forum with student representatives.

But, like India, Australia has a federal system, and much will rest in the hands of Australian state governments. The Victorian government is strengthening laws against crimes with racist overtones. Given that Australian state governments, however indirectly, gain financially from foreign students, the least they could do is ensure that some police resources are dedicated to those students’ safety.

UNIVERSITIES SHOULD urgently assess if there is more they can do for international students’ welfare, for instance in providing extra on-campus accommodation, ensuring that all new arrivals receive detailed advice about how to maximise personal safety, or offering hotlines or counselling. Given how much money these institutions make from overseas students, they need to be absolutely honest with themselves about whether they are investing enough of these funds to create a safe and welcoming environment. ‘Pastoral care’ has long been a buzzword in Australian education institutions; now they are under the spotlight to prove that they mean it.

Australian states gain financially from foreign students and therefore should invest enough in their safety

It could well be that the surge in popularity of studying in Australia has outpaced the development of the infrastructure to make it sustainable. If that is so, then the recent plight of some Indian students serves as a wake-up call. And yes, we can partly thank the media for that.

But now India’s powerful fourth estate has a responsibility to play its part in the solution. It needs to help its audiences understand the nature of the problem, and to keep some perspective about the positive experiences of the hundreds of thousands of people of Indian origin who have happily made Australia their home or their place of study.

I remain hopeful for India-Australia relations. I believe these two countries have much that unites them, not only in trade or strategic interest, but also in their free-spirited and multicultural character. Many Australians would be more comfortable to see Indian students spontaneously join together to protest about their personal safety than to see the officially-orchestrated mass demonstration by Chinese students to drown out pro-Tibet protests at the Olympic torch relay in Canberra last year.

I only hope that the great promise of partnership between these two Indian Ocean democracies is borne out by the maturity with which their governments, societies and media can now move beyond misunderstanding.

Medcalf is a program director at the Sydney-based think tank The Lowy Institute. He coordinates the Australia-India Roundtable and was formerly an Australian diplomat in India

WRITER’S EMAIL
rmedcalf@lowyinstitute.org

 

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