The fatal stabbing of 21-year-old Nitin Garg and the recovery of the burnt body of a Punjabi youth have re-ignited the debate about the safety of Indian students in Australia. Coming in the wake of a spate of attacks on Indian students over the past year, they are certainly disturbing. In addition to condemning the attacks and indirectly raising questions about the effectiveness of the steps taken by the Australian authorities, the Government of India has issued a restrained travel advisory asking Indian students Down Under to take “basic precautions in being alert to their own security.” Regrettably, the official reaction in Australia, at the federal as well as the state level, has been less than satisfactory — a reaction wrapped around denial. Australian officials have busied themselves in discounting the possibility that racism could be a significant cause for Indian students being targeted. At a time when precious young lives have been lost and emotions are running high, it is poor consolation and bad diplomacy to be told that the number of attacks has been exaggerated or that Indian students are soft targets because they live or work in rough neighbourhoods. This kind of insensitivity was reflected in acting Foreign Minister Simon Crean’s remark that such incidents happen not only in Melbourne but also in “Delhi and Mumbai.”
It is possible that many of the attacks on Indian students in the Melbourne area are opportunistic rather than racial. But virtually ruling out racial motivation in advance of a proper police investigation of two brutal murders against a distressing background of attacks suggests that the authorities are making light of a serious problem. The Australian government needs to address, at the highest political level, the growing feeling among Indian students that their concerns about racial violence are not being addressed sincerely. This is against the background of a rise over the last few years in the number of attacks against the Indian community, as evidenced by the Victoria police’s own data. Not surprisingly, visa applications from Indian students — who constitute the second largest foreign student contingent in Australia, after Chinese students — have shown a 46 per cent decline. This will certainly worry a nation where the higher education industry has emerged as the third largest export, valued close to $14 billion. Australia has built its reputation as an attractive educational destination by offering a variety of courses, good value for money, and the promise of a friendly environment. Its government needs to be firmly reminded that efforts to tackle an unacceptable series of attacks on young Indians can be undermined by a stance of defensiveness, denial, and insensitivity.