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© Neena Bhandari, The Week

On a balmy summer night as accounting graduate Nitin Garg, 21, took a short-cut to work through a dimly-lit park in the western Melbourne suburb of West Footscray, little did he know that he would be fatally stabbed in a country he had just made his adopted home.

His death on January 2, 2010, has re-fuelled the simmering embers, which had barely cooled following a spate of attacks, some gruesome, on overseas Indian students over the past 18 months. As many as 1,447 confirmed assaults on Indian students have been reported in the year to July 2008. The statistics don’t tell the whole story as most people don’t report crime for fear of being drawn into court cases.

Condemning the heinous murder and offering condolences to the Garg family, the Australian authorities were once again at pains to reinforce that Australia continues to be a “welcoming, safe and accepting” country even as the blanket coverage of the incident in India reignited “racist” fury. The fact that Garg’s wallet was not touched adding to the Indian ire.

Crime - racist, opportunist, urban or random, whatever way one classifies it, the fact remains that certain suburbs of Melbourne have seen a steady increase in street violence over the past five years.  So much so that even long-term residents, who once vouched that Melbourne was a carefree, safe city, have begun to fear for their security.

“Our experience of living here over the past 30 years has been very positive, but for the first time in as many years we are concerned about the safety and security of our teenage children and also their Australian friends. We have begun avoiding going to certain places after dark”, say Arun and Jaya Sharma, who are active members of the growing Indian Diaspora in the city.

Garg’s murder is threatening bilateral ties and Australia’s lucrative $17 billion education export industry. The Australian Immigration Department figures for July to October 31, 2009, show a 46 per cent drop in student visa applications from India compared with the same period in 2008. The figures also show overall overseas student visa applications plummeting by 26 per cent.

Abhishek Awasthi from Mandi (Himachal Pradesh) has just completed a Master of Biotechnology and Bioinformatics at La Trobe University and is president of the university’s Indian Students’ Club. He had chosen to study in Australia and specifically Melbourne because “The city was rated as one of the most livable cities in the world”.

“I have really enjoyed my stay in Melbourne and the multicultural experience it offers, but I am seeing a friendly, loving city transform. I must admit that I do feel unsafe when I go out on my own whether it’s during the day or night. Since the recent killing of Garg, each student is asking, “What are the Australian authorities doing and what has been done?”

The government, police and authorities have said that measures have been put in place to protect the general public and students from street violence, but people want answers beyond the rhetoric…how many culprits have been caught and put behind bars?

“The government is in denial and has been treating the crime problem as a public relations issue. The knee-jerk reaction has been to take high-level delegations to India and invite Indian journalists here on a junket. The resources could have been better spent on providing adequate policing to tackle crime and make our streets safer”, says Don D’Cruz, 41, a political communication consultant, who migrated here from Malaysia 40 years ago.

Don’s father Neville D'Cruz, who was born in Malaysia to Indian parents and was educated in Kerala says, “I strongly feel these attacks are not a racist (Black and white) issue. Crime has definitely increased in the past years. The recent influx of Indian students and the way they congregate has made them conspicuous. Most of them are easy targets for youth looking for quick money for alcohol and drugs”.

Most of the crime is happening in the western and inner city suburbs, where a large number of overseas Indian students live and work. On the night Garg was killed, a 44-year-old man was stabbed six times as he returned to his car with his wife after celebrating his birthday in Fitzroy.

The residents living near the Cruickshank Park are alarmed. “It just reiterates exactly what we’ve been telling the council. We’ve had police here about 12 times in the past two years; through eggings, I’ve had break-ins and people jumping my fence”, Angie Macolino, who lives across from the park and fears for her safety told The Age newspaper.

According to Victoria Police, the suburb of  Footscray has been over represented in knife crime recently and as a result is the focus of a special police operation regarding new laws which allow police to search people (with metal detectors) at random, which they hope will discourage some individuals from carrying weapons.

A week since the tragic homicide, the police have yet to make any arrests. A number of Garg’s belongings located at the crime scene have been examined forensically. Acting Premier of Victoria Rob Hulls told The Week, “It is important that this killing is thoroughly investigated and that the perpetrator is brought to account as soon as possible”.

Isn’t law and order the fundamental right of people in a civil society? “Its time the civil society in Australia comes forward in support of the affected, put pressure on the government and police to do more. The Indian community must try and weave a coalition with other ethnic communities who are marginalised and struggle for a political solution. We need more young leaders as the older generation is disconnected from the problems of the younger immigrants”, says Siddharth Suresh, Publisher of an ethnic newspaper, Indus Age, and now an Australian citizen living in Melbourne.

The ramifications of the tragic death of “a bright, fun-loving guy who made the most of life” are many and far reaching. From immediate decline in student and tourism numbers to strain on bilateral ties; violent attacks, migration scams, closure of shonky colleges have tainted Australia’s global reputation as a safe destination for quality education, especially in India.

Indian students account for 19 per cent of total international enrolments in Australia, taking 117,000 places in the 12 months to October 2009. The number of Indians studying in Australia would fall by about 4,000, at a cost of around A$78 million to the economy.

There is a general feeling of unease and concern. This correspondent has been receiving calls from worried Indian parents as some students, frightened and angry, are choosing to return home before completing their degrees.

As Veteran columnist for the Fairfax newspapers, Miranda Divine, writes, “If I were a mother in India, I wouldn't want my son going to Melbourne to study, after the spate of "curry-bashings" that has now resulted in a death”.

Australia is home to over 200 nationalities  and the fight for safety and rights must not be besmirched by playing the race card.

INSET: NITIN GARG, who migrated from Jagraon town in Ludhiana district (Punjab) three years ago, was on his way to work as night manager at a Hungry Jack's fast food restaurant on January 2, 2010, when he was stabbed in Cruickshank park in West Footscray. Police said he managed to stagger 300 metres to the restaurant and pleaded for help before collapsing. He was rushed to Royal Melbourne Hospital where he succumbed to a long wound from abdomen to the heart.

He had completed accounting degree from Central Queensland University’s Melbourne campus and had got a permanent residence visa in Australia. He lived in a house in Newport suburb with eight Indians

On the fateful night, Garg had declined his friend’s offer to drive him to work and instead had caught a train from Newport to Yarraville and taken a short-cut through the park to work.

Garg, who had earlier been beaten and threatened with a knife by a gang at Newport train station just over a year ago, had last visited his family in India in December and had returned only 20 days ago. His father, Fateh Chand Garg, had expired in November 2007.

For the family it has been a difficult time as it was the housemates who conveyed them the terrible news of Garg’s murder, with the official word coming three days later. 

A candle-lit vigil and memorial service was held in his memory by friends, students, colleagues and the general public.

© Copyright Neena Bhandari. All rights reserved. Republication, copying or using information from any content is expressly prohibited without  the permission of the writer and the magazine through which the article is syndicated.  

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