Indians question own racism as Australia's 'curry bashings' go on

Alleged hate crimes against Indians in Australia has not only soured bilateral ties, but prompted many Indians to question their own racial proclivities.

NEW DELHI // A spate of allegedly racist attacks against Indians in Australia is sparking outrage in India, souring bilateral relations, but also prompting a large number of Indians to question their own racist proclivities. In one of the most gruesome attacks, Nitin Garg, 21, an accounting graduate from Punjab, was stabbed to death this month in a suburban Melbourne park as he walked home one night after his shift at a fast-food restaurant.

Since 2008, nearly 1,500 Indians, mostly students, have been victims of reported crimes, according to Australian authorities. The Federation of Indian Students of Australia (Fisa) estimates the actual figure is significantly higher. Some Indians allege this wave of "curry bashings", as they are known in Australia, is racially motivated, hence the derogatory term. A cartoon this month in the Mail Today, an Indian daily, likened the Australian police to the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist group in the US with a violent history.

The Australian government, which labelled the caricature as "deeply offensive", claims these are isolated incidents not reflective of society. "We are a nation that is overwhelmingly an open, tolerant, multicultural, welcoming society," Julia Gillard, Australia's deputy prime minister, said this month. Australian sociologists say Indian students are concentrated in poorer suburbs of Australian cities, where living is cheap but crime rates are high, is a major factor in the attacks, exposing them to an increased risk of encountering violent crime. And the global economic downturn has exacerbated that, they say.

"These are areas where there are already social tensions, where there is competition for jobs and low-cost housing, and which get a high incidence of petty crime," said Bob Birrell, a sociologist at Monash University in Melbourne. To thwart these attacks, the police in the state of Victoria, where most such crimes were reported, have been granted new powers to conduct stop-and-search operations without the need for warrants. Australian media say the government is also mulling over special hate crimes legislation.

Indian student organisations, not satisfied by these measures, accuse the Australian government of being in denial. Indians constituted nearly 30 per cent of all violent crime victims in 2009, according to police. Several recount incidents of racial slurs being yelled at them as they were attacked. The student organisations are demanding that the Indian government declare Australia an "unsafe destination for Indian students".

SM Krishna, India's external affairs minister, has hinted at possible sanctions targeting Australia's foreign student market and warned that the "heinous crime" could harm bilateral relations. He issued a travel advisory last week, urging Indians in Australia to take "special precautions". Indian students constitute the second largest group of international students enrolled in Australian universities after Chinese. Between 2004 and 2009, the number of Indians studying in Australia rose from 30,000 to 97,000, according to the Australian immigration department.

The attacks have damaged Australia's foreign student market, the country's third largest export earner - behind coal and iron ore - estimated to be worth US$11.93 billion (Dh43.8bn) a year. Between July and October last year, there was a 46 per cent drop in Indians applying for student visas for Australia compared to the same period in the previous year, and a 26-per-cent drop in student visa applications from all countries.

"People are apprehensive after these recent attacks," said Sunil Goel, the director of Global Hunt, an international recruitment consultant firm based in Delhi. The attacks have prompted many Indians to reflect on racism within their own society. Vir Sanghvi, a columnist, wrote recently in The Hindustan Times that Indians are extremely "colour conscious" and pointed to the experience of Africans in New Delhi who suffer the "most appalling discrimination".

"They find it hard to rent houses - places that were on the market suddenly turn out to be full when landlords discover that the potential tenants are black. Rarely are they invited to people's homes and some even find that taxi drivers and scooterwallahs are unwilling to accept their custom." As a more subtle example, Sanghvi cited the common matrimonial ads in newspapers that specify the need for a light-skinned partner.

"Are Indians racist?" he wrote. "You bet we are."