Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 08:17 | SYDNEY
Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 08:17 | SYDNEY

India media the only winner


Rory Medcalf


12 October 2009 11:45

I've just returned from a visit to New Delhi, where, even though my main interest was nuclear disarmament and arms control,  almost every conversation included a reference to the controversy over the welfare of Indian students in Australia. Those discussions clarified a few of my thoughts on the subject.

First, the damage to Australia's image in India is bad but not beyond repair. And playing the issue with a straight bat is precisely the right approach, as new Australian High Commissioner Peter Varghese did to good effect in this interview on India's leading television talk show, Shekhar Gupta's Walk the Talk. Of course, more will be needed than words. With Foreign Minister Stephen Smith about to leave for India, and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd likely to visit before long, some demonstrable policy changes would help too.

I was struck by the difference between the private and public views of many informed Indians about the student issue. While all feel a compulsion to rally around the flag when their nationals get in strife abroad, many privately acknowledge that this was not a problem entirely of Australia's making, that the Indian media wildly overplayed the story, and that, for instance, a tightening of education visa and permanent residency rules would be recognised in New Delhi as an understandable Australian response that might benefit the relationship (and genuine students) in the long run.

What does seem to be unmovable is the commercially-driven cynicism behind the Indian media's treatment of the story. This is such a pity, given that in many ways the media is a bulwark of India's great democratic achievement. Yet the world's most competitive mass media brings its own bad baggage. In this case, editors and reporters generally know that the reality is much more complex than 'racist' Australians versus naïve and helpless Indian students, but are loath to change the storyline given that it guarantees sales and viewers.

Indeed, I am more and more convinced that the real explanation of the Indian student welfare crisis is an ugly battle between two business beasts. The commercial interests of one multi-billion dollar industry (Australian vocational education providers and Australian and Indian migration agents) have clashed directly with those of another (the Indian media). The victims caught between these two elephants of enterprise gone mad? Indian students – and Australia's good name.

For more, here is a new publication on the Lowy Institute's recently-created Perspectives on India web page. Indian-born journalist Janaki Bahadur draws upon her experience of living in Australia to take a fresh look at the student issue and where it might lead.

Photo by flickr user fawkner5, used under a Creative Commons license.