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India, Australia and ‘Curry Bashing’

Rahul Mishra was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • August 17, 2009

    In early August, India’s Minister for External Affairs S. M. Krishna visited Australia as part of his trip to attend the Pacific Island Forum meeting, held in Cairns. India is a dialogue partner to the Pacific Island Forum, comprising the countries of the South-west Pacific region, including Australia and New Zealand. Most of Mr. Krishna’s time during this trip went in visiting Melbourne and Sydney, where a number of Indian students had been attacked in recent months.

    The media in both countries had focused a little too much on ‘curry bashing’, as the assaults on Indian students in Australia became popularly known. The media’s ‘exclusive reports’ and ‘exhaustive debates’ gave a jolt to bilateral relations and adversely affected the inflow of prospective Indian students to Australia.

    After meeting the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Mr. Krishna said, “the relationship between Australia and India has matured to that level that these small irritations which have taken place in the last three months, will not upset the equilibrium.” However, India did express its concerns on the issue and Mr. Krishna visited Melbourne in order to listen to and understand the problems faced by Indian students Down Under. During his visit, he declared that ‘Student welfare officers’ would be made available in the Indian High Commission in Canberra, and at the Consulates in Sydney and Melbourne to focus on issues related to Indian students.

    Showing equal sensitivity on the issue, Australia too has assured India that such incidents will not happen in future. Australia has decided to set up two more task forces in this regard. Additionally, it is intensifying police patrolling in troubled areas like Footscray, Sunshine, and St. Albans in Melbourne and suburbs around Harris Park in Sydney. The issue is of crucial importance to Australia as Indians form the second largest group of international students in Australia, and contribute billions to its third largest export sector. More than 95,000 Indian students joined Australian institutions in 2008. In Melbourne alone, there are more than 50,000 Indian students.

    During Mr. Krishna’s visit, Australian Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the grant of more than $8 million to fund a new Australia-India Institute at the University of Melbourne that will work to strengthen bilateral ties. A joint project of the University of Melbourne, La Trobe University and University of New South Wales, the institute will work to increase Australians' understanding of India by producing and advancing specialised knowledge about India. This, indeed, is a significant step taken to deal with the issue in the long run as there is a need to make Australian civil society more aware of India and its culture. As of now, there are very few Indo-centric courses taught in Australian universities. Here, one might suggest holding an ‘India year’ in Australia and vice versa, as has been done with Russia and China. More people-to-people interaction and academic exchanges are necessary, since civil society is profoundly influenced by the media and scholars. Involving media personalities, academics, and professionals would certainly help generate greater understanding and thus reduce prejudices. The Australia-India Council runs such programmes, but a lot more needs to be done.

    The recent attacks throw light on the students’ quandary as well. Fake Australian institutions, bogus educational agents based in India, and local Australian Thugs have contributed to the evolution of a pathetic situation. For instance, in Melbourne, around half a dozen institutions were forced to shut down in the past year as they did not meet educational standards. Fake educational agents based at various cities in India also figured prominently in the discussions, especially after Australia’s ABC News reported that Australian federal police arrested a Sydney-based Indian agent in connection with illegal migration and duping Indian students.

    Meanwhile, Australia is also setting up a committee to review the international education industry in the country. To be led by Bruce Baird, the review will focus on educational services and the welfare of overseas students, quality of service and the sustainability of industry, among other things. Baird will meet students (both Australian and International), officials of state governments, diplomatic missions and regulatory bodies to comprehensively analyse the situation before submitting his report in November 2009.

    The onus also lies on India to make sure that its Australia bound students go through the proper channel. The University Grants Commission for one could do a lot in this regard. Setting up a database of Indian students, a list of fake universities around the world, and comprehensive guidelines for prospective students are a few things to start with.

    Understanding the severity of the issue, both India and Australia have taken a multitude of remedial measures. These need to be implemented with sincerity if the two democracies bound by commonwealth ties and cricket frenzy are to fully overcome the irritations in bilateral ties caused by curry-bashing.