Was it the place or was it his race?


The race or nationality of the person who ended Nitin Garg’s life is irrelevant in a sense – unless you believe that what we need now is a scapegoat, an individual who can be brought to book and punished for the sins of a society.

Punishing individuals (if it is possible in Australia to punish someone for murdering an Indian – unless of course it turns out that the criminal is from one of the “ethnic communities”) may be necessary in times like these, but it can only be a mere modicum of justice; so far as sending out a message to the community is concerned these punitive measures can at best only be a palliative. Nitin Garg is not the first Indian student to die in mysterious circumstances in Australia. His death and the larger context in which it happened have forced the issue of the underlying social reasons for these crimes to happen in Melbourne.

In the last six months many concerned people in the Indian community were already saying that the nature and scale of the problem meant that it was only a matter of time before a fatality occurred. In fact, in Indus Age’s December 2009 issue, Councillor Tim Singh said in an interview that the scale and frequency of the violence against Indian students gave one every reason to think that a fatality was not far away.

Many people in the Indian and the wider Australian community are of the view that urgent tough action against the perpetrators of these acts is necessary as a remedy. This talk is nothing more than another aspect of the political rhetoric and wishful thinking that politicians and other important people on all sides have been resorting to in their evasive responses and sophisticated apologetics. Policing can never be a solution to crimes generated in and through a process of social conflict and the divisiveness it engenders. Policing can be a deterrent, but never an adequate response in dealing with the circumstances making such crimes possible.

Indian students, like many of the new migrant groups coming into the cities of Australia, are a visible presence as a new group on the social landscape here. This visibility is also happening in a climate of economic and social competition and conflict. This competition and conflict has very real consequences for all sections of Australian society, particularly for White Australians, who are faced with competition from all the different communities that are rapidly eroding the economic base of White Australia, and transforming its very traditional economy, society and way of life, in the process creating something alien and alienating for the White Australian community. Not everyone in Australia is placed in situations that endow people with the best resources to adapt to and take advantage of multiculturalism.

The success of the established Indian community is not a matter of indifference to the larger Australian community. Our competitive and materialistic society is also a society full of resentments and social envy. While established Indians, through all the trappings of respectability their socio-economic status gets them, can afford to buy security and deflect resentment, Indians who are at the margins of this competitive society are the ones who are exposed to the seamy side of the social competition and its antagonistic rivalries and bitternesses.

It is pointless to say that there are bad elements in Australian society. There are no bad Australians; and of course Australians are not angels either. Stuff like this may make good bedtime reading, or lull the average officegoer commuting to work. However, there are situations that make Australians or any humans for that matter, behave harshly or callously. There are social processes, like the social changes we are now witnessing in Melbourne, that promote particular types of herd or pack behaviour; and the herd or pack instincts take shape in the presence of scapegoats too.

Officially Australia is still a White nation. What an absurd myth. Yet this is the fantasy of an institutionalised racism that propagates the idea that Indians and other ‘ethnics’ are foreigners or immigrants in Australia. By keeping the numbers of Indians and other ethnic communities in public life and its institutions to a bare minimum, this institutionalised racism fabricates the social perception of Indians as an exotic minority. This is what makes members of the Indian community a soft target if they happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Institutionalised racism creates and enforces such vulnerability by disempowering a community and denying it its rightful place in public life. This alien or minority status of the Indian in Australia is a very encouraging message to the frustrated or alienated or wild youth on the streets of Melbourne – particularly when institutionalised racism also ensures that the response to crime against Indians is not tough or effective. This sends out the message that Indians are powerless in Australia. Easy prey.

But this institutionalised racism has also been a great blessing to many Indians: not just that their exotic immigrant status enabled them to gain entry and upward mobility in a society that was officially adopting the creed of multiculturalism, but building on their perceived successes they are now the self-appointed representatives and spokespersons for an entire community that looks like a community of Indians only to an outsider. This is one unfortunate consequence of White Australia’s inability and unwillingness to engage with difference in all its variety in a sustained and effective manner. How long will the White Australian community take to realise that the Indian community is far too diverse to have any effective representatives claiming to represent the community solely because they are “Indian”? We need to ask questions about the nature and the scope of representation in politics and society in Australia today. White Australians are not incapable of understanding or engaging with the new migrants coming into the country. There is no need to leave representation solely to people within the community – this can only further racialise the politics of community in Australia.

Australia and Australians need to open their doors further, and not just have select individuals from various communities in all the different areas of public life. Such a style of opportunity for individuals that has existed so far is a remnant from a past that is vanishing fast. It has just created a style of privilege that is looking outmoded and unnecessary today. Entire communities need to gain access to positions in the bureaucracy, the courts, the police, the universities etc Or we’d just end up wasting more words on futile polemics that only serve the purpose of creating puppets for the theatre of White Australia’s clannish but outdated politics.

But what is the relevance of all of this in the current situation? you may ask. We’d only like to say that chasing after “offenders” or cracking down on crime is only treating the symptoms of a problem. Few people in the Indian community today believe that there is any serious attempt to arrest the people who commit crimes against Indians. Moreoever, the police force, the courts and the politicians of Australia would be faced with a serious crisis if these offenders turn out to be White Australians. It would expose the fact that these institutions are unable and unwilling to punish offenders if they happen to belong to the White Australian community.

Race motivated crimes wouldn’t be as frequent or as easy as it seems to be now if racism hadn’t been institutionalised in Australia. There is no point talking about aberrant individuals. It is the institutions that lack and deny representation to Indians that create the possibility and the opportunity for such crimes to happen. It is this racism that makes it hard to say in public that race is a factor behind the attacks against Indians.

Conflict between individuals belonging to different cultures is never free of the racial element. If the Indians who’ve been attacked and who are likely to be attacked in the future had been White Englishmen or French or German it is unlikely that they would be the target of such widespread attacks.

It is pathetic to say that it doesn’t matter to Nitin Garg’s near and dear that race might have been the reason that led to the fatal attack – all that matters to them is that he is no more, we are told. We say however: the circumstances and the reasons for the murder make this tragedy more tragic and harder to bear. Who couldn’t help asking why Nitin Garg’s death was a shocking and senseless incident? What is it that makes his death so tragic and shocking? It is the fear and suspicion, both very legitimate and justified, that he was killed simply because he was an Indian.

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