Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Attacks on Indians - is it racism or opportunism?

After the epidemic of attacks on Indians in and now Sydney, the spectre of racism has predictably raised its ugly head.

Simon Overland, Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police, chose on the other hand to downplay the racism angle. He and other police officers have described many of the attacks as "opportunistic". Mind you, this is the same police force which has spent a lot of time seemingly blaming Indians for carrying iPods and laptops, as if that was incitement to crime and that no other ethnic group carried these.

A guy from India emailed me today asking what I thought the motivation was behind these attacks. Honestly, I think both racism and opportunism are in play here.

I covered this a little in my previous post on "curry-bashing". But let's explore further.

Racism is certainly a factor, no doubt. In the earlier post I noted that the men arrested for the bashing to death of a Chinese man and the bashing and robbery of a Mauritian man in Melbourne's west had met and talked about going "curry-bashing". The 7-on-1 beating on Sourabh Sharma on a Werribee train included the phrase "why don't you go home?" Other attacks occurring around Sunshine have involved references to "terrorists" and other religious slurs.

But - and I'm just playing devil's advocate here - just because a racial slur is uttered during an attack, doesn't mean it is a racially motivated attack. When in a confrontational and violent situation, many people have a tendency to unleash all kinds of slurs, be they racist, homophobic or based on one's appearance. If attackers call someone a faggot while beating him, this does not mean the attack is motivated by homophobia.

Let's have a look at the attacks that have occurred this week:

  • In the Sydney suburb of Harris Park, 25-year-old Rajesh Kumar (above) was sitting on his bed in the front room of a house in when an unknown person threw petrol bomb through his window. He suffered burns to a third of his body.
  • Sravan Theerthala, also 25, is in a coma after being stabbed in the head with a screwdriver by gatecrashers at a party in Melbourne's north. A 17-year-old has been arrested in connection to the attack.
  • A 35-year-old taxi driver, originally from Hyderabad, was bashed by a drunk passenger heading from Chapel St to Ringwood, losing two teeth in the process.
  • Baljinder Singh (below), 25, was stabbed in the stomach by two young men close to Carnegie Station

The Carnegie incident freaks me out personally. Most attacks have happened in Melbourne's west, and speaking frankly, its kinda rough out there. But Carnegie station is a stone's throw from my house. I walk nearby at night alone quite regularly and its certainly not an area I would consider especially dangerous.

The Case for Opportunism

One thing about the Carnegie area though - there are a great many Indians around, particularly due to the proximity to Monash University. So if the two knife-wielding hoodlums who stabbed Baljinder Singh were going after random targets, there's a good chance that an Indian might become that target. It is believed they attacked a Caucasian man earlier in the night. So it is possible that race was not a factor there.

Likewise, the petrol bomb incident in Sydney has not yet been proven to be racially motivated. Don't get me wrong, I think it most likely is, but we don't know yet. There is a possibility it is related to a personal matter with the victim. But I doubt it.

The stabbing of Theerthala at a party, which resulted in several of his friends being injured as well, seems also to be a hate crime. But we must also place it in a context of a week in which a number of stabbings occurred. A 17-year-old, I believe of Serbian descent, was stabbed at by gatecrashers in Dandenong North and is in a serious condition. In Brunswick, Luke Mitchell bravely intervened to stop an attack on a stranger, only to be stabbed and killed himself. Earlier today, a man was stabbed in the city.

Knife attacks, unfortunately, are quite commonplace now, as are aggressive party-crashers and drunken violence. So we can't yet pin these conclusively on racial motivation.
Likewise, the attack on the taxi driver is not necessarily racial; taxi drivers deal with a lot of drunken and aggressive passengers.

And as I have stated in an earlier post, Indian students make up a disproportionate number of train passengers late at night, returning from college or work. While there are more Chinese students in Melbourne than Indians, their presence on the trains is not so marked at night - I'm inclined to think a greater proportion have cars, or live closer to the city centre. I'm sure Chinese and other East Asians get attacked as well, but not apparently as often as Indians have.

The Case for Racism

The sheer number of attacks against Indians tells you that its more than just sheer coincidence.

And while attacks on non-Indian taxi drivers, on people around public transport, and by gatecrashers at parties are relatively common, being foreign appears to increase the risk. Indian taxi drivers, for example, might be seen as easier targets for fare evasion or attack because due to their poorer English skills. Their relative newness to this country may make them less streetwise, or at least seen as such.

There seems to be a perception that Indians are a "soft target". I think the fact that some people yelled "F*** off back home" and the like to the several thousand Indian protesters over the weekend shows this. No one is going to yell that at a gathering of protesting Samoans, Turks or Serbs, for example - groups like that have a reputation, justified or not, for reacting aggressively and having the cousins to back it up. Indians do not have such a reputation here.

So if thugs are targeting Indians specifically because of ethnic traits that mark them out as easy targets, is that racist? I'm inclined to think that it is.

Likewise, young thugs may start trouble with any person, but if that person looks different and has a different accent, they will likely be more of a target. Quite a number of the attackers in these cases seem to have been from migrant background, so some have wondered why they would be singling out foreigners and telling them to go back where they came from. My only answer is that the type of person who beats up strangers on a train is unlikely to have a great grasp of irony.

I suspect that the sort of people who carry out these attacks will target anyone who is different to them in some way - gay, Asian, black, Muslim, fat, nerdy, whatever. Racism is simply one of the -isms they are guilty of.

In conclusion, yes I think that racism is a major factor here. Yet we do need to see it in the broader context of the wave of stabbings, muggings and drunken loutish behaviour that has swept across Melbourne in the last few years, affecting Indians and non-Indians alike. Ultimately it's about power - that rush one might get from exerting dominance over another person. Anyone who has ever bullied another will understand this.

This is all academic, anyway. What we need is better security on our trains, and more police in trouble spots to respond quicker to call-outs. For Sravan Theerthala or Rajesh Kumar, the reason they were attacked is secondary to their fight for life.


  1. racism is stupidity. anyone who carries bigoted views with them throughout their life has stunted mental development. I would love to believe that we are all created equally but racists are proof that evolution has skipped some family trees.
    We must all continue to love and be tolerant even when that means taking a punch and not seeking revenge. Dont suffer in slience, speak clearly about your feelings.