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Rebuilding trust between Australia and India

By Rupakjyoti Borah - posted Tuesday, 1 September 2009

The Indian media has been abuzz with the news about attacks on Indian students in Australia. These attacks have generated quite a bit of distrust in both India and Australia and have brought back memories of the infamous Monkey-gate episode. While the jury is still out on whether the attacks were racial in nature, I am reminded of my own three-month stay in Australia in 2005. From my personal experience, I can vouch for the fact that I have never faced any racial slurs or attacks during my stay in various Australian cities. In fact, many times, I got help from perfect strangers.

In the past three months, more than 25 Indian students have been at the receiving end of violence. The attacks have put a question mark on the future of Australia’s US$13 billion international education industry. There are about 95,000 Indian students in Australia at present. Indian students now make up almost 18 per cent of Australia’s total foreign student population, the second largest group after that from China, which represents 23.5 per cent of the total foreign student arrivals.

However, it would be unwise to see all these incidents as part of a deliberate attack on Indian students. One of the main reasons for the recent spate of violence could be the worldwide economic downturn. Many Australians have either seen their jobs vanish or have lost their jobs to someone sitting in Bengaluru or Hyderabad in India - someone who is willing to work for much lower wages (in other words they have been “Bangalored”).


From my experience, I have observed that some of the Indian students in Australia generally prefer to stick to their close friends (i.e. fellow Indians) and there is not much interaction with people from other countries. Though this is a natural human instinct, especially when one is far away from one’s country, it also leads to the creation of a ghetto mentality and unwillingness to assimilate into the culture of a foreign country. This may be taken by some Australians as reflecting unwillingness to accept Australian culture and customs.

Most of the recent attacks have taken place in outlying areas of the bigger cities late at night. So these attacks may be more of a rowdy element attacking innocent victims rather than Australians targeting Indians per se.

Many of the Indian students who are in Australia now come from smaller towns and cities and are not very fluent in English. This proves to be a handicap in their interaction with Australians and Australian society. Then there is the element of culture shock when these students land up directly in Australia from middle-town India.

Some of these students are duped by fly-by-night agents (who disappear faster than kangaroos) in both India and Australia with a promise of admission to some of the best universities in Australia. Obviously it leads to a great degree of frustration and resentment among those students once they land in Australia and find they have cheated (like what happened after the sudden closure of the Sterling College in Sydney).

One of the main lessons to draw from these unfortunate incidents would be to introduce a pre-departure briefing for Indian students. Indian students should also make sure they undertake proper enquiries before going to Australia to pursue courses at some of the lesser-known universities and institutes.

While the initiatives taken by the Australian Government after the recent spate of attacks is laudable, what is most important is to instill a sense of security among the Indian student populace.


During the Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna’s five-day visit to Australia earlier last month, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd reassured him that the Australian government will do whatever it takes to protect Indian students. Meanwhile, the Australian police need to bring to book immediately the culprits involved in the recent attacks on these students.

The Australian government has taken a slew of measures to assuage the fears of the Indian students. A new task force has been set up under National Security Adviser Duncan Lewis. The government has deployed more police personnel, dog squads, and increased surveillance in vulnerable areas. In addition a helpline has been set up manned by volunteers speaking in English and Hindi, to provide assistance and support to victims of attacks.

Some of the recent attacks may well be racial in nature, but such incidents have happened in other countries too, including India (remember some spectators in India taunting Andrew Symonds, or for that matter targeting Lewis Hamilton?). It would therefore be unwise to brand Australia as a racist country. There will always be some bad apples (in both Australia and India), but they should not be allowed to spoil the barrel.

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About the Author

Rupakjyoti Borah is a PhD candidate at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, India. He has been a Visiting Fellow at the Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge, UK.

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