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© Neena Bhandari, The Week

Arijit, Thanvi & Tharun
There is a sense of caution and sometimes unease now, but life is good. This is a common refrain from people of Indian origin in Australia, who would like “irresponsible” reporting back home, branding Australia as “racist” to stop. They fear it is beginning to have an adverse backlash.

“Exaggerated and manipulated news about the attacks in India is making our family and friends back home very concerned about our welfare. It is difficult to convince them that I feel safer in Australia than India,” says Pushp Deepak Rana, who arrived here as a student in 2003 and is an Australian citizen now.

Agrees Jay Patel, who came to Sydney to do a Masters degree in 2004 and has just become an Australian citizen. He says “We are surprised as our parents get the news about the incidents in India before us. The situation is not as bad as it is made out to be in India. We are careful not to go out after dark and avoid crowds, but I love the lifestyle Australia offers”.

In 2008-09, 9,088 Indians became Australian citizens. Many Indian students choose to work here after completing their education. “I realised it wasn’t good to return home without some work experience. Education here is not great, but work culture is transparent and offers ample opportunities to broaden one’s horizon”, says Patel, who works at Leighton Contractors and lives with his wife in the western Sydney suburb of Toongabbie.

During 2009, there have been nearly 100 reported cases of attacks on Indians in Australia and this January, 21-year-old Nitin Garg was fatally stabbed to death by unidentified assailants in Melbourne. The Australian government has released a dossier, prepared by Victoria Police, which shows that nearly half of those arrested for vicious attacks since March 2009 were under 18 years old.

“It is the disgruntled youth, alcoholics and drug addicts who are the problem. I have never faced racism. Most of my colleagues are Australians and they are extremely supportive”, says Rana, who lives with his wife and four-month-old baby in the outer western Melbourne suburb of Melton with Australians, Italians and Sri Lankans as his immediate neighbours.

Most attacks have been men on men, in urban encounters mostly late at night. “With the Indian media hysteria, what was not racist is becoming racist from certain sections of society”, says Thanvi Erappa Kuppanda, 21, who came to Australia at the age of 3 from Kodagu District in Karnataka.

“I have Australian/Caucasian friends who constantly tell me of how Indian students harass them on the train, in clubs and bars and social situations. They also tell me how upset their brothers and boyfriends get which is completely understandable. I have witnessed Indian students harassing girls and taking photos on their mobile phones and how it’s almost impossible to stop that”, says Thanvi, who is in the final year of International Business at University of Western Sydney.

Most people this correspondent spoke to find that Australians would always offer a seat on public transport or in cafes to people with babies or the disabled, but it is the “uncouth” behaviour of some Indians that they find embarrassing.

”Australians have a `fair go’ attitude and I have found them to be one of the friendliest, patient and good willed people. I have personally not come across any racist attitude. If any, it’s mostly from other ethnic migrants”, says Arijit Banarji, who is doing Master of Creative Enterprise from Central Queensland University’s Sydney Campus.

He feels most of the current issues stem from getting a permanent residence visa, without which even getting work experience is difficult. “Education and migration have been mixed without actually tackling issues of infrastructure and limits”, says Banarji, who works part-time as a supervisor at a departmental store while hunting for a course- related job opportunity.

Banarji feels the media’s “racist” agenda has taken the focus away from pressing issues of student housing, welfare and travel concession. He says, “Australians are unhappy about their portrayal as “racist”, but there is an acceptance that an element of such people does exist, it exists even in India. It is imperative that students who come here know about Australia, its history, its culture and respect the rule of law and values of this place, get out and socialise with students from other countries and not ghetto themselves”.

Australia, which is one of the most multicultural countries in the world with migrants from over 200 nationalities, is planning to make immigration rules tougher to ensure only genuine Indian students come for higher studies and not those seeking "backdoor" entry to work.

As Kamala Kanta Dash, who is doing his PhD in Arts from Monash University focusing on police-community engagement in Victoria and Delhi, says “It is not Indians who are particularly at risk, any person including white Australians can be at risk. We need to understand this phenomenon with an insight to the changing social behaviour of teenagers and unemployed youth in Victoria and in Australia”.

“Last five years have seen an increase in street crime and Melbourne's knife culture and drug abuse is getting worse”, adds Dash, who has had an occasional encounter with drunken teenagers on the train, his overall experience of studying and working in Melbourne has been very positive.

When news of attacks on Indians made worldwide headlines last May, Harpinder Singh Chipra, who is doing his Master of Business Administration from University of South Australia in Adelaide, bought a second hand car to avoid taking public transport at night. On late weekend nights, while waiting for a bus he would encounter an uneven mix of “welcoming smiles” and “hostile stares”.

“People are generally courteous and respect every individual irrespective of your religion, race or nationality. My colleagues and managers have always made me feel at home”, says Chipra, who is doing three part-time jobs. 

For a vast majority of Indian community and students it has been business as usual. As Tharun Kuppanda, who has lived in Australia since he was one-year-old, says, “Australians are now not being themselves with us. Most Australians enjoy a good laugh and don't mind friendly banter from my side, but now they are guarded. This puts us in an awkward situation and I want to say it’s still okay to pull my leg”.

 “Australians have always been inclusive, encouraging participation from all minority groups. The early Indian migrants to Australia were forced to interact with all Australians for their food, lodging and everyday life. Recent migrants and overseas students on the other hand prefer to stick with other Indians. This lack of assimilation with the mainstream is contributing to the problems”, says Kuppanda, who is an elected student representative for the University of Western Sydney’s students union.

Hidden racism exists in almost every multifaceted society of the world. The attacks have been condemned at the highest levels, but what is needed is a major crackdown on crime. Only making cities safe for everyone can rebuild Australia’s reputation as a tolerant, successful and multicultural society.

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© 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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