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On your bus

On your bus
Learning Indonesia

It’s the 604: a public bus that begins its journey in the congested south of Jakarta and winds its way towards the even more congested heart of the city.

The bus has an orange and blue exterior with the route number printed on the front. It’s decorated with fast swirls and dynamic patterns. Inside there are rows of plastic seats with leg-room for people with short legs. At the front the driver has surrounded himself with colourful stickers and wind chimes. The bare metal structure is a deep red brown. A combination of dirt, rust and metal fatigue gives one the impression of travelling inside a rotting log.

The passengers sit or stand, calmly squashed together. A young man holds a wad of notes in his left hand and jingles coins in his right. The passengers respond, reaching into pockets, handing over the fare. I have the exact fare ready so my wallet stays in my pocket. I don’t want to attract attention.

A baby sits wide-eyed in its mother’s lap. The young man, having collected the fares, yells out the doorway at pedestrians, soliciting potential passengers.

I sit forward in my seat to cool the sweat on my back and I notice the stares from the other passengers. It is not often they see a bule (‘boo-lay’: Westerner) this far from the hotel, let alone one travelling on a bus.

Although the attention makes me feel like an alien it also heightens the sense of adventure. I am experiencing what few of my kind ever do—but not without a sense of anxiety. I eye everyone with suspicion. I am out of my element and although I’m trying hard to look relaxed I suspect they can tell. The driver guides the bus through an impossible gap in the traffic and the toot of the horn startles me. The street officially has six lanes but today there seem to be ten, as is the will of the motorists.

A coin is rapped against the window and the bus slows. A man in the street wishes to board. He runs alongside, then leaps on. Further ahead we stop. A sea of gridlocked vehicles stretches into the distance. The only movement is the delicate weaving of the motorbikes through the mess. Finally, they too come to a halt.

A young man takes advantage of the gridlock and steps confidently onto the bus. He has a ragged look and wild eyes, and carries an old guitar covered in stickers. He begins to play. The chords alone sound harsh and tuneless. But then he sings and I am drawn by the simple poignancy of his song. I notice the dirt on his clothes and the sores on his feet, and wonder how someone so ugly can produce something so beautiful. The traffic begins to move and he accepts coins in a plastic cup before exiting.

It’s time for me to get off, and I rise from my seat. As I move towards the door his song is still going through my head. Suddenly some other words come. ‘Hati-hati, Grant. Be careful on the bus.’ My Indonesian friend had told me of a girl who, after catching the bus, had got all the way home before realising that her bag had been slashed. ‘Hati-hati ya, hold your bag in front of you.’

My stop is just up ahead and I step into the doorway. The rushing wind is a welcome relief. I reach up and knock loudly on the ceiling, just like the locals do. The bus slows and I concentrate on the next task: getting off. My Indonesian friend also advised, ‘Step down with your left foot first.’ This is so you can hit the ground running and avoid falling over. I’ve done this before so I’m quite confident.

The bus is going slowly enough for me to get off. And yet I sense something—someone standing close behind me. But I’m too focused on the road to turn. The driver is getting impatient. I lean forward and I’m just stepping out when I feel the slightest of touches, like a shadow in my pocket. I whirl like I’ve been stung, slapping my hand to my pocket. Glancing back as I’m falling out the door, I see a man standing on the second step. His hands are by his sides and he looks so relaxed, so calm. I’m the opposite.

The bitumen greets me unkindly. Legs tangle, stagger, stumble and for a moment I believe I will fall.

Instead, I stand there, watching the bus move away with the pickpocket safe inside. The buildings look down impassively and Indonesia goes about its business as if nothing ever happened.

Turning to face a burning sky, I put my hand in my pocket and realise Jakarta has been kind. Relief mixes with victory. I smile as I pull out my wallet. Today I was too quick for the pickpocket.   

Grant Morgan

Kerala leads
Guarding Indian pluralism

In the southern Indian State of Kerala, the success of the world’s largest democracy, the world’s most religiously diverse secular state, is everywhere evident. In places like Fort Cochin, an ancient trading port on the Malabar Spice Coast, Hindu temples, mosques, a synagogue and churches stand in close and harmonious proximity on a narrow spit of land.

The Jewish community is reported to have arrived as early as the 10th century AD. The mainstream Christian churches followed in the wake of Dutch, Portuguese and British colonial occupation, although there were communities of Syrian Christians long before Europeans even knew of India’s existence. Muslim and Hindu communities similarly pre-date, by centuries, the advent of India as a united and independent state. In Fort Cochin, religion is a private matter of identity. Communal tension is almost unheard of.

Under the palm trees and thunderous downpours of the tropics, Fort Cochin somehow keeps at bay the clamour of urban India. Old trading houses with peeling pastel façades decay elegantly. The tranquil streets are lined with spice warehouses from which waft the aromas of cardamom, pepper, ginger, turmeric and spices that once drew merchants from across the world (Vasco da Gama died here in 1524); now men with traditional weighing scales haggle over the prevailing world market prices.

But then, Kerala itself has always been a place apart. In 1957, it was the first area anywhere in the world to have a democratically elected communist government (which, since then, has never been out of power for longer than five years). Although the present Keralan government is led by the Congress Party, the Communist Party of India maintains a powerful hold over the state. On at least two occasions during my month-long stay, all commerce and most road transport was shut down across the state during a hartal (strike)—the first in support of improved workers’ rights, the second to protest against globalisation. In the biggest cities and the smallest villages, along highways and backwater canals, the hammer and sickle flag flies proudly.

The legacy of both the communist party and other left-leaning governments in the state has been more than simply an international oddity in times when communism is supposedly on the wane. Kerala is renowned for the quality of its education and it consistently records the highest literacy rates (over 90 per cent) of any state in India. The Kottayam district in central Kerala was the first in India to record 100 per cent literacy.

There have been numerous benefits to the state from the prioritisation of education. According to some reports, more than half of the foreign nurses working in the United States are of Keralan origin, and a significant proportion of foreign nationals working in the Gulf countries of the Middle East are Indians from Kerala. Remittances from these workers to their families at home in Cochin, Kasaragod, Kannur, Thiruvananthapuram and Kottayam make an important contribution to the state’s economy.

Other spin-offs are less obvious, but nonetheless of national significance. Kerala is one of the few states where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) (an avowedly Hindu revivalist party which came to prominence as a driving force behind the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodha in December 1992 and now holds power at a national level) has no stronghold, no seats in the state assembly. This, despite the fact that the majority of Kerala’s population is Hindu.

It would be overstating the case to suggest that Kerala is free from communal tension. In 1997 in the small fishing village of Vizhinjam, alongside the beach resort of Kovalam on Kerala’s southern coast, Muslim and Christian fishermen clashed over fishing and mooring rights. Since then, all has been quiet, although teams of fishermen are now either Christian or Muslim, never mixed, and village life takes place against a backdrop of unease and mistrust. The village is now divided into Christian and Muslim quarters.

On the train from Kottayam to Thiruvananthapuram, an amiable Keralan businessman lamented the fact that if it weren’t for the Muslims, some of whom refuse to send their daughters to school, Kerala would long ago have achieved total literacy. Such comments and incidents are significant precisely because they are so rare in Kerala.

Further afield in India, the picture is not quite so promising. On 31 October 2002, the government of Tamil Nadu (which borders Kerala to the east) introduced a bill which would make religious conversion illegal. Proponents of the bill argue that the legislation is designed to prevent forced conversion through blackmail or bribery. You could argue, equally, that it symbolises a threat to secularism in India.

Earlier this year, the state of Gujarat descended into communal riots after a train filled with Hindu pilgrims, reportedly en route to Ayodha to aid construction of a temple on the former mosque site, was attacked by Muslim stallholders. In September, an attack on a Hindu temple in Gujarat’s state capital, Gandhinagar, saw the community once again divided along religious lines. A Hindu friend from Udaipur in Rajasthan told me proudly that she had once employed a Muslim girl because ‘she was so nice, not at all like the other Muslims. If only they could all be like that’.

And then there is Kashmir, a state, a disputed territory which lays bare the communalist angst of secular India. In the lead-up to independence from Britain, the rulers of many semi-autonomous princely states around India, on behalf of their subjects, were given the choice by the British authorities to determine whether they wished to join ‘Hindu India’‚ or ‘Muslim Pakistan’. Kashmir’s population was, and remains, overwhelmingly Muslim. Kashmir’s maharaja at the time was a Hindu. He chose to become part of India, condemning its people to over five decades of conflict.

For Hindus and Muslims alike, Kashmir has become a cause célèbre. Now any Indian government which gave up India’s claim to Kashmir, or even allowed a referendum in the troubled region, would be committing electoral suicide. Pakistan’s serially precarious governments would similarly sign their own death warrants if they allowed Kashmir to slip from their grasp.

A senior Indian naval officer, who liaises on a regular basis with Pakistani officers, told me that he was mystified that the world held Pakistan and India equally responsible when ‘the Pakistanis are the ones in the wrong, so they must take the first step’. Political analysts fill the pages of national newspapers with arguments that if India relinquishes Kashmir, India’s natural geographical barrier—the Himalayas—will no longer be able to protect India, allowing India’s enemies to sweep into the Indian heartland from the north.

In Kashmir, in Gujarat, in Tamil Nadu, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that secularism Indian-style now entails simply the right—even the necessity—to live as separate communities. This is what led to the partition of India and Pakistan in the first place, and against the wishes of India’s spiritual founder, Mahatma Gandhi.

India may be the world’s second largest Muslim nation (around 12 per cent of the population or more than 120 million people), but there is a pervasive presupposition that Muslims are the enemy, that Pakistan will always be an enemy against whom protection is required, that the division of communities into mutually exclusive religions is safer than upholding a secular ideal of communal interaction.

Every now and then, voices of reason rise to the surface. Muzaffar Hussein Beig, the Vice President of the People’s Democratic Party—a party which is in coalition government in Jammu & Kashmir since the recent elections—argued that ‘without waiting, they should open the borders and engage people in trade and commerce, because most people in Pakistan believe that Indians have trishuls (tridents—the symbols favoured by Hindu warriors and holy men) in their hands to demolish mosques, and Indians are of the opinion that Pakistanis are drug-peddlers and have guns in their hands to kill people’.

Such voices are, however, increasingly being drowned out. Slowly, India is dividing into confessional communities, in much the same way as the world since 11 September 2001. With almost one quarter of the world’s population and strong community representations of all the world’s major religions, India will be at the forefront of any coming clash of civilisations, and conflict between the world’s great faiths.

Since independence, India has, remarkably, kept at bay widespread communal tensions, safeguarded democracy despite overwhelming logistical difficulties and been exemplary in reconciling religious difference within a secular framework. That framework has now begun to look precarious, as if India—the world in microcosm—wishes to send a message that coexistence doesn’t work; that separation is the answer.

Only in Kerala do such old-fashioned notions as the separation of religion and politics, belief in the possibility of religious harmony, and an understanding of the necessary primacy of education offer a workable alternative vision. 

Anthony Ham

Sudan in Australia
settling differences

A family sat eating their evening meal in their home. As they cheerfully recalled the day’s events one child noticed a snake slink into the house. Panic broke out. Outside was another family with whom the first family had often argued and disagreed. The second family noticed the commotion and immediately called for everyone to go to the aid of the troubled household. Together, they fended off the snake and made the house safe once more.   (Sudanese fable)

Religious conflict covers the globe the way water fills a tray. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Irish situation of years past and even the so-called War on Terror, feed—at least superficially—on religious difference. Divided nations embrace peace rarely, and often only temporarily, returning to conflict with depressing regularity.

Africa hosts too many conflicts, and most are made all the more wretched because they happen in the shadows—outside the media spotlight. Sudan, the largest nation in Africa, endures one of these. It has a long history of war and bloodshed and has recently gone through the cycle from war to peace and back to civil war.

Perhaps the most universal religious doctrine is that of concern for the other. A Muslim believes that ‘those who act kindly in this world will have kindness.’ Confucius taught his followers to help others to achieve their goals as they might wish to achieve your own. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’, says the Christian believer. A Hindu follows the rule that ‘One should not behave towards others in a way which would be disagreeable to oneself.’ ‘In the garden of thy heart plant nought but the rose of love’, says a member of the Bahá’í Faith. A Buddhist calls people to ‘hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful’.

How, then, is inhumanity perpetrated at the hands of believers of such noble faiths? And how is it that these convergent viewpoints result in conflict at all? In most conflicts it seems that there is an implied historical obligation to act in hate. Where there isn’t, leaders, some with official religious positions, often create conflict by scapegoating minorities, causing a self-perpetuating cycle of hate that no religion condones.

Does this have to be? Of course not. Every now and again, we hear of small-scale reconciliation efforts.

One memorable example was a project run in Israel between Israeli and Palestinian schoolchildren. The children were encouraged to build a garden together and see for themselves that theirs could be a nation of fruitful co-operation.

Sudan’s wars are being fought along lines of religious difference, at both a national and a provincial level. Nationally, the ruling Islamic military government in the north is at war with the Animist and Christian south. Within the south, centuries-old conflicts prevail along tribal lines—the Nuer and the Dinka, for example, remain at odds. These civil conflicts have displaced four million people internally and have forced nearly a million others to seek refuge in neighbouring countries. The conflict is further complicated by the presence of rich oil reserves in the south. Thousands of southern Sudanese have been displaced in order to access the oil, but the south has seen little of the revenue it has brought to the nation. Of late, the warring north and south factions engaged in a series of complex and delicate peace talks, aimed at ending nearly 20 years of war. Without a ceasefire, however, fighting continued, and despite a tentative agreement the talks broke down and the nation tacitly re-entered civil war.

It is hard to imagine how members of the Dinka and Bare tribes, Christian, Animist and Muslim Sudanese might sit down with members of other Sudanese communities that have caused them immeasurable suffering. And yet every week in Melbourne, over one hundred people do so voluntarily and enthusiastically. Animosity is left at the door with the umbrellas.

Every Saturday in a rundown hall, on a busy road, in a nondescript Melbourne street, a group of individuals gather. This is the Sudanese Australian Integrated Learning (SAIL) Program. It acts as a cultural, educational and social hub for Victoria’s fastest-growing ethnic community. The SAIL Program has grown exponentially since its beginnings just two years ago, when five siblings and one nervous tutor first met.

Initially, SAIL provided an English support service for the Sudanese community, as well as mentoring and pastoral care. The rationale was to mentor a new generation of Australians, not just help refugees.
Today, the rationale has not changed but almost everything else has. Now there is a dedicated team of 80 volunteers who provide one-on-one tutoring, free lunch, a computer loan service, home-help service, a library, free excursions, camps, artistic performances, a craft workshop and the same support to newly arrived Sudanese refugees. SAIL is now a sizeable team effort. It has managed to keep pace with the growth of the Sudanese community through the continuing altruism of many individuals, schools, companies and libraries.

The SAIL Program is an embodiment of the United Nations directive ‘Think global, act local.’ It is not a charity group. There are tutors and students but in practice SAIL has become a place of exchange—of cultures, stories, experiences and hopes. Non-Sudanese SAILors share the past struggles of the Sudanese SAILors, the group’s present successes and future hopes. SAIL is one local way of responding to homelessness and statelessness. It is a group which expresses in microcosm the aspirations of peace activists the world over.


As a tenth generation Jew, I turn up—dare I say, religiously—to a church hall every Saturday for this gathering. My difference, like the differences of every other SAILor, is acknowledged but respected. As with so many Australian volunteer groups, SAIL has attracted a layered and diverse mix of cultures and consequently an impressive conglomeration of belief systems: Christianity, Islam, and Animism in its various forms. Indeed, it could be said that the SAIL Program lives and thrives on difference, and on a healthy dose of mutual respect.

Perhaps the SAIL Program is an example of the tyranny of distance disarming the tyranny of history. Or an exercise in turning ‘should’ and ‘could’ into ‘is’ and ‘do’. In any case, it is a very real example of different people sharing their humanity and searching for commonalities.

Every Saturday, I witness a celebration of the human spirit as we work for a better global future.

Matthew Albert   (with research by Anna Grace Hopkins)

Coming to terms
Refugee facts, not fear

‘Absconding’ is an issue notably absent from the high profile and bitter debate about asylum seekers in this country. There is an anomaly here. Other considerations notwithstanding (security, health and identity concerns among them), the vast majority of asylum seekers are detained to prevent them from disappearing into the community. But all this is about to change, and absconding (along with compliance more generally) will move from the margins to the centre of this most divisive of issues.

In short, the government has met with such unalloyed success selling its hard line to an anxious electorate that it has rarely needed to invoke the spectre of absconding. Consequently, government strategy has remained unwavering, despite sustained criticism from sectors many and varied. The strategy adopted by the human rights community, on the other hand, has of necessity been an evolving one. Increasingly there is a shift in emphasis from criticism of the mandatory detention system to the formulation and promotion of viable alternatives to it. In this new climate, the official line that there is ‘no alternative’ to mandatory, arbitrary, indefinite detention will become untenable, and the government will turn to the issue of absconding in an effort to derail debate and preserve the current detention regime.

The absconding charge presents a formidable obstacle to those committed to convincing people and politicians that viable, preferable alternatives to the status quo exist. Formidable, but not insurmountable, for the potency of the absconding argument lies in its emotional rather than practical content.

The spectre of absconding arouses profound and deep-seated community fears, the provocative potential of which will not be lost on the conservative political elite. It is likely, however, that little in the way of concrete, verifiable information will be offered to support this presumption, and that fact is liable to be lost on an already anxious public.

In reality, reliable international figures on rates of absconding are hard to come by. Those that are publicly available suggest that absconding is the exception rather than the rule. UK Home Office statistics put absconding at less than four per cent of all asylum refusals, while a three-year New York State trial of supervised release of asylum seekers into the community recorded court hearing attendance figures of 93 per cent. And that was after participant asylum seekers had been repeatedly told that they would be re-detained if they were ordered to be removed.

Are these figures indicative of the sort of compliance rates that could be achieved in Australia? I am confident they are, provided that an appropriate framework is established to manage and support asylum seekers entering the community. A well-tuned risk assessment procedure, in tandem with a graduated, comprehensive range of detention alternatives, would achieve very high compliance rates without imposing severe restrictions on the movements of most asylum seekers. Relevant factors would include, inter alia: presence of community ties, stage and strength of claim, age/sex/dependants, and access to legal representation. High-risk asylum seekers could be precluded from community release, although it is likely that such individuals would account for only a small proportion of unauthorised asylum seekers. The remainder would be determined eligible for release into the community, albeit under varying degrees of constraint.

Generally speaking, very few asylum seekers pose an absconding risk during the course of the determination process. The incentives for them to comply with official requirements are many and compelling. Even the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs has acknowledged this to be the case. Conceding this small truth, however, exposes a big lie, for if compliance (particularly absconding) does not constitute the real reason for mandatory, arbitrary, indefinite detention, then we are entitled to ask: what does?

It is only when all hopes of winning official leave to remain have been extinguished that absconding becomes a real concern. At this juncture return to detention could be warranted for some individuals, but relatively higher levels of supervision within the community would suffice for the rest.

Obviously human rights NGOs and asylum seekers would welcome a comprehensive community release scheme. However the government is unlikely to initiate any such alternative until it is satisfied that absconding can be kept to an acceptable level. Which begs the question—what would constitute an ‘acceptable’ level in the eyes of the Australian government? There is compelling evidence that a zero-tolerance mind-set pervades official thinking on this issue—a mind-set that the current geo-political climate only encourages.

Government rhetoric presents a stark choice between interdiction at sea coupled with mandatory, indefinite detention of those reaching the mainland, and porous borders leading ineluctably to large-scale absconding of refugee applicants into the community. Presented in this way, the latter amounts to an abdication of national sovereignty, leaving the government with ‘no alternative’ but to impose the former. This bipolar view amounts to a gross misrepresentation of what is a complex issue.

Many constructive alternatives have already been mooted in the Australian context, while global conduct offers nothing but alternatives. In practice, most First World states accept a degree of absconding on balance, the moral obligation to protect those in need being seen to outweigh the deleterious impact of low-scale abuse of the system. Among other things, it is deemed unconscionable to subject a large majority to the trauma of detention on account of the abusive intent of a small minority who may abscond.

Domestically speaking, models developed by the Refugee Council of Australia and the Justice for Asylum Seekers alliance explicitly address community concerns about border integrity and compliance. They take seriously the challenges posed by absconding, but recognise a problem to be managed, rather than an intractable reality that justifies a retreat from basic standards of human decency.

A humane approach to asylum seekers need not come at the expense of the national interest. A compromise can be struck between the rights of asylum seekers and the responsibilities of the state that is beneficial to all parties. The challenge now is to convince the government that it is in the interests of the Australian public to initiate such change. 

Steven Columbus

This month’s contributors: Grant Morgan is a freelance writer; Anthony Ham is Eureka Street’s roving correspondent; Matthew Albert and Anna Grace Hopkins are the founders and coordinators of the SAIL Program. For more information visit www.SAILProgram.cjb.com; Steven Columbus worked in the New Zealand Refugee Status  Branch as the refugee determination officer. Currently he oversees publications for the Amnesty International (Victoria) Refugee Team.



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