Racial Attacks Trouble Indian Students in Australia

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Police watch over Indian student protestors at Melbourne rally on May 31, 2009, as Australia tries to contain outrage over a wave of attacks on Indian students that have strained diplomatic relations with New Delhi

On paper, Australia looks like an ideal choice for young Indians seeking to further their education. The nation's vibrant democracy, high educational standards, and a perceived low crime rate have made it something of a mecca for students from the sub-continent — with some 93,000 attending courses in everything from hospitality to engineering.

But over the last few weeks, a disturbing side to Indian student life down-under has come to light, sparking allegations of widespread racism in Australian society, and a failure by law enforcement authorities to act. The first incident occurred in the early hours of May 24 at a suburban party in Melbourne, Australia's second largest city in the country's south. Indian student Sravan Kumar Theerthala, a guest at the birthday party, was confronted by party-crashers, one of whom stabbed him in the head with a screw driver allegedly without provocation. (See pictures of Australia's apology for its past aboriginal policies.)

The attack left the 25-year-old student battling for life in hospital and three other party goers who rushed to assist him also injured by the interlopers. On the same weekend about 700km to the north-east in Sydney, Australia's largest city, Indian hospitality graduate Rajesh Kumar was at his home reading a book when he was hit by a petrol bomb. The bomb caused burns to 30% of his body and left him in hospital in a critical condition.

The extraordinarily brutal incidents coming so close together have jolted Indian students to action and shocked government authorities. Seizing the window of publicity that had been generated, students came forward to allege the attacks were hardly isolated incidents, but a regular feature of student life. Student leaders said this kind of violence racially motivated and had not been properly addressed by government authorities such as police and politicians. "There's a name for them: 'curry bashing' ... 'Let's go curry bashing'," Yadu Singh, a Sydney-based Indian-born cardiologist told the Sydney Morning Herald. "They are not random at all, the people are targeting them. They know these students are easy targets."

Leaders in Australia's Indian community say the attacks have been occurring at up to two or three a week since 2004, but are mostly going unreported. "There is no improvement because this has been happening all the time," says Sreenadh Brahmapuram, committee officer of the Australia-based United Indian Associations. He believes many students who come to Australia are concerned that reporting the attacks may jeopardize any chance they may have of gaining a more permanent residency status in the country. He suspects many Indians were targeted because they were seen as easy targets. "They are just bashings that are happening in every day life. It is happening in the Indian community because they are seen as a soft target by anti-social elements." Simon Overland of the Victoria Police Commission released figures showing 1,083 cases of robbery and assault were reported against Indians in 2007-08, and that the attacks increased to 1,447 over the same period last year, with many of the attacks directed against students.

But the more prevalent police response, the students say, should have been to treat the attacks more seriously. On May 31, students decided to try and jolt authorities to take action. Federation of Indian Students Association (FISA) organized a protest in the Melbourne central business district in which hundres of protestors blocked one of Melbourne's busiest intersections. The protest was later broken up by police and 18 people were arrested. "The students are frustrated... Whenever they go to the authorities, they believe they are not taken seriously," says FISA president Amit Menghani. On Monday June 1, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told Federal Parliament that he had spoken with the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and assured him that Indian students — whose tuition is healthy source of income for Australian universities — are welcome. In a press release, he said a taskforce had been set up which would include senior officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of Education and Workplace Relations, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship and the Attorney-Generals' Department to deal with the problem. (Read a short bio of Kevin Rudd.)

Rudd has stopped short, however, of criticizing law enforcement authorities. "Any decent human being just responds with horror at the sorts of attack which have occurred recently. But the key thing is to make sure our law enforcement authorities are doing the best they can. I am confident they are," he told Melbourne's 3AW radio. FISA's Menghani warned if authorities failed to deal with the issue, it would be the Australian economy that would suffer. "Each student is worth about $30,000. And there will be students who will not be coming to Australia because of this," he says. "Each attack discourages five students from coming here. And it adds up."

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