Even as Australian Ministers, politicians and officials were taking the position in public that there was no racial motivation behind the spate of attacks on Indian students in Australia, chiefly in and around Melbourne in the State of Victoria, Australian diplomats were quietly acknowledging to their U.S. counterparts that it was indeed a likely factor. Also, the Australian government's efforts, in their opinion, had only a limited impact on cooling tempers (230335: confidential, October 20, 2009).

The cables were accessed by The Hindu through WikiLeaks.

The number of Indian students enrolling in Australian universities had steadily grown over the past decade. In 2009, according to international student enrolment data in Australia, about 120,000 Indians had enrolled as full fee-paying international students, making Australia the second most popular educational destination for them after the United States. However, the situation abruptly changed in 2010, when incidents of attacks on Indian students, which had rapidly increased since 2008, reached a crisis point.

A cable sent from the U.S. Embassy in Canberra on January 7, 2010 (242815: confidential), five days after Nitin Garg, a 21-year-old Indian student, was stabbed to death in Melbourne, observed that Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard (she is now the Prime Minister), while condemning the murder, “stopped short of apologizing or referring to racial motivations.” Opposition leader Tony Abbott, the same cable pointed out, had also rejected any such suggestion. However, Peter Varghese, the Indian-origin Australian High Commissioner to New Delhi, seemed to think otherwise. He acknowledged that race “was likely a motivating factor is some attacks.”

The fallout of these attacks was not limited to the student community. “Former Australian Consul General to Mumbai and prominent Melbourne businessman, Shabbir Wahid, noted that concern over the issue was beginning to reach Melbourne's older and better established Indian communities, with some saying that they are reevaluating their long term plans to stay in Australia.”

To Anita Nayyar, the Indian Consul General in Melbourne, the fear of an attack was a personal one.

She confessed that she now “looks over (her) shoulder” while walking around Melbourne's central business district” (248490: confidential, February 12, 2010).

To the Australian government, the worry was two-fold. It had to redeem its battered reputation and image. The loss of revenue on account of fewer international students choosing the country as their destination was the other concern.

Higher education was then Australia's third largest export-earner, behind coal and iron ore, and for the State of Victoria it was the single largest item. In 2010, a U.S. Embassy cable from Canberra (242815: confidential, January 7) noted that Australia's Tourism Forecasting Committee had estimated that the number of students enrolling in Australian universities would come down by 20 per cent compared to the 2009 figures. And this would amount to a loss of $70 million in revenue.

A U.S. Embassy cable (248490: confidential, February 12, 2010), in an interestingly titled section “Press Wranglers Wanted,” noted, citing observers, that the “Victorian government has completely failed to manage the press on this issue” and that “sensationalist press accounts are exacerbating what would have otherwise been a very manageable issue.”

Ms. Nayyar was more candid with her views on the Indian media and the coverage of the issue. She told U.S. diplomats that “a visiting contingent of Indian journalists had already written their headline story, ‘why they hate us,' even before landing in Melbourne for a week-long tour. She went on to say that the Indian press was still enamoured with this story and has paid interviewees well for their stories of woe.”

The cable noted that matters were only made worse by unfortunate public comments including one by Victoria's police chief, Simon Overlander, that “the streets of Melbourne are safer than those in India.”

(This article is a part of the series "The India Cables" based on the US diplomatic cables accessed by The Hindu via Wikileaks.)