The Men Who Stare At Bogans

In mid 2005 I took a trip with my wife, who is an Indian national, to visit family and friends in the Hunter Valley, country New South Wales, Australia. A few days in, and feeling more than a little smothered by the relatives, we headed for an afternoon alone at Morpeth. A small historic village on the outskirts of Maitland, it sits on the Hunter River and has the sort of antique shops, coffee houses and colonial architecture that I thought my partner would appreciate. My family has long ties with the area, going back to the beginning of the colony. And yes, I have convict ancestry. For my generation, it’s viewed as something of a badge of honour – our way of rebelling against those ancestors before us who considered it a stain.

When we parked the car, I had hopes of a pleasant, memorable day: a bit of window shopping, a couple of gift purchases, and some caramel slice with our coffee, perhaps a photo by the riverside – a standard newlywed afternoon. I did not expect a ute to speed up and veer towards us as we crossed the road, and I had no idea that the Anglo-Saxon youth in the passenger seat would wind down his window and scream YOU BOUGHT HER as we ran the last few paces to avoid being hit.

The most appropriate Aussie slang to describe the racist who yelled at us would be ‘bogan’ (it rhymes with slogan), defined in the Macquarie Dictionary as ‘a person, generally from an outer suburb of a city or town and from a lower socioeconomic background, viewed as uncultured.’ [1]

It’s a term roughly equivalent to the US ‘redneck’ and is mostly used in a derogatory context. The bogan did not mean that he thought my wife was a commercial sex-worker. Rather, he meant to imply that Dalanglin had been lured to marry me because I was a rich Westerner and she was a poor, disadvantaged, South Asian woman – what, in more caustic terms, is called a mail-order bride. Upon reflection, I may have corrected his English in my memory of the events; it’s quite possible that he said brought, instead of bought. Whatever the case, it soured the afternoon.

He made the same mistake that a lot of people in both Australia and Asia do; he assumed that any white person in the West automatically has a more privileged upbringing than someone in the subcontinent. In my own case, he could not have been more wrong. My wife’s parents are both doctors and they were able to fund the best education possible for their daughters. On the other hand, I come from a proper working class (bogan) family, where there is a deep scepticism of learning and certainly no financial help forthcoming for the potential scholar. For instance, when I hit fifteen – just before the seven of us Brysons lived in a caravan for a year – my mother informed me that there was no point in carrying on past Year 10, as I was a ‘loser’. And much later, after I told my parents that I had decided to enrol as a PhD candidate, my father said, ‘Son, sooner or later you’re going to have to get a job,’ whereas my in-laws here in India called for a celebration. So the racist assumption that the truck-driving bogan made about us is actually an inversion of the truth: I’m the one who has married up and into a better situation, not my wife.

Yet friends and relatives in India often seem amazed if we talk about a future for our family here in Meghalaya. They are of course happy that we would consider it – they see it as a sign of our love for them – but somehow never believe that it would be possible, or wise. Why would someone like my wife turn their back on the West and return home to India, and why, in particular, would a gora want to do so? The response is more prevalent among the older folks, people of my father-in-law’s generation and beyond, who can clearly remember life under the British and the subsequent period post-partition. In Shillong they had missionaries here for a further twenty years after 1947, so the memory of a time when they were influenced by the Brits is still rather recent. In our own house, when describing how something is done, my father-in-law will often invoke the name of Dr Hughes, a Welshman who ran the Khasi-Jaiñtia Presbyterian Mission Hospital, as evidence that it is the right way to do something – often the only way. And when comparing them to the current administration in Meghalaya, run by locals since the hill state’s inception in 1972, the older generation wistfully maintain that life under the colonial admin was far less corrupt – something that’s illustrated by their phrase ‘the white devil was better than the brown devil’.

This belief that things are much better in Australia, and in the West per se, at least to an outsider like me, seems to have developed into a sort of worship of the abroad in India, a cult of the Anglo – to the point where news of anything going wrong in Australia to Australians is ignored, and anything bad happening to Indians can only be interpreted as Whitey trying to deny his Asian cousin a place in paradise. It’s typified in a lot of the commentary here about the recent events in Melbourne, where Melbournians all seem to be white and violent towards Indians – when the students who’ve been attacked have described their attackers as being, variously: white, Asian, Middle-Eastern, Pacific Islander and Aboriginal. [2]

Take this example from an article by Pranay Sharma in a February edition of Outlook:

Perhaps their views have also gained ground because Indians have become more visible in Australia. The Australian can’t miss him in his daily routine. He sees the Indian on the train when he goes to work; it’s the Indian who serves him at the takeaway; the Indian is there again behind the counter when he goes to buy groceries at the supermarket; he mans the gas stations, or is behind the wheel every time the white Australian takes a taxi at night. As if all this isn’t enough, he also finds a few of them living in his posh neighbourhood. [3]

This does not read like an unbiased presentation of the facts. On the contrary, it demonstrates how the print and television media in India – tabloid and highbrow alike – have started with the premise Australia is a racist country and then written and broadcast stories supporting the same. The danger of this ‘single story’ is that it perpetuates negative stereotypes and robs Australians of being anything else other than white and xenophobic. In doing so it also implies that non-whites are not Australian. The problem with stereotypes like this – as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in her famous TED lecture – isn’t that they are untrue; it’s that they are incomplete. [4]

Just who is The Australian? Specifically who is the white Australian taking the taxi at night? Is it me? Both my parents are white. But Australia – particularly in its big cities like Sydney and Melbourne – is not populated only with white people. When a white person sees an Asian person on the train in the morning, they are very likely on their way to work in a similar job, if not at the same workplace. The Indian serving him takeaway may well be the same Indian who later has his plumbing fixed by the Anglo. And the idea that Indians alone are propping up the supermarkets, petrol stations and taxi services is a patent absurdity – in a great many of those cases the Indian employee will be working side by side with a ‘white’ person – and in the case of the small businesses, like the petrol station, the Person of Indian Origin will often be the owner, that is, the boss – with white people working for him (or her). Not to mention the many Indians who are employed in banking, finance, the medical professions and the university system, who will again have white colleagues and subordinates.

And the odds are that they are all Australians. It’s worth taking a look at the last census figures available from 2006. They clearly show that three out of ten Australians – that is, close to one third of the population – were born overseas, and the top five countries of birth (other than Australia) contained two from Asia: China and Vietnam. [5]

England still comes in first on that list – partly due to the huge backpacker population in the country at any given time – with Italy and New Zealand rounding out the group, the latter providing a significant Pacific Islander population to Australia’s shores. While Melbourne, the city in all the wrong headlines, has the highest Greek population, outside of Greece itself, of any other Western metropolis – and visitors there will see that the City’s Asian population is substantial and includes the second oldest continuously inhabited Chinatown in the West. All of which indicates that contemporary Australia is a far cry from the White Australia Policy that the world media so loves to remind us of, and a slap in the face to reporting that would imply that Australia is a segregated society.

In light of so much evidence to the contrary, it’s myopic to look at the violence in Melbourne as being a problem only for Indians. Simon Overland, the Police Commissioner of Victoria, who presumably took off his white sheet to write a piece for the Herald Sun last year, had some sobering figures for those in India who like to think that only Indians are in danger of being robbed or assaulted:

Our state-wide figures show that in 2007/08, 1,447 people of Indian origin were victims of crimes against the person such as robberies and assaults, an increase from 1082 the previous year. This was compared to 24,260 Caucasian victims and 36,765 victims overall. [6]

Breaking that down – 65% of the assaults were committed against Caucasians, and roughly 35% against non-Caucasians. And of that 35% only 4% is made up of Persons of Indian Origin.

In this context, it would seem that India has to grow up in its view of Australia. The furore here in India over the violence in Melbourne was fuelled by this inability to believe that things can go wrong for white people there. And it also appears from the chat on the web that Indians are indignant that Melbourne, and Australia – perhaps the West as a whole – are not the sanctuary of civility and peace that they have believed. It could be argued that the West has helped that along, by referring to itself as the ‘First World’ and making a big show of having organised queues and garbage pick-ups. But it’s a view that needs examining; people get shot at, raped, robbed and abused every day of the week in Australia – for reasons that mostly have nothing to do with their ethnicity.

But that is to miss the point, which is so obvious it should not need stating: with an estimated community of nearly three crore Persons of Indian Origin abroad – that’s 30 million – including over 400,000 in Australia alone[7] (more than in Singapore or Fiji) it’s clear that some Indians will be the victims of crime and the perpetrators of crime in every country in which they are settled, through sheer weight of numbers.

Yet observe this snippet from the front page of the Times Of India – the largest English language newspaper in the world:

Indian boy hit on face in Oz: In another vicious attack against Indians in Australia, a 12-year-old student was bullied and brutally punched in the face by two boys in October and had to undergo a surgery to reconstruct his eye socket, it was revealed on Thursday. [8]

This quote is from a broadsheet – read daily by millions of Indians – and is light on fact. There is at least one good reason for that, in that the crime mentioned was committed against a minor, and thus the identity of the victim and the alleged attackers are not allowed to be exposed under Australian law. But it implies a number of things: the boy was hit because he was of Indian origin: he identifies as Indian and not Australian: his attackers were Aussie – probably white – and there was some sort of conspiracy to hide the crime, which is why it had to be ‘revealed’. And from the same paper, a few days later, came this title: ‘Is Melbourne becoming another Kampala for Indians?’ The online version of the article had the following tags listed – Race attacks, Idi Amin, Gautam Gupta, FISA, Attacks On Indians In Australia – and went on to quote an Indian student in Melbourne who claimed that Melbourne had become like Kampala under the aforementioned Amin, where Indians were ordered ‘to leave the country after locals’ uproar against Indians success.’ [9]

Starting a conversation is one thing – asking questions should be encouraged – but allowing this to pass as news and not to query its accuracy, or point out its flaws, is at the very least ignorant and at its worst downright deceitful.

With reference to those recent deaths of Indians Down Under, it would be nice for the media here in India to recognise – preferably not in one paragraph on page seven – that fellow Indians were to blame in four of the five high profile cases: those of Ranjodh Singh (burnt alive by three other Indian nationals[10]): toddler Gurshan Singh Channa (who was killed by his parent’s flatmate Gursewak Dhillon and dumped by the roadside near Melbourne airport[11]): Jaspreet Singh, the Indian man who claimed that he was beaten up and set on fire by four (white?) Australians but was then found to have performed an accidental, and unsuccessful, self-immolation in a ‘stupid premeditated’ attempt at insurance fraud, [12] and the ‘young Indian woman journalist working undercover to expose alleged migration and education scams in Australia who was threatened and punched’[13]…by an Indian man (though the media in India left out the word ‘Indian’ before ‘man’[14]). The most high profile murder, that of Nitin Garg, has been meticulously followed through by the Victorian Police – who have arrested two suspects in the case, one who has since pleaded guilty, with the matter now before the courts. [15]

Although in a climate of nationalist news – in both countries – point scoring seems to be more important than the truth, and our own petty concerns dictate the lead story. One of the most tiresome things about watching the Australian coverage of the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008 was the continuous reference to the Australian nationals among those dead or injured. Every time it was pointed out that four Australians lost their lives, on a day when a few hundred Indians passed away and hundreds more were wounded, it implicitly implied that an Australian death was more important than an Indian death. Is this correct?

It’s further confirmed by the things that don’t get reported by our media. You didn’t hear about the cloudburst in Leh during August? Over 300 people lost their lives, four hundred were injured, and hundreds are still missing. [16] But don’t worry, there were no White Australians amongst the dead, so go right back to watching MasterChef.

Roy Lange, son of the late David Lange (erstwhile prime minister of New Zealand), is a man who divides his time equally between Delhi and Melbourne. One half of a cross-cultural marriage himself, he studied in India’s capital for years and has cited two other misapprehensions that have contributed to the complexity of the current strained relationship between the countries:

The first is the Australian’s belief that a 20 year old Punjabi from a middle class family will embark in a food preparation career and fill skill shortages. That actually hurts my stomach from laughing. The Indian migrant is aggressively upwardly mobile and sees his cookery skills as something to abandon as soon as humanly possible once he secures his PR. You do not ring your parents in Ludhiana, who have three servants, and tell them that cooking butter chicken in a Sydney Road takeaway is your life’s calling…The second is the common Indian belief that goras don’t lie. The general Australian public do not have the foggiest idea of the level of dishonesty committed by their countrymen. Films screened to 19 year old Bengali boys of bikini clad bombshells on Bondi beach and sweeping shots of exclusive suburbs and restaurants could charitably be seen as misleading, but educational institutions subcontracting agents in India who habitually promise hundreds of young Indian boys and girls that after their studies they will have legal domicile in Australia is lying. This is said without a hint of doubt and is the greatest treacherous practice in Australia’s international trading history. [17]

So the cultural misunderstandings – if not collective wilful ignorance – extend to both sides of the Indian Ocean. Just as the rest of the world like to think of Australia as representing racism, kangaroos, boomerangs and walking upside down in the outback – when the bulk of our population is urban, multiracial, and wouldn’t know the first thing about the bush – most Australians still have a simplistic view of life in India and routinely mention poverty, the caste system and getting ‘Delhi belly’ when citing reasons not to travel here; they think it’s all World Vision commercials and Discovery Channel docos, which in this day and age is just plain stupid. That both sides can recognize the hackneyed way that their own country is thought of in the international consciousness and yet still go on viewing the rest of the world in exactly the same fashion is disheartening and surely in need of a change.

This contributed greatly to our lack of understanding as a community about the outcry from India. Australians didn’t respond to the chorus of disapproval from the Indian students, taxi drivers or media because deep down, no matter how bad someone might have it in Sydney or Melbourne, we mistakenly believe that it has to be better than living in India – which is clearly no longer the case. The drop in numbers of international students from India[18] proves that for some people staying home, or choosing another country – and increasingly it’s another one in Asia – will be a better option than having to buy fake certificates, bribe migration agents and live a hand to mouth existence in a dangerous suburb, all to satisfy Australia’s shifting permanent residency point system. [19]

But those who contest that Australia is a racist country – like Mohit Suri, the director of the Bollywood movie Crook: It’s Good to be Bad – have forgotten what a racist country looks like; Melbourne is in no way similar to Johannesburg during apartheid, or Kampala under Idi Amin, and suggestions or blatant assertions that it is are doing more harm than good. Suri’s film is so inaccurate that even the spokesman for the Indian Students Association, Gautam Gupta, slammed it for the ‘unfair and incorrect’ portrayal of Melbourne. [20] And the director’s answer to the claim that the film is poorly – some have said shockingly – researched should also be condemned for its ignorance: ‘I have just made a film based on my judgement. At 28, don’t expect me to have a cure to racism worldwide. I have just expressed my opinion.’ [21]

Unfortunately having an opinion or a feeling simply doesn’t cut it, not for such an important topic. Mr Suri may just be out to entertain, but he knows very well that as a director making a film based on controversial contemporary race-based material he was contributing to the dialogue as a member of the intelligentsia. He should have been trying to raise the standards of the discourse, not drag it into the strip club.

There is an inherent oxymoron in the argument put forward by the Indian media that Australia is a racist country. On the one hand, it is posited that many of the young Indian students are simply studying there in order to gain permanent residency, commonly referred to as PR, so that they can stay in Australia indefinitely. But what is left unsaid is that if Australia really was a racist country – where, for example, ethnic minorities were routinely legislated against, denied employment, housing, medical treatment and the right to vote – the foreign students wouldn’t want to study there in the first place, let alone contemplate staying on to bring up their families.

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s apology to the indigenous population of Australia – who, if they were indigenous in India, would unashamedly be called Scheduled Tribe by the government, or ‘Tribals’ for short, and ‘backward’[22] – was not something he dreamt up himself. It was demanded by the population, over two and a half lakhs of whom marched across the Sydney Harbour Bridge on ‘Sorry Day’ in the year 2000 to demand the government (then led by John Howard) to apologise. While it is admittedly easier for me to say – as an Anglo descendant of a First Fleeter – that does not seem like the action of a people steeped in racism.

Interracial marriage between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians is also very high; in 2001, the proportion of indigenous adults married to non-indigenous partners was 69% and has been rising steadily since the 1980s. [23] Khushwant Singh, writing in his weekly column for The Telegraph (in Kolkata), had this to say about what he thinks interracial and interreligious marriage indicates – and what the lack of it suggests here in India:

I have come to the conclusion that true integration is achieved only when people of different races, religious beliefs, and castes, speaking different languages, marry and there are no tensions created. Using this as criteria, I conclude we are far from being an integrated society. [24]

Dalanglin and I never had any problems when it came to informing my parents about our proposed union. I didn’t even have to stop to consider it. My sister had already married a Lebanese Australian – whose parents had migrated to Sydney after the civil war in the seventies – and my other sisters had both had interracial, and interreligious, relationships prior to that. For the majority of Australians interracial marriage just isn’t an issue, and even using the term interracial at all seems a bit weird. From my circle of friends in Sydney, I can think of at least half a dozen couples who have a similar story to ours.

It is such a non-issue that my eldest niece, Sariah, had assumed that Dalanglin and I were actually brother and sister. She made this innocent guess, at the age of five, because she’d been taught to refer to my partner as Aunty Dalang and me as Uncle Patrick, and all her other aunties and uncles were siblings. Nothing else about our differing looks, accents or names had seemed out of the ordinary to her, so she thought my parents were Dalang’s parents too. If this is supposed to be a picture of White Australia, then something went seriously wrong along the way.

The ‘Australian’ as portrayed here in the Indian media does not exist. He is a phantom, a ghost conjured to distract India from its own very significant problem with racism – a problem that is avoided constantly by referring to it as communal, or religious violence.

Let’s frame it another way: What does it say about India when Indian students want to migrate to the so-called racist Australia in their thousands? Do they consider it a better place? If so, why?

The Indian taxi drivers in Melbourne – who have legitimate claims about the right to a safe workplace – were not denied the opportunity to migrate to Australia. Nor were they deprived of the right to work as taxi drivers, as opposed to say, Maharashtra, where the Shiv Sena recently made a demand of the state government to ban non-Marathi drivers from the state, [25] or, in a similar but no less offensive example, my home state of Meghalaya, where the Jaiñtia Youth Federation (JYF) recently issued a statement, through its former president M.H. Dkhar, asking all non-tribal drivers to vacate their jobs.

That has been a glaring omission in all the polarized reporting of the recent events in Australia. Those taxi drivers would have a much harder time of it in Mumbai or Meghalaya than in Melbourne – and the demands made on them by right wing groups would be far more sinister; the Shiv Sena can be called a lot of things, but peaceful is not one of them. They have a well documented history of backing up their political demands with violence, [26] as do the students’ unions in Meghalaya[27] and the other states of the Indian Union.

M.H. Dkhar’s statement is worth quoting here because of the direct threat it gives to these ‘non-tribal’ drivers:

In the interest of the unemployed youth and residents of our area and in order to preserve the socio-economic development of our area, we appeal to all non-tribal drivers and those owning or driving other passenger vehicles to immediately vacate their jobs failing which we will not take any responsibility for any untoward incidents in future (my italics). [28]

It is hard to know where to start with this quote. The tribals and non-tribals are both Indian: many tribals from the Northeast work outside the region in mainland India and mainland Indians, permanent residents, Nepalese, Non Resident Indians and Persons of Indian Origin – in theory – have the same right to come and work here. If the non-tribals are in the country illegally, say from Bangladesh, then it’s a simple matter of checking their work permits and deporting those without papers. But the demand for these legitimate non-tribals to give up their employment is nothing more than asking one group of Indian citizens (or permanent residents) to give up their jobs so that another group of Indian citizens can have those same jobs, for no other reason except for their ethnicity – which is, undeniably, racist.

The ramifications of this move are not outlined in the statement but are easy to deduce from asking a few simple questions. What are the non-tribal drivers supposed to do for money to support their families when they give up their positions? And how will the unemployment figures be changed by simply swapping one group of drivers for another? The answer to the first question is that the JYF do not care, and the answer to the second question is that they won’t affect the unemployment figures of the state negatively because the non-tribals are meant to leave their jobs and their homes. In other words, the statement from Dkhar is not only a call to ban the non-tribals from working in Meghalaya; it is a call for them to leave altogether.

The futility of this can only be understood by explaining something of the Khasi-Jaiñtia system for naming the various clans. Anyone with Dkhar as a name, or Khar attached to another name, as in Kharkongor or Kharmawphlang, is originally descended from a plains person – Dkhar being a local, often derisive, term for plains people. The changes in the names occurred when a Khasi or Jaiñtia man married a non-tribal woman, and in light of the matrilineal system she would be granted a new (sub-clan) name – which means that M.H. Dkhar himself is descended partly from a non-tribal ancestor. And any call to have non-tribals leave the state is going against the history of Khasi-Jaiñtia culture, which – as evidenced in the previous example – was an inclusive one that found ways of incorporating outsiders into the community.

One of the easiest ways to pick a newcomer from India in Australia is to see how long he or she holds your gaze. I clearly remember shopping at Woolworths in Neutral Bay – which had quite a few Indians and Nepalese on staff – and coming across a fresh face. He openly stared at Dalanglin, then at me, and then back to Dalanglin, the whole time he was scanning our groceries. He was not put off if we stared back, and he clearly didn’t feel any embarrassment about the attention he was giving us, which was no doubt due to the fact that he was trying to work out our relationship – possibly speculating as to how we got together and where my wife came from.

Staring is usually interpreted – particularly by young male bogans – as a sign of aggression in Australia. Much like his distant cousin the gorilla, a young man on a train in Sydney will interpret the stare as a challenge, and something to be defended against. It’s where the rhetorical question What are you looking at? came from. Don’t stare at me, or I will beat my chest.

While writing this piece, I chanced across this passage from Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, which discusses the problem directly:

In the pub, the Chatterton Arms, sat ageing Teddy Boys in drape coats…there were vicious rockers too…and there were a couple of skinheads with their girls, in brogues, Levi’s, Crombies and braces…They were a little startled to see two hippies and a Paki walk in; there were some conversations on the subject and several glances in our direction, so I made sure we didn’t eyeball them and give them reason to get upset. All the same, I was nervous they might jump on us when we left. [29] (75)

The narrator is an English born person of Indian origin – from his father’s side – who understands the cultural etiquette of being inside a British pub: do not stare. To do so would be to invite trouble. But no such custom exists in India. It is quite normal for me to be stared at as a foreigner here, and also for loud comments to be made about my height, what I’m eating, and for me to pay extra for everything from taxis through to entry inside museums.

It is also routine – though outrageous – for women, particularly younger women, especially if they are unaccompanied by males, to be stared at, groped, spat on, secretly video-taped, molested, verbally assaulted and abducted, depending on the area of India they are travelling in. To be a foreign woman, well, it’s the worst of both worlds. [30]

The point is: young men here are accustomed to staring at women and foreigners – regardless of whether it is out of curiosity, sexual interest or financial gain – and for nothing to happen in return. When you are in your own backyard, you run the proceedings. But in someone else’s you have to make some minor adjustments for your own self-preservation. The moral being: Do not stare at bogans.

Perhaps it’s a stretch, but I think a lot of the current race controversy between Australia and India started with the Andrew Symonds affair. It first broke in Australia through the Fox 8 program, An Aussie Goes Bolly – a travelogue by Gus Worland, who followed around the Australian Cricket Team on a tour of India. Worland had been sitting in the stands during a one day match between Australia and India in Mumbai, and clearly heard the racist banter that was being directed towards Symonds by the Indian supporters – which consisted mainly of the chant ‘Symonds is a monkey, Symonds is a monkey, Symonds is a monkey’. He also got footage of the sign that read ‘How come monkey between kangaroos?’ that had an image of Symonds face pasted to it. [31]

It was bad enough for the normally jolly Worland to become incensed and openly confront the main culprits. The incident was followed by a spat between Symonds and Harbhajan Singh on the return tour in Australia[32] where, on field, Harbhajan was alleged to have said, ‘Why are you behaving like such a monkey?’ [33]

For my white friends in Sydney these incidents seemed bizarre, and they had problems understanding them. One of the things this situation betrayed, in particular, was how ignorant white people are of racism among the non-white populations of the world.

In trying to explain this to them I would use the enmity between mainland Indians and Indians from the Northeast as an example of the overt racism – mixed with class and religious prejudice – that exists in all stratums of Indian society.

The reaction from my friends was telling, ‘But they’re both brown,’ said one. And another: ‘How can they be racist? They’re Indian.’ Which seemed to imply that only white people can be prejudiced. This in itself is a racist assertion and an example of how far we still have to go in overcoming the problem.

Of course, the non-white world knows only too well that most whites think that racism is, and has been historically, a ‘whites only’ problem and they have been able to get away with murder – quite literally – because of it. The postcolonial guilt of the Anglo-world seems to be such that no educated firangi will dare criticize a non-white person – with the exception of dictators that have been officially condemned by the UN Secretary General – for fear of the dreaded postcolonial reprobation: being labelled a Racist. The term is something so toxic for the average educated white-person that – forget hubris – by and large we appear to have become self-hating.

Perhaps this is the reason that the Western media have adopted loaded terms like ‘religious violence’ and ‘communal clashes’ and why the Government of India is so keen to make sure that caste violence is not classified as racist violence – evidenced most recently in their successful campaign to make sure the two weren’t made equal at the 2009 ‘World Conference on Racism’ in Geneva. [34] They managed it on a technicality by insisting that caste had nothing to do with race – restricting the conversation to Dalits. But this is of little consolation to the tribes of the Northeast, who, being of different races to the rest of mainland India, are not even included in the caste system. They are actually not on the ladder, being considered, in policy and in everyday interactions with the mainland and its inhabitants, as being beneath Dalits. That is, beneath those who formerly went by the name Untouchables.

Another significant racist incident we experienced in Sydney was of this nature, being Indian against Indian. In a suburban mall in Ashfield – a locality in Sydney’s inner west with a large Asian population – my wife and I were doing some browsing through clothes stalls. As Dalanglin lifted up a shirt to see how it would look on me we were passed by a group of four or five men who were conversing loudly in Punjabi.

They looked at us and one of them started chanting ‘Nep, Nep, Nep’ while the others broke into laughter. I didn’t punch anyone in the face, but I sure felt like it. They had carried their prejudice of the Nepalese with them to Australia and had mistaken my wife for one because of her northeastern features, which in Delhi leads locals to call students from the Northeast Chinkys and accounts for the substandard treatment they receive from auto-wallahs, landlords, the police and restaurant staff. This treatment is so common that there was a concerted effort by the various spokespersons of the NGOs representing the tribes of the Northeast to link this racist behaviour with the reports of attacks in Australia – as evidenced in the following quote from a Times Of India story:

‘Media is abuzz with episodes of attacks on Indians in Australia, but many of the incidents of attacks on India’s northeastern people in India itself remain shrouded in oblivion. We condemn the attacks on Indians in Australia but we want an end to abuse and beating of northeastern boys and girls, mostly in India’s capital city. All the cases are of racial nature,’ said Madhu Chandra, spokesperson of North East Support Centre and Helpline, New Delhi… [35]

As well as linking these reports to Australia, the statements indicate just how well the Government of India did in influencing the outcome of the World Conference on Racism in Geneva. The attacks suffered by tribals from the Northeast in Delhi, and elsewhere in mainland India, have nothing to do with caste but everything to do with race. Looks are the most significant part of the equation – there is a roaring trade done in India for fairness creams, with fair (or white) being seen as beautiful and dark (black) considered ugly, as are ‘Chinky eyes’ – but culture also plays a role.

Recently a good friend of ours from Delhi was on furlough back here in Shillong with his young family. A proud father, he told us how well the children were doing with Hindi – their third language, after Khasi and English – and implored the eldest one to sing for us. But when talking about how things were for her at school one thing stuck out. Only six years old, the girl had asked her mother specifically to stop packing rice in her lunch tiffin because it had distinguished her as different. Being culturally closer to Southeast Asia, rice is a staple in Northeast India and eaten with every meal – yet it is not so in Delhi, where taking roti (unleavened flatbread) is more common. It turned out that the girl’s classmates had started to call her ‘Chinky’ because she was not eating roti like the rest of them – and because she looked slightly different.

These are not isolated incidents:

‘Not only Australia, India too is racist,’ Gyati Talo, a 32-year-old teacher and blogger from Arunachal Pradesh said. ‘I was being chased and verbally abused by a bunch of youngsters in a Delhi lane. They abused me because of my short stature and mongoloid features. After the incident, I stopped coming out alone at night during my three-year stay in the city.’ [36]

‘It’s sad that students from Northeast India who go to study in various parts of India have to undergo racial prejudice. My daughter also studied in New Delhi. I was surprised when she told me over the phone during her stay in the city that her fellow students in the colleges call her a Chinky, because of her mongoloid features, and she was depressed,’ said noted Assamese poet and columnist Samir Tanti. [37]

And even though the scheduled tribes and scheduled castes are referred to as minority groups, we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that we are talking about a small amount of people here. In the last Indian census of 2001 the tribal population of India was estimated to be 8.2% of the population – a staggering 84,326,240 people, or four times the entire population of Australia. [38] Focusing specifically on the Northeast of India – what are often called the Seven Sister states – we can see that this racism is not something that is recent, but has a history going back at least fifty years. In particular, the derogatory term Chinky can be traced back to 1962 Indo-China war:

During the 1962 Indo-China war there were lots of instances, especially in North India, where any person looking like a Chinese was termed as ‘Chinky’…It was a pejorative term used mainly for people coming from the (Northeast) region and was extremely racist in its overtones. [39]

The Government of India has not helped matters by its way of dealing with militancy in the area. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which – apart from Jammu & Kashmir – is only in effect in the Northeast, has been a huge source of friction in the region, and has made the racism between both sides worse:

The AFSPA gives the armed forces wide powers to shoot, arrest and search, all in the name of ‘aiding civil power.’ It was first applied to the North Eastern states of Assam and Manipur and was amended in 1972 to extend to all the seven states in the northeastern region of India. They are Assam, Manipur, Tripura, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland…The enforcement of the AFSPA has resulted in innumerable incidents of arbitrary detention, torture, rape, and looting by security personnel. This legislation is sought to be justified by the Government of India, on the plea that it is required to stop the Northeast states from seceding from the Indian Union. [40]

The act has made it seem as if the government has a foreign policy for its own citizens. This is chiefly because there has been a strong movement in the Northeast for self-determination, which precedes the formation of the Indian Union. In effect, in the eyes of the military – through legislation like AFSPA – the Government of India has labelled the tribes of the Northeast as the Enemy and the end result is that the population often oblige by returning the favour. A parallel with the Intervention of the Howard Government is easy to make here, in that the Commonwealth Government, through elevating the rights of children above those of an entire community, have also implemented (and maintained) a specific policy for a group of its citizens, which curbs their rights, based only on their ethnicity.

At the start of 2010 we had a lot of family engagements and social occasions to attend here in Shillong, and I lost count of the amount of times that I was questioned about the attacks on Indians in Australia. Alarmingly, I found that my arguments for why Australia is not a racist country were not needed. The reason? Quite a few of the Khasis that I met were of the opinion that the Indians who had been attacked in Australia deserved the treatment they were getting – because the Khasis in question did not see themselves as Indian, and remember a time when such race attacks were really (as opposed to allegedly) carried out against the Bengali and Nepali speaking populations of Shillong in the racist riots of the seventies, eighties and early nineties. [41] If anything, they approved of the reports and could identify with the idea of keeping foreigners out. And this view that the students were ‘asking for it’ was not just from the uneducated, or the Khasi.

At the Writer’s Ball, on the final night of last year’s Jaipur Literature Festival, I had the misfortune to get seated next to a former Indian Diplomat, and poet, who – among other things – claimed at one time to have been the Consular General of the Indian Embassy in Australia. For him, a resident of Rajasthan, rather than the story being about race, the violence in Melbourne was all about class and he concurred with the crass belief that the victims ‘deserved it’. He used the phrase ‘they don’t know how to behave’ more than once, in reference to the Indian students he described as being ‘ignorant provincials’.

I didn’t agree with him – no one ‘deserves’ to be the victim of violence while travelling to and from work, or college – and found myself wanting to find a middle path. As an Australian Citizen and a Person of Indian Origin Card Holder (through marriage) – or a bogan with an Asian family – I cannot see a winner in this debate, and I feel like the kid in the middle of a family argument screaming SHUT UP, because I can see that the yelling is getting us nowhere.

The situation in Melbourne – and between Australia and India generally – is far more complex than has been portrayed in either nation’s media, with the result that neither country can, or should, try to claim the moral high ground.


Southerly, Issue 70.3, Pages 167-87, April 2011.

Listen to Patrick in conversation with Deborah Cameron on ABC702 mornings talking about ‘The Men Who Stare At Bogans’.


[1] “Bogan.” Macquarie Dictionary, 2010.

[2] Sheehan, Paul. “Brutal Truth About Attacks.” Sydney Morning Herald June 10 2009.

[3] Sharma, Pranay. “Do You Speak Australian?” Outlook India February 08 2010.

[4] Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “The Danger of a Single Story.” TED (2009).

[5] “Census Data.” Australian Bureau of Statistics (2010). February 18 <>.

[6] Overland, Simon. “We Are Fighting a Rising Tide of Assaults on Our Streets.” Herald Sun June 02 2009.

[7] Colebatch, Tim. “Asia-Born Population Matching Local Born.” The Age July 30 2010.

[8] “Indian Boy Hit on Face in Oz.” Times Of India October 29 2010.

[9] Rana, Yudhvir. “Is Melbourne Becoming Another Kampala for Indians?” Times Of India November 1 2010.

[10] Robinson, Natasha, & Findlay, Aaron. “Indian Media Ignore Killing.” The Australian January 30 2010.

[11] Anderson, Paul. “Housemate Pleads Guilty to Manslaughter of Gurshan Singh Channa” Herald Sun September 7 2010.

[12] Anderson, Paul. “Indian Man Who Claimed He Was Set Alight by Thugs after He Suffered Burns While Trying to Torch His Car to Claim Insurance Avoids Jail ” Herald Sun May 3 2010

[13] “India Expresses ‘Serious Concern’ over Attacks; Seeks Report.” Indian Express July 27 2009.

[14] Penberthy, David. “Now Even Indians Are Attacking Indians.” The Punch July 28 2009. <>.

[15] “Teen Pleads Guilty over Murder of Indian Student Nitin Garg.” Herald Sun October 22 2010.

[16] “Over 300 Killed in Cloudburst, Flash Floods in Jammu & Kashmir: Relief Minister.” Daily News & Analysis (2010). October 5 <>.

[17] Lange, Roy. “In the West or in the East?” Unpublished essay. Melbourne, February 22 2010.

[18] Colebatch, Tim. “Asia-Born Population Matching Local Born.” The Age July 30 2010.

[19] “Oz Point System for Students.” Times Of India November 11 2010.

[20] Press Trust Of India. “Indian Students in Oz Slam Inaccurate Crook.” Melbourne, October 15 2010. <>.

[21] Sharma, Neha. “Crook Panned by Oz Media.” The Hindustan Times October 18 2010.

[22] State Government of Tamil Nadu. “8.1. Welfare of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes.” Ed. State Planning Commission. Chennai, 2002. 10th 5 Year Plan. Accessed November 6 2010 <>.

[23] “Census Data.” Australian Bureau of Statistics (2010). February 18 <>.

[24] Singh, Khushwant. “The Godman in Trouble.” The Telegraph Kolkata, January 16 2010.

[25] “Not Lived in Maharashtra for 15 Yrs? Can’t Get Taxi Permit.” Times Of India January 20 2010.

[26] “Bala Saheb Justifies Attack on Zee TV.” Express India (2006). Accessed November 18 2010 <>.

[27] Haokip, Thongkholal. “Inter-Ethnic Relation in Meghalaya.” Social Research On North East India: Issues And Challenges. Ed. North East India Study Programme (2010) February 25-26, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

[28] “JYF Asks Non-Tribal Drivers to Leave Job.” Mawphor Today Shillong, March 22 2010.

[29] Kureishi, Hanif. The Buddha of Suburbia. Faber Firsts. 2009 ed. London: Faber & Faber, 1990.

[30] Taylor, Catherine. “Mad for Mumbai.” The Australian October 9 2010.

[31] Walshaw, Nick. “How Gus Took on India over Monkey Chants” The Daily Telegraph January 6 2008.

[32] “Harbhajan Banned over Symonds Abuse.” January 7 2008. <>.

[33] In an interesting twist, Symonds has now been signed to play for the Mumbai Indians – the home team of the city that vilified him – and will be a teammate of Harbhajan Singh in the 2011 IPL competition.

[34] “UN Racism Conference Fails on Caste-Based Discrimination.” Human Rights Watch (2009). April 22 <>.

[35] “Northeast Students Question ‘Racism’ in India.” The Times Of India June 6 2009. <,prtpage-1.cms>.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Government of India. “Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribes Population.” Ed. Ministry of Home Affairs. New Delhi: Office of The Registrar General & Census Commissioner, India, 2001. Accessed November 16 2010 <>.

[39] Chandra, Vaishalli. “Yes, ‘Chinky’ Is a Racist Word, Says Naga Activist Kikon.” Daily News & Analysis (2010). September 26 <>.

[40] “Armed Forces Special Powers Act: A Study in National Security Tyranny.” (1995). Accessed November 1 2010 <>.

[41] Choudhury, Samrat. “Shillong Remixed.” The Hindustan Times October 12 2007, sec. Travel.