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Devil's Advocate with Australian envoy


Karan Thapar,CNN-IBN
Jan 11, 2010 at 02:59pm IST

How effectively is Australia dealing with the rising spate of attacks on Indians in that country? That's the key issue Karan Thapar explored with the Australian High Commissioner, Peter Varghese.

Karan Thapar: High Commissioner, let me start with the question that most people want to hear you answer.

Why does the Australian government find it difficult to accept that racism must be a substantial motive and cause for the increasing spate of attacks on Indians in your country?

Peter Varghese: Karan, we don't think that racism is a substantial motive or cause in these cases. What we are seeing here essentially is a pattern of urban crime, for the most part opportunistic urban crime.

I think to equate any incident involving an Indian in Australia--very regrettable incidents--with racism is quite inaccurate.

Karan Thapar: High Commissioner, look at the facts. In 2009, as you yourself have said at a press conference on Wednesday, there were 105 attacks compared to just 17 in the year before. That’s just an increase of approximately 617 percent.

Clearly, Indians are being targeted as Indians?

Peter Varghese: I wouldn't say clearly,that Indians are being targeted and I don't think any of the evidence leads you to that conclusion. This is actually quite a complicated story, so let me try and put it into some sort of context.

We have had a very rapidly increase in the number of Indian students in Australia. So part of the reasons why numbers go up year to year may well be the reflection of the fact that pool of Indians in Australia is also rising very rapidly.

Karan Thapar: Except for the fact that Indians have been attacked in much more frequently and in much greater percentages than is happening to anyone else in Melbourne.

Once again let me quote Gautam Gupta, secretary of the Federation of Indian Students in Australia: if one out of hundred residents of Victoria is a victim of crime, the ratio among Indians is four out of a 100. That is 400 times higher; clearly this is racism.

Peter Varghese: Lot of people are pulling figures out of the air on this matter. The fact is that the statistics on these are actually quite complicated. Our police force doesn't collect statistics based on nationality. Nor do they collect statistics based on occupations. So, I think you need to be little careful about taking it face value and the statistics that people are pulling out of the air.

I think that gentleman to which you have referred has also made the assertion that there is an average of five attacks a day on Indian students. You have also figured of 105 attacks that's a well-sourced figure actually. It's an Indian government figure provided to your court system.

Karan Thapar: It compares with 17 attacks in the year before--that means there is a 617-percent increase within just 12 months. That's why people turn around and say Indians are being targeted as Indians.

But let's leave statistics aside. Let me reverse the question and put it like this: what would it take to convince you that these are racist attacks after all the attackers are not going to leave behind stickers saying we are motivated by race?

Peter Varghese: I think you have to allow the process of investigations and criminal justice to work their way through and they will come to conclusions about the nature of the crime and the motivation of the crime.

I have said previously that we have never ever asserted that none of these attacks could have any racial motivation. I concede that in a very small number of cases--and some of these cases have already been up before the courts--on the face of it they would appear to be a racial motivation.

Karan Thapar: More than just appear to be. Look at the attack that happened on Saturday morning, literally the day we are recording this interview. In Melbourne, a 29-year-old Indian was attacked and set on fire; he has got 15 percent burns.

Now I put it to you: where in the world do muggers burn their victims? But that is precisely what--forgive this--the Ku Klux Klan used to do? That's why people around in India say this is racial motivation.

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Peter Varghese: Can I just say in relation to that incident, and it has happened as you have suggest very recently. This is a subject of police investigation--let's wait and see what the facts are. Let's wait and see what the circumstances were.

Now, I know that Australian media has been reporting this as an attack. That may turned out to be correct but the preliminary advice I have from the Australian authorities is that it is far from certain that it isn't attack--it maybe, it may not be.

But I think in all of these cases it is very important to let the system of justice and the system of police investigation take its course before jumping to conclusions. Initial media report should never be taken as facts.

Karan Thapar: Except that I was quoting the Australian newspaper, ‘The Australian’. They claim that in fact the young Indian of 29 years age was attacked by four unidentified assailants as he was getting out of his car between 1 am and 2 am in the morning. But you say that these are urban opportunistic crimes.

Let me quote to you Greg Sheridan, foreign editor of ‘The Australian’ newspaper, the government clings to the idiotic defence that most of the crimes are opportunistic as if it is impossible to be opportunistic and racist. In making these assertions they must be the only people who believe them."

Even leading foreign editors of your top newspapers don't accept the explanation that this is just an opportunism?

Peter Varghese: I have lot of respect for Greg Sheridan, who he is a close friend of mine.

Karan Thapar: Would you concede he (Greg Sheridan) is right?

Peter Varghese: I regret to say that I disagree with him on this occasion. Karan, let me quote to you something that the President of the Federation of Indian Association in Victoria said earlier in this week in a press statement. He said that to claim every time something bad happens to a person of Indian origin, to claim that is racism is simply inaccurate.

It's an important point.

Karan Thapar: May not every time, but it seems a vast majority of the journey of the attacks are picking on people because they are Indians?

Peter Varghese: With respect, Karan, you are asserting that the vast majority of crimes are picking on people are because they are Indians. I don't think that the facts actually are demonstrating the case.

We have 33 arrests in Victoria as a result of these incidents and those cases have been going through the Australian judicial system. The courts will decide what in fact had happened and to the extent they can make judgments on what the motivation was.

Let's deal with these issues on a case-by-case basis, rather than making generic assertions about what's happening.

Karan Thapar: Let's leave it to the court to decide. We respect the courts in India just you do them in Australian.

Let's come instead to a second issue of fundamental concern this weekend to the Indian people. It seems that the comments being made by some of your most senior ministers on not just insensitive but appear to be in a state of denial.

Let me begin by quoting your Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Speaking days after two Indians had been killed, she he says in big cities around the world we do see acts of violence from time to time. That happens in Melbourne, it happens in Mumbai, it happens in New York and it happens in London.

To Indian ears that response, days after the two Indians have been killed, it feels callous, it feels unfeeling and it feels insensitive.

Peter Varghese: I don't think that our Deputy Prime Minister would anyway wish to provoke those sort of feelings amongst the Indian community.

Karan Thapar: Can you see that she has provoked them?

Peter Varghese: I can't speak for feelings of the Indian community but let me make this point, Karan. What she was saying is not my view provocative or outrageous. She was making a point about urban crime, the nature of urban crime and the fact that unfortunately this is something which all of us who live in cities have to live with.

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Karan Thapar: Expect for the fact that...?

Peter Varghese: If I could finish this. Unless you are taking issue with the content of what she said, in other words unless you are saying that urban crime does not exist in cities apart from Australia I'm struggling to understand why you would take such serious objection to her comment.

Karan Thapar: I tell you what feel people object to: it's the tone of the comment and it's the manner, which appears to be dismissive of what's happening to Indians.

It's not just Julia Gillard, your Acting Foreign Minister Simon Crean virtually on the same day said; it so happens that one of the victims was Indian. It so happens! That sounds so dismissive to Indian ears.

He then goes on to say Melbourne is not the only city in the world that happens. It also happens in Delhi and it also happens in Mumbai.

It's almost as if he is saying to Indians, don't make such noise and fuss about what's happening, you do it to yourselves?/i>

Peter Varghese: I don't think that is what he is saying. You can always take a sentence here and sentence there and present in some indignant manner. The points are these: overall the Australia remains a very safe country.

If you look at homicides rate and robbery rates or assault rates, they are all below global averages in Australia. I think what our ministers have been trying to do is to put some of these incidents--tragic though they are--in some broader perspective.

If you listen to parts of the Indian media you would get the impression that they were marauding gangs of Australians who do nothing else but targeting Indians all day and that Australia is an unsafe country for Indians.

Well, I'm sorry that is not the case; it is not consistent with the facts and I think it is entirely reasonable for Australian ministers, Australian political leaders to point that out.

Karan Thapar: Don't listen to the Indian media, High Commissioner. Listen to your own media.

Let me once again quote Greg Sheridan, the foreign editor of ‘The Australian’, and as you said a moment ago one of your dear and close friends. “There is nothing more lame than an Australian defence that points out that racism and policing problems exist in India too.” So what, he asks.

That precisely is the thought that goes through Indian minds.

Why are you suddenly a) being dismissive in tone and content? b) Why are you suggesting that these happen all over the world, so if it happens in Australia it doesn't matter. That's hurtful to Indians, particularly when young lives have been lost?

Peter Varghese: I'll have to disagree with you that it was dismissive in tone. I heard Julia Gillard comments and I didn't find it dismissive in tone. I think the reasons for making those comments I have already been explained. You can marshal Australian media commentators who took a different view, I respect that but I don't agree with it.

Karan Thapar: Beyond the lack of sensitivity as Indians seem to see it, there is also a report in the Indian newspapers that one of the reasons why this incidents are beginning to happen all over again is because certain specific police patrolling that was enforced in August after the Indian Foreign Minister S M Krishna had visited Australia was withdrawn in December. Can you expect that was a mistake?

Peter Varghese: I would if it had happened but let me tell you it did not happen.

Karan Thapar: So these newspapers reports are false?

Peter Varghese: Absolutely false. I have made it clear in my public comments here in India. There has been no decrease in policing resources in Victoria since they were increased last year.

Karan Thapar: Which means you also suggest that despite increased policing these attacks are not just happening but it seems to Indian eyes they are getting worst. So despite your best efforts the government is unable to control the situation and its slipping out of control in fact?

Peter Varghese: The government is unable to eliminate all crime. We are taking steps to try and help ensure that these sort of criminal acts are not occurring regularly.

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I can go through you the steps we have taken. We have increased policing resources; we have doubled the size of our robbery task force; we have changed our legislation to enable courts to enforce hate crimes; we have given our police broader powers of search for weapons; we have made big efforts to increase the briefings for Indian students before they leave for Australia to give them a sense of the country.

These are all measures we are taking, precisely because we are concerned about what's happening.

Karan Thapar: Yet, you can't give any guarantee that these attacks are going to stop. In fact it seems that this particular week, in 2010, there have been three in nine days. The perception is that despite your best efforts these are continuing and may be getting worse?

Peter Varghese: I can't give a guarantee that urban crime in Australia is going to stop and if I gave you that guarantee it would lack credibility, it would simply be unbelievable. No government, the Australia government or any other government, can say that they are going to stop urban crime.

Karan Thapar: High Commissioner, can you accept that as a result of what seems like one year of increasing attacks on Indians in Australia your country's image in India has been badly damaged?

Peter Varghese: I certainly accept that our image in India has taken a beating. I don’t think you can go through the intensity of this negative media coverage in Indian and not take damage.

We are dealing here with the perceptions and if the perceptions that has been conveyed is that Australia is an unsafe country or a country which is targeting Indians sure that it's going to damage and it worries me - that's the case.

Karan Thapar: Look at the sort of advice which was recently issued by the Indian government to the Indian students in Australia. They say don't travel alone, keep to well-lit and populated areas, inform others of your plans, make sure others know when you expect to return.

Doesn't it embarrass you that people who are guest and visitors to your country should be given this sort of advice? Because without this advice people fear in India that they won't be safe?

Peter Varghese: This sort of advice is given regularly by governments to their citizens. Australia issues numerous travel advisories related to many countries providing information and advice to their citizens. They are precautionary measures and I have absolutely no difficulty to what the Indian government has put out.

It has made a judgment about what will be useful information to Indian students and I think it is entirely appropriate.

Karan Thapar: Let me quote once again Greg Sheridan. He said, in India the Australian government could not have got a worst record if it had spent a billion dollars on a negative publicity campaign.

Peter Varghese: It's just reinforcing the point that I agreed with which. We have taken a dip in our image.

Karan Thapar: More than just a dip haven't you? Suddenly in Indian eyes Australia has become an unsafe country. It was a desirable place to go on a holiday. It was the country we looked up to one of the great cricket playing nations of the world. Suddenly it becomes an unsafe?

Peter Varghese: There may be some perceptions that it is unsafe, but I think the reality as we have already been discussing is actually quite different. I see part of my job here in Delhi to convey the reality of Australia to the best of my ability.

Karan Thapar: Let's talk about how you are going to rectify. What you have accepted is a hit to your country's image? On Thursday, you met the Indian Foreign Minister S M Krishna. Were you been able to convince him about your government’s sincerity in handling this crisis?

Peter Varghese: I have never find any doubts in the minds of the Indian government about our sincerity. I understand the concerns that the Indian government has about what's been happening in Australia. I can understand why they would want to raise those with us.

Karan Thapar: Has this effected Indo-Australian relationship?

Peter Varghese: I think the government-to-government relationship remains a very strong relationship.

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Karan Thapar: Until they are unaffected?

Peter Varghese: In my view the substance of the government-to-government relationship continues to be strong. In fact, I have every expectation that it will grow stronger.

Karan Thapar: But you had no sense of feeling that Indian ministers are worried. That they are concerned not just about the spate of attacks but on the way this could be affect rest of the relationship?

Peter Varghese: Of course they are concerned. They have raised concerns with us. I understand those concerns. We are responding to those concerns. I don't think that's a point at issue.

Karan Thapar: As Australian High Commissioner, how would you view on the manner in which the Indian press, perhaps I should say television in particular, has focused on this attacks.

Peter Varghese: I think media in India is a very varied institution. Some parts of Indian media have handled reporting on this issue with responsibility, balance and accuracy. Other parts, regrettably, have sensationalised it and have substituted for an analysis. That's the nature of the media.

Karan Thapar: You have been quoted as saying that the Indian media has been beastly. Did you use that word?

Peter Varghese: I'm quite amused in the way in which I was quoted, or rather misquoted. I was asked about this and as I recall I think I have said that the Indian media is a wonderful and varied beast. Maybe I was engaging in a bit of some Australian vernacular. But certainly there was no intention on my part to call the Indian media beastly.

Karan Thapar: Are you upset that Indian media has focused exclusive attention, almost forcing the Indian government to respond as well?

Peter Varghese: It's not a question of whether I'm upset or not? In this business you deal with what you are dealt. I'm trying to do just that. Were I see the Indian media reporting are inaccurate or unbalanced or sensationalist, I will in my own quite way try and point that out.

Karan Thapar: High Commissioner , a pleasure talking to you.

Peter Varghese: Thank you, Karan.

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