Home India News Australian-Indians uneasy after Haneef’s arrest

Australian-Indians uneasy after Haneef’s arrest

By Neena Bhandari, IANS

Sydney : There is a sense of unease in the Australian-Indian community here following the arrest of an Indian doctor, Mohammad Haneef, in connection with the foiled UK bomb plots.

"The entire Indian medical community, which has been doing a fantastic job for decades in this country, is today tainted by this episode, whatever the outcome. Publishing Haneef's picture and the media hype has backfired on the good work skilled Indians have been doing", Raj Natarajan, president of the United India Association, an umbrella body for various Indian migrant community groups living in New South Wales, told IANS.

The discussion in Indian grocery shops, cafes, restaurants and spice stores is inevitably directed to Haneef's arrest. People are jittery about a possible backlash if he is proved guilty. So far Haneef, who was working in a Gold Coast Hospital on a 457 visa, has not been charged, but detained for interrogation.

"If any charges are laid against the doctor in question, patients may become sceptical", says Bachan Sharma, who runs an NRI news and events website for Australian Indians and migrated here 22 years ago.

P. Sharma, an architect who migrated to Australia 12 years ago and has lived in almost all parts of the country, says: "Anybody who doesn't have an Anglo-Celtic background is treated with suspicion and this will only make it worse. I have experienced it first hand and it's more prominent in the west of the country".

The Indian community in Australia is small compared to that in the United Kingdom, but it has made significant contributions to Australian society and economy. Indian migrants are highly valued because they are English-speaking and have specialised skills in critical areas, such as engineering and healthcare.

According to the 2006 census figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, people of Indian origin in Australia now number 235,000. The number of people born in India and living in Australia grew from 77,600 in 1996 to 147,100, and the ethnic Indian population moved from 11 on the 1996 list to 6 in 2006.

In addition to fears of being stereotyped, Australian-Indians also fear more barriers being put in place to make immigration tougher. Pallavi Agrawal, 21, a university student who came to Australia in 1996, says this incident will make migrating to Australia more difficult. "It will impact on the 457 visa for everyone, not just Indians, as they might introduce new rules and more stringent checks on applicants," she adds.

But Gladys Roach, who migrated here from Mumbai in 1964, says, "The bilateral political and business relations between the two countries have never been so positive, so I don't think one Indian doctor being arrested on suspicion of being a terrorist would have huge implications".

She nevertheless feels, like many others in the community, that one should be sensitive and not make a person's identity public unless he is charged.

Pallavi agrees, "I think it is ridiculous that the arrest and inquest has been made so public. I also question how fair Dr Haneef's treatment has been with regards to the time he has been in custody."

The federal government has said that changes may be made to security procedures covering foreigners applying for working visas in Australia. As Ram Chhabra, managing director of The Indian, a tabloid published from Sydney, says, "White-collar workers, so far exempt from suspicion, have come under a cloud. Issuance of visas might become difficult and qualified men and women might end up losing out in the process."