Two issues — the true nature of racism and Australia's anti-racist commitment — are acutely relevant to the long-term safety of Indians in that country.
Australia has voiced empathy for India over its planning of security arrangements for hosting a series of international sports events from Sunday (February 28). Such an expression of support can tone up an equation that has been badly buffeted by the recent tensions over a series of attacks on Indians in Australia.
Surely, there is no linkage between India's security measures for the sports events and the safety of Indian students and others of Indian origin in Australia. However, Australia wants its sports personnel to feel safe in the context of the recent anti-India terrorist attacks.
On a different track, the safety of Indians in Australia is an issue that New Delhi has repeatedly discussed with Canberra. Unsurprisingly, both issues figured in Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith's recent talks with External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna in London.
Alluding to those talks, Mr. Smith, in London last week, said: “So far as arrangements for the Commonwealth Games are concerned, and for the Hockey World Cup are concerned, we are satisfied that all of the necessary consultations and coordination are occurring. ... It is a very regrettable fact of the modern era that there are always risks, security risks, in major sporting events, whether they are conducted in Australia — the Sydney Olympics or the Melbourne Commonwealth Games — or whether they are conducted in India.”
On the safety of Indians in Australia, Mr. Smith assured Mr. Krishna of updates on the probe into and the prosecutions for the various attacks. Remarkably candid, too, was the Australian government's statement on this issue in the House of Representatives in Canberra on February 9. Mr. Smith said: “Recent contemptible attacks on Indian students and others of Indian origin in Australia have cast a long shadow not only over our education links [with India] but across our broader relationship and bilateral agenda. These attacks are inexcusable. ... If any of these attacks have been racist in nature — and it seems clear some of them have — they [the perpetrators] will be punished with the full force of the law.” Mr. Smith went on to reaffirm Australia's “zero tolerance for racism.”
Two issues, seemingly semantic in scope but really substantive in nature, are acutely relevant to the long-term safety of Indians in Australia. The issues are the true nature of racism and the true quality of Australia's anti-racism commitment.
Emerging out of the well-chronicled attacks on Indians, including a stray “faked incident,” is an unmistakable pattern of targeting against this group. When the crisis, simmering for several years, acquired ominous tones last May, the Australian authorities genuinely believed that there was no racism in play. Soon after Sravan Kumar was attacked, this journalist failed to elicit a comment from Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, despite gaining brief access to him. It was on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Security Conference or the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last May. And, it stands to reason that Mr. Rudd was at that time convinced there was no evidence of a racist motive behind the attacks on Indians.
Even now, Mr. Smith is extremely cautious in acknowledging the possibility of a racist motive in some cases. In his recent parliamentary statement, he went no farther than to say that “it seems clear ... some ... attacks have been racist in nature.” Now, shorn of semantics, the juxtaposing of the words “seems” and “clear” is a qualitative indication of ambiguity about the extent of a racist motive. But, this does not imply ambivalence behind Mr. Smith's promise to “make a whole-of-nation, whole-of-government commitment” to address this problem.
With the recent murder of Nitin Garg serving as another wake-up call for the Australian authorities, there are signs that they may make a reality check. At one stage, the security agencies at the grassroots appeared eager to rule out racist motives even before concluding the investigations. The serious-minded Australian observers remain conscious, though, that the ties with India can still be held hostage by a few law-breakers, regardless of motives.
It is in such a fragile ambience of hope that India's High Commissioner to Australia, Sujatha Singh, sums up the puzzle in simple but telling words: “The fundamental issue is the growing number of attacks, which seem to be disproportionately affecting Indians, especially in and around Melbourne. ... The anxious parents of the more than 120,000 Indian students in Australia are asking for clear answers to certain questions: Are our children safe in Australia? Why does it seem that only, or mainly, Indians are the victims? Are the assailants being caught? Are they being punished? Is the situation becoming better or worse?”
Mrs. Singh has received signals that Australia, as a friendly country, is willing to work with India to resolve the issues. But, she is not alone in seeking credible answers through results on the ground.
Regardless of the Indian perspectives, Australia's Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, links the issue to the country's crime scene as he sees it. The “heart of the matter,” he hinted on February 23, was the series of “racially-motivated bashings in unsafe streets.”
Central to a solution is the political will to address the crime scene in Australia, with reference to new racism, if any, or the vestiges, if any, of old attitudes. Robin Jeffrey, an Australian expert, sees the current scene as “a cloud [with] a big silver lining, if the next year can be handled well.” In a conversation with this correspondent, Mr. Jeffrey, who knows India well, said: “Longer term, it has focussed Australia and India on each other as never happened before. There is a real critical mass of young people who are going back and forth. So, the relationship in five years will be stronger than it has ever been. It is for both governments now to institutionalise more ways of communicating.”
On the central issue of alleged racism, Mr. Jeffrey said: “If racism means picking on somebody because they are of a different colour and you know they are going to be relatively easier-marked than somebody else, then that is racism. ... To me, racism is nastier and more elaborate and more sophisticated than that. It is: organisations that promote hatred, it is a body of ideas that suggests racial superiority of one kind or another. It was there around Pauline Hanson's time 15 years ago [in Australia], and it crawled back under its rock.” In the light of what he aptly described as “publicity ping-pong” over the current issues, he and some other experts see a danger of a revival of such racism.
Independent of such views of experts, it is clear that India and Australia need to go beyond a symphony of political sentiments against racism. Practical cooperation, in terms of their current ideas of a “strategic partnership,” is required.