After weeks of refuting allegations of Australian racism, PM Kevin Rudd may be pulling an about-face. In response to a spate of violent attacks against Indian students, Rudd announced Thursday that he would consider a new set of federal laws aimed at curbing violence against overseas students. The amendment would strengthen the powers of police to respond to attacks, and also make “inciting violence” against an individual, on the basis of race, a federal offence.
It’s a move that was slow in coming. The first of the assaults—which left a 21-year-old student in a coma after he was stabbed with a screwdriver—took place over a month ago. Since then, over a dozen such incidents have been reported. But Australian officials have steadfastly denied that the attacks were racially motivated. Police said the violence was nothing but pedestrian street crime; Indian students were “soft” targets because they were walking alone at night. Rudd similarly dismissed race as a motive, calling the violence “just a regrettable fact of urban life.”
That dismissal sent hundreds to the streets in protest. It also provoked a barrage of criticism in India, which has threatened to sour diplomatic relations between the two countries. Headlines have denounced “incidents of ‘curry bashing’ ” and admonished Australia’s “racist element.” The Australian government hopes that the new legal measures will quell the mounting anger among Indian residents. But critics charge that they come too late. Early this year, officials launched the Diverse Australia Program in response to racially motivated beatings on two Sydney beaches, but ethnic clashes have still taken place. Now, as the proposed laws are being considered, Rudd warns Indian students to resist taking “vigilante action.”