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Racism Down Under?

June 17, 2009

I am forced to join issue. For the simple reason that there has been way too much talk about these attacks here in India. Australia and Australians have been painted black. I am not defending anyone. Neither am I going to crucify without reason. The truth, as it generally is, lies somewhere in between.

Indians are being attacked in Australia for the past few weeks now. The incessant media glare has not helped. The situation has become so desperate that Indian students have started night vigils in areas where Indians are prone to attacks. These students have gone to Australia to study and from what one sees on the TV and reads in the newspapers and on blogs, these kids are doing anything but studying. I agree that it is difficult to study when one is not sure about ones safety, but still, one’s focus must be on what his or her reason was for being in a foreign land in the first place.

The problem starts with language and culture. Indian students who go to Australia are generally from affluent families. But that does not mean that their language skills are what they ought to be. And then when they arrive in Australia (or for that matter, any western country) the cultural shock is immense. They recoil and try to find other Indian students or Indians per se, with whom they are comfortable. This is the beginning of the problem.

To assimilate in the local culture is very important. Being in a foreign country, it is imperative that you as a foreigner try and gel with the hosts. This is the responsibility of the guest. How many Australian friends do Indian students have? Have they tried to reach out? Was any Indian attacked when he was in the company of his Australian friends? Why do Indians huddle together and refuse to be a part of the mainstream? These are uncomfortable questions that most Indians do not want to answer.

Indians tend to be good at their job. That is what attracts the western countries to accept Indians. Then they are not a public nuisance. They are peace loving and keep to themselves. The recent rise of India economically is also a fact that has not gone unnoticed. Indians are not poverty stricken as they used to be. Most Indian students have cell phones and cars that make them stand out. The world is in a recession. Australia has not been untouched. Many Indians go to Australia to study and then they find a job and stay on. Australians feel threatened. They feel that these foreigners are taking away their jobs. Such insecurity leads to a violent reaction sometimes.

Cultural difference and the propensity of Indians to mix with other South Asians only does not help at all. And then you flash expensive gadgets and that gets on the nerves of the local population. Then there are the details that stack up. One oft heard grouse of westerners is that Indians tend to stare. Why should one look at anyone else for more than a reasonable amount of time. What if anyone finds one type of people having this ridiculous habit of keep staring at people around them? It does make one uncomfortable.  These may seem innocuous reasons but such consistent habit of a people can lead to a reaction. One must be aware of one’s behavior especially in a foreign land.

How would we like if there was a stream of foreigners coming to India and taking away our jobs? And they had flashy lifestyle and did not care a hoot about India and Indians. I am not trying to defend the Australians. It is a fact that the Anglo-Saxon countries have a problem when they see others doing well. Many of these attacks were made on Indians by people they did not know or had never seen before. So the theory of Indians not gelling in the Australian way of life does not hold. It is a stereotype. They cannot stand a non-white doing well.  They have this idea that Indians and other brown people are cannon fodder and that they can take them for granted. That Indians are stupid people who can be treated as they wish and Indians will take it with a grin (many a times we do, but that is not because we do not understand but because we are patient). Let’s say it – some of these attacks were racially motivated. One cannot deny this.

The name of the game is adaptability. One needs to adapt to the local culture, especially when one is in a foreign country. It is the same as when westerners come to India, it is expected that they will be flexible and would try and understand the Indian way of doing things. Once we are out of India we need to try and adjust according to the local culture. The adage holds true: In Rome do as the Romans do. Indians have been good citizens wherever they have gone. Australia should be no different. Indians would do well to reach out to their Australian hosts. Night vigils and demonstrations do not help. But then Indians must not be attacked. Physical harm is something that worries India and Indians.  This is totally unacceptable. And for God’s sake learn the language and the Australian clichés – that will go a long way.

Lastly, all these attacks were not made by Australians. Some of the Middle Eastern boys also had a brawl with Indians. Let us get this into perspective too. I am told Indians gave them back in the same coin.

Indians should also be ready to face reaction when one is doing well. The success of the IPL has not gone unnoticed. Australians who have played in the Indian Cricket League (ICL) and their families and friends have stories to tell about India. Australians making money from their Indian sponsors and franchisees make people from the west uncomfortable. Success breeds envy. Have we not heard of the slogan: ‘White Is Right.’  Once the whites have to say that, it means they are not sure of themselves.

Indians in foreign lands need to be careful. Do not step on others toes. Try and gel with the local population and learn their language. Success with humility will go a long way. And yes, if we are being wronged, we must be strong enough to stand up to the crooks that have the temerity to think they can get away after attacking us. Be strong physically, and take help from the local authorities if you are attacked. The Indian embassy is working overtime to help Indians who are abused in Australia. And yes, do not forget to come back home. There is enough here in India. We do not need to go to the West to earn a living.

Update 18.06.2009: ‘More than 100 Romanians have been moved to the safety of a church after mounting racist attacks in Belfast forced them to try and huddle together in a single room.’ Ref: Over a 100 Romanians flee Britain: The Times of India, Bangalore ed. Obama may have become the president of the US but that does not mean racism has ended. In fact in Europe and the West the ultra right is gaining ground. The reason is that because of the recession, there is less to go around and there is this feeling among the local population of having to share when there is not enough, as it were. With open borders, now that the European Union is a reality, East Europeans are moving to western Europe and Britain in search of jobs. This is resented by those that find these ‘foreigners’ a threat to their livelihood. In this case at least, there is little conflict vis-a-vis culture.

Update 22.06.2009: The Supreme Court of India has asked the government to file an affidavit detailing steps taken to ensure the safety of Indian students studying in Australia by the 26th of this month. The Supreme Court has taken cognizance of the repeated attacks on Indian students in Australia. The government will have to take a more serious view of the situation Down Under now.

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