Monday, July 27, 2009

"Curry Bashing"

Since I've been back home, I've been hearing a lot about violence against Indian students in Australia. Last year, there were a few incidents of the murder of desi students in the States that I'd read about. No doubt, the incidence of violence against desis, as with all immigrants of color, and pople of color, in general, is higher than reported and known. However, the official statistics out of Australia are pretty appalling. Per a Time Magazine article, Spate of Attacks Leave Indian Students on Edge in Australia, "1,083 cases of robbery and assault were reported against Indians in 2007-08, and that the attacks increased to 1,447 over the same period last year, with many of the attacks directed against students.

In the case of the U.S. attacks I read about, I was a little wary of accusations that they were racially motivated because the attacks were allegedly committed by black men and I figured that a certain degree of racism was manifesting itself in how the attacks (i.e. the attackers themselves) were being positioned. In the case of the attacks in Australia though, it seems a quite unlikely that at least a significant number of the crimes were not racially motived. If it is true that a large number of the attacks are on students, and given that, as of 2009, there are only about 90,000, the occurence of violence against desi students is not insignificant. Admittedly, in comparison to the total population of Indian descent in Australia, the numbers don't seem quite that horrendous. (I don't have very good data on the demographics of Australia. But if one takes into consideration the 2006 census numbers which has the self-identified population of Indian descent at 243,722 plus 12,300 immigrants per year in 2007-2008 & 2008-2009 plus in 2009 there are 90,000 Indian students in Australia, that rounds off to about 360,000. Obviously, there's a lot of over- and under-counting... but this is just a very rough estimate.)

Yet given that Indian students took to the streets this past May and June, in Melbourne and Sydney, at least, after a particularly heinous attack implies that these attacks are pretty pervasive.

Moreover, soon after the protest, a delegation of police and government officials visited various Indian cities to deliver "safety assurances" to the families of current and prospective students; which was followed by a visit from the Immigration Minister, Chris Evans. His visit was to aimed at reassuring "parents and authorities that the country is not racist and remains a safe place to study."

To quote Evans himself, "There's been a lot of concern inside India and I think there's been some fairly hysterical reporting of what's occurred. ... So part of what I intend to do on this visit is to try and reassure Indians that we're a safe place to study, that we're a multicultural society and we don't have racist attitudes to people." Further, "I wouldn't say there is no racism in Australia. Of course, there is, but majority of the incidents don't have any racial basis..."

I am not exactly sure where Mr. Evans gets his assured-ness from, given especially that there is actually a term for going out to attack Indians - curry bashing.

Mr. Evans' lack of understanding (or at least his apparent lack of understanding) about the situation is apparent here:
Evans said police were working on the problem but educating Indian students about safety in Australia could also help. "We've had a number of students attacked in areas at say four o'clock in the morning where quite frankly most people would stay clear of," he said.

Evans is either unaware of, indifferent to, eliding, or too dumb to make the connection between this issue of violence and another issue that is creating an embarrasement for his country - that of education scams. The reporting that I've heard and read about this issue details how students are lured into both, high-tuition programs that fail to provide the training promised, as well as illegal schemes wherein they are promised eduction and migration documentation on the downlow. In the former situation especially, students are forced to take-up lowing paying jobs to keep themselves going while they complete their long-drawn out training and degrees. Most often, they work as cab drivers and attendants at grocery stores and gas stations. I doubt that in many cases these students have an option of not traveling at odd, "dangerous" hours of the day. Thus Evans' statement is a fantastic cop-out, one of the caliber of some of the rabid comments about the attacks, prevalent on YouTube and various blogs/discussion boards.

The first type of comment on these sites is one that simply and neatly says "fuck off to where you came from, you dirty, stinking, lazy, ignorant fuck!" No surprises there really. They are the Brian Kilmeades of society. In a certain way, though, these comments as just as bad as the more enlightened responses they elicit, where somebody comes back with a "shaddup, you son of a convict." For the ignorance of the former type fits with their overall racist ignorance - no point in asking them, "umm... where exactly do you think you came from?" They're the ones who believe that, never mind the carnage and enslavement of the indigenous, the white man is responsible for the creation of the nation, it's material and discursive edifices, it's modern civilization. Just ask Pat Buchanan...

The problem, though, lies with the latter group of folks who appear to have some historical knowledge, but not enough. Who are unable, or unwillingly, to recognize that the racism apparent among some Australians is tied not to their convict history, but their patently and violently racist foundations.

The second type of comment suggests the Indians should quit complaining about racism because they are the most racist peoples of all. Here references are made to the popularity of Fair and Lovely cream, and the fact that darker-skinned peoples face much prejudice. Agreed, skin color is an immensely problematic issue in India, and I too am irked by the incessant commercials for fairness creams. But that is not racism, that is prejudice based on skin color which, though undoubtedly violent, is only one signifier of racism. I'd refer here to an earlier post where I elaborated on the meaning of racial violence. Here is a relevant excerpt from that post:

Racial violence is a mode of power exercised – most often by a state, but often by other organized, militarized groups – in order to control, subjugate or exterminate a people due to the idea that the latter always already pose a threat to the civilization of the former. Thus, racial violence always follows the logic of self-defense and self-preservation against the always already threatening other.
Racial logic functions so that an entire people are made to signify deviance, irrationality, violence, etc. – in short, everything that runs counter to the presumed ideals of modernity, and the interests of “civilization” and “humanity.”
... Racial violence is not about “race” as is commonly understood – i.e. black, white, native, asian, latino, arab or whatever new racial groups the state decides to create – but about the process of racialization. Of casting an entire people as a deviant, threatening other. ... [It is about] how power operates in the production and execution of subjugation, violence, and death.

In terms of defining racism, I would amend and add that when specific peoples become targeted as individual signifiers of the deviance or threat referred to above, and are singled out for violence, by individuals or institutionalized and other groups, as representatives of the larger racialized group, that act of targeting, of singling out, is racist in nature. Undoubtedly skin color and other phenotypical characteristics play a significant role in the enactment of racism, but I am not convinced that prejudice based on skin color is necessarily racist.

Besides, explain to me again how does racism here make racism there ok?

The third type of comment argues that these students are there not really for an education, but as means to migrate, to take precious Australian jobs, and that they are signifiers of the failure of the Indian economy, indeed of the failure of independent India. The rhetoric here is almost identical to that used in debates about "illegal" immigration in the U.S. Once again, the debate is willfully ignorant of the economic contributions made by the skilled and unskilled, "legal" and "illegal" immigrant workforce... it is all about the theft of jobs and the drain on resources. Never mind the overall damage done to Third World economies by the First World. (Admittedly, an argument that is truer in the case of U.S.-Mexico relations, and not so much in the case of Australia-India relations. But still...) Moreover, the Indian students who pay $40,000 in tuition, and work as cab drivers while they are trained to become professionals, provide way more economic benefit to the "Australian nation" than they get in return.

I'm never sure why people think that the life of an undocumented migrant or an un/underpaid student is something that they aspire to. Even if they do use some resources meant for the documented, over-paid and well-fed, does that really change the quality of life of the latter group. My frustration here is the same that I feel when some people argue that you must not "encourage" those who beg for money on the streets of Bombay, because it is their "profession." Even if it is, I'm sure it's not something they do as a choice, but rather because of a lack of it. The few rupees one gives a beggar, professional or not, are more substantially more likely to benefit them than the disadvantage that the loss of those rupees are going to cause you. It's all about diminishing marginal utility... the one good thing economics teaches us, but we choose to forget.

And finally, what frustrated me the most was a comment by the Consul-General (I think) of India in Australia who in an interview stated that what one needed to focus on, in terms of curbing the violence and exploitation, is the social nature of the students coming to Australia. Most of these students come from rural areas and thus, according to her, are "not sophisticated in urban ways." Really? The problem is not the parochial and violent mentality of the attackers, but the "backward," unsophisticated nature of the victim-/survivers? Talk about a blame-the-victim mentality! I just heard a snippet from the interview, and maybe she clarifies herself at some other point during it, but, as is, her comment is pretty shameful.

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