February 21, 2020
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The Largest Island

When tough talk yields no results, tougher measures are needed

The Largest Island
Jitender Gupta
The Largest Island

Steps In The Blind Alley

  • Talk tough, demonstrate your intent
  • Summon the Indian high commissioner for consultations, conveying New Delhi’s displeasure
  • Raise the issue with Commonwealth countries
  • Disallow students from taking certain courses
  • Screen educational institutes, blacklist some of them


As Indian students nurse their wounds and battered pride, trembling every time they step out on the streets of Melbourne late at night, they have begun to blame the government back home for their plight. In disappointed voices, they say New Delhi has ample clout to compel Canberra to stop these assaults, but has palpably failed to exercise it for their safety and security. Are these claims an expression of their desperation? Really, can India pressure Australia into stopping street assault on its citizens?

Indian officials here argue that over the past two years or so, they have been constantly conveying to Canberra India’s growing sense of frustration and anxiety about the attacks. “We have done some very tough talking with the Australian government in the past few months,” says an Indian diplomat.

But the tough talk hasn’t stanched the flow of violence. “The attacks have continued even after the Australian prime minister’s visit,” says former foreign minister K. Natwar Singh. “India should, therefore, raise the issue with the Commonwealth countries.” He also says the Indian high commissioner should be summoned to New Delhi for consultations, thus conveying in strong terms to Canberra the country’s displeasure.

But there are others who believe such drastic measures could impair India’s relations with Australia, a democratic, developed country that enjoys a certain salience in the international arena—and from which India stands to gain in the future. Drastic measures could stem the inflow of Indians down under. Sections in the Indian establishment believe Indian-Australians can act as an effective lobby group for India, like the Indian-Americans in the US. After all, those studying in Australia today could become its citizens tomorrow. “We want them to become our active voice in the future,” says an Indian diplomat.

At the moment, though, the class of Indians wishing to settle down in Australia seems to threaten the establishment’s future gameplan. A well-heeled Indian living in a posh Melbourne suburb rues, “Nearly 85 per cent of the taxi drivers in Melbourne are Indians. We have come to be associated with that image these days.” The image of Indians here has definitely changed over the last four years, largely because of the ‘open door’ immigration policy of the Labour government  in Canberra and Victoria. Melbourne has been attracting Indian students in large numbers, but they are mostly enrolled in vocational courses—like cookery or hair-dressing and hospitality—offered by colleges operating from a few rooms in buildings located in the central business district or suburbs.

The students in these institutions are from rural Punjab or  small towns from other parts of north India. Their principal motivation isn’t education. They are here to acquire “PR” or “Permanent Residency”, for which one must have stayed in Australia for at least two years. Egging them on are the agents in India, weaving the alluring Australian dream but omitting to mention other criteria a PR candidate must fulfil. Buying this dream are mostly Indians from poorer economic backgrounds, doomed to feel alienated in kangaroo country.

Since Australia earns as much as $15-17 billion from international students each year, it hasn’t been very earnest in capping the flow of new arrivals from India. Says former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal, “If it’s feasible and legal, we can put restrictions on students going to Australia. You can, for instance, disallow students going to certain universities. If we can put in place a mechanism for screening people going to the Gulf, why not for Australia?” Fear of losing money could force Australia to take remedial action.

This seems to be already happening. The Australian government has cancelled the licence of 17 colleges and 20 more are under review. And security measures in neighbourhoods where Indian students live have been ramped up. For the moment, though, the poor Indian student largely depends on luck for his or her survival.

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