The brutal killing in Melbourne of Nitin Garg, a young Indian man with permanent residence in Australia, has put added stress on what is a difficult relationship between political leaders in New Delhi and Canberra.
India’s Minister for External Affairs, S.M. Krishna, has said the apparent murder “certainly will have some bearing on the bilateral ties between our two countries”. The Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, whose electorate in western Melbourne is close the scene of the crime, said “people in Melbourne’s west, people around the nation, will be joining together to say we unreservedly condemn this violence”.
Garg’s death last Saturday is but the latest in a series of serious assaults on young Indian men in Australia, particularly in Victoria. Many are students. Others, like the latest victim, had decided to work in Australia.
It is a sad fact of life some young Indians have become targets of random violence because they work hard while studying in tertiary institutions or in their part-time or permanent employment. Some travel late at night, either on public transport or by foot.
The tragedy happened to coincide with a distinct cooling in the relationship between the two nations over the past couple of years. During a visit to India in late 2008 I was surprised to hear strong criticism of Kevin Rudd at the highest levels of the New Delhi administration. India’s prime gripe turned on the refusal of the Rudd Government’s to sell uranium to India, which overturned the intention of John Howard and his senior ministers.
Some prominent Indians have vented their displeasure in public. Shashi Tharoor, the minister of state in the external affairs department, knows Australia well. During a visit to Australia in 2008, before he took up his present position, he accused Rudd Labor of practising a type of apartheid. He complained “there isn’t a rational reason for the Australian position because Australia does sell uranium to nuclear-weapon-producing states, including China”.
The Rudd Government refuses to allow the sale of Australian uranium to India because it has not signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. As the Macquarie University academic Lavina Lee has pointed out, this has had the unintended consequence of placing India “in the same deviant category as other non-members of the [treaty], such as Pakistan and North Korea”. India is not a military threat and has reason to need a nuclear deterrent.
Australia has a policy of not selling uranium to any nation that has not ratified the non-proliferation treaty. However, Canada announced recently that its firms will be allowed to export uranium for India’s civilian nuclear energy market. Moreover, in 2008, the US negotiated a civilian nuclear co-operation agreement with India.
Obviously, the Federal Government is not responsible for street crime in Victoria. But the state’s premier, John Brumby, heads a Labor government that gives the impression of being unduly sensitive to upsetting some vocal minorities.
The NSW police force has an organised crime directorate that includes both an Asian Crime Squad and a Middle East Organised Crime Squad. The NSW Government makes no apologies for targeting suspected criminals in response to perceived need. Victoria Police has no equivalent units. There have been suggestions that young Indians in Melbourne are being targeted by other ethnic groups. The Victorian Government has been silent on this matter.
The immediate response of Victoria Police to any suggestion that attacks on Indians are racially motivated is to throw the switch to denial, or at least to avoidance. Following assaults on Indian students last May, Victoria Police’s deputy commissioner Kieran Walshe declared Indians were not being targeted because of their race. There was no evidence to support this assertion.
The killing of Garg initiated a similar response. A Victoria Police senior sergeant, David Snare, was reported yesterday stating police did not believe this attack was racially motivated. He then went on to declare that “to draw any conclusion as to motive might interfere with the investigation”. In other words, don’t talk about race crime.
There is a reluctance among some Victorian politicians, police and judges to acknowledge that racial violence – frequently fuelled by alcohol and drug-induced rage – takes place. The Herald Sun recently drew attention to the decision of Justice Elizabeth Curtain in the Victorian Supreme Court. She sentenced Clinton Rintoull, who had pleaded guilty to murdering Dylan Sabatino, a young Sudanese refugee.
It was one of those tragic cases where the murderer was in an alcoholic/drug-induced rage and the victim was also very drunk. As the judge found, this was a “savage, ferocious and brutal attack”. The murderer had previously announced his intention to “kill the blacks”. Even so, in her decision to sentence Rintoull to a 16-year non-parole period, the judge said she was “not satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that your actions were so racially motivated and that racism per se was a motive for the attack”.
What is needed in Victoria is greater disclosure – from Brumby to his Attorney-General, Rob Hulls, down – about street crime. Yesterday Gillard seemed to indicate she was concerned about race as a factor in the attacks on Indians when she said the Rudd Government was worried about these crimes. She added: “We want to make sure that people who come to our country – whether they come as migrants, as students, as visitors – are made welcome.”
Australia remains a country with a relatively low level of ethnically motivated crime. The prospect of keeping this as low as possible would be enhanced if Victorian authorities were more frank about the background of those committing, or suspected of, random acts of violence.