Shaken by a wave of racial assaults, thousands of Indian students and supporters rallied here on Sunday, demanding justice for victims of recent attacks as Australia scrambled to contain the rising anger and frustration within the community.
The `peace rally’, organized by the Federation of Indian Students in Australia (FISA) and National Union of Students among others, kicked off from outside the Royal Melbourne Hospital, where 25-year-old Shravan Kumar has been admitted since May 9 when he was stabbed with a screwdriver by a group of teenagers. The protesters had something to cheer about as doctors pronounced Kumar, who had slipped into a coma, “out of danger”.
“He (Kumar) has come out of coma and moved his hands,” said T J Rao, a former consul-general of India in Melbourne who participated in the rally.
Kumar has been taken off life support but Rao added that doctors were unsure if the 25-year-old would recover fully. The marchers numbering over 5,000 walked down to the Victorian Parliament House on Spring street, holding placards with slogans reading `We want Justice’, `We are the Economy Builders’ and `End Racist Attacks’. Joined by state opposition leader Ted Baillieu and other leading community members, the marchers proposed to hand over their list of demands to lawmakers but that did not materialize.
FISA founder Gautam Gupta, who led the rally, said, “we believe in Gandhigiri and peaceful ways to present the demands of the student community”. Among those demands were a multicultural police force for Victoria, which houses 47,000 of the 95,000 Indian students in Australia. They also demanded that crime statistics be made public and sought racial tolerance and awareness.
The Australian government appeared to be reaching out, with foreign minister Stephen Smith admitting that the attacks were a “current problem” facing the Indian community. “We’re doing everything that we can, both with the Indian community in Australia and India itself… but also working very closely with the relevant state authorities,” Smith said.
In a bid to assuage fears, Australia’s first Asia-born Cabinet minister said racism in the country was confined to “a minority” with extreme views. “On the whole, I think Australians are tolerant,” Malaysia-born Penny Wong, federal climate change minister, said. “It is a minority of people in Australia who hold those sort of extreme and intolerant views.”
FISA leader Gupta, however, said the massive rally proved that they were not “soft targets” and the situation might get out of hand if the community was attacked again. He was, however, confident that the Australian government would take action against the perpetrators immediately.
That sentiment was echoed by Sydney-based cardiologist Yadu Singh among others who opposed branding the country as “racist” and stressed that the government be given some time to resolve the problem. Insisting that Australia was not a “racist” country and that all attacks against Indians were not racist in nature, Singh said, “We believe that this is not the correct picture of the unfortunate events.
“Most of the attacks are what we call `opportunistic attacks’ and due to the impression by the criminal elements about our students being the easy target for various reasons,” Singh said.
“No doubt, our students have several significant issues and these issues have been raised with government and police authorities here. We are confident that these would be acted upon seriously. It must be accepted that Australia risks more than $15 billion in business if the students’ issues are not given due importance soon,” he said.
Indian-origin CEO of leading company Primus, Ravi Bhatia, who took part the rally, seconded him. “There are many examples of highly successful members in the Indian community. Just like any other society, there are small minority of miscreants and malcontents,” he said.