The robbery and assault of Indian people in Australia is one of the most widely-discussed topics in the country right now. Yet there are a lot of opinions being thrown around which have become accepted as truth, when in fact they are not.
And as with many issues, most of the opinions being expressed are simplistic ones which do not satisfactorily address what is going on. We seem to hear either "Australia is one of the most racist countries in the world", or, "Australia is not racist! Stop whining and get over it!"
Neither of those responses is really helpful - they merely inflame things and engender a heated response at the other extreme.
So, given that I've studied this issue more than most, and examined everything useful I could find in the media about it, I'm going to try to clear up some of the misconceptions that are being bandied around.
Read this, so next time someone gives their opinion on the matter, you'll know what you are talking about.
BULLSHIT ARGUMENT #1. "THE ATTACKS AREN'T RACIST; THEY ARE JUST OPPORTUNISTIC CRIMES THAT COULD HAPPEN TO ANYONE."
One aspect in which the Indian media has contributed negatively to this debate is in adding the label "racist" to every attack. Clearly this is over the top, as an attack on an Indian is not necessarily racist; some attacks clearly were not targeted specifically at Indians. However, of all the reported attacks I could find mention of in the media, about 33% specifically mentioned racial abuse being present. Of the rest, racist remarks were not specifically reported, which doesn't mean they weren't there.
Even if we consider that many of the attacks may not have had racism as their primary motivation, we have to wonder how much race may have influenced the outcome. For example, someone who harbours anti-Indian feelings might argue with a white taxi driver over a fare, but might bash an Indian taxi driver over the same incident.
While some assaults receive media coverage, verbal racist abuse generally does not. But countless Indians talk of being on the end of racial slurs being yelled out of cars, or by passersby in the street, or in other daily interactions. It would be naive to think there is no link between racist abuse and the violence some Indians encounter; both behaviours are part of the same spectrum. If young people hear racist comments from their parents and peers and absorb those attitudes, it makes it easier for them to assault someone who is different from them, since they are seen as less deserving of respect and empathy.
BULLSHIT ARGUMENT #2: "THE INDIANS ARE WHINGERS, AND SHOULD STOP COMPLAINING AND HARDEN UP"
So... if they don't bring attention to their plight, then what? Do nothing? Become vigilantes? Neither of which would improve our society. When the Indian student community demonstrated about the attacks, the police and Government responded by taking measures to increase safety. That's good for everyone.
It is fair to say that some sections of the Indian media have blown things out of proportion. But that is the nature of the media. And even taking into account some exaggeration, there is still a legitimate complaint to be made.
But the "Indians are whingers" viewpoint forgets that a significant number of incidents go unreported. It has been reported that some Indian students, being on student visas, are scared of being seen as troublemakers by going to the police. Others still have got the idea that the police will do nothing to help them and therefore do not report.
BULLSHIT ARGUMENT #3: "AUSTRALIA IS / IS NOT A RACIST COUNTRY"
How do you answer such a question simplistically?
Most Australians are well-meaning and generally tolerant. But there exists a problem with racism. Admit it. Just because you may not dish it out or receive it personally or notice it around you, doesn't mean others don't.
It's not just white Australians who display racial prejudice by any means. Non-whites can have views which are equally vile. However white racism is the most important because (a) it has so influenced the development of this country, and (b) white people make up 85-90% of the population. The isolationist history of white Australia nurtured an entrenched xenophobia which is far less apparent today than it was 40-50 years ago, yet still lingers on in various forms.
I don't think we are necessarily more racist than the UK, the US, or India for that matter. But we have our problems nonetheless. People get bashed and killed over it. That's not something to ignore. More here and here.
BULLSHIT ARGUMENT #4: "INDIANS AREN'T BEING TARGETED ANY MORE THAN ANY OTHER GROUP IN AUSTRALIA"
The key figure here would be whether the violent crimes against Indians are proportional in number to violent crimes against the general population. If you look at nationwide figures, attacks on Indians might not stand out. However, this issue is not really about the whole of Australia, because the vast majority have occurred in Melbourne, particularly in the West and North. And the robbery figures in Melbourne's West that put this issue on the front page are pretty clear: approximately 33% of robberies in that area were on Indians, yet they make up not much more than 5% of the area's population.
BULLSHIT ARGUMENT #5: "WHAT ABOUT THE CRIMES INDIANS COMMIT IN AUSTRALIA?"
Countless people want to bring up the case of Puneet Puneet, who killed an Australian while driving drunk and then fled back to India and has avoided justice. Or, they'll bring up some Indian who raped someone, or some Indian who killed someone else, etc, etc.
Those are not good things. But they are irrelevant to the debate. Bringing them up is a way of avoiding self-examination. In any population of people, there are some who will commit crime.
Also frequently raised are rapes and murders of Australians in India. Again, these are terrible things. But if we are talking about what happens in Australia to Indians, there is no relevance in bringing up what happens in India. In any case, why compare Australia to India? India is a poor country with a billion people and myriad problems. Australia is one of the wealthiest countries in the world and supposedly one of the safest.
Pointing the finger at examples of Indian crime is no better than the kid at school who gets busted vandalising something, and then says "But the other kids were doing it too!"
BULLSHIT ARGUMENT #6: "INDIANS ARE AT FAULT BECAUSE THEY CARRY SYMBOLS OF WEALTH LIKE iPODS AND LAPTOPS AROUND EVERYWHERE"
Indians carry iPods? Of course some do. The thing is, virtually every person under 35 on public transport has an iPod. Try asking anything of a stranger these days - they will inevitably have to take their earphones out first in order to understand you. It is hardly restricted to Indians. About laptops? I have no idea, I see plenty of Indians on the train but I never really noticed laptops. As for Indians flashing their wealth, the majority of the Indians who have been assaulted here were not rich. If they were rich, they would not be living in Sunshine or St Albans or Dandenong, and driving taxis, or taking public transport home from their jobs as kitchenhands, security guards and service station attendants.
The mention of carrying valuables appears to come from Police Commissioner Simon Overland, who advised Indian students against carrying those items as it might make them more of a target. This got picked up by the media and became interpreted by many as a way of blaming Indians for their own victimhood.
BULLSHIT ARGUMENT #7: "INDIANS ARE TO BLAME BECAUSE THEY DO THINGS THAT ANNOY OTHER PEOPLE."
Heard this one? In other words, Indians force people to beat them up because their taxi drivers provide bad service, or because Indian telemarketers make annoying phone calls during dinnertime, or because some Indian guys have smelly armpits, or because some Indians talk too loudly on the train.
We seem to have an instinctive need to look for reasons to blame the victim. I'm surprised no one is saying "Indians bring it upon themselves because they wear short skirts."
In the course of one's daily activities, you will get annoyed at people for various reasons. Just the other day a (non-Indian) guy did this ridiculously stupid thing in traffic that I won't bother to describe, but suffice to say it really pissed me off. And then the girl at the bubble tea shop took ages to serve me and I got pissed off. But here is the crucial detail; I didn't assault anybody as a result. Mainly because I'm a patient and tolerant kind of guy, but also because our society has a set of laws and values that state quite clearly that you can't just attack people because they annoy you for some reason.
BULLSHIT ARGUMENT #8: "IT'S MOSTLY 'ETHNICS' COMMITTING THESE CRIMES, NOT WHITE AUSTRALIANS"
Who is attacking Indians in Australia? What race are they? In around a third of all the reported attacks, no ethnic description of the offenders was reported. But commentators like Andrew Bolt have been pushing this line relentlessly - that it's not white people, it's Africans, Asians, Pacific Islanders and Lebanese. I do not have all the information available to the police, but of every attack reported in the media in which the race of the perpetrator was mentioned, around half were described as white or Caucasian. On top of that there are a number of reports that involved mixed groups which contained both Caucasians and non-Caucasians. So while ethnic minority groups might seem to be somewhat over-represented in these statistics in comparison to their general numbers in the population, white Australians still appear to have committed the majority of the attacks. Bear in mind also that an area that has a lot of Indians is likely to have an ethnic mix different to the population as a whole.
The oft-spouted idea that "it's all blacks and Lebs" seems to stem from certain news items that gained the most publicity. When the attacks first started to make news, one of the statistics that was frequently quoted was 10 attacks on Indian cab drivers in Melbourne's inner West within the space of a few months. The perpetrators in those particular cases were all African. The most widely seen footage of an attack was the train carriage assault of Sourabh Sharma, in which the gang appeared to consist predominantly of white and Pacific Islander kids; however aside from that there has been little reference to Islanders being involved in other incidents. In Sydney, the violence mostly centred around Harris Park, and most attackers appear to have been Middle Eastern in background. However, few Middle-Easterners have been reported as behind the attacks in Melbourne. I have frequently heard people claiming Asian gangs are responsible, but I could only find evidence of 2 attacks in which Asians were reported responsible.
But talking about of race here is problematic in any case. Firstly, the categories are difficult; is a Middle Eastern person considered white? And it's not always easy to tell what ethnic category someone belongs to, particularly in the dark while you're being beaten up.
And as I wrote about here, those from an ethnic majority (in this case, white Australians) have a tendency to ignore crimes when the perp is from their own group (because white people are "the norm"), yet notice ethnicity whenever an ethnic minority is responsible. (The ethnicity of gangland figures like Carl Williams is never considered significant, for example.)
And does the race of the attacker actually matter? Right-wing commentators try to deny race on one hand (as in, violence is violence, it doesn't matter what race the victim is), but emphasis race on the other hand (it's only the ethnics who are the offenders). If an Asian criminal or an African criminal is raised here, then surely they are Australian criminals first and foremost, and products of the Australian system.
BULLSHIT ARGUMENT #9: "INDIANS SHOULD CLEAN UP THEIR OWN BACKYARD BEFORE CRITICISING AUSTRALIA."
This commonly-expressed viewpoint goes along the lines of: "India has a horrible caste-system. India has lots of crime. India has murders of women over dowries, and honour killings. Therefore they have no right to criticise Australia for crimes against Indians."
This is just a derailing tactic. Thing is, you don't have to be perfect to point out that someone else might be doing the wrong thing. Otherwise no one could ever say anything critical to anyone else. A person or country who is comfortable with its own identity should be able to accept criticism and take it on board without getting ultra-defensive and having to take shots at whoever gave the criticism. I wrote about this over at Stuff White People Do.
What the Indian media do need to be wary of, however, is the extent to which their hysteria over these attacks could actually perpetuate it. Over-the-top coverage and accusations can fuel resentment in Australia that could possibly lead to further racism. So balance and context does need to be sought.
The reality here is that we are dealing with a range of crimes that differ in many details, with the common factor that the victims were Indian or South Asian. As such, it is tricky to put them all into one category ("racial attack") as is often being done in the Indian media. There are also a number of significant factors other than racism as to why these attacks occur; such as the numbers of Indian people taking public transport at night to dangerous areas, and working as taxi drivers. Yet these are not sufficient to completely explain why so many attacks occur, particularly considering the rate of assaults on non-Indian taxi drivers does not seem as high, and given the degree to which racial abuse has been present in some of the incidents.
If we learn to discuss these issues in less simplistic and polarising terms, we might be able to address this phenomenon without whipping up further hate and hysteria.