Canberra: Australia's former military chief has characterised recent attacks on Indian students as racially motivated, rejecting Canberra's official line that the violence has been purely criminal rather than racist.
The attacks over the past 18 months, including a fatal stabbing of a 21-year-old Indian graduate this month, have strained ties with India and hurt Australia's lucrative foreign student market, its third largest export earner.
"If you didn't suspect a racial strand you'd be mad," high-profile former general Peter Cosgrove told The Age newspaper on Tuesday night after delivering a speech on race relations.
"Attacks recently by groups of people on individuals looks like a profiling approach to people from the sub-continent. Rather than say 'nothing to worry about', I'd rather look more closely," he added.
Indian media have labelled the attacks as racist, but police and the government insist they are purely criminal. Cosgrove pointed to previous racial violence in Australia, saying clashes on Sydney beaches in 2005 between gangs of ethnic Lebanese and anglo youths had highlighted dark pockets of racism.
"It was so unusual and unexpected, it reverberated around the world. It was unexpected because Australia's reputation was that of an egalitarian and multi-ethnic society; tolerant, cheerful and relaxed. December 2005 gave us pause for thought," he said.
He said criminal elements might be behind the attacks on Indians but, in contrast to police and government ministers, added that the racial element was too strong to dismiss.
Cosgrove, voted Australian of the year in 2001, said hidden racism should not be allowed to fester or lead to a reduction in immigration, expected to boost Australia's population from 21 million to around 36 million by 2050.
"The vast majority of Australians, totally rejecting any such despicable behaviour, will welcome the apprehension of the perpetrators," he said.