Anjali Thakur is living in fear in India. She is a mother afraid for her son. "We are all having sleepless nights," Thakur says.
Her son isn’t in a war zone or even a country known to be dangerous. He is a student in Melbourne, Australia. “Three years back when we sent him,” she says, “it was one of the safest places for the children to go.” The Australian government says it is still safe but a spate of vicious attacks on Indian students in recent weeks has parents like Thakur and hundreds of students shaken and angry. From Melbourne to Victoria to Sydney Indian students say they are targets of racially motivated attacks. At least 10 Indian students have been attacked over the past month, the most severe case left an Indian student in a coma, another student was stabbed in the stomach, and a third left with a nasty black eye. So far more than a dozen arrests have been made. Australia authorities say they don’t believe the attacks and robberies are racially motivated but instead crimes of opportunity against soft targets: students who typically travel alone at night on public transportation. But hundreds of Indian students see it differently. They have reacted with protests in at least three Australian cities. Police say at one point Indian students decided to take the law into their own hands and retaliate which has been condemned in both India and Australia. The situation has gotten so much attention Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has made several statements on the matter, insisting the attacks are isolated incidents. In an interview on Australian radio he said: “Every city has violence, let’s put this into perspective, and Australia I’m advised on the statistics is one of the safest countries in the world for international students.” In India though the perception of a safe Australia has been shattered partly due to the widespread publicity of the recent cases. The story has been front page news for days while local television media has been going with breaking news every time it receives a report of an Indian student attacked anywhere in Australia. Political tension has even bubbled up between India and Australia with India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh addressing the attacks and asking Australia does something to safeguard India’s young people. Australia has responded with a 10-point action plan to help safeguard students. A helpline has also been set up. As for Anjali Thakur, she says her son has lived in Australia for three years and never experienced violence; in fact she says he didn’t even know about the attacks in Melbourne where he lives until she called him to warn him. But Thakur has been watching the news in India and seeing a totally different picture of Australia. “It’s a lovely beautiful peaceful country,” Thakur says, “but now what you see on TV and what you hear, that’s a total contrast to what we know of Australia.” The Thakur family has responded by refusing to let the youngest son study in Australia and keeping their eldest son from enrolling in a master’s program at his university. If that kind of sentiment spreads, it could have serious consequences for Australia’s $12.6 billion-a-year education export industry. More than 80,000 students from India study =in Australia. “Any parent will tell you,” Thakur says, “they are not going to send a child for the best education in the world at the cost of his life.”