Indian students confront racist attacks

By James Crafti

Sravan Kumar Theerthala, a 25-year-old Indian student studying in Melbourne, was stabbed through the head with a screwdriver on May 23 leaving him comatose and in intensive care. The day after Theerthala was attacked, Indian student Rajesh Kumar, also 25, received burns to a third of his body after a petrol bomb attack in Sydney. The following day, Baljinder Singh, another 25-year-old Indian student was stabbed at an inner Melbourne train station. During the following week, Indian student Ashish Sood was admitted to a Melbourne hospital after having been beaten up by 15 young people.

The number of Indian students studying in Australia has doubled in the last three years. Second only to Chinese students, Indians now account for more than 80,000 of the 415,000 foreigners studying in Australia. More than half are based in the state of Victoria. Fees paid by foreign students are now Australia’s third-largest export earner behind coal and iron ore, generating about $15.5 billion in revenue in 2008.

The June 3 Melbourne Age reported that there had been 1447 attacks on Indians in Victoria last financial year — up from 1083 the previous financial year. Victoria Police deputy commissioner Kieran Walshe denied that the attacks on Indian students were racially motivated saying, “we don’t think it’s racial, we think they are a weak target”. However, the victims of the attacks point out that their attackers hurled racial abuse at them.

Blame the victim

Indian students have been blamed for the assaults. Victoria Police inspector Scott Mahony suggested that the students should “not openly displaying signs of wealth with iPods and [mobile] phones, and not talking loudly in their native language”. Of course, many Chinese students studying in Australia also have mobile phones and iPods, and speak “loudly” with each other in their native language. But they have not been targeted for racial assaults to the same extent as Indian students.

While Australian citizens are able to study through a subsidised higher education scheme where fees are deferred until students enter the full-time employment, all international students are required to pay full fees in order to study at Australian institutions. On average, each Indian student pays $21,000 in annual tuition fees.

On top of educational expenses, Indian students have to pay Australian living costs which are considerably higher then those in India. Often the high cost of living in Australia forces Indian students to live in poorer neighbourhoods far from the campuses where they study. The Australian government also places visa restrictions on international students that only allow them to work 20 hours per week. Given the high cost of education and living expenses, many Indian students are forced to earn wages “under the counter” in order to get around Australia’s work laws. These unofficial employment arrangements enable employers to super-exploit their employees, who are not protected by minimum legal conditions. The difficulties finding steady work can lead to Indian students doing night shifts and then having to walk home alone late at night.

These conditions go hand in hand with the ingrained anti-Asian racist prejudices that pervade Australian society. These prejudices were institutionalised by more than half a century of the “white Australia” immigration policy, a policy that was only officially abandoned in 1973, to be replaced by official promotion of an Australian nationalism that sustains xenophobic prejudices against immigrants from non-British backgrounds. On June 17, researchers from Canberra’s Australian National University (ANU) sent out 4000 fake job applications in response to employment advertisements in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane using ethnically distinct names. They found Chinese applicants needed to send 68% more applications than those with Anglo-Celtic names to get the same number of interviews, with Middle Eastern job-seekers requiring an additional 64% and Australian Aborigines 35%.

Action against the racist attacks

In response to the attacks on Indian students, up to 10,000 protesters, overwhelmingly Indian students, gathered in the centre of Melbourne on May 31. The protesters assembled at 11am outside Royal Melbourne Hospital, where Theerthala remained in intensive care, then marched through the city’s streets carrying signs which read “I pay fees, I pay tax, I get stabbed in Oz” and “Racism is more dangerous than swine flu”, while the protesters chanted “Victoria Police, shame, shame!”. They staged a sit-down protest outside the Flinders Street train station. Around 200 were still protesting at 5am the next morning, when the police dispersed the crowd, detaining 18 people for “breaches of the peace”.

While many of the protesters were distrustful of the police, leaders of the conservative Federation of Indian Students Australia (FISA) argued that one of their key demands was for a “multi-racial” police taskforce. Most of the Indian students who attended the protest action were acutely aware that the police had generally failed to investigate racist attacks. Furthermore, even when they witnessed such attacks, police officers tend to take the non-white victim to task and tell them to leave rather than the white perpetrator.

Police officers in Melbourne’s western suburbs have long been perpetrators of racist abuse. In 2003 Hussein Farah, a Somali student, was beaten to the point of unconsciousness inside a police station while being racially taunted by several police. Farah woke up on the pavement outside the police station. When Farah reported the police for their actions, they claimed that Farah, a small-framed man, had assaulted police officers inside the station.

Farah’s assault sparked a series of Somali community rallies that for a short period appeared to diminish the amount of racist police harassment that Somalis faced in Melbourne’s western suburbs. The increased public pressure that the Indian students’ protests have exerted on the Australian authorities may lead to greater police protection for them in the short run. Indian community members in the western suburbs of Melbourne have initiated community patrols at night and car pooling to ensure students get home safely. Ironically. the police have threatened to fine Indians for loitering in groups around train stations.

On June 7, several hundred Indian students marched through central Sydney. Two nights of street protest followed in the western Sydney suburb of Harris Park, where large numbers of Indian students live. Ruchir Punjabi, president of the University of Sydney Union, told the city demonstration: “The issues for international students have been building up for a while — safety, accommodation, transport, discrimination at work.”

[James Crafti is a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party and a student at Melbourne’s La Trobe University.]