The killing of Nitin Garg last weekend has thrust concern about the safety of Indian students in Australia back into the spotlight – straining diplomatic ties and reenergizing debate about whether racism or just criminal behavior is at the root of the problem.
A spate of assaults on Indian students raised concerns in the middle of last year. But the murder of Mr. Garg, an accounting graduate who was stabbed in a suburban Melbourne park as he walked home at night after his shift at a fast-food restaurant, has caused outrage in India, which issued a travel advisory Tuesday urging its nationals in Australia to take special precautions.
Garg’s death also sparked a high-level war of words, with India’s External Affairs Minister, S.M. Krishna, warning that the “heinous crime” would harm bilateral relations. Australian Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard insisted that Australia was “an accepting, tolerant, multicultural nation” with one of the world’s lowest crime rates.
Headlines such as “Racist Aussie gang knifes Indian to death,” which appeared in India’s Mail Today newspaper this week, may help explain why the issue has received such prominence. But in Australia, there is little agreement about whether the attacks are racially motivated – or simply represent opportunistic street crime.
Police say 1,447 Indians were victims of reported crime in Victoria, where Melbourne is situated, in the year ending July 2008. The Federation of Indian Students of Australia (FISA) believes the true figure is several times higher.
A string of incidents mid-last year triggered angry street protests in Sydney and Melbourne. The victims included Baljinder Singh, stabbed with a screwdriver as he handed over his wallet to two assailants.
Attacks have occurred in Sydney as well – some of them, as in Melbourne, accompanied by racial abuse. But while the Indian media have condemned Australian police for failing to protect students, the Victorian deputy police commissioner, Kieran Walshe, told reporters this week he did not believe Indians were being singled out.
Other senior police have suggested Indian students may be vulnerable because they travel home at night on public transport from part-time jobs, and carry valuables such as laptops.
About 100,000 Indian students in Australia
Around 100,000 Indians are studying in Australia, which is concerned about the impact on the nearly $15 billion international student industry.
Bob Birrell, a sociologist at Monash University in Melbourne, says the concentration of Indian students in poorer suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne is a key factor in the attacks. “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,” he says.
Dr. Birrell denies that Australia is a racist society, pointing out that nearly one-quarter of the population was born overseas, mostly in non-English-speaking countries.
But Gautam Gupta, an FISA spokesman, believes that “while it’s not a uniquely Indian problem, Indians are the newest minority in Australia, so they are on the receiving end of racism.”