Rocky road to repairing Indian relationship

Gautam Gupta, former spokesman for the Federation of Indian Students.
Gautam Gupta, former spokesman for the Federation of Indian Students.

WHEN Indian students took to the streets of Melbourne three years ago to protest against violent and racist attacks, Gautam Gupta was their voice. Now, he says, Australia is slowly emerging from the reputational damage of that period but there is still a level of caution, if not fear, in the Indian community.

''Things have changed, things have calmed down a lot,'' he says.

''There's a lot more confidence that the streets are safer and [Indian] people are not taking the risky jobs that they used to or catching trains late at night … most people have stopped doing all those things, they have tried to protect themselves and take adequate precautions.''

As spokesman for the Federation of Indian Students of Australia, Mr Gupta was at the centre of a debate about the safety of Indian students studying in Melbourne that came to a head after the murder of accountancy graduate Nitin Garg in a Yarraville park in January, 2010.

High-ranking Indian politicians and diplomats condemned the murder as ''an attack on humanity''.

The attack, which was later shown not to be racially motivated, sparked diplomatic tension between the two countries and jeopardised Australia's multibillion-dollar international student industry.

Mr Gupta, a hearing specialist, says a rash of attacks created an impression of a hostile, aggressive country, but the situation has improved since then.

''It takes a long time for perceptions to change. Even if that reality has changed, the message has to filter through [and] at this stage the Australian government needs to do a lot more to get the messaging correct.''

He recalls that in 2005 and 2006 Australia was perceived as a peaceful place and regarded as one of the top five countries in which to study.

''I think it is in top five for a different reason now. It is seen as a much more aggressive place as it was involved in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, so people are questioning if that aggression in the battlefield is now on the streets … Who wants to be exposed to unfair living conditions, whether there is crime or racism or anything that is negative? No one would spend $100,000 and go in that kind of environment.''

While he is no longer with the Federation of Indian Students of Australia, Mr Gupta is still focused on helping migrants stay safe.

He has just completed a book, Living and working Melbourne: A survival guide, based on his experience here. It will be published in November.

This story Rocky road to repairing Indian relationship first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.