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A Tribune Special
Terror Down Under
Reasons for attacks on Indian students in Australia are complex, says Dinesh Kumar who studied and taught in Melbourne
T
HE truth”, says Oscar Wilde, “is rarely pure, and never simple”. This is especially true in the case of the recent spate of attacks on Indian students that are being attributed to a mix of racism and opportunism in Australia.

OPED

The thorny path of democracy
A study of Prabhakaran and Prachanda
by Hormis Tharakan
T
HE headlines of the lead story in the e-edition of a well-known national daily of India on May 17, 2009, read, “Sri Lanka says no sign of Prachanda’s body!” Evidently, Prabhakaran and Prachanda, the two best-known revolutionary leaders in South Asia are viewed through the same prism by several mediapersons in India, which probably explains this horrible bloomer.



EARLIER STORIES

Washington has erred
June 6, 2009
President speaks
June 5, 2009
Pak flexes muscles, again
June 4, 2009
Treading the beaten path
June 3, 2009
Friends, or foes?
June 2, 2009
Better days ahead
June 1, 2009
The fury of cyclone Aila
May 31, 2009
Tasks assigned
May 30, 2009
Team Manmohan
May 29, 2009
Lahore again
May 28, 2009


On Record
We will try to increase job opportunities: Selja
by Vibha Sharma
U
NION Minister for Tourism and Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation (HUPA) Kumari Selja has been elevated to the Cabinet rank. She was earlier the Union Minister of State (Independent Charge) for HUPA. Known for her affable and approachable demeanor, she held various positions in the Congress party.

Profile
Meira sets record in Parliament history
by Harihar Swarup
T
HE newly elected Lok Sabha Speaker, Meira Kumar, may be a ‘dalit’ by birth but she did not face the type of oppression a dalit woman had to undergo. She was born in a distinguished political family. Her father, Jagjivan Ram, was a prominent dalit leader, and a freedom fighter who had seen rough and tumble of life.





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A Tribune Special
Terror Down Under
Reasons for attacks on Indian students in Australia are complex, says Dinesh Kumar who studied and taught in Melbourne

THE truth”, says Oscar Wilde, “is rarely pure, and never simple”. This is especially true in the case of the recent spate of attacks on Indian students that are being attributed to a mix of racism and opportunism in Australia.

Most incidents of “curry bashing” (South Asians are called “curries” in Australia) are occurring in Melbourne, a sprawling cosmopolitan metropolis that is home to some 140 nationalities from the world over who speak in over 120 different languages.

The issue is far more complex and needs to be seen in deeper perspective. First some statistics, which are instructive. There are about 98,000 students from India studying in Australia, almost half of which (46,038 as of 2008) are enrolled in various educational institutions in and around Melbourne alone, forming the state of Victoria’s largest group of overseas students. In 2008, Indian students accounted for 29 per cent of the total 1,59,763 international students enrolled in Victoria, a percentage that is expected to have increased in 2009.

This is exponential compared to 2002 when Indian students accounted for just 7 per cent of the international students in Victoria. In six years from 2002 to 2008, there has been an eight-fold rise in the number of Indian students. The most pronounced rise has occurred in the last three years, which has accounted for a staggering 140.9 per cent increase from 19,105 in 2006 to 46,038 in 2008.

And so have attacks on Indian students. Indian victims accounted for 1,082 crimes in the 2006-2007 financial year, which rose by 33.7 per cent to 1,447 in 2007-2008 reflecting an average of four attacks a day. Yet, there are many more attacks that have gone unreported by students who either fear that it may adversely affect their subsequent application for immigration or feel that nothing is likely to come of it. Clearly, there is a crisis of confidence in a police force in which ethnic representation has been more symbolic than substantive in multi-cultural Victoria.

But then, this is not just about numbers and ratios. For, it is quite evident that Indian students are being selectively targeted for reasons that are increasingly appearing to be racism-fuelled opportunism. In the past, ethnic groups from African countries or eastern Europe usually engaged in attacks on Indians. But media reports suggest that the recent spate of attacks on Indian students are mostly being carried out by Australians of Anglo-Saxon origin aged mainly between 18 and 25.

In December 2007, a remark made by cricketer Harbhajan Singh against Andrew Symonds in the heat of a match was taken up with the ICC as an act of racial abuse with pronounced righteous indignation by the Australian cricket team. In contrast, violence against Indian students is being simply dismissed by the police as acts of opportunism. If indeed that is true, then why aren’t other ethnic communities, notably the Chinese, also a highly visible ethnic group, being attacked?

So why should Indian students be singled out for attacks in a city that has become the country’s multi-cultural hub? More so, in a city that has been ranked by The Economist as among the top three of the ‘World’s Most Livable Cities’ since 2002 and also ranked by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) as among the world’s top five university cities in the Global University Cities Index in 2007?

First, a basic home truth: Most Indian students arrive in Australia with the desire to permanently settle down with education as the route. Just how much of a success Australia’s mercantile approach to the internationalisation of education has become is evident from the fact that the international education industry pegged annually at $15 billion is the nation’s third largest after coal and iron.

Further, Australia has the highest proportion (19 per cent) of international students in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a grouping of developed countries with high-income economies.

Indian students in Australia broadly fall in two categories. One, those belonging to relatively better economic and educational backgrounds who are enrolled in various degree courses in mainstream universities such as Monash, Melbourne, La Trobe, RMIT and Deakin.

The second category, which forms the majority, are those enrolled in diverse vocational courses in government and private Technical and Further Education (TAFE) and other such institutes that act more as visa factories than institutions of learning. It is precisely these students, studying in privately owned TAFEs, who have been most prone to attacks and have become the centre of attention.

Behind their vulnerability to attacks lies a sordid story of deception and exploitation of Indian youth who, regrettably, are also considerably at fault, blinded as they are by their eagerness to migrate overseas rather than being driven by a desire to study.

Unknown even to them, their tale of horror starts even before they leave India. Australia-based educational institutions employ recruiting agents in India. Their brief is to get as many students as they can for which they are paid up to 25 per cent of the course fee as commission per student. This is indeed big money and so agents end up exploiting the ignorance and desire of the youth to migrate feeding them with lies about their colleges, their courses, living expenses, dream jobs and immigration. In the number game that is important for the success of any commercial venture, agents have been targeting youth from rural and semi-rural parts of India, particularly Punjab where immigration and education shops have been mushrooming in the recent past. 

Such agents are known to have even misled gullible students with pictures of glamourous looking buildings and even railway stations (example, the majestic-looking Flinders Street station in Melbourne) passing them off as university buildings in a bid to enroll them in vocational courses such as hairdressing, cookery, hospitality and auto mechanics.

Unlike immigration agents who have to be licensed by the Australian government, there is no such regulation for education agents. For the educational institutions and the agents alike it is pure and simple commerce. Simply put, prospective students are treated as clients but fleeced with ruthless precision.

So what happens when these youth reach Australia? To their horror they discover that rather than the fancy campuses they saw in pictures back home, many privately owned TAFEs in fact function out of a few rooms rented in some building in and around Melbourne’s central business district (CBD). It is not unusual for Indian students to find that they (Indians) comprise the only grouping in a particular course in a TAFE. Most TAFEs have no provision for hostel accommodation. Living is simply unaffordable in the highly expensive CBD, a concrete jungle comprising a mix of blue chip offices, expensive theatres, high-end art galleries and museums, five star hotels, fancy restaurants and high-rise luxury apartments.

Thus, trapped with no support system, these students, most of whom also make the mistake of arriving with little money, look for the nearest cheap accommodation. But where is such accommodation available? In crime infested suburbs especially located in western and northwestern Melbourne that are usually inhabited by a mix of low-income group population, drug addicts, drunkards, unemployed youth, rowdy elements and social misfits of other kind.

Having realised their desperate situation, some unscrupulous money-minded landlords end up charging rents as high as $500 per room a week in contrast to the usual average of between $150 and $250 in an up market suburb. To save on rent, there are instances of up to 10 students sharing a room in unhygienic conditions in utter violation of housing rules even as landlords look the other way.

Often accommodation in such localities is unsafe and of poor quality. For example, in January 2008, three Indian students were gruesomely burnt to death in their sleep in Melbourne’s western suburb of Footscray after their room caught fire due to a short circuit.

With no major educational qualifications and poor English language skills, many Indian students studying at TAFEs and other such low-end institutes take to menial jobs working as night cleaners in offices, waiters in Indian restaurants and eateries, driving taxis and manning petrol stations and retail counters in both convenience and grocery stores. This means working until late and returning to their homes located in unsafe and crime-prone suburbs where even respectable locals fear to venture.

This automatically makes them a visible and vulnerable soft target. In their desire and need for money, many Indian students end up consciously exceeding the 20 hours-a-week work rule. Since they usually get paid in cash, students end up carrying loose cash, which adds to their vulnerability.

This flies in the face of the usual sensible precautions any person, especially a foreign visitor, should take in any city the world over where there usually are relatively unsafe and crime prone parts. Partially due to their visibly increased numbers and partly due to their living and working conditions, Indian students have thus unwittingly ended up suffering disproportionately compared to students from other nationalities.

In contrast to Indian students, the Chinese are economically better off, do not take to menial jobs in such large numbers, live in safer areas and do not travel that late. Many even have their own cars.

But this is only one part of the story. There is also the issue of how many Indian students conduct themselves both in their educational institutions and in public. Many students from rural and semi-rural India or from underprivileged backgrounds are unable to cope with the western education system, which requires self-study, encourages individual thinking, focuses on research and analysis and discourages spoon-feeding and rote learning as is the practice in India. 

In public, many Indian students tend to stick in groups, mix little with the local population, are loathe to improve their English and to understand local customs and culture whether it is smiling each time one makes eye contact with strangers or adopting the courtesy of using a “sorry”, “please” and “thank you” where needed in a conversation.

Neither is it uncommon for Indian students to smell, stare at people, to speak loudly, flash gadgets such as cell phones and embark or disembark from public transport with little consideration to their fellow passengers – all acts which unnecessarily draw adverse attention from the public.

An understanding of local customs and culture can help. For example, sometimes just a simple greeting with a confident ‘hey mate’ can help diffuse a developing situation. A stare certainly does not help; neither does a cowardly or a scared expression.  

But does their lack of soft skills and disinclination to consciously adjust with the mainstream society justify attacks against them? Certainly not! The repeated attacks on Indian students do not detract from the bare fact that there exists a law and order problem Down Under. Whether or not these are crimes being perpetrated by racist elements or by opportunists, as the Victorian police would like Indians to believe, the fact remains that Melbourne in particular has a serious crime problem on its hands that is unlikely to help its image.   

The Australian government has been making the right noises about the need to stop these attacks. In contrast, there have been fewer such public statements from the Victorian government. The Victorian police has been economical in acknowledging that there even exists a problem in the first place.

A prompt response on the part of the Victorian police coupled with urgently required confidence building measures would have gone a long way in stemming the incidents of violence and in instilling reassurance in the minds of students and their families in India.

Instead, by getting tangled in a web of words to describe the motive behind the attacks, the police in Melbourne has demonstrated neither the compassionate sensitivity that is expected of the keepers of the law nor the scientific and clinical precision in crime-solving that is expected of a professional police force.

In the past, attacks on Indian students were largely solely motivated by robbery. But now there seems to be a qualitative change. The media is reporting that each attack is being accompanied with expressions of racial hatred.

Baljinder Singh was stabbed in a train after he handed over his cash. Again, Shravan Kumar and his friends were not walking alone or travelling. They were in their house enjoying a private party when gatecrashers broke up the celebration and mercilessly drove a screwdriver through his head. The fact that two teenagers got the better of about 20 attending the party smacks of both cowardice and selfishness by the Indian students.

It is true that there are no signs of organised racist groups. But the attacks by “idiotic thugs”, as Jeremy Jones, an Australian-based expert on racial attacks, terms the perpetrators, has caused enough scare to give the impression that the attacks have racist undertones. In situations such as these, it is not necessarily facts that count. It is perceptions that attain greater credence.

There is, of course, a need to make a distinction between racist individuals and criminals and the rest of the Australian society. Australia is not racist. It officially ended its ‘White Australia Policy’ in 1973 following which there has been an influx of non-white ethnic groups from the Asia-Pacific.

Similarly, India cannot be termed barbaric despite the horrific murder of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons aged seven and nine who were burnt to death while asleep in a car in Orissa a decade ago.

In addition to the Indian students there are about one lakh Indian settlers in Victoria alone and are rarely recipients of “curry bashing”. But then, as stated earlier, this is often about perceptions, not facts alone.

In the end, it is about crime, whether racist or opportunist, and criminals have to be brought to book. At stake are the lives of innocents and the image of a nation.

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The thorny path of democracy
A study of Prabhakaran and Prachanda
by Hormis Tharakan

THE headlines of the lead story in the e-edition of a well-known national daily of India on May 17, 2009, read, “Sri Lanka says no sign of Prachanda’s body!” Evidently, Prabhakaran and Prachanda, the two best-known revolutionary leaders in South Asia are viewed through the same prism by several mediapersons in India, which probably explains this horrible bloomer.

However, the importance of distinguishing the accomplishments and failures of Prabhakaran from those of Prachanda is paramount if we in India are not to make monumental mistakes in assessing the implications of the historic events that have taken place in our neighbouring countries of Sri Lanka and Nepal in the past few weeks.

Taraki, (Dharamaretnam Sivaram), a former Tamil militant-turned-columnist, who was killed in 2005, used to write a weekly column in the Sunday Island in the early Nineties. In a piece entitled “Business as usual for Prabhakaran’ (March 10, 1991) against the backdrop of the assassination of Ranjan Wijeratne, the then Deputy Defence Minister, Taraki wrote, “The prosecution of a war is ultimately a political task. The skill of the soldier determines the battle; the skill of the politician determines the war.” His argument was that at that point of time, Prabhakaran was the only one in Sri Lanka who was in a position to “maintain political will and military strength in equilibrium”.

The LTTE’s grand strategy seemed to be working along the lines ably foretold by Taraki in 1991. However, soon thereafter, the LTTE declared that there was no Oslo Accord and opted out of the peace talks. According to one version, Prabhakaran tore up the Oslo Accord when Balasingham, Karuna and Tamil Chelvan returned from Oslo and presented it to him. This was followed a year later by the defection of Karuna, handpicked by Prabhakaran to represent Eastern Tamils in Oslo, which raised serious questions within the Sri Lankan Tamil community about the validity of Prabhakaran’s claim to represent the Tamils of both the North and the East.

All of sudden, he was left without the political dominance over the entire Sri Lankan Tamil community that he had worked hard for over the years. That left Prabhakaran without a script. He seems to have been convinced that the UNP government under Ranil Wickremesinghe had lured him into a peace trap and an “international safety net” before luring Karuna away, causing an irreparable breach in the LTTE’s grand strategy.

Prabhakaran could not make up his mind whether to back Ranil or Rajapakse for the President’s post. By making the Northern Tamils boycott the elections, he helped Rajapakse come to power, without being too sure that he was doing the right thing. When hostilities broke out in the East in 2006, the LTTE rapidly lost ground, in one Eastern district after another. Its crucial strategic losses included the gun emplacements at Mutur, overlooking Trincomalee harbour.

An important explanation for the LTTE’s setbacks was the link-up of Karuna cadres with Muslims of the area against the Tigers. That was the beginning of the end for the LTTE’s conventional fighting forces.

Despite his failures, Prabhakaran was determined not to give in. As early as 1985, he had declared on behalf of his group, “We are determined to fight till we die.” He proved that on May 19, 2009. Whether his death was noble or foolish would be known only if and when the Tamils in Sri Lanka are able to get a fair deal from the Sri Lankan Government in the post-LTTE phase. If they do not, Prabhakaran may yet prove that he was right in choosing to fight to the finish and Tamil militancy may yet find opportunities to revive itself, though not on the same scale as before. After all, Tamil martyrology is replete with narratives of heroes who in their death, became larger than life.

Let us now look at Prachanda, the other notable revolutionary leader of our times and our neighbourhood. Looking back, it appears that he had absorbed in full the dictum that victories in battles do not necessarily lead to victory in war. In a historic transformation, he led the Nepalese Maoists into an alliance with political parties that had, when in power, carried out a war with them, and followed this up by leading his party to a stunning victory in the elections held 10 years after it had originally abandoned democratic polity. His path has been thorny, and he has had to resign from his Prime Ministership, retired hurt in a showdown with the Army Chief.

The most positive aspect of the Maoist accession to power in Nepal was that the former rebels openly acknowledged that the goodwill they received from India helped them to shun the path of violence. It is, therefore, a matter of concern that in the wake of Prachanda’s resignation, the Maoist leadership has started alleging that India helped the Nepalese Army assert its supremacy over the elected civilian Government of Nepal. It is also the Maoist perception that India’s worry about the Prachanda-led government getting closer to China had made India back the Army Chief in his fight against the elected government.

While it is important to dispel the Maoist suspicions or perceptions, there is no doubt that many in India believe that Prachanda erred in not waiting for the controversial Army Chief’s retirement and in failing to resist Chinese overtures. The issue we are concerned with here is, however, whether what are being listed as Prachanda’s mistakes are as serious as those of Prabhakaran. The ultimate test of Prachanda’s political sagacity would be his response to the loss of power.

If Prachanda goes back to the jungle to resume the armed struggle, it would mean that his earlier decision to give up the path of struggle was wrong. So far, he seems to be clear that he does not want to resume the armed struggle. He has stated that he stepped down to preserve the principle of civilian supremacy and that his priority continues to be completion of the peace process.

What, however, is the message that recent events in Sri Lanka and Nepal, or more specifically, the destinies of Prabhakaran and Prachanda send out to the revolutionaries of the region? Unless the Tamils in Sri Lanka get a fair deal despite the decimation of the LTTE and unless the peace process in Nepal goes on to fully establish the principle of the supremacy of the government elected by the people, the message would be that there is no point in returning to the path of democracy – an ominous signal for a region that faces myriad mutinies.

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On Record
We will try to increase job opportunities: Selja
by Vibha Sharma

Kumari SeljaUNION Minister for Tourism and Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation (HUPA) Kumari Selja has been elevated to the Cabinet rank. She was earlier the Union Minister of State (Independent Charge) for HUPA. Known for her affable and approachable demeanor, she held various positions in the Congress party.

She was elected to 10th Lok Sabha in 1991. This is her fourth term as an MP. Her focus in her new job is on the 2010 Commonwealth Games, employment generation, making India a greater attraction for foreign tourists. She speaks to The Sunday Tribune about her priorities.

Excerpts:

Q: What will be your focus as the Tourism Minister?

A: The immediate focus of my ministry is the Commonwealth Games. Preparations are on in full swing to make it a grand success. India is expecting guests from across the world during the Games and steps are underway to cater to their needs.

While preparations have been on for quite some time, the work now has to be fast-tracked. I have been told that so far as the Tourism Ministry is concerned we are adhering to whatever had been our mandate. There are many ministries and states involved in the Games and with the clock ticking away fast we now need to put the work on fast track.

Q: Wouldn’t it have been better had one ministry been made completely in charge of the Games?

A: It does seem to be a more practical idea but in a system like ours it cannot work. You cannot encroach upon other states’ matters in a federal system. It is not just different ministries but different states — Haryana, UP, Delhi — that are involved in the preparations. However, everyone understands the seriousness of the Games and the fact that they are a matter of country’s pride and prestige. Everyone has come together to ensure that the Games become a huge success and visitors from India and across the world take back happy memories.

Q: The number of foreign tourist arrivals in the country has gone down. How do you plan to tackle this?

A: There has been a dip in foreign tourists, but it is a worldwide phenomenon and primarily due to the global economic recession. Fortunately, India is not so badly affected as some other countries have been. I am quite positive that the country’s individual economic upturn and Commonwealth Games will pull India out faster than others.

We are expecting a substantial number of tourists during the Games. We plan to launch a vigorous campaign to attract foreign tourists as they can become one of our major sources of foreign exchange earnings. There will be integrated marketing activities to promote Incredible India worldwide and combat the impact of global recession. Tourism is a wonderful employment generator.

Q: What is the common meeting point that you see between the two so very diverse portfolios you hold — Tourism and HUPA?

A: Both are different ministries but the common point is the potential they have for employment generation. Tourism is not just about five-star hotels. Along with it is the associated service industry and host of other professions like guides, drivers and others. The supporting industry has many connecting avenues for generating direct and indirect employment. Manpower development will be our priority area as it can provide skilled manpower required by the tourism industry.

In HUPA, our focus is on providing housing and basic amenities for the urban poor along with affordable housing facilities for all. In its 2004 manifesto the Congress talked about the urban poor and now everyone realises that the poor in urban areas also require attention.

The HUPA’s core area is the UPA government’s flagship programme — the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission — where we deal with providing basic amenities and housing for poor in urban areas. The government will now focus on affordable housing for all.

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Profile
Meira sets record in Parliament history
by Harihar Swarup

THE newly elected Lok Sabha Speaker, Meira Kumar, may be a ‘dalit’ by birth but she did not face the type of oppression a dalit woman had to undergo. She was born in a distinguished political family. Her father, Jagjivan Ram, was a prominent dalit leader, and a freedom fighter who had seen rough and tumble of life.

So was her mother Indrani Devi. But when Meira was born, her father was already a senior minister and everything — first-rate education, upbringing and career — came to her automatically. She was a meritorious student and got qualified to enter the coveted Indian Foreign Service in the 1973 batch.

Meira, as if is born to create records, wrote history in Parliament when she became the first woman and first dalit to became Lok Sabha Speaker. She may not have a “booming voice” like her predecessor, Somnath Chatterjee.

However, she asserts she would not lag behind in maintaining the decorum in the House. She asked political parties to rise above partisan considerations when decision need to be taken on important national issues.

While expressing concern over disruption of proceedings in the House, she says, she would try to talk to all sections to ensure that a meaningful debate and dialogue took place on all issues of public interest and no time is wasted.

On the controversial Women’s Reservation Bill, which the previous Lok Sabha failed to pass, she feels since there would have to be a Constitution Amendment Bill, “we need consensus”.

Will she herself make an effort to bring about the consensus? She says she has a strong desire to see the women’s empowerment Bill is carried through. However, it would be for party leaders to try and work out a consensus.

There are some little known facets of Meira Kumar’s personality. Asked whether she gets angry and resorts to crying, she said “No, I do not cry but, like other people, I do get angry sometimes”.

She is a poetess and writes poetry in her spare time. Her current reading is a classic which she has read many times. The classic in legendary poet Kali Das’s Abhigyan Shankutala. Also her favourite colour is green. “ I am a green person”, she says.

Meira sometimes goes to movies. Recently she saw Slumdog millionaire and she liked it.

Meira Kumar, 64, entered electoral politics in 1985, having been elected from Bijnor constituency in Uttar Pradesh, defeating Ram Vilas Paswan and Mayawati, who have emerged as powerful dalit leaders. She was a member of the 11th and 12th Lok Sabha from Karol Bagh constituency of Delhi.

She lost her seat in the BJP wave of 1999, but was able to get re-elected with a record margin from her father’s former constituency of Sasaram in Bihar in 2004 and again in 2009. She was inducted in the Manmohan Singh Government as Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment.

Highly placed sources say that she was sounded by Sonia Gandhi that she may be drafted for the post of the Speaker even as she was sworn in as Union Minister for Water Resource.

Later, Congress leaders obtained a consensus on her name and she was elected to the prestigious post of the Speaker unanimously on Wednesday.

Meira’s unanimous choice as the first woman Speaker has been widely welcomed but the question that remains unanswered is: why was veteran leader Kishore Chandra Deo’s name floated in the first place?

It was confirmed a day before Meira came on the scene that the five-term MP from Andhra Pradesh, Deo, is the candidate for the Speaker’s office.

The usually careful and guarded Kishore Deo was peeved and went on record saying, “I felt hurt and humiliated by the way my name was hyped before being ambushed on the woman plank issue”.

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