Originally Published 2016-06-04 12:07:14 Published on Jun 04, 2016
Lessons on race and crime from Australia

Were the recent attacks against some African students in Delhi an act of racism or isolated episodes and opportunistic crimes? In truth, they could have been a mix of both. As the experience from the violence against Indian students in Australia in 2009-2010 tells us, a series of incidents may begin as a regular economic altercation and attack but could convert itself into racism over time due to a complicated reading of the original circumstances.

What happened in Australia was instructive. The first attacks in the Melbourne region were the act of taxi drivers of Lebanese origin against taxi drivers from another migrant group, Indians. Indian students moonlighting as taxi drivers were seen to be aggressively undercutting their Lebanese competition. In some cases, they were working longer hours than legally allowed. In many cases, they were violating their student visas. This may have been the primary aim of some of the students in the first place, as the application to usually dodgy colleges and institutes was often a smokescreen for migration.

Such details were irrelevant to the Lebanese taxi drivers. They saw their market share being disrupted by newcomers, representing an organised, identifiable community, who seemed to be breaking rules to get ahead. This led to an attack that got reported in the media — in India as well as Australia — as a racist attack. Once this happened, a chain reaction set in. Several subsequent attacks were indeed of a racist nature, and belonged to what were categorised as “copycat crimes”.

Perpetrators had read or heard about Indians being attacked in what were described as racist attacks (even if these were not actually racist in nature). Consequently, they felt emboldened enough to give room to their inner bigotry, prejudice or plain perversity and sought to inflict violence on vulnerable Indians they ran into. Perhaps the most egregious example of this was when a drunk Australian football player, Michael Hurley, beat up an Indian taxi driver in Melbourne, refusing to pay the legitimate fare and hurling racist expletives.

Unlike the Lebanese taxi drivers, Hurley had no grievance (imagined, perceived or otherwise) against the Indian he was attacking. His action was unilateral and unprovoked. He was propelled by media reports he had come across of racist attacks against Indians, and thought he could get away with it, even if doing it only for the sake of it.

What did not help was the initial response of senior police officers in Melbourne. They spoke of economic crimes being the principal driver of the violence, and insisted there was no racism. This was partly denialism and party a failure to see the different strands of the violence, from the initial attacks, which were probably not racist, to later attacks that ended up making the racism charge a self-fulfilling prophecy by resorting to copycat crimes.

The Melbourne policeman who sought to soft pedal the charge of racism may have been well-meaning in that he wanted to calm emotions, talk down the angry mood and restore peace and tranquillity in his precinct. He did not see himself as a spokesperson for all Australia, or for the Australian Government — and certainly not as a voice for the Foreign Ministry in Canberra. This is the instinct of a police officer (though in an individual case in Melbourne, the local deputy chief of police was seen as particularly obstinate and bloody-minded in ignoring Indian grievances).

As it happened, statements of this nature by police officers and public officials in Melbourne, meant for a local constituency and audience, got translated into quite something else in India. Shown on Indian news television, they confirmed the impression of an insensitive Australian Government and establishment, looking the other way as hapless coloured students suffered, and willing to condone bigotry. Fairly soon, there was an impact on student applications from India.

Here again, simple explanations don’t hold. The strengthening of the Australian dollar and the crackdown in Australia itself on the so-called “shonky” (dubious) colleges also told on student numbers. Nevertheless the perception of racism did have an impact on a principal sector of export earnings for Australia: Its education industry. The fear was news of the attacks on Indians would become a worldwide story, and influence potential students in China and Southeast Asia, an even bigger market for Australia than was India. It would also damage Australia’s reputation as a welcoming country, and that made great and remarkable strides towards multiculturalism in the preceding 30 odd years.

There is little doubt in this writer’s mind that the recent violence involving African students and residents in India amounted to isolated incidents. In some cases, the Africans were innocent victims, in other cases they may have been guilty of initiating the situation. None of this amounts to institutionalised racism, backed by the state and the Government, against a particular ethnicity. It is important here to distinguish between social and individual prejudice (which might and does exist) and a policy of deliberate racism backed and condoned by the political and legal establishment.

Having said that, the media reportage, both in India and in certain African countries, the concerns of domestic stakeholders in those African countries, the resultant outrage and the pressure on diplomats to “do something” was enormous. The Ministry of External Affairs felt the brunt of this in 2009 when it came to Australia; this year, it was quick and prompt in entering into damage control. It realised the brutal murder of a Congolese student in Delhi had the potential of becoming a bigger political issue than a standalone crime may usually have warranted. In an extreme case, this could have jeopardised India’s painstaking diplomatic investments in Congo (where indeed there were reports of stray attacks on Indian-owned shops) but also across the African continent.

Yet, while the immediate problem may be behind us, it is important to do an appraisal of the African student experience in India, just as the Australians had done after the crisis of 2009-2010. There could be misgivings and deliberate obfuscation on either side — from fly-by-night Indian education service providers as well as students seeking to disguise their purpose of visit. It would be better if this were carefully assessed and the creases ironed out while the media is not looking.

This article originally appeared in The Pioneer.

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