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Indian Students Claim Epidemic of Racist Violence in Australia

Phil Mercer

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has condemned as "senseless acts of violence" a series of race attacks on Indian students in Melbourne.  The Indian high commissioner is demanding greater protection for Indians studying in Australia, as state authorities in the southern state of Victoria draw up new laws to crack down on hate crimes. 

A series of assaults on Indian students in Australia prompted about 3,000 people to take part in a recent rally in Melbourne to demand greater protection from the authorities, who are accused of doing too little to stem the violence.

There were ugly clashes between protesters and police.  More than a dozen people were arrested.

Indian High Commissioner to Australia Sujatha Singh says many young expatriates are furious that their concerns have not been properly addressed.

"Our Indian communities overseas are law abiding. They go by the rules and, if they're being provoked into this [protests], it is because they have very real concerns," said Singh.

In the past year, about 70 attacks on young Indians in Melbourne have been reported and there are claims by community groups that the vast majority have been racially motivated.

The latest victim of the violence - a 25-year-old Indian student - is in a critical condition after being stabbed with a screwdriver by intruders at a birthday party.

His friend, Srinivas Vedantam, insists the attack was carried out by racist thugs.

"When they entered the party and they started abusing - using the racial abuses, like 'You black Indians,' like that stuff. So it ended up with a racial attack," said Vedantam.

However, senior police officers doubt that the violence directed toward the Indian community in Australia is exclusively motivated by racial prejudice.

Victoria Police Chief Simon Overland insists that students, in general, have become "easy targets" for opportunistic criminals.

"It's partly violence against Indian students," he said. "It's escalating robberies and we have used the term 'soft-target robberies.'  Now, the Indian students have taken that as referring directly to them;  it's not. What we have seen is that robberies are now happening more directed against people in the street, directed against people who are wandering around with laptop computers, mobile phones, iPods, cash.   And, if they're alone, they're vulnerable."
            
The attacks have caused diplomatic friction between Canberra and New Delhi.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has publicly reassured the Indian government that Australia is not a racist country and says he was appalled by the assaults.    

"These are senseless acts of violence.  Those who carry out these attacks stand condemned," he said.            

In response, the Rudd government has set up a special task force to deal with the violence.

The new unit will be lead by a former chief of Australia's Special Forces, Duncan Lewis, who is one of the government's most-senior national security advisers.

Officials in Victoria also want those convicted of racially-motivated offenses to be given more severe punishments.

Victoria Attorney General Rob Hulls says judges should take bigotry into account when passing sentence.  

"We want to send a message that any crime that's committed purely based on hatred or prejudice against a group of people is not to be tolerated, but it ought be something that is taken into account in the sentencing principles in this state," he said.   

But some Indian students, like Jayasanker Bagiepalli, are too fearful to remain in Australia and are heading home.

"See what happens here?  We are being attacked.  Not once, twice.  Many people, many Indians are being attacked.  That's what happens here.  So if this country, you know, people from India really stops coming here.   My parents doesn't (sic) want me to stay here," said Bagiepalli,

About 90,000 Indian students are living in Australia.  They generate millions of dollars for the national economy, each year.

The Australian wave of violence has made headline news across India.

Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan has rejected an honorary doctorate from a university in Queensland to protest the assaults on Indian students in Australia. 

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