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Curry Bashing: Racism, Violence and Alien Space Invaders

The fact that the majority of Indian students in Australia live in cheaper, more dangerous suburbs, often travel late at night, and so on, all complicate the question of whether racism has been at play in the recent attacks. Yet, this does not mean that the question of whether Australians are (still) racists is an invalid one. It is clear that this is still an issue that Australia has not yet completely dealt with. This essay also argues that the Australian identity has become partly construed in terms of the question of whether Australians are racists or not, something that builds on a past of Anglo-Saxon "white" nation building and a future which is strongly multicultural and Asia-oriented.

Curry Bashing: Racism, Violence and Alien Space Invaders

Michiel Baas

Policy is, in the public/international perception, second only in racist scope to apartheid in South Africa. While apartheid was concerned with rules against the native people, the White Australia Policy was in fact a consequence of the fear of the invading “other”. The policy leaned

The fact that the majority of Indian students in Australia live in cheaper, more dangerous suburbs, often travel late at night, and so on, all complicate the question of whether racism has been at play in the recent attacks. Yet, this does not mean that the question of whether Australians are (still) racists is an invalid one. It is clear that this is still an issue that Australia has not yet completely dealt with. This essay also argues that the Australian identity has become partly construed in terms of the question of whether Australians are racists or not, something that builds on a past of Anglo-Saxon “white” nation building and a future which is strongly multicultural and Asia-oriented.

Michiel Baas ( is at the Amsterdam School for Social Science Research, University of Amsterdam.

Economic & Political Weekly

august 22, 2009

1 Introduction

his article pays special attention to the debate that erupted soon after the Indian students took to the

streets to protest against what they argued

were racist attacks. This debate revolved

around the question whether or not Aus

tralians are (“truly”) racist. Explanations

such as the Indian students make “weak”

or “soft” targets (working late at night,

travelling on trains to suburbs with bad

reputations, flashing cellphones and listen

ing to Ipods), are often the stated reasons

for the attacks. I will argue that the fact

that the attacks are explained through per

ceptions of them being “weak” or “soft”,

i tself carries a strong racial content. Further

more, it relies heavily on Anglo-Saxon

(read: white) Australian perceptions of

who these Indian students are, why they

are in Australia, where they live and what

kind of jobs they, almost by definition, seem

to have. It should be noted, right from the

start, that the propensity of Indian students

staying on in Australia after graduation is

extremely high (Baas 2006). This often

makes them both students as well as mi

grants; something the Australian public at

large also increasingly seems to under

stand. It is for this reason that I will take

the reader on a short historical trip of the

past three years to show that although the

state of affairs has recently gotten more

s evere in terms of aggre ssion and violence,

the situation itself has been building up for

a while now.1 I will compare recent hap

penings with the Cronulla beach riots of

2005 in Sydney and show that issues of

space and spaciousness are crucial to

under standing how the Anglo-Saxon/white

Australians look at their own country and

those who they perceive as newcomers.

2 History with/of Racism

Australia’s history with racism is a long and problematic one. Its White Australia

vol xliv no 34

heavily on the idea of white (Anglo-Saxon) Australians being there first, of course disregarding that the country they now saw as their natural home had already been inhabited for thousands of years.

The 1850s witnessed the discovery of gold in various Australian states, attracting migrants from all over the world, e specially Asia. This period of increased Asian (Chinese) migration is usually referred to as the starting point of the White Australia Policy. The increased inflow of Chinese initially led to an act passed in 1855 aimed at restricting the inflow. The 1901 Immigration Restriction Act then completely blocked non-European (coloured) migration to Australia. With the passing of this Act, Australia made clear its desires to be a white European nation. This contrasts highly with the Australia of today which wants to play an increasingly important role in Asia, even promoting itself as part of Asia, and celebrating its multiculturality as an important achievement. In the light of this, it is all the more interesting to recall the main justifications for the policy: social harmony. The Dictation Act, which was part of the Restriction Act, was one of the most important tools for “testing” whether a newcomer was welcome in Australia or not. The test required those seeking to enter into Australia as migrants “to write down a passage which was dictated to them by an immigration official in any prescribed European language” (Joshi 2000: 27). This was usually enough to keep those “undesired” (“coloured”) out of the country as “which European language” was conveniently left undefined.

After the second world war, fears about Australia’s vulnerability and physical isolation had a particular influence on the way Australia was to deal with migration in the future. Billy Hughes, Australia’s seventh prime minister (1915-23), had already coined the phrase “populate or perish” in 1937, but now this seemed even more n ecessary than ever. Whereas the migration plans of the 1920s had been abandoned because of the depression, those established at the end of the 1940s continue to dominate Australia’s immigration politics today (Jupp 2002: 11). For the first time Australia started actively recruiting non-English speaking migrants; most of whom came from refugee and displacement camps all over Europe. However, one of the most important changes came in 1958 when the much despised dictation test was finally abolished. It was no longer necessary for newcomers to prove that they were able to speak/write a particular European language. Specifically relevant for the case at hand, though, is another change, which was announced in 1959. From that moment onwards, distinguished and highly qualified Asians were admitted for permanent residence (Bilimoria and Ganguly-Scrase 1988: 34). The policy was officially dropped in 1965 but this did not automatically result in things becoming easier for Asian or Indian migrants. With the introduction of the Australian Citizenship Act in 1973 non-Europeans finally b ecame equals with other migrants.

According to Laksiri Jayasuriya (2002: 40), racism entered the minds of Australians only in the early 1970s, meaning the practice being associated negatively. However she adds that, “racism, as an ideology is deeply embedded in the structures of Australian society” (ibid). The racism that Australia and many other “western” nations struggle with these days is what academics will usually refer to as “new racism”. Old racism is about inferiority and how others (read non-whites) “logi cally” were inferior, unequal, etc. New racism, however, relies on the logic of differentiation. This kind of racism sets people apart on the grounds of their cultural differences. In a sense one could speak of this kind of racism as cultural racism since it is about the insurmountability of cultural differences (ibid: 40-41). Separating the two, old and new, is most of all a cosmetic endeavour; in practice they are highly related and overlap each other. Even the White Australia p olicy, which might seem to be about r acial inferiority – thus old racism – was also about non-whites being perceived as not to fit into the Anglo-Saxon imagination of their new country. In a sense, this imagination relied heavily on it being a white nation, culturally Anglo-Saxon, l eaving no space for more colour.

3 Education and Migration

Currently there are 97,000 Indian students in Australia, compared to 94,563 in the United States (US) and 31,000 in the U nited Kingdom (UK). Canada has 6,937 Indian students and New Zealand only 6,000 (Raaj 2009). Of the 4,14,446 foreign students 42% who are now in Australia are from China and India (Healy 2009). Indian students account for one-fifth of all international students in Australia (Kremmer 2009). For the state of Victoria, education is the biggest export earner: Australian $4.5 billion in 2008 (Tomazin 2009). For Australia in general the education industry comes in third place after coal and iron ore, making it thus bigger than tourism (Harrison 2009). At the end of 2006, the Australian education industry was estimated to be worth Aus $9.8 billion. The industry was valued to be worth a reported Aus $15.5 billion in 2008 on which roughly around 1,25,000 jobs are estimated to depend.

Education and migration are highly entangled in Australia (Birrell 2005, 2007; Baas 2006, 2007). For instance, about three quarters of Indian students in the period 2004-05 managed to get permanent r esidency (PR) status. Since Indian students are now the second biggest source of overseas students for Australia, colleges and universities have therefore come to understand that recruiting Indian students basically means also offering them some migration opportunity. Australian law does not allow education providers to “sell” anything but education, basically making it impossible to market anything related to PR. Yet, in practice those courses that are marketed the hardest in India tend to be the ones that lead to an “easy” migration. Courses such as accountancy, cookery, hairdressing, horticulture and social work fall in the highest migration-points category and many smaller colleges specialise in such courses. Already in 2005 Indian s tudents would sometimes refer to these colleges as PR factories.

April 2007 saw an end to the situation where studying in the right field – as well as being below 30 and passing an English language test (the International English Language Testing System) – immediately led to a PR. From then onwards a new r equirement was added: an applicant would have to complete 12 months of work experience in the field in which they studied, working a minimum of 20 hours a week2 in order to be eligible. The changes were highly influenced by a number of academic publications that dealt with

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august 22, 2009 vol xliv no 34


i ssues such as PR factories, “unemployable” “highly” skilled migrants (language problems, poor reputation of institutes) and exploitation of the system (by the various parties invol ved). Although the perception was that this would put an end to the m igration-education entanglement, it had an opposite effect. The smaller colleges were especially quick to adapt, finding ways to get their students the necessary work experience. The federal government migration fraud investigators, for instance, found that numerous students were using bogus documents to support PR applications, often aided by colleges. Fake references from employers that claimed they had 900 hours of work experience, were also reported.3 One report revealed that some students had paid up to Aus $20,000 “to rogue college operators or middlemen, such as unscrupulous mig ration agents or education agents, to obtain fake paperwork”.

The body nominated by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship to assess skills, the Trade Recognition Australia (TRA), had received 34,180 applications for skills assessment in 2008. Of these, 10,000 were from international students. The Australian federal government had meanwhile promised “to crack down on rogue colleges that teach foreign students”, especially as these colleges could potentially damage the reputation of Australia’s education industry.4 It can cer tainly be argued that news coverage of the education-migration entanglement has contributed to a general feeling of unease in Australian society about Indian students. In many negative reports they are sometimes depicted as profiteers, coming to Australia under false pretences. That their status in Australia is a purely legal one and that the situation has been created on purpose so that Australia could profit from highly “home” skilled migrants who themselves are also full-fee paying students, is often overlooked in this regard.

4 Weak or Soft Targets?

Indian students have now become “physical” victims of what could be understood as racial and/or opportunistic attacks. In the media and in popular speak these a ttacks have been referred to as an “activity” called “curry bashing”. Accepting this term to be basically for what it means is

Economic & Political Weekly

august 22, 2009

agreeing with the assessment that the

attacks were racial in nature. Yet, the de

bate that erupted in the media right after

the attacks and the protests that followed

was very ambivalent on this question.

The media asked: “were these attacks ra

cial in nature? Or were they simply

opportunistic”? And this question was

then followed by a seemingly even more

pertinent one: “are Australians racists”? It

is this question that we now need to ex

plore further to come to an under

standing of the place Indian students

and everything associated with them

take up in this debate.

The term “curry bashing” is a relatively

new one, certainly not one that I have ever

heard being uttered in 2005-06 while do

ing fieldwork. In fact, racism as a topic it

self was hardly ever touched upon. Indian

students would sometimes criticise Aus

tralia and in particular its colleges and

universities, but this would hardly ever be

about racism. A recurring theme would be

that they found it hard to make friends

with Australians, or that they felt the

classes they took would only have other

Indian or Asian students. Australians, on

the other hand, were also not very specific

in their opinion of Indian students. They

were there on campus but the Australian

students I met would generally refer to

them as “Asian students”, and there were

“many” of them. Opinions would some

times be negative (“they hardly speak

proper English”) but most of the time in

different, in the sense that they really did

not matter to the Australian students.

Then again, this was different when I

returned for a brief visit in the month of

August 2008. Opinions had turned far

more negative. Australians would tell me

how they felt, that Indian students “were

everywhere”, “were crowding the streets”,

“not getting out of the way”, “always in

groups”, “filling up the trains” and so on.

A simple beer in the pub would frequently

trigger a whole avalanche of such opin

ions. What Australians associated Indian

students with had thus become much

more negative. Online discussions also

confirm this image. One web site post

reads as follows: “I hate how there are too

many international students (at the Uni

versity of NSW).” The post continues:

“some are fine and dandy, if I have to, ill

vol xliv no 34

get along with them fine, but if they come in groups of 10 or so its f ... ing hard to walk past them. Especially since they don’t even know how to move out of the bloody way and have some courtesy!” (Pryor 2009).

Although the term “curry bashing” may simply be understood as yet another quirky piece of Australian slang, it also gives the particular practice of beating up Indian students the flavour of something consumable, even edible. It can be understood as something “to be had”, something to “sample” or even “taste”. The idea of “curry bashing” being without much risk can also be connected to the idea of them being easy, soft or weak targets, as some officials started arguing recently. Initially, this was supposed to explain that the attacks were not racial at all. They were supposed to be understood as opportunistic in nature. Indian students carried cellphones, talked loudly in them, drawing the attention of others, walking back from the train station late at night, perhaps back from a part-time job where they were probably getting paid cash-in-hand. All things that had been discussed in the media in recent years also show how these students had such jobs,

o ften working more than the legal number of hours, not paying taxes (thus being paid cash-in-hand), living in dangerous areas where the rents were low, etc.5 Of an I ndian student who had gotten stabbed r ecently a top police official had been quick to deny that the attacks were racially motivated. A deputy commissioner argued that there was a perception that Indians were “weak prey” to criminals.6

5 Too Indian or Not Australian Enough?

The whole suggestion that there might be an element of racism involved seemed to anger some. One author of a newspaper blog stated: “Amazing that India which perfected the caste system and is plagued by Hindu-Muslim bloodfests is telling us we’re too prejudiced” (Bolt 2009). An Indian journalist (former student) problematised matters in a different way. Where others had stigmatised these students as weak or soft targets, he criticised their behaviour by claiming that they were still too Indian. He went on to debate why a student would actually decide to live in Harris Park, a typical migrant suburb in western Sydney. Accor ding to the author this was because it is an Indian neighbourhood with Indian cinemas, restaurants and shops. “But why then did he move to Sydney if he did not want the Australian way of life? They want the benefits and lifestyle of a western nation but without blending with its current.” The author seemed to insinuate that these Indian students had it coming and thus had only themselves to blame for not being, or having become, Australian enough (Arora 2009).

One well-known columnist not only condemned the attacks on Indian students but also referred to the discussion on whether or not Indian students were soft targets. He deemed them especially odious because they seemed to assume that Indians were naturally passive, something he referred to as “a piece of condescending racialism that would not be out of place in an 1890s booklet for colonial admini strators” (Rundle 2009). According to a researcher of the Cronulla riots, race was definitely a factor but he also argued that it was also about classic masculinity and of working-class men trying to prove their worth by picking on a marginalised group (Healy 2009). Such remarks in newspaper reports that “simply” seem to present facts at first appear like ponderings that are hardly relevant to the more pressing questions of how to solve the crisis that has arisen, yet if given a little more thought one can see that there is something very curious happening. The attacks on Indian students seemed to have created an opening for Anglo-Saxon Australians to engage in a rather difficult and even painful way with the, question of whether or not they are racist. It is striking how often this question pops up in the hundreds of newspaper articles that have so far appeared on this topic. In order to understand what has happened one needs to engage with a particular question, one that needs to be located at the core of Australian self-doubt. One could even argue that Australians are not so much racist (an impossible claim to make) but that the question of whether or not Australians are racist is in fact an integral part of Australian self-identity.

6 Comparison with Cronulla 2005

The debate on the students’ attacks and protests thereafter remind us of one that erupted after the riots at Cronulla beach (Sydney) in 2005. On Sunday, 11 December 2005, about 5,000 people came t ogether to protest against incidents of a ssaults and intimidatory behaviour by groups of what were perceived to be nonlocals. Many were understood to be of west Asian (Lebanese) descent, living in Sydney’s western suburbs. The origin of the problems was an attack on three lifeguards (who were off-duty at that time) the previous weekend. Violent attacks on west Asian men during the protest provoked a retaliation the following nights and finally with tremendous police presence calm settled. The origin and the rationale of the Cronulla beach riots were widely discussed during the course of the following years (Burchell 2006; Hartley and Green 2006; Poynting 2006; Andrew Lattas 2007; Judy Lattas 2007; Redmond 2007: 338; Hyndman-Rizik 2008, etc). The central question discussed in these debates was whether or not the attacks and protests had been racist, and if they were what this meant to the Australian identity. What this Australian identity was supposed to be was often left untouched, yet it became clear that this identity was juxtaposed with a migrant (Asian, Middle Eastern, etc) identity. These two were perceived to be irreconcilable and thus seen as the origin of the problem. It seemed as if Lebanese-Australian men embodied a particular behaviour that was understood as confrontational and aggressive, something Anglo-Saxon (white) Australians perceived themselves not to be. This was then connected to what Anglo-Saxon Australians felt was “truly Australian”, something these Lebanese-Australian were challenging by behaving in an un-Australian way, in what was understood as Australian space or environment.

In many of the analyses, the beach as the site of disputes was a core issue. Hartley and Green (2006: 50), for instance, argued that the beach holds a special place in the Australian imaginary, both popularly and intellectually. Poynting (2006: 85) argues that “the battle of white Australians for control over the beach mirrored the battle that the then Howard government had waged to reclaim control of the nation itself from asylum seekers and what was construed as the Middle Eastern (Muslim) enemy”. Andrew Lattas

august 22, 2009

(2007) further argues that the Australian identity is closely related to a culture of relaxation which is built around the beach. This is about civilised enjoyment of the outdoors, something these “others” do not seem to understand. The Middle Eastern (west Asian) men are perceived as using the beach to look at and abuse “white” women, using the beach in such a way that it appears as if they are trying to take control from what is perceived to be decent “true blue” Australians. Andrew Lattas (2007: 300) refers to this as renewed Orien talism. From this kind of perceived behaviour stems a feeling of “moral panic”, which as a discourse would soon be the norm for discussing the riots (Lattas 2007; Hallinan and Hughson 2009). Because of the perceived behaviour of the Middle Eastern men Australians were losing something they would not be able to r eclaim if they did not put a stop to it. A ndrew Lattas (2007: 302) argues: “I see the riot as an attempt to shore up local, i nformal forms of policing on the beach whose breakdown became iconic of a w ider national threat: the ability of A ustralians to hold on to a l ittle piece of paradise.”

7 Battle Down Under

The beach as not only the setting for riots but also as the location over which the battle itself was fought has also been connected to particular notions on Australian (Anglo-Saxon/white) masculinity. “An Anglo-Australian nationalist solemnity is constituted partly in opposition to an informal male camaraderie embodying principles of egalitarian individualism, an interpersonal quality often generated around the paradigmatically outdoor spaces of the barbeque area and the beach” (Redmond 2007: 338). Also Connell’s (1995) concept of hegemonic masculinity seems particularly applicable to young Australians. In accordance with this there is a time to drink alcoholic beverages, making noise, being loud, using swear words, creating arguments and fight and so on. These are then understood as time out periods of social licence and release from conventional constraints. They often involve a general sense of delight in the resulting pandemonium and disorder (Conell 1995; Tomsen 1997: 96-97). The beach can thus be understood as a perfect setting for this kind of

vol xliv no 34


behaviour since the location itself is a lready synonymous with time out.

In the case of Indian students there was no beach. And it appears the reason for a ttacking them also has nothing to do with them being a threatening presence in public space. On the contrary, they are perceived as soft/weak targets who make an easy prey for a person who wants to “score” an IPod or a mobile phone. Yet, it would be too easy to understand their presence in Australia among Australians – even if it is the complete opposite of the way Middle Eastern men are perceived – for one simple reason: both are highly visible in public space. Although Indian students are generally not considered a beach going/loving crowd, informal interactions with Australians did show that they are, in a sense, perceived to be “everywhere”. And one could even argue there is some truth in this.

Walking down Swanston Street, one of the major shopping streets in the Central Business District (CBD) of Melbourne, one will encounter dozens of groups of Indian students often going to or on their way back from one of the many colleges located in the area. Since their jobs and colleges are often not close to where they live, they do make frequent use of trams and trains. Especially when one thinks of Australia as principally a country of white/ Anglo-Saxon Australians, Indian (and to a lesser extent Chinese) students indeed stand out. Although, looked at differently, one can easily reach the conclusion that Indian students, in fact, do “not stand out in the crowd”, at all, as Australia has no crowds, as such. Campuses are often spacious, buildings large, distances long and so on. Same with trains: compared to

o ther countries in the world – if not India (known for its crowds) then the European ones – Australia has no crowded public transportation. In the international imagination this is also how Australia is understood: as one of the least densely populated places on earth; where one can drive for hours without meeting another car, where Perth is one of most isolated cities on earth and where the general mode of transportation is the plane.

This may seem anecdotal but among the many Australians I interviewed for my research in 2005-06, how they themselves connected Australian identity to space/

Economic & Political Weekly

august 22, 2009

spaciousness, came to the fore. Australia was perceived to be almost synonymous with this. We often came to this topic after they had learned that I was from the Netherlands and asked me what I thought of Australia. My answer would usually be about my amazement with the amount of space in the cities, the scarcity of people, the distances to travel. I had even found it quite bewildering at first, realising that walking and cycling were hardly an o ption ever in cities such as Melbourne and S ydney. My bewilderment, however, would be met with pride, something to sing songs about and to treasure. The way I understood it, the abundance of space was something that made Australia not just l iterally but also mentally great.

White Noise and Indian Opportunism

The relationship between space and racism

is an understudied one. Usually space in

racism studies is connected to “where

people live”, as in Ray, Halseth and Johnson’s

(1997) study on Vancouver. About neigh

bourhood conflicts with racist undertones

they argue that “[they] become in effect

clashes for control of physical neighbour

hood space and its social meanings and

perceived status.” They speak of “clashing

geographic imaginations” where elements

(foreigners) enter the neighbourhood

where they should not be/do not belong

there. One can see parallels with the way

the beach was understood at the time of

the Cronulla riots, yet if one replaces the

neighbourhood with the idea of public

space in general one starts to understand

what I am working towards.

Indian students can be understood as

space invaders, though not the kind that

arrive in unidentified flying objects (UFOs).

In Australia their presence in public space

has tripped over a certain threshold where

they are no longer perceived to be as

merely temporary guests or people who

might eventually stay, but simply as a

group of people who will not only definite

ly stay but also grow in numbers. Their

temporary yet likely permanent stay is

then further understood in the light of

them being profiteers, studying or having

studied at lowly reputed colleges that are

now under the scrutiny of regulatory

bodies because of misconduct. They are

vol xliv no 34

seen as the kind of failed migrants that have upset the system by misusing it (coming in as international students but in fact being migrants), having severely tested the flexibility of the kind of multi culturality Australia wishes to pride itself for. Reading recent history, concerning Indian students in Australia, one may conclude that they have increasingly come to be associated with the negative side of a system that not only generates a lot of money for Australia, but also considerable problems. In a very crude way this public perception has created a particular legitimacy towards “a certain way” to treat them.

The steps taken by some to abuse, assault, attack, bash, beat up and/or stab random Indian students of course remain a puzzling matter. When in August 2008, I learned of the casual manner in which Australians were talking about Indian students – as having invaded their space, crowding trains and trams, being nuisances on campuses, filling up classrooms –, it made me realise that it might not be such a big step to more right wing narratives on: kicking them out, eradicating them, teaching them a lesson and so on. And this is precisely what has now happened in Australia. Journalist Andrew Norton (2006: 17) recently posed the question in an academic piece, whether it is possible for Australia to simultaneously have both underlying racism and the tolerance needed for a successful multicultural society.

Coming back to the way the question of racism was formulated in the media one may end up with the conclusion that it is probably not so much racism that is at the heart of Australian identity, but “the question of racism” itself. Where abundance of space and a migrant history make the i deal combination for a liberal view t owards newcomers, this by itself also raises the question about whether this is truly so. Statistics are hardly able to prove that Indian students are over-represented as victims of crime, leaving in the middle if those acts of crime can be understood as (also) racist or not. There are too many polluting factors to truly argue this way. The fact that the majority of Indian students live in cheaper, more dangerous suburbs, often travel late at night, most of the time lack the support of family, and so on, all complicate the question whether or not they are more of victims than others and even if racism is at play in this. Yet this does not mean that the question of whether Australians are (still) racists is an invalid one. I argue that since this question was so dominant in the newspaper reports on the attacks and protests, it is clear that this is still a question that Australia has not yet completely dealt with. I also argue that the Australian identity has become partly construed on the question of whether they are racists or not, something that builds on a past of Anglo-Saxon “white” nation-building and a future which is strongly multicultural and Asia-oriented. I predict that Indian students will continue to take up a difficult (and for them sometimes dangerous) position up in this debate, while Australia deals with its own past and future.

Indian students have now become key players in the debate over Australia’s multicultural/Asian future, as well as the country’s past which has left many wounds that still have not completely healed. Indian students both as a source of income and “nuisance” make them a group which can easily be depicted as one of which it is legitimate to profit from. Colle ges do it; by aggressively recruiting students from India, promising them quality education (often not delivered) and giving them the impression of a bright future in Australia. The government has condoned this situation for years, though sometimes intervening and closing down some of these migration factories. Yet their dependency on money coming in from overseas students also makes it virtually impossible to completely remove the hyphen between education and migration that now connects them in a problematic way.

In fact, Australia does have a skills crisis as its economy depends on highly skilled people coming in from the outside. And of course, some Indian students do end up in the professions for which they were educated. Yet, the public at large encounters these students in lowly-paid professions with sometimes less than positive reputations. And for lowly educated young Australians they are a threat because they are perceived to be “stealing” their jobs, working cash-inhand for lower than minimum wages, and thus (out-) competing Australian youngsters who might be less likely to do this. The understanding of recent happenings needs to be viewed in the light of all this and cannot just solely rely on the question whether or not they were simply racist. Too often this question has simply caused the kind of “white noise” that drowns out all the other sounds/voices that need to be heard in order to understand how a particular situation could come into being.


1 This paper is based on one year of anthropological fieldwork conducted in 2005-06 for my PhD research on the topic of Indian students in Australia. I gathered data on 230 people, 130 who were Indian students and another 100 who were in one way or the other related to or involved in their lives: local Indian community members and leaders, teachers and professors, education and migration agents, councillors and psychologists, and even people from the various ministries: education, labour and migration. My dissertation is titled: “Imagined Mobility: Migration and Transnationalism among Indian Students in Australia”. In addition this paper builds on about 200 newspaper articles gathered over the past years (2006-09) on the Indian students in Australia.

2 See for instance Brisbane Times and, 7 April 2007.

3 This is a requirement when applying for PR as an overseas student in Australia.

4 “Gillard to Scrutinise Rogue Colleges”, WA today., 26 May.

5 “Indian Australian Community Divided”, Bharat Times Online, 29 May.

6 See “Indian Attacks Not Racial – Authorities”, The Australian, 9 June 2009.


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– (2007): “Cooks Galore and Hairdressers Aplenty”, People and Place, Vol 15(1), 30-44.

Bolt, Andrew (2009): “We’re Not Racists”, Herald Sun, (blog), 3 June.

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Opening for the post of Executive Director for Partners for Law in Development, a women’s rights NGO in New Delhi. The full text of the advertisement is available at our website under tab-heading “Get Involved” (

august 22, 2009 vol xliv no 34

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