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Indian student attacks: fledgling democracies can do better

By Malcolm King - posted Monday, 8 February 2010

The hullabaloo about attacks on Indian students in Melbourne is indicative of immaturity in the democratic development of both Australia and India.

Australians like to think that they’re an advanced democratic nation but the majority of its population care little about liberalism or democratic process. We like to see the mechanics and theatrics of parliament in action but this is not democracy.

India is 60 years young this year. It has 22 official languages and is culturally more diverse than Western Europe. While development across its 28 states and seven territories is uneven, there is no doubt that India is on an economic roll.


Yet it is still mired in grinding poverty. The civic infrastructure is poor and corruption is rampant. There is still only intermittent power and water and “slum dogs” only become millionaires in the movies.

A mature democracy with a free press is in constant revolution with itself. It is looking to overthrow hackneyed ideas and replace them with muscular new ones born from a vibrant polity. Does that sound like Australian society? Does that sound like Indian society? No, and maybe it never was.

Australia was effectively a monoculture until the arrival of the Greeks, Italians and Latvians after World War II. Our thinking was insular and we looked, even after the War, very much to England - although John Curtin’s call to “look to America” rang in our ears - but not in the furry koala ears of Bob Menzies.

As a child of the late 50s and 60s I remember the Catholic and Protestant divide, the stereotyping of all Italians as mafiosi, the Greek welfare “bludger” and later the Vietnamese “drug dealer”. My mother, who was from country South Australia, had no time for New Australians. To her, all immigrants were “unclean” or “untrustworthy”.

This is also a common perception of many Indians (especially from the middle class) who view white people (goras) as basically untrustworthy.

While we remember the White Australia policy and the continual neglect of our Indigenous people with shame or at the very least regret, Indians also remember Partition, the arming of the Tamil rebels, Indira Ghandi’s State of Emergency, Ayodhya and more. These are memory stains which cannot and should not be erased. There are lessons there for fledgling democracies.


Let us turn to the Indian student assault stories. There are some curious phenomena here. First, the stories are periodic. If you go to Google analytics and plot the news hits both here and in India over the last nine months, you get two sine waves about five to six months apart. The first is in May/June 2009, with the second and largest frequency on or about January 6, 2010 (1,400 news items).

It was only in the wake to the Indian general elections in May last year that the story first caught fire. The reason was dead air and vacant news columns in India. The Indian media needed to fill their newspapers and TV news bulletins.

So the Indian assault story comes in waves or rather, clusters of small news stories within those waves. What does this mean?

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About the Author

Malcolm King is a journalist and professional writer. He was an associate director at DEEWR Labour Market Strategy in Canberra and the senior communications strategist at Carnegie Mellon University in Adelaide. He runs a writing business called Republic.

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