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Hyperbole, hypothesis and hysteria

By Brad Ruting - posted Thursday, 28 January 2010

If there’s one thing the media - anywhere in the world - likes most, it’s blowing up a story into all manner of hyperbole, hypothesis and hysteria. The Australian media is pretty good at that, but the Indian media beats it by a mile.

The latest headlines about the string of violent attacks on Indian students in Melbourne are about the Victorian Police Commissioner’s admission that a disproportionate number of Indian students have been targeted in robberies and assaults. Somehow this is being interpreted as an admission that all these attacks are racially motivated and that Australia (specifically, Melbourne) has a problem with racism. Indian newspapers and television stations are giving the matter no shortage of attention, and Indian politicians are starting to see the electoral appeal of acting tough against Australia.

Perhaps these attacks are racist, but that’s not what Chief Commissioner Simon Overland said. His statement was an empirical observation: a larger proportion of Indian-born people in the Melbourne area have been the victims of such crimes than their proportion in the overall population.


But that’s something we all knew. The police never denied it. It’s not news, it’s a simple reading of the statistics.

Except it is news. It’s headline material - as was the police statement that there is no evidence that the arson attack on a Sikh temple in suburban Melbourne was racially motivated. The Indian media are incensed - Australia is a racist country and retaliation is necessary!

But let’s think about this a bit more deeply. The perpetrators of the arson attack on that temple and of the tragic stabbing of Nitin Garg have not yet been caught. The motives of these unknown persons are pure speculation. Reading about these attacks certainly stirs the emotions, but the more I read, the more I find myself on the side of - shock horror - the Victorian Police.

The police have the difficult task of hunting down and arresting criminals. Whether racially motivated or not, these crimes are still crimes: A stabbing of an Indian student deserves as much police resources as any other random violent attack. The Law is meant to be blind to race, ethnicity and religion. Unless there is evidence of persistent racism behind these attacks (and there may well be; I am not well acquainted with all the cases and their details), there are few rational grounds for piling on scarce police resources at the expense of other investigations.

Caution, vigilance and investigative rigour are needed, not knee-jerk reactions and kowtowing to media opinion.

The problem is that if the police jumped upon the explanations the media are proffering without a solid basis behind them, investigations would be prejudiced and it could be harder to track down those responsible. It is certainly possible that the majority of violent attacks against Indians are motivated by racial spite and hate. But that does not mean that we should jump to that conclusion in all individual cases.


What other possible explanations could there be? Well, Mr Garg could have been attacked by someone he knew, about a personal or business matter, or maybe he was mistaken for someone else. Likewise, the fire in the Sikh temple could have had something to do with disagreements between members of the Indian community in Australia. Or grievances between an individual Sikh and the people who ran the temple. Or an upset property developer. Or insurance fraud.

This is all pure hypothesising and I admit it. Some explanations are more likely than others, but we need evidence to rule out different possibilities. The police cannot ignore these. Racism is hard to prove - unless the perpetrator admits to it, it can sometimes be the last factor left after other motives have been ruled out.

One day we will know the answers. Be patient. (But if racism is not the cause, chances are the media will have lost interest.)

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About the Author

Brad Ruting is a geographer and economist, with interests in the labour market, migration, tourism, urban change, sustainable development and economic policy. Email:

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