'Poverty porn' and the politics of representation


Indian Student Protest Flickr image by scissorhands33 The attacks on Indian students have had two intriguing outcomes. First, the Indian community in Australia, which includes the established community and the more recently arrived students, seems to be divided. Second, the Indian media is relentlessly portraying  Australia as a racist country, and Australia is having to try to clear itself of a racist image. Both of these outcomes bear deeper probing.

Australia's Indian-born population has grown sizably over the past few decades. There is a well-established Indian community in most Australian cities. In the past few years there has been a rapid increase in the Indian student population as well: an estimated 90,000 Indian students are currently in Australia.

For a long time the Indian community mixed easily with the wider Australian community. But with the large-scale arrival of Indian students, the Indian community has emerged as a visible ethnic 'other'.

The entrenched Indian community, perhaps already uncomfortable with the increasing number of students, is now in a confrontational mood. They see the vocal student protests following the attacks in Melbourne and Sydney, and the portrayal of Australia as racist by the Indian media, as having the potential to harm the relationship that the Indian community has nurtured over the years with the wider community.

The role of the Indian media has been significant. The incidents in Australia have been widely and prominently reported. But the reporting clearly overstates the degree of racism in Australian society.

So much so that the Australian Government arranged for Indian journalists to tour Australia, and for an educational delegation to visit India, in order to allay fears of racist violence in Australia. The delegation also addressed media conferences in an attempt to persuade the media to take a more informed and balanced approach.

These efforts could be seen as economically motivated — after all, the overseas student industry has emerged as an important sector of the Australian economy. But they also reflect a concern to preserve Australia's reputation as a multicultural society. This could be undermined if Australia were represented as 'racist' .

Representation plays a crucial role in creating 'otherness'. India has dealt with its own issues of representation during the era of colonisation. In post-colonial times any depreciatory depiction of the country is seen as a continuation of the colonial mentality. From travelogues to feature films, all come under the scanner of the educated Indian middle-class, a vociferous critic of this representational mentality.

For example, although the international recognition of Indian artists involved with the Oscar winning film Slumdog Millionaire was cause for celebration, the film itself was fiercely criticised for depicting India in a derogatory, uni-dimensional way. Some critics claimed it reflected a Western fascination with 'poverty porn'.

More severely critiqued by this Indian middle-class, are Indians themselves who produce representational works for Western consumption. Last year's Booker prize winning book The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga elicited a strong reaction for its representation of India. In the past, filmmaker Satyajit Ray, authors V S Naipaul, Arundhati Roy and others had to go through the same kind of scrutiny.

The rapidly growing Indian middle-class of today is educated, entrepreneurial and informed. It takes pride not only in the economic rise of India, but also in its robust democratic system that has withstood a number of challenges over the last six decades. Moreover, this generation does not share the burden of the collective memory of being colonised. Hence, there is a desire for equity and equitable treatment.

A large section of the Indian media comes from this middle-class background. The incidents in Australia have not only provided them with juicy stories, but have allowed them to play the 'politics of representation' in challenging the equitable, democratic claims of Australian society.

But in the process of representing Australia as racist, the Indian media seems to have forgotten that it engages in the same enterprise that it intends to oppose. It loses sight of the power of representation and of the hurt it can cause.

The effects of representation can be seen both at the community and the government level, and the cordial relationship between two countries now needs to be reaffirmed.

Tulsi BishtTulsi C. Bisht is a freelance researcher and writer with a PhD in Anthropology from the La Trobe University. He has worked with voluntary organisations, Government of India and the United Nations Mission in Haiti. Tulsi is currently developing a research project on issues of climate change and human security in South Asia region.

Topic tags: Tulsi Bisht, race violence, australia, indian students, racist



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Existing comments

Dear Mr Bisht,

There is definitely racism in Australia. I can give ample evidence if you care to listen.

There is no 'dictation-test' these days. But there is mild and hardcore discrimination.
Karuppan Chockalingam | 28 July 2009

I just want to know why Indians suddenly seem to hate Australia so much.

A paltry, small number of assaults, most of which can be put down to routine crime, is enough to convince all of India's media that Australia is a "Land of racists!"

When an Indian undercover journalist is attacked in Australia while investigating immigration scammers, the tabloids scream "Yes, it's racism!". But they completely ignore the widely fact that the people she was investigating were Indian.

So why are so many Indians determined to think ill of us, all of the sudden? And why are they still clamouring for visas here at the same time?
Flavian Hardcastle | 28 July 2009

Until we all acknowledge that we carry racism within us we will no doubt continue to point the finger at each other. Yes, Australia carries a racist undertone, just like the historical Hindu/Moslem violence in Inda indicates the same thing there. We can never excuse racism, ethnic jokes, sexism etc. so the first step needs to be to choose every day to rid ourselves of such oppressive prejudices.
Leigh Newton | 31 July 2009

We should learn from history.Early chinese immigrants were accepted while they were toiling on remote goldfields for us, but were set upon when they started to achieve economic success. if we allow indian students to work for a pittance in menial jobs others won't do, we should not be surprised when some under-achieving aussies resent the indians who study, become citizens and buy a bmw.

Cowards will usually attack the vulnerable; in this case the students. the issue is latent class resentment, not racism. Stop the exploitation and the issue will moderate to the tiny bunch of aussie xenophobes.
peter matters | 31 July 2009

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