By: Natalie Di Paola
In 2007-2010, Indians were attacked while living here, straining the relations between Australia and India and deterring International Students. Ten years later, are Indian students still afraid to come to Australia?
“I did hear about it [the racial attacks], but I wasn’t afraid. I think racism is everywhere and I have one of those goals in my life where I want to live where they haven’t seen people like me…and I’m sure when they see someone like me there will be some sort of rejection, and that’s what I want to see; how they reject and what problems they have in their life.”
Gagan Singh is a post-grad student at UNSW. While other Indian students were deterred from coming to Australia after the racial attacks, he wasn’t. He believes that racism is everywhere, and that a little casual racism is “fine”.
His sentiments are shared by Pushpendra Kharbanda, fellow International Indian Student and undergrad at UNSW. Pushpendra admits that as a young teen in India, he heard about the attacks and feared coming to Australia.
“But, then, once I came here, I believe it’s a total different image…I think things have changed over the past decade because we haven’t heard anything like that for the past five years and that’s what made me so comfortable to come here…I just thought of it being a good uni and a good country to come to, and it’s a beautiful place and I’m loving it at the moment,” he says.
The 2007-2010 racial attacks in Victoria were highly publicised by the Indian media, and Indians became afraid of coming to Australia. Consequently, the number of Indians students dropped from 45-50%.
Figures from Deakin University in 2017 reveal that there are approximately 70, 000 Indian students in Australia, which was a 14.65% increase from 2016. Dr Yadu Singh, the President of the Federation of Indian Associations of NSW, says that these numbers are closer to what they were in the years before the attacks.
This was due to a combined effort of Dr Singh, the education industry, government ministers and community members from Australia and India. They constantly campaigned and eventually convinced the Indian government and media that Australia was a safe and not racist country.
“It was Indian media that was running a racist campaign against Australia…they were saying Australia was racist when it wasn’t the case,” he says.
He recalls standing up to different Ministers, including telling the High Commissioner in Canberra, “Ma’am, please tell this Minister to take chill pill. This Indian journalist has been attacked by Indians and…this Minister is calling this racist attack, can you tell him to take chill pill.”
He strongly believes that this “racist campaign” was due to the fact that Australia refused to sell Uranium to India. And, that their renewed relationship was due to Julia Gillard agreeing to sell Uranium to India in 2010/2011.
“And I can tell you, that cooled the whole temperature…Now, believe me, the government of India would not admit, Australia would not admit, nobody would admit, but this is what the actual undercurrent was in the community and everyone knew this,” he says.
Dr. Singh is also a cardiologist, and has been living in Australia since 1991. He calls both Australia and India home, and they hold special places in his heart. He is also quite involved with International Indian Students.
“I actually have reasonably good visibility here in the community and if they meet me, you know, they say, “Sir, you did the right thing. You did the right thing by saying what needed to be said” and some of them have become PR (permanent residents) here, nobody says I’m feeling insecure or unsafe,” he says.
However, this does not mean that students have been exempt from experiencing racism. Gagan and Push have seen and heard of it happening at university, including accommodation colleges, as well as while clubbing. Pushpendra feels it most when on the bus.
Pushpendra is a Sikh, and therefore wears a turban most of the time. When he doesn’t, he makes a man-bun, and “that’s when I feel like I’m not being treated differently at all…But, when I wear my turban, I’ve seen people trying to avoid eye contact, and, even though the entire bus is full and I’m sitting on a seat which the seat next to me is vacant, no one wants to come there and sit.”
“They’ll go stand there but not wanna sit because, I don’t know if they’re probably scared because people are scared of something new, something different. I mean, I don’t know, I don’t blame them, I don’t know if I should
call this racism or not. But then, I myself am afraid of something different, something I haven’t seen yet. I wouldn’t wanna try something new all of a sudden without worrying about it.”
Gagan also practices Sikhism, and feels that there are things that Australia could “tweak” to make them feel more accepted. For example, he is unable to ride a bike because he cannot fit a helmet over his turban, and it is illegal to ride without one. He suggests making a “helmet which fits over a turban.”
Part of Sikhism also requires him to carry around a Kirpan – a small, blunt knife. He would appreciate if places, such as the workforce or airports, were informed about this so they could be more understanding and less wary.
Another issue he has found is that he is unable to find a part-time job in his field while here. He attributes this to International Students being “more of a liability than an asset” to companies. Pushpendra agrees, admitting that it was easy for him to find work in a 7-Eleven rather than skilled work.
Dr. Singh and Gagan also admitted that it is hard for international students to find accommodation in Australia if it wasn’t booked in India.
“You have to go and act in front of admissions that you have no place to sleep, please find me a place and then they’ll find you a place. If you are a strong person and you still say I need a place, they’ll say no and give it to someone who cries,” describes Gagan, who experienced this himself.
It took him one and half months to find accommodation, which he only secured because he had friends staying with him. Meanwhile, Pushpendra experienced no problems because he booked his accommodation while in India.
Aside from this, both Gagan and Push have enjoyed living in Australia, and would not mind living here permanently. Gagan’s “favourite pastime” is visiting Coles with his friends, or going to Pizza Hut. Pushpendra loves to immerse himself in the “peaceful” nature, going to restaurants and “exploring Australia”.
“So I went to India this summer, Australian summer, and what I told them [parents] about Australia was very different to what they always thought about it because I told them it’s a beautiful place. Everyone’s so nice and you know, you see people wishing you ‘good day’ every time – I mean, there are strangers saying that to you, so, what can be better than that?” says Pushpendra.